It is a silent sermon as it was not ‘delivered’ due to services being cancelled because of the snow!
Friends of God – Rev Simon Walkling
Reflections to go with readings: Gen 17:1-8; John 2:13-22
I do not usually lead worship using a script, I prepare by thinking through the dynamics of worship and the thread of a theme, and I then have headings which help me to follow the thread. However, for the website I have written more fully. Even if the service had not been cancelled due to snow, this may not have been exactly what people heard at St David’s Uniting on 4th March.
Introduction to thinking about promises…
Two pieces of paper the same size.
What makes them different?
One is more useful for writing a shopping list.
One is more useful for buying the shopping.
Is it the printing, the watermark, the hologram?
Those add authenticity.
The important thing is the promise: ‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of twenty pounds.’ That gives one piece of paper value.
And that others accept that the promise is transferrable, means it can be exchanged.
Stars in the sky and grains of sand.
Could you count them?
Symbols of the promise God makes to Abram.
(Gen 15:5, 13:16): his descendants would be uncountable, when he and his wife were past the age for having children.
It goes with the promise of land, when Abram was beginning to wander as a semi-nomad.
And there is the promise that all the families of the earth will be blessed through Abram.
Promised: descendants; land; being a blessing.
A ‘promise box’ with little scrolls with Bible verses on them, which are each a promise from God.
I can’t remember who gave it to me.
I think I saved it from being thrown away.
The idea is that you read a promise when things are difficult to remind you that God is there.
Or you read a promise to grow into what God longs for you to be.
We use bank notes believing the promise to be real.
Abram stepped out believing God’s promises to be real.
We can live being faithful to God and trusting God’s promises.
Developing the thoughts…
In all the coverage about snow in the UK this week, or under the covering of snow in Pontypridd this week, you may have missed a BBC news item about the Democratic Republic of Congo. It included the following lines, under the headline, ‘DR Congo violence: Dozens killed in Ituri province’:
“The unrest between the Hema cattle herders and Lendu farmers of the Ituri region is one of several conflicts in DR Congo which have produced a huge amount of refugees and internally displaced people over the past two years.
Some 200,000 people are estimated to have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the violence in Ituri alone.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-43260943
I guess it caught my eye because occasionally I still think of Jean Pierre, an asylum seeker from the DRC, who worshipped at St David’s Uniting for a time, and the attempts folk here made to prevent his deportation back to the DRC.
It also caught my eye because of the tension between herders and farmers of different ethnic groups over contested land. It took me back to Cain and Abel, the farmer and the herder, and the violence between them, and on to Abram, the semi-nomadic herder, and how the cycle of stories about him and his family had a cultural context, as well as being a response to God.
But I don’t want to only look back on Abram. I want us to reflect on encountering God; relating to God; and being friends with God and partners in God’s work.
Reading each episode in the story of Abram we get an idea of people responding to God, and we could tell similar stories of people responding to God’s call today. However, we are also aware of the Abram stories happening in a different time, in a different culture.
God’s call for Abram to leave Harran comes after the story of the tower of Babel, where people gather to build a tower reaching to heaven to ‘make a name for ourselves’. The tower is often linked to the ziggurats, stepped temples in the Mesopotamian cities that Abram’s family leave, and both Ur, Abram’s birthplace, and Harran, where his father settled the family for a while, were dedicated to the Moon God. So, we begin to get a sense of being suspicious of cities and temples and what goes on there, and that the call of the true God can properly be heard by moving on.
However, many people date the Abram stories as coming from the second millennium before Christ, and there are clay tablets from Nuzi and Mari which are roughly contemporary, which fill in some of the cultural background and some of the urban problems.
What archaeologists and anthropologists notice about the region at the time is that there were cultural and economic dynamics behind the Abram story. As cities grew up, roles were differentiated and elites developed. As temples were built, around them grew areas with taverns, entertainment and prostitutes. Sex also played a part in temple worship. Temples were also the focus for offerings and gathered wealth. On the fringes of the city would be the farmers, who provided the food for those who were no longer producing their own. Over time you get a situation where it is no longer neighbours helping each other out and exchanging goods and equipment as the need arises, but a developing credit-based economy. It only takes a drought for the poorest farmers to get into debt, and it only takes a run of bad years, for their families to be taken as debt pawns, for sons to be taken into the city as slaves, and daughters into service or prostitution. It was better for families to leave, taking whatever flocks they had with them, than face slavery and dishonour. They might get together with others in the open country, rebuild their wealth in livestock, and return for a piece of the action in the city.
Abram appears, then, at a time when people are suspicious of cities, and moving into open country is not only about escaping debt, but also a positive reform movement; where an honourable man can practice decent hospitality, protect his family, and live life on a human scale. Where honour is not primarily about creditworthiness, but about your ability to keep your promises.
So, in Genesis we see God calling Abram out of city living to go to a land that God will show him. God promises land and descendants and that Abram will be a blessing. Abram steps out in faith with his family and flocks, and it begins a relationship with God. When you look at the kinds of names in the records, they are compounds with ‘ab, ‘aḥ, and ’amm which are ‘father’, ‘brother’, and ‘family’, and the compound names for God are similar, which may not seem very interesting or relevant to us, but shows that God is included within the family relationships and is seen as the head of the clan as it moves off.
The land that Abram moves around is the mountain area of the Canaanites in the land we currently call Israel. And if Abram was suspicious of city life, he is also suspicious of the settled farmers in the land, and their religion of trying to manipulate the gods into giving good harvests through fertility cults, with sex and sympathetic magic and maybe even human sacrifice. Abram remains semi-nomadic, living life on a human scale, in balance with neighbours and nature, but ready to move on at God’s call.
That’s probably a long way round to saying that encounters with God happen in a context. I believe that people are still encountering God today, but are not sure how to name the experience. Many are suspicious of traditional religious institutions, but they long for a life where they have value and meaning and purpose, where they feel that they belong and are loved. In the past, sharing the good news with people (evangelism) has been about helping people to understand their need of God and give themselves to God. It may have been about persuading them to change their view of the world to be shaped by Christian understanding and belief. We have not been comfortable doing it and not been particularly good at it. Perhaps the way forward is to listen better, and to help people to name their spiritual experiences as encounters with the living God.
Relating to God
Although Abram encounters God, and steps out in faith at God’s call, the way ahead is not straightforward. Despite the promise of descendants and land, it doesn’t look humanly possible. Despite Abram believing and that being reckoned as creating a right relationship with God, he doesn’t always trust God to come up with an answer, and in various ways takes matters into his own hands and looks for a different solution. When there is famine in Canaan, he doesn’t stay in the land promised, but goes to Egypt, where he ends up in danger and tries to pass his wife Sarai off as his sister. When Sarah hasn’t produced a son in ten years, she gives her Egyptian slave girl to produce an heir in her stead, a custom provided for in the regional law codes, but then when it happens Sarah gets jealous, and Hagar is hurt. But despite these human diversions, God renews the promise and develops a covenant relationship with Abram.
In Genesis 17, we see one of these occasions when the promise is renewed, and not only that Abram and Sarai are given new names. Abram is not just to be ‘exalted father’ but ‘Abraham’ – the father of many. Where the city dwellers building the tower of Babel wanted to make a name for themselves, God renews the promise to make Abram’s name great, his descendant’s numerous, and promises to be their God.
Whilst this is part of the pattern of the story of crisis and renewal of the promise, it also appears to be a different version of the call and promise in Genesis 12 and 15. We are used to the gospels giving different angles on the life of Jesus, and the same is true of the traditions in the Hebrew scriptures. The oldest layer is a cycle of folk style tales, probably written down in the tenth century Before Christ (usually given the letter J, because of using the name ‘Yahweh’ for God). Genesis 17 is thought to come from a later source, which was concerned with the marking of festivals and religious ritual, perhaps written down by priests after the exile in Babylon (in the sixth century BC, and therefore called P).
So, as well as the telling of the story, we have the revision and re-editing of the story to go with later concerns. Perhaps the people returning from exile in Babylon were hoping for a renewal of the empire begun by David, remembering the covenant God made with him. When it didn’t turn out that way, they needed to make sense of the new situation. Here in Genesis 17 there is the mention of kings, but the everlasting covenant is between God and Abram’s offspring, perhaps a kind of ‘democratisation’ of the relationship previously linked to the royal house.
The renewal of the promise and the revision of what the promise entails, reminds us that this is as much about what God does as what Abraham and Sarah do, or what we do. We may be expecting God to honour our work in keeping the church going and see our relating to God as pleasing him by our activity. Perhaps we too are at a time of revising our way of seeing God’s promise being fulfilled, of wondering how God’s promise and covenant relationship will find new expression in changing times. Relating to God may then be about not jumping to our own solutions, or doing something to force the issue, but about being open to God, ready to respond to God’s initiative.
Friends with God, Partners in God’s work
The other springboard for reflection is John’s version of Jesus clearing the traders out of the temple. It too represents a revision and a repositioning of earlier tradition. It too says something about the way we relate to God, become friends with God and become partners in God’s work.
The other gospels put Jesus clearing the traders out of the temple during the last week of his life, when the tension is rising in Jerusalem. John puts it right at the beginning of his gospel, like a statement of intent. The way it sits in the words around it makes some people think it was originally in a different place. Perhaps it was moved when the Romans destroyed the temple in AD70, or when Christians were forced out of synagogues a decade later. But what does it say where it is now, near the start of the gospel.
The temple traders were necessary, because the religion of the day saw holiness as being something you had to protect. You couldn’t bring your own animals to sacrifice, because they might not be without blemish. You couldn’t put everyday money in the temple treasury because it had the Roman Emperor’s head on it and would defile the temple. So there needed to be authorised holy offerings and people to trade in them. What begun as a way of getting right with God, had turned into a business, and the religious authorities decided who was in and who was out, who was right and who was wrong, who God would accept and who they did not. You may hear echoes of the concerns of the patriarchs.
Jesus, then, is challenging the purity system. He does not see holiness as something to be maintained by separation, but something he brings to any situation with the touch of God. He does not want people’s access to God limited, but wants to give an encounter with God to those who need love, renewal and healing. And Jesus is challenging any transactional interpretation of being put right with God, and replacing it with a living relationship of trust in God.
Jesus says, ‘Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days!’ The threat to the temple is one of the charges made at his trial in the other gospels. Here in John it becomes a kind of passion prediction. In the other gospels Jesus is shown to say that he must suffer, be rejected, be killed and rise again, here Jesus says the same thing in a cryptic way, and his disciples reflect on his words in the light of later experience. But as well as a passion prediction, Jesus is also shifting the focus from the temple to himself, and from the temple being the place of encountering and putting right the relationship with God, to forgiveness and reconciliation being found in him. And he passes pointing this out on to the Church. So, forgiveness is no longer centred in the temple in Jerusalem, it is available through the whole world and various cultures through those who gather in Jesus name. The same disciples who reflected on the meaning of the temple metaphor are the ones whom Jesus called friends because they knew what he was about.
We are reminded then, that our role is not to run a church, but to be a people who point to Jesus as a person who offers an encounter with God and gives forgiveness. We are reminded that through faith we are children of Abraham, called to be a blessing to others. God is open to all people, in all places. Our Lenten journey is not just about seeking a new encounter with God, or relating better to God, but about being open to God to find our part in God’s work in the world, and trusting in God to help us fulfil his purpose.
Questions for reflection:
- What stories about your life and faith have you revised in the light of experience?
- What does it mean for you to be responsible for God, not just responsible to God?