August 11 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
Theme: Even more than usual, this week's readings follow on the theme of last week – we have Part II of a two-part series. Last week raised the question, what's it all about? This week we have the answer. So one possibility might be to make the link with last week explicit and go for "What It Is All About". Alternatively, any theme that picks up this basic idea would be appropriate: "Faith/Hope/Trust in God"; "Seek First the Kingdom (or Presence) of God"; or, for those who want something a little edgier, "Coming, Ready or Not" might capture at least part of what the gospel passage is trying to say. I don't have a clear favourite this week, but I'm leaning towards "The Journey of Faith".
Introduction. Somewhat unusually, there is a much more obvious link this week between the two lessons than between the first lesson and the gospel. Yet again Abram has a mystical encounter with God, this time one in which he is promised a son and heir of his own, and indeed descendants as countless as heaven's stars. The writer to the Hebrews, in his great chapter on faith, uses Abram's willingness to believe such an unlikely promise as a classic example of the essence of faith, which is believing in the promises of God, not because they sound plausible, but because it is God who is making the promise and God is trustworthy. Today's gospel passage starts with the conclusion of the Lord's teaching on the vexed issue of material and spiritual blessings; and then moves on to the need to be alert and prepared for the coming of the Lord at "an unexpected hour".
Background. I want to start at the end today, with Luke 12:40. Clearly, this is a reference to Christ's Return (his so-called Second Coming), but I think we make a serious mistake if we focus too much today on this verse. Yes, we look forward to his Return at the end of the age, but is he not with us in the meantime? It may be better to recognise that Christ's Return (or, rather, his apparent delay in returning) was a much hotter issue in the Christian Church of the first century than it is for (most of) us today. I think our readings make more sense as a whole if we take verses 39 and 40 as a separate issue, and let verses 35 to 38 stand alone. This gives us the way into suggesting that what we can take from this passage is to be constantly alert, open to the leading of the Spirit, and to any manifestation of the presence of God (or Christ).
Which gets us to Abraham (formerly, Abram). He has already had at least three mystical encounters with God. First, as recorded in Genesis 12:1-3, when the Lord said to him, "Go". Notice the complete lack of preliminaries. What had preceded this – what relationship had Abraham had with God before that? We are told nothing. And what we are told we have long since forgotten! Abraham was not called from Ur of the Chaldeans – but from Haran. And perhaps it is significant that his father, Terah, it seems, made his own decision to take his family away from Ur with the intention of settling in Canaan; but when he reached Haran he settled there. Up to this point in the family narrative there is no mention of God being involved in this migration: it is simply Terah's idea as head of the clan. Now God takes over, calling Abraham to go to an undisclosed destination to which God will guide him, and promising to make of him a great nation and a blessing to others. "So Abram went as the Lord had told him": his first act of unquestioning faith.
Further mystical encounters occur when Abraham reaches Shechem (12:7), and after Abraham and Lot have reached an amicable arrangement to go their separate way (13:14-18. In each case there are sweeping divine promises, which Abraham seems to accept at face value. And notice, too, that in each case he journeys on, building altars to the Lord as he goes. Each place of encounter becomes a sacred place.
So today's passage is Abraham's fourth recorded mystical encounter with the Lord; and this time there is a new element. This time the opening words to him are "Do not be afraid". These are the classic words we find so often in divine-human encounters in the Scriptures. But for some reason Abraham did not receive any such assurance until now. Something was changing; his relationship with God was deepening. And for the first time Abraham speaks to God, and a dialogue develops. He tells God of his deepest desire, and pours out his pain at the lack of a son and heir. He does not hold back; if a child is a gift from God, then God must be responsible for the lack of such a child. Again, the promises are made and we finish with the famous sentence: "and he believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness."
Which is precisely the point taken up by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews. But before turning to that, I want to pause and think about this passage in the light of the gospel reading. Abraham had to be alert, ready for God to appear to him or speak to him whenever it pleased God to do so. The initiative was (and is) always with God. If Abraham had been "distracted by many things", too busy making a living, caring for his family, or whatever, how differently things might have turned out! Or, of course, if he had been a sceptic, putting down such experiences to old age, the heat of the day, or an overactive imagination.
So lesson one for us today is to be always open to God, listening for God as well as to God. And the second lesson for us today is to believe what we are told by God, and to act accordingly. And there's the essence of the faith journey in a nutshell, really: hear, believe, and act. And now let's crack the nut and open it up a little with the help of the Letter to the Hebrews.
We have seen that the faith journey starts with God's call to us; and now we are reminded that we have no idea where it is going to lead us. For me, Hebrews 11:8 is a very special verse, for more than any other single factor it changed me from a lawyer to a priest. I won't weary you with the details of my story, but notice the sting in the tail of that verse: "and he set out, not knowing where he was going". [His father, Terah, had a destination in mind, even though he abandoned that along the way.] All Abraham knew was that he was to set out, and God would lead him on the way. The real issue always is: is this really God calling me? Is this really God speaking to me? That may not always be an easy question to answer, but if we conclude that it is God calling then there is only one response we can make -and that does not include a request for more details, such as travel plans, salary packages, or even a likely destination. (Believe me, I tried all that!) When the call is to go, the only response is to start moving.
Genesis. Whenever I come back to the Abraham saga I feel the same sense of surprise. The term "the Promised Land" has entered our own language. We know instantly what that is a reference to. And, of course, the "Holy Land", the Land of Israel, the land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants, is at the heart of the intractable problems of the Middle East today. And yet here is today's passage to remind us that to Abraham himself the promise of a vast tract of land does not seem to be such a big deal. Perhaps because he is already wealthy in the worldly sense, the promise of yet more wealth doesn't have the same appeal as it might to someone of lesser means. Or, perhaps, (and here's another link with last week's issues), he cannot see the point without an heir from his own body to leave it to. His deepest desire, as expressed to God today, is for such an heir - nothing else comes close on his prayer list. I thought of this passage as I watched the news on TV this week. Of all the items covered, war, radioactive leakage, espionage, crime, unemployment, the threat to New Zealand's exports, only one thing mattered to parents – that the food they were feeding to their babies was safe.
Taking It Personally
· When did you start your faith journey? Can you remember what first started you off? When did you first hear of, or from, God? When did you last hear from God?
· What surprises have you had along the way? Are you any clearer about where the journey is leading you?
· What do you most seek from God today? Use Abraham as a guide to the direct, no-bluffing approach to prayer. Is there something you feel that God has withheld from you?
Hebrews. For the author faith is very much future-oriented. He gives us the wonderful definition of faith in verse 1, and ties it in with the creative power of God. If God can create all things visible out of nothing, then he can do anything he promises to do, as Abraham and Sarah found out in a very personal way. Of course, most of the promises to Abraham could never be fulfilled in his lifetime, and there is another lesson for us. As I read somewhere this week, do not look to the next quarterly balance sheet, look to the next generation. But it's the second part of this passage that has caught my attention this week. Again, it is surprising, in the sense that it lifts our eyes from the Promised Land to the heavenly kingdom. Yes, this is an example of Christian re-writing of Hebrew history, perhaps; but it reminds us of last week's clash between material and spiritual riches. We seek not a land of our own but a home in the presence of God. That is the ultimate destination of the journey of faith: that is where Abraham was heading, and that is where his descendants in faith are heading, too. After all, do we not pray every day for the kingdom to come?
Taking It Personally.
· Start with verse 12. Notice that Abraham wanted a son and heir. God responded with a son and heir, AND innumerable descendants. Reflect on the extravagant grace of God and be thankful.
· Find a Property Press or a page of real estate sales notices. Reflect on the language used. How might the values expressed clash with the teaching of this and last's week's readings? If you have bought a property, to what extent were you guided by your faith in that transaction?
· If you are (like me) an immigrant to this country, what do you make of verses 15 and 16?
· How often in your prayers are you concerned with matters as they might be years (even centuries) after your own death? What are your hopes for New Zealand in the 22nd century? Pray about them today.
Luke. There seem to be three distinct topics here. Verses 32-34 conclude the previous teaching. The promise of land to Abraham has become the promise of the kingdom to us. Notice the "little flock", redolent of pastoral care. Verses 35-38 refer to the possibility of many events – on a day-to-day basis. If we are open and welcoming to God/Christ, we will be blessed. Notice that there is no comment on a failure to be open and welcoming. It is an assurance of blessing, not a warning backed by a threat. Which leaves verses 39 and 40. I can see the point, but, frankly, they don't really make it, do they? Surely, the householder tries to keep the intruder out, not be ready to receive him at all hours? Or am I missing something? Perhaps it's something about discrimination? Be resolute in resisting evil, while ready to admit Christ?
Taking It Personally.
· The kingdom or your wealth, that is the question. What is your answer?
· How ready are you to meet Christ face to face?
· As you lock up tonight pray for the grace to exclude from your life anything that might be displeasing to God, or slowing you on your faith journey.
· When you get up in the morning, open your door and pray a prayer of welcome to Christ. Assure him that he is welcome in your home and your heart.