On 21 February, the Second Sunday of Lent, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 27, Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Luke 13:31-35.
In how many homes today has this scene been played out:
Mother: Your room is a mess! You said you would tidy it.
Teen: I will but I’ve been busy. I’ll do it tomorrow.
Mother: I’ll believe that when I see it. Promises, promises…
Or how often does a phone conversation like this take place:
Customer: You said a replacement would be in the post but nothing’s arrived.
Customer service: I assure you, Madam, we sent it out last week. I’ll make sure another is sent right away.
Customer: I’ve heard that before. Promises, promises…
Similar situations occur in homes, schools, businesses, churches on a regular basis. We promise something with the best of intentions but sometimes we don’t manage to do as we promised. Sometimes when reminded, the person who made the promise actually does as they said they would do. Other times we really are left wondering if they meant what they said as repeated reminders result in no progress at all. The person who hoped for some action might then be justified in not trusting that anything will happen. They may be right to walk away muttering: ‘Promises, promises’ with no expectation of anything changing.
In today’s Old Testament reading we meet Abram who was struggling with what appeared to be a broken promise. God had spoken to him as he was living in Haran and told Abram to leave his land for a new one. He was promised that he would become not just one man and his wife, but a great nation. Abram believed the promise and set off and eventually settled in Canaan. God later repeated his promise that the whole land Abram could see all around him, the land of Canaan, would be his and his offspring would be as many as the dust of the earth. Time passed however and no offspring arrived and Abram didn’t possess the land in which he lived. It’s easy to understand why Abram began to question God. He might well have been found muttering, ‘Promises, promises’ as the months and years went on. I think we could have some sympathy with his position. Abram had done what he was sure God wanted of him but the outcome was not what he was led to believe.
God doesn’t have to answer to anyone or justify his actions but he chose to answer Abram. He reiterated his promise that it would be a son of Abram, not a slave born in his household, who would be Abram’s heir. Despite his misgivings, Abram believed God and this was counted as righteousness by God. Believing God’s promise in the face of facts that didn’t match up was a righteous act. God went on to make a covenant with Abram in the way that was done in those days, a way that he would recognise, in order to assure him that the land would be his. As we know, everything worked out as God had promised but Abram had to take God’s word for it. He kept going along with God having chosen to commit his life to God when he was first called. It didn’t protect Abram from doubts but it probably helped him not to give up.
Jesus similarly had committed his life to God’s way. I have no idea when Jesus knew that he was the Son of God. I can’t wrap my mind around the idea of a tiny baby having thoughts of that type. However, when Jesus was twelve he seemed to know he had a special relationship with God his Father. Somewhere between then and his baptism at around the age of thirty, Jesus must have committed his life to following where God called him. Jesus, like Abram, left a reasonably comfortable, predictable life for one which was far different: a life with no fixed abode and with challenges at every turn.
As with Abram, Jesus too received confirmation of what God had told him. At his baptism and again at the transfiguration, God spoke to confirm that Jesus was his Son. Abram had a choice to confirm that he would continue to follow God. Jesus had a similar opportunity during his temptations in the wilderness. He could have done things his own way, choosing military power or magic tricks or amazing feats to gain a following and bring about change in Israel. However, Jesus made a commitment to do things God’s way, to believe God’s promise that this was the right way to bring salvation to the people.
Having made his commitment, nothing deflected Jesus. When Peter complained at Jesus’ announcement that he would suffer and die, Jesus rebuked him. In the Gospel passage today Pharisees, seemingly sympathetic to Jesus, warn him that Herod Antipas wishes to kill him. Herod had already killed John the Baptist. There is no reason to believe that he wouldn’t have killed Jesus. How easy it would have been to turn from what he was doing and hide away in order to stay safe. But Luke’s Gospel tells us earlier that Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem. He knew he would die there in that supposedly holy city, God’s chosen city, which witnessed the killing of many prophets and which would approve of the crucifixion of the Son of God. Herod’s threats meant nothing to Jesus. Herod ruled in Galilee and would have no power over Jesus’ fate. Calling him a fox was a term of derision.
Jesus’ commitment kept him doing God’s work and heading towards his death for all. In addition, love compelled Jesus to go on. It’s very clear just how much love Jesus had for people when we witness how he lamented over Jerusalem, despite knowing it was some of the very people he lamented for who would condemn him to die. He longed to gather them up, to love and protect them, if only they would let him.
It’s tempting to think that it would have been easier for Jesus to do things because of who he is. He was more than a human being and so not subject to the same weaknesses as we are. This was something the early Christians wrestled with and which the Athanasian Creed sought to address (we’ll use a portion of that as our affirmation of faith today). I used to think of Jesus in this way too but I don’t believe that now. When we are told of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane sweating drops of blood in his great anguish as he faced his death, surely we can be in no doubt that this was not an easy choice for him. He suffered as any of us would suffer. Love, commitment and a belief in the promises of God held Jesus to his course. Jesus’ belief in God’s faithfulness was proven well-founded when he rose on the third day.
Like Abram and Jesus, those of us who would call ourselves Christians have committed ourselves to walking in the direction God wants us to go. Our choice is not a guarantee of an easy life or one free of doubts. Abram doubted but God didn’t condemn him. Instead he reassured him by renewing his promises and gave him a chance to re-affirm his faith. Jesus struggled as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane as many of us will struggle when faced with hard choices and fears. Like Abram and Jesus we are faced with the facts as they appear to us and the promises of God. We can choose which to rely on.
The psalmist gives us good advice:
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and he shall comfort your heart;
wait patiently for the Lord.
Good advice it may be, but it’s not easy to follow. However, over time we learn from experience that we really can wait patiently for the Lord to bring everything about in his own way and time. Unlike our promises which we so easily break, God’s promises are absolutely sure.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor