Sermon at St James

Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

The Lord took ABRAM outside and said to him, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you can. So shall your descendants be.” And in Hebrews it added that they would also be as many as the grains of sand on the seashore.

Well of course, ABRAM couldn’t count the stars. Today’s astronomers tells us that in the universe there are 10 billion galaxies, give or take a few, and that each galaxy has on average 100 billion stars. So that adds up to 1 billion trillion stars – a 1 followed by 21 noughts. Mind you, ABRAM would probably only have been able to see the stars in the Milky Way; so that’s a mere 400 billion.

Clearly the Lord didn’t have that sort of number in mind. He simply meant that ABRAM’S descendants would be a vast number, and remembering that ABRAM lived 4000 years ago and that his descendants have been reproducing ever since, that prediction has come to be. But first, Isaac had to be born.

ABRAM had begun to doubt that God would fulfil his promise to give him an heir. His wife SARAI remained childless; therefore she offered him her slave Hagar to be his concubine, and when ABRAM was 86 years old, Hagar bore him a son Ishmael.  However Ishmael, being the son of a concubine, couldn’t count as an heir, and so when ABRAM was 99 the Lord renewed his promise, saying, “You are to be the father of many nations. And you name will no longer be ABRAM, but Abraham.”

I can’t help but remember the vicar who had not prepared the reading that included those verses. He called ABRAM Abraham right from the beginning and you’d have thought he would have been in trouble when he got to the Lord changing his name. But with great aplomb he said, “Your name will no longer be Abraham, but Arbrarharm.”

Shortly after that SARAI, whose name the Lord changed to Sarah, conceived and gave birth to Isaac. And rather delightfully, I think, Sarah said, “God has given me a good reason to laugh, and everyone who hears will laugh with me. Whoever would have told Abraham that Sarah would suckle children?”

The unlikely had happened, and because Abraham had had faith in the Lord’s promise, that was reckoned to him as righteousness. This highly significant statement was 2000 years later picked up by St Paul as the very foundation of the doctrine of justification by faith. God justifies us, makes us right with him, saves us in fact, not because of what we do but because we believe in him and his promises.

We don’t have to earn being right with God, by not sinning and by doing good deeds; we simply need to believe it as a gift from a loving Father and accept it gratefully. And then respond by doing good works. And in the 16th century this doctrine of justification by faith became the foundation of the Reformation with Martin Luther’s battle cry of “By faith alone.”

The link with Abraham is also there in the reading we heard from Hebrews where the author was considering faith. He held up Abraham as a prime example of faithfulness. “Now faith,” he wrote, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In other words, faith is concerned with things which just cannot be proved, and expectations which in human terms just cannot be guaranteed.

There are Christians who claim to possess absolute conviction. Doubt is anathema to them. They have no doubts whatsoever - about the existence of God, or about the efficacy of prayer, or that everything will work out well for them in the end because God is looking after them. All I can say is, with the father in the gospel who’d brought his epileptic boy to Jesus for healing, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” Or as the modern versions put it, “Lord, I have faith; help me where faith falls short.”

You’ve probably heard me say before that in my opinion doubt is a constituent part of faith. Faith is trusting in spite of uncertainties. I hope I’m right, because I want my faith, feeble as it is, like Abraham’s, to be reckoned to me as righteousness. I know I can’t count on what I do, which of course encompasses what I fail to do, to make me right with God. It all depends on him: all I’ve got to do is to have faith, to trust him.  

Let’s turn to the Gospel. “Do not be afraid, little flock,” said Jesus. Some people might consider “little flock” to be somewhat condescending. But surely it’s Jesus being friendly, even affectionate. And he goes on, “Sell your possessions, and give alms.” It’s an imperative – Sell your possessions and give alms.

In our Common Worship Lectionary there are two sets of readings given for each Sunday. The first is Continuous – the readings for each Sunday following on from those of the Sunday before. The second set is Related, which is the one we always use. So how does this Gospel from Luke fit in with the readings from Genesis and Hebrews where the theme is faith?

Well, I think it’s this: to sell your possessions requires an enormous amount of faith. You can only do it if you’re sure that it’s what God wants you to do and that with no possessions he will look after you. Jesus, of course, goes in for hyperbole – it gets his point across and makes in memorable. Selling all our possessions just wouldn’t work – for instance, what about our dependants and other responsibilities? And it would lead us to be a burden upon other, also possibly the state.

I don’t want to water down what Jesus says, but I think his meaning is: giving alms to people in need is massively more important that owning all sorts of things or wealth that you could really manage without. And of course even to go down that track requires a wealth of faith.

“And be prepared,” said Jesus, “dressed for action, lamps already lit, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” The early Christians really believed in the imminence of Jesus’ return, when, incidentally, you wouldn’t need any possessions. Eventually, as the years, then the decades and the centuries passed this belief changed in character with the impact not so much on the Second Coming of Jesus in glory to round up all people, indeed all creation, into God, but on the notion that he can come to each one of us unexpectedly at any time and any place, through any person or any circumstance.

He can come in all sorts of guises – as someone in great need of sustenance, or comfort, or simply company: a challenge to which we can respond with appropriate action. Or he can be there as we witness an act of kindness and generosity, one involving real sacrifice. Then we can respond to his presence with praise and thanksgiving: not a challenge this time but a blessing.

So, let’s be prepared, dressed for action, with lamps already lit so that we don’t miss him. With faith let’s expect the unexpected. In fact, let’s pray as the early Christians did, “Come, Lord Jesus.”