Railton Road, 11 March 2001
Our two readings this morning are both very familiar; God
comes to Abram, not yet called Abraham, and promises him that his
descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. And in
the second reading, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. Both readings we
know and love; what can we tease from them this morning?
We all know who Abraham was; the story is more than familiar to most of us, I suspect. How he left Ur of the Chaldees, which in his day was highly civilised. They had, apparently, nineteen different kinds of beer and a great many fried-fish shops, so perhaps they weren't as civilised as all that!
However, they did enjoy other kinds of food, such as onions, leeks, cucumbers, beans, garlic, lentils, milk, butter, cheese, dates, and the occasional meal of beef or lamb. There was wine available, to make a change from beer, but it was expensive, and drunk only by the rich. They played board-games, enjoyed poetry and music, which they played on the lyre, harp and drum, and were generally rather well-found, from all one gathers.
The only thing was that without many trees in their part of the world, they had to do without much furniture, and tended to sleep on mats on the floor, for instance, instead of beds. But definitely a sensible and civilised place in which to live.
And Abraham - well, I wonder whether he wasn't considered some kind of religious nutter by the standards of his day? He hears, so he says, God's voice calling him out of that easy life, and into the desert, so off he goes and drags his household along with him. Including his half-sister, Sarah, whom he has married. People seemed to do that sort of thing in those days; I don't think the taboo against incest can have been quite so strong as it is now, and they didn't know the genetic odds would be heavily loaded against them. Which, of course, may well have been one of the reasons why they couldn't have children together.
We know, of course, that Abraham was very far from perfect. He wasn't a great sinner, either, but he was human. Human enough to lie about his marital status with Sarah when the great kings of that era fancied her. Human enough to try to bring about God's word himself, when God told him he would have many descendants, and nothing seemed to be happening with Sarah. Although, mind you, given that in those days they didn't realise the woman contributed anything genetically to the child, you can see why they thought that any mother would do. Abraham was human enough to mistreat his concubine and his child by her very badly indeed, once his precious legitimate son, Isaac, had been born.
And yet, he was a man of faith. He believed what God told him, or what he thought he heard God telling him, to the point where he very nearly killed his own son in obedience to what he thought was God's word. His whole idea, most of the time, was to find out the will of God, and to do it. And because of this, they say, God reckoned him as righteous.
And Abraham was told that, through Isaac, his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.
3. Jesus Weeps Over Jerusalem
Abraham enjoyed God's favour. He was reckoned as righteous. And yet, by anybody's standards, he was only human. He was just as much of a sinner as you or me. Yet he trusted God. Sometimes he had trouble trusting God, just as you and I do; other times he found it easy, again, just as you and I do. But by and large, that was his lifestyle, a life of trusting God, of believing what God said.
It may have been true of Abraham, but, sadly, several thousand years later it wasn't true of the people of Jerusalem. By then, Jesus lamented, Jerusalem was a place where prophets went to be killed, and where Jesus himself was to be killed. And he weeps:"How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"
I think that, in that moment, Jesus was speaking for God the Father, who longs and longs for all of us to live in that sort of relationship of love and trust that Abraham enjoyed. Yet the people of Jerusalem were not irreligious, rather the reverse. They had the Temple, and very proud they were of it, too. If you wanted to make a sacrifice to God, as observant Jews did, you had to come to Jerusalem and do it in the Temple, no other place would do. Most Jews wanted to do this at least once a year - you may remember that Jesus' own family were accustomed to go there once a year, when possible. The rest of the time they made do with Scripture services in their synagogues, but coming to Jerusalem was very special.
And, of course, that was partly what the problem was. They were so bound up in their rules and regulations, in their traditions and set ways of doing things, that they weren't able to hear that God was doing something new and different. The worst thing, of course, was that they were so set in their ways that they simply couldn't see that sometimes those ways weren't the best way of doing things, that they were neglecting their aged parents or those on the fringes of society, they were shutting out those who were unable to afford Temple sacrifices, or who were obliged to take jobs regarded as sinful - collaborators, for instance, or prostitutes. These people were regarded as the lowest of the low, with no thought that it mightn't have been their fault they had to take these jobs.
For the Pharisees, being right with God was dependent on being righteous, on being good, if you like. Paul, who had been a Pharisee, writes so very strongly against people relying on their own righteousness, you can tell it was something that had mattered to him in his past life! And if they were right, and therefore good, then those who were different were wrong, and therefore bad.
And so they stoned the prophets, those sent from God to try to get through to them, to try to explain that they were off-centre, getting it just wrong. That what God wanted wasn't necessarily tithes of mint and cumin, but love and looking after the poor and needy, and making sure your neighbour had enough to eat, and stuff like that.
For the religious people of Jerusalem, it was almost as if they could manage their religion all by themselves. They didn't really need God. They certainly weren't willing to run to God like baby chickens to the mother hen, the way God wanted them to do.
It's such a lovely picture, isn't it - the mother hen spreading wide her wings and protecting the chickens from the nasty hawk that is flying over the run. Or keeping the chickens warm on a frosty night, cuddling them, almost.
But, as Jesus said, that can only happen if we are willing.
I think Abraham was willing, don't you? He was willing to trust God, and to do what God had asked him to do. He got things wrong, yes - but isn't it better to try, and to get it wrong, than not to try at all?
4. Who Are We Like?
So who are we like? Are we like Abraham, willing to trust God and to try to do God's will, willing to risk mishearing, willing to risk being wrong? Or are we like the Pharisees, so bound up in our religion, and in the right and wrong ways of doing things, that we really don't seem to need God at all, and are deeply sceptical of any move of God within the church?
I know who I'd like to be like, don't you? But the trouble is, trusting God does require us to do just that - to trust Him! And that's not always easy. It's so much easier to be a Pharisee, to hide within our tidy structures and systems, to assume that because we are saying the right words, and doing the right things, we are doing God's will.
We are all far to apt to judge other people's way of relating to God, and if it's not the same as our way, we assume we are right and they are wrong! We mightn't say it out loud, but we sometimes catch ourselves thinking it. C S Lewis said that it was often instinctive, like a child who had grown up using a certain pattern of fish-knife who feels, genuinely, that that is the only possible sort of fish-knife to have, and other patterns aren't real fish-knives at all.
And it's not always easy to trust God that you are okay when others are telling you different. Perhaps you don't have a datable conversion, however sure you are that you're God's person, and everybody is trying to tell you that you must know when you were converted! Perhaps you do have one, and can't understand how anybody can know they are God's person if they don't know the specific date and time when they decided to be. Perhaps you have been taught that God's people never do a certain thing - drink alcohol, perhaps, or smoke, or go shopping on a Sunday - and then you see people who you know quite well are God's people doing just that very thing with an apparently clear conscience.
And so on. It's not always easy, is it? Jesus reminds us that it isn't really down to us to judge; you can't always separate the good from the bad anyway, you have to leave it to God to sort out in the end. All we can do is snuggle up to God like chickens to the mother hen, and trust that in the end, all will be well, and all will be well and all manner of thing will be well.
As, indeed, I am sure it will be. Amen.
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