March 4, 2012

 

      ON FAITH AND FAITHFULNESS 

                                                            Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                                 at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie on 4 March 2012
 
                                                     Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16
                                                    Reading from the Psalter:                               Psalm 22: 22-30
                                                    Reading for the Epistle:                                  Romans 4: 13-25
                                                    Reading from the Gospel:                                   Mark 8: 31-38

 

I sometimes pick up the New York Post, not because I agree with the politics of its owner, Rupert Murdoch, or because I approve of the style adopted by the news correspondents, but because of the news about the New York Mets and because of the crosswords and the Sudoku games – what other reason would anyone have for reading a newspaper these days?  But the other day I was struck by a photograph in the newspaper taken from the International Space Station of the north-eastern United States.  It covered the area from Boston, Massachusetts, to Richmond, Virginia, and it was a night shot.  What was striking was the ribbon of lights that is the I-95 and the large sparkling cities, shining like so many rhinestones strung out along a necklace. 

That picture started me thinking.  One of the things that I would do when I was away from home on a mission during my time with the United Nations would be go outside at night and look up into the Heavens.  What I would see was something that cannot be seen because of the bright lights of the city in places like those rhinestones strung out along the I-95 necklace.  I would look up and see the stars twinkling in the darkness of outer space, and I would know that those same stars were twinkling in the night skies over our home, be it in Bangkok or Nairobi, wherever we were living at the time.  Call me a romantic fool, even a romantic old fool, but there was something comforting in knowing that, although we might be separated by thousands of miles for a while, yet Paula and I could look up and share the same sight in the night skies, and could rejoice that the Lord God, the Creator, was keeping us both in his faithful safekeeping. 

And that used to get me thinking about Father Abraham and how he would go out at night and gaze into the Heavens. On one such night he thought he heard a voice making him a promise concerning his future and the future of his descendants.  Now at the time he was a very old man and his wife was a very old woman, and they had no children of their own.  Yet as he stood there, watching the stars in their courses, the same stars in the same courses as he had observed all his life, he knew in his heart of hearts that what he was being told could come to pass.  It was still some years more before it did come to pass, but in that moment Abraham put his trust in the words, the Word of God, if you will, that he had discerned. 

Abraham and his wife had yet to go through many trials and tribulations, and they had to travel many thousands of miles, and there was nothing like an I-95 for them to glide down in an SUV.  Nor were there any rhinestone cities complete with motels and hotels at every exit along the way.  But still they travelled, confident in the Creator of those night stars, and confident in the promise that had been made. 

It was some years before the promised son was born, and Abraham’s wife had almost given up on the idea.  Indeed she had laughed scornfully when a band of strangers had turned up at lunchtime one hot day and the spokesman had announced that within the year she would be suckling a son, which was why that boy was called Isaac, the Hebrew term for laughter.  But the promise had been fulfilled, or at least the first stage of the promise, because the young boy had still to grow to maturity, get married, have children and those children would have to do the same for many generations. 

And then, out of the blue, Abraham heard a voice telling him to go to a named place and to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice.  To the casual reader of the story what Abraham did next was extraordinary.  He set out to do what he had been told to do.  He took his son, Isaac, and off they went with a donkey, a bundle of firewood, a sharp knife and a tinderbox, accompanied by a servant.  When they got to the foot of the mountain where the sacrifice was to be made, Abraham left his servant with the donkey, with the words, “Wait here until we return.”   There is great significance in those words, or, at least, in one of them, “We”.  “Wait here until we return.”  Abraham had been told to sacrifice his son, Isaac, his only son that he and Sarah were ever likely to have, the one through whom he had been promised he would become the Father of many nations, the meaning of his name.  And Abraham would do what he was told to do, exactly, to the very last syllable, even binding his son on top of the firewood and raising the sharp blade to cut his son’s throat.  “Wait here until we return.” 

He had no proof that what he had declared to his servant would come to pass.  Indeed all the evidence, at least in conventional human terms, was to the contrary.  Yet Abraham persisted, some might say stubbornly, some might say stupidly, to bind his son, lay him on the wood and raise the knife.  We can imagine how the first men who heard this story would have been feeling at this point.  And few of them would have had a good word to say for Abraham or for God, come to that.  But those listeners were not Abraham, and they had not heard at first hand the promise of the Creator God.  It was in his knowledge of that promise that he believed God had made to him that Abraham was prepared to act and to do what he was told to do. What Abraham had come to realize is that the One who makes the promise keeps his promise.  Abraham was able to rely on the total faithfulness of God.  He could tell his servant, “Wait here till we return!” 

A millennium and then some were to pass, and another descendant of Abraham came riding on a donkey to what tradition has it was the same sacrificial site.  He felt that he had to do this, in accordance with the spoken will of God, and in accordance with his understanding of the Scriptures of the Hebrews.  Like his forebear, he too was taken to the sacrificial site.  He was nailed to the wood of the sacrifice and offered up, as one of his tormentors had declared, since it is better for one man to die than for the nation to be destroyed.  As Jesus hung on the cross, two of the evangelists tell us he recited Psalm 22, the very psalm of which we read a part this morning.  The evangelists all confirm that Jesus died on the cross, and that he knew that he was to die in this most ghastly manner.  But he also relied on the trustworthiness, the faithfulness of God, for Jesus had said, before he even rode into Jerusalem on that donkey, that he would be raised from Death on the third day, and on the third day he did rise from the Dead. 

The point of all this is that we are in the safekeeping of One who is totally faithful, or as we can experience, great is his faithfulness.  For many of us, as we passage through life, we may not be aware of this faithfulness until we look back over our lives to date and see that there has been a distinct path that we have walked that often is not of our own choosing.  Some of us have that insight earlier in our lives than do others, and that may well be because we need to have such assurance.  As I look back over my own life I am able to see a pattern emerge wherein I have been led here, there and everywhere, meeting people who, at the time, seemed to have little relevance in my life, but looking back I now understand that each of them was the right person in the right place at the right time.  Indeed, I am inclined to call them angels, in the strict meaning of the term, men and women who have spoken the message of God for me at the time.  I confess, I have not always liked these people.  Indeed, there have been times that I have been a bit like Sarah and laughed at what they had to say! 

What I have come to know, however, from long since is that God who makes promises is faithful and keeps his promises.  And I do not think that he merely keeps the promises that he has made to me, but that he keeps them to all whom he has called into being.  And that being so, we can place our faith in his faithfulness, as did Abraham and as did Jesus, and as have millions of others.  He is faithful and will not permit the destruction of those whom he calls to be his own, even when it appears to have demanded it.  So great is his faithfulness!