Lent 2, February 28, 2021
St. Martin North Vancouver
This season, the Bible readings focus on covenant. Last week we explored the story of God’s covenant with all of creation after the flood that covered the earth. Today we hear about God’s covenant with Abraham. As we move towards Easter, we keep connecting the dots to the new testament of God’s love in cross and resurrection. God persists in establishing relationships not because of anything we can do to deserve it, but because of who God is. God is faithful. Your response can be to trust that faithfulness or to try and get through life by yourself. There is nothing you can do to win God’s love. But you can accept it. That acceptance, that agreement to love and trust in return, is what we call faith.
God loves the most unlikely people. Intermixed among the bits of the Bible that we like to read on Sunday mornings are some dubious characters from Scripture. Noah did some wretched things. So did Abraham. He wasn’t always a nice man, and he didn’t live in a nice society. He had slaves and concubines. He pretended his wife Sarah was his sister sell her off to a foreign leader. He allowed his slave and her young son to be banished to the wilderness to die. God had to pick up a lot of messes that Abraham made along the way. Finally, Abraham gets to the point where his own cleverness, his wealth, even his own body, aren’t enough. If he is going to have a son with Sarah, he has to stop trusting himself and start trusting that God can do what God has said.
God loves him all the more for that! Faith, not works, opens the door to the impossible promise that Abraham and his descendants will inherit the world. It is not a reward for being good or doing the right thing. If that were the case, then good people would have good things happen all their lives. And bad people wouldn’t be around so long. But God isn’t transactional in the sense of “you do this and I’ll give you that”. Laws are set up to be rules for community so that everyone knows what behaviour is expected. Law at its best points people towards acting in certain ways to be compassionate and just and righteous. But if people are following the law only to in order to be rewarded or to avoid being punished, then they are not responding out of love. They are working because they are worried about the consequences for themselves, in this life or the next.
At the time of a death, this can be a struggle for the family. If a person of faith dies, there may be some comfort that he or she is now at peace with God. But in my experience, there is often anxiety when someone who has not expressed belief in the Divine, or who has followed a different spiritual path, meets the end of life. Some try and justify that their loved one was a good guy, or list the accomplishments that would qualify for heaven’s attention. A eulogy at a funeral may recreate the deceased as the most wonderful person you never knew, skipping over the private hurts and griefs he or she caused. It is important to tell the stories of a life lived in all its glory, comedy, and tragedy. But what that person has done is not what is most important to God. Nor even whether that person professed a faith in God. This is where God’s mercy and grace come in.
Faithfulness begins with God. Our response, even at the moment of death, is not dependent on whether we deserve love or not, but whether we are able to trust and accept the love that is extended to us. Imagine clinging to the edge of a cliff. One hand is clutching a breaking branch. Your feet are dangling over the raging river. You can feel yourself slipping downward. Would you trust a hand that is being extended out? Or would you continue to refuse help and trust in your own strength to hang on? Faith is the affirmation that “God is able to do what God promises” (Rom 4:21), as opposed to “I am able to do this on my own”. The promise is that the agreement initiated by our Creator is open for each of us to sign up.
Sometimes, it is not easy to see God’s faithfulness at work in our lives. When bad things happen to good people. When good things happen to bad people. This may cause us to hesitate or distrust whether the love is really there. That’s the reason Jesus came to live and die and rise again: to demonstrate that God’s covenant of love is a sure thing. In Romans, Paul writes, “It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:24-25). The accounting has been done once and for all. The reckoning comes not from who kept the law and who did not, but who trusted in God’s faithfulness. And the justification is being set right not because of what we have done, or are doing, or might do, but because of what Christ has done. If we can accept what Christ has done for us, our faith meets God’s faithfulness.
When we say, “have faith”, it doesn’t make any sense unless we are clear about who we have faith in: God through Jesus. The promise to us is if we trust in God’s promise of love- even a little bit, even the size of a mustard seed- then God’s faithfulness will sustain us. And through our prayer and our service in response, God’s mercy and grace will be made known to all.