Sermon - Ninth Sunday After Pentecost (8/11/2019)
Gen. 15:1-6; Ps. 33:12-22; Heb. 11:1-3, 8-16; Lk. 12:32-40
Beginning this Sunday through Labor Day, our second reading comes from the last section of the letter to the Hebrews. The letter to the Hebrews is not really a letter, but seems in fact to be a text for an early Christian sermon. The preacher is unknown; he writes in very eloquent Greek, but is deeply immersed in the Hebrew scriptures, which is how the book got its name. It’s a very long sermon – I’ve never tried to read it out loud from beginning to end, but I’d guess it would take 2 or 3 hours. So if you’re one of those people who says, Hey, I wish the church would go back to New Testament times, well, be careful what you wish for! But there is something very contemporary about this sermon that is the letter to the Hebrews, something that I think can speak to us during these next few weeks as well.
Today the preacher of Hebrews says: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” Abraham came from a place called Ur of the Chaldees, and I think I’ve mentioned before that archeologists say that around 2000 B.C. – which is roughly the time when Abraham lived – the city of Ur in the country we call Iraq, and that Jews in Old Testament times called Chaldea was probably the largest and wealthiest city that had ever existed in the world up to that time. It had a population of maybe 65,000, some of whom lived in great wealth, and many of whom were enslaved foreigners who grew the food and made the bricks for the great temples of Ur.
Abraham of Ur of the Chaldees seems to have been a man of considerable wealth – in the first reading today, there is a reference to his owning slaves. He would have had every reason to be loyal to the city of his ancestors, the city that gave him a lifestyle unimaginable to most human beings at that time. But then Abraham had an experience of God – not the gods of Ur, but the real God, not the gods who enforced the social hierarchy of Ur or who helped the kings of Ur achieve victory in wars of conquest, but the living God who loves and cares for all people.
And what Abraham takes from this experience of the true, living God is that he and his family must leave Ur. This city is not the place where God’s future for Abraham will be found. Instead, God promises to Abraham: Your descendants will be as countless as the stars in the sky, and you will be the father of many nations. Your descendents will live, not in a city built on violence and oppression, but in a land that I will give them, where they will know me and my ways, which are justice and peace, love for the neighbor and hospitality for the stranger, and they will be a blessing for the whole world.
And so Abraham receives two promises from God: countless descendents and a homeland for them to live in. So with confidence in these two promises, Abraham and Sarah, who have exactly zero children, set out from Ur to – well, nowhere really, at first. They wind up in Syria, then in Egypt, and even when they stay for a while in what will eventually become the land of Israel, as the preacher of Hebrews says, they lived there in tents, “as if they were migrants in a foreign land.” And the years pass, and the decades, and Abraham and Sarah still have no children.
And yet, the preacher of Hebrews draws our attention to how Abraham and Sarah keep faith in God’s promises. Even when the fulfillment of those promises seems more unlikely by the day, even as Abraham and Sarah know that they are coming to the end of their days without any descendents at all and still living in tents, Abraham still talks to God.
In today’s first reading we overhear one of those conversations. Abraham says: You told me, God, to leave behind the city of my ancestors, to walk away from the greatest city the world has ever known, and instead you would give me countless descendents like the stars in the sky and a land for my descendents to live in. And now I and my wife are old and childless, and when we die our slave will inherit our tents.
“O Lord God, what will you give me?” This is Abraham’s prayer as recorded in the first reading today: O Lord God, what will you give me? You promised me countless descendants and I have none; you promised a land as their inheritance and I have nothing and no one to pass it onto. You promised me a city with real foundations, a city whose builder and architect is the God of justice and peace, and I have spent my life wandering in tents looking for it. And now I am as good as dead, with no inheritance and no heirs. What was the point of all this, God? If you are faithful to promises, O Lord God, what will you give me?
And the book of Genesis records that God said: I will give you what I promised to give you. Descendants as countless as the stars of the heavens, and a land for them to dwell.
And, Genesis says, Abraham continued to trust in God. Which seems heroic, to say the least. Yes, in theory, if God promises to give countless descendents and a homeland to a childless, homeless couple in their 90s, who are we to say God cannot do this? God can do anything. But not every miracle that we wish God would do comes to pass, no matter how much faith we have. Faith is not magic; we can’t make things happen just by closing our eyes and believing harder.
The preacher of Hebrews explains it this way: Abraham and Sarah left Ur of the Chaldees, a place that offered them security and safety and material possessions like no other, because they knew what Ur of the Chaldees offered does not come from the true God. As the psalmist would later sing: “The horse gives vain hope for victory; despite its great strength it cannot save.” They knew that Ur of the Chaldees was built on violence and social hierarchies and the suffering of others, and they were looking for what Hebrews calls a city with real foundations, a city whose builder and architect is the living God. And so they left, even though they did not know where they were going.
And the preacher of Hebrews goes on to point out that, if Abraham and Sarah had ever stopped yearning for the life God had promised, they could have gone back to Ur of the Chaldees any time they wanted – but they didn’t. I think of the Israelites after God delivers them through the Red Sea, and then they immediately complain: Moses, what have you done? You have brought us to the middle of nowhere and there is nothing to eat. We should have stayed in Egypt – yeah, there were problems there, but at least we had some decent food. That’s what lack of faith looks like – it’s not doubting that God can pull off a miracle. Lack of faith is clinging to a false sense of security because we don’t believe that God will really deliver on God’s promise of security and life that endures. Because we don’t believe, as Jesus promises in today’s gospel, that it is God’s pleasure and delight to give us the promised kingdom. Because we turn on the news and the world looks dark and scary and things don’t look at all like they are going in accordance with God’s plan, so maybe we need to come up with Plan B, just in case. That’s lack of faith.
Faith, the preacher of Hebrews tells us, is assurance of what we hope for, conviction of things we don’t see. Faith tells us that God is good even when this life sometimes seems very bad. Faith, Hebrews says, believes in a God who creates everything that exists out of nothing, and so when we have absolutely nothing to offer, God has exactly the material that God needs to do what God does. Only when Abraham and Sarah are both past ninety years old and have absolutely nothing to contribute to God’s plan for countless descendents, other than faith – only then is it God’s work, not ours. And that’s why God fulfills God’s promises when we bring faith to the table, and nothing else.
God is not ashamed to be called the God of Abraham and the God of Sarah, the preacher of Hebrews concludes, because Abraham and Sarah had faith. The implication is that God would be ashamed to be the God of Ur of the Chaldees, where people put their trust in what they could see and build and accomplish, and so never took a chance on a God who brings existence out of nothing and calls even the dead into life.
And remember this: God didn’t just make promises to Abraham and Sarah. God makes promises to you too. When you were baptized, God promised to you, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, that you would be God’s child and an heir of the kingdom of God. God didn’t just promise a new Jerusalem for people in general, but God promised to you in your baptism that there is a place in the New Jerusalem for you. And maybe you feel like Abraham and Sarah, like you’ve been spending your whole life promised a homeland but living in tents. But know this: God never promised life would be easy, and God never promised to do anything the way we want it to be. But God did promise never to abandon you, God did promise to always be present for you at this table, to feed you and strengthen you in faith, and God has promised to bring you into the fullness of life and love in the eternal city God is preparing for those God loves. And God is always faithful to God’s promises. Even, and perhaps especially, when we don’t see how God can possibly do it – this is exactly when we need the faith of Abraham and Sarah, the faith of which God is not ashamed and will never ignore.