Rev’d Jonathan Gale
Genesis 15: 1 – 12, 17 – 18
God’s Covenant with Abram
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ 2But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’* 3And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ 4But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ 5He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord * reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ 8But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ 9He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates’
Philippians 3: 17 – 4: 1
Brothers and sisters,* join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 18For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 20But our citizenship* is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21He will transform the body of our humiliation* so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory,* by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
41Therefore, my brothers and sisters,* whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
Luke 13: 31 – 35
The Lament over Jerusalem
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ 32He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me,* “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when* you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’
What is going on in our Old Testament reading? We witness something bizarre. Abraham commanded to line up and slaughter a row of different animals, is then told to cut them in two. In a state of confusion he sees a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch pass (ed) between these pieces. We then read that 18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,
It’s all a bit disturbing, and clearly it is God who is doing the disturbing. Being disturbed is not necessarily a bad thing, of course.
Someone once said the job of a priest was to “disturb the comfortable and to comfort the disturbed.”
The Scriptures (and Jesus himself) do a great deal of disturbing the comfortable. Both the epistle and the Gospel readings this morning reflect just that. Paul tells Timothy that All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3: 16). He doesn’t mention encouragement.
None of us really enjoys being directed or corrected. Being teachable is a rare virtue. Some people are positively over-sensitive and take offense at the slightest sense of reprimand. Others are pretty thick-skinned and anything and everything sails right over their heads. Most of us are somewhere in between.
However, the pattern of religious life over the ages is this:
- God sees people in need of help
- God approaches people with an agreement or course of action designed for their benefit
- People commit to the deal
- People fail in keeping up their side of the bargain
- People are reminded that in reneging on the deal they are damaging themselves
Right there is the justification for every intervention by God in the history of humankind, whether it be the Old Covenant or the New Covenant and every minor covenant in between.
Now here’s the unfortunate thing: humankind is not only quick to stray from deals struck with God, but we are also reluctant to enter into deals with God. Ask any evangelist.
I remember listening to a very successful minister called Jonathan Leach preach a superb Gospel message at the end of which he asked for those who wanted to know Christ to step forward so that he might pray with them. Not a soul stirred. All 800 odd people stood staring at him.
He then closed his bible and said, “An evangelist would have got up here, read a few names from the phone book and would have been trampled in the rush for the stage.” Well, his comment was amusing but it’s not quite that simple.
People go through feelings of great reluctance when it comes to surrendering to God. If you’ve ever been present when an evangelist asks for people to give their lives to Christ you will know the tension that enters the room. On the one hand those who have never done so experience a strong urge from the Holy Spirit to do so. On the other hand those who have already done so realise that there are eternal destinies at stake.
What do we need to take a positive step towards God?
Well, ironically it’s not necessarily what one might think. Reason plays a minor role in our decision-making. Emotion plays a much greater role, especially when we sense the costly love of Christ towards us.
However, we are told that one of the most powerful forces that moves us towards giving in to God is what is known as cognitive dissonance. In fact an element of cognitive dissonance is required for any paradigm shift.
And what is cognitive dissonance? It is a psychological term and refers to the state of having inconsistent or challenging thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change. In other words there is always an element of confusion involved as we give up what we have held dear and tentatively grasp the new. There is vulnerability involved as well, as we exercise faith and trust in God as opposed to the certainty of the independence we enjoyed before.
This touches upon something important. We very easily box God into mental categories. People who specialise in this, say the cynics, are called theologians. We do so because we are all of us susceptible to idolatry. Idolatry, that is, defined as the utilisation of spirituality to try and manipulate God to get what we want.
Along with this goes a calcification of both our beliefs and our attitudes. We become certain that our perspective is the right perspective and that others are to be persuaded of it. We can easily become inoculated against God’s Spirit as our wills fight for our self-preservation. It’s for this reason that God jolts us out of complacency.
That, I believe is what is happening to Abraham in the bizarre theatre that plays itself out before him. We are told in Verse 6 that Abraham’s response, however, was positive. Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. In other words his response was one of trust, of faith.
We see a similar thing happening with:
- The thunder and smoke at Mount Sinai as God made covenant with Israel
- Isaiah’s dramatic vision of God and his response to God’s call in the temple
- Peter ‘s miraculous catch of fish and call to follow Jesus
- Mary’s surprising visit from the angel Gabriel followed by her acceptance of the role God intended for her as Jesus’ mother
- Paul’s being struck off his mount on the way to Damascus to persecute the church
All these and many other events were, if not frightening, certainly confusing. They were a version of the confusion and threat we all feel when confronted by the Holy Spirit.
They are God’s assistance to us in breaking down our resistance to Him. They are the discomfort we feel when we glimpse God’s ‘otherness’ (in other words his holiness), that which we do not control. It is what we feel when we are confronted with lordship.
At that point we have a choice. We either trust, as Abram did, or we reject God.
And this doesn’t only apply to that life-changing event of salvation – the decision to give ourselves over entirely and permanently to God – it applies to all the little interchanges we have when we are challenged by God with his will.
But here’s the final thing, the clincher. The battle of our wills with God’s will is not simply a wrestling match between two opponents, one of whom may win and the other not. What makes it so significant is that God does not force us in spite of the consequences of our rejecting God’s will.
Jesus looks at Jerusalem, and filled with an indescribable love for its inhabitants, he laments 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 134: 34)
These experiences of cognitive dissonance – of tension and slight confusion – are always accompanied by a sense of God’s love.
This is why Paul insists that the centre of our faith is the cross. The cross is the ultimate expression of God’s sacrificial love for us.
The love of God increases the stakes, increases the tension.
God’s love is behind every interaction he has with us. Deep down we know that, and our rejection of God’s advances, is therefore made that much worse. However, our acceptance of God’s will is made that much more wonderful because we know just how much God is prepared to suffer for our benefit.
Faith (Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness) cannot be separated from love (How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings).
Paul says to the Galatians that The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5: 6)
Bear that in mind as we pray together briefly now.
Let us pray:
Mysterious God, whose nature is beyond human definition, help us to trust our experience of your love, even when we feel threatened by it. Open our eyes to the love you have for us in Jesus. Soften our hearts towards your will.
Now, only you know what goes on between you and God. If you have never consciously surrendered yourself to God, if you feel that slight tension as the Holy Spirit speaks to you, then I encourage you quietly to repeat the following prayer with me now.
Lord Jesus, I need You.
Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins.
I open the door of my life and receive You as my Saviour and Lord.
Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life.
Take control of the throne of my life.
Make me the kind of person You want me to be.