An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Trusting God, and other Impossibilities

A sermon on Romans 4: 13-25 & Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16  by Nathan Nettleton

For some of you, this is your first experience of the Lenten journey. You’ve probably heard of Lent before, but have never been part of a congregation that allowed this season to focus the way they experienced, thought about and questioned their faith at this time each year. One of the reasons that we in the evangelical protestant tradition have sometimes been wary of this season is that its focus on a disciplined confrontation with ourselves and earnest endeavours to conform our actions more fully with the will of God can begin to sound and feel like a new legalism; like an attempt to bring about our salvation by our own hard work rather than by trusting in the grace of God.

Tonight’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome tells us in no uncertain terms that God’s willingness to accept us and clear our names is not something we can earn by sheer hard work or by meticulous obedience to a set of religious laws, no matter how comprehensive they might be. Instead, Paul says, it does not need to be earned at all. It is already in place. God is always ready to accept us and to count us among the righteous ones, and all we have to do is trust God on that. It comes out of God’s generosity alone, and takes absolutely no account of the varying degrees to which we don’t deserve it.

BUT, if we take a second glance at this reading we can see that it also contains ample reasons to remind ourselves that the abundant generosity of God’s love for us and eagerness to forgive and accept us do not give us any reason to go easy on ourselves and cop out of the hard work of disciplined faithful obedience to God’s call on our lives. Why? Because the case study that Paul chooses to illustrate what this “simple” trusting in God looks like is Abraham, and if Abraham is the example, then this “simple faith” looks like a willingness to risk everything by setting out into the unknown at the call of God, and it looks like a willingness to go on betting everything on God’s promises even when it seems utterly futile and there is not another person in the world who would believe in the possibility of what you are trying to believe in.

And I don’t know about you, but for me at this particular time, that is a pretty daunting challenge. When I look at the world seemingly hell-bent on war and I feel paralysed by despair and hopelessness, I certainly can’t claim to be a model of unwavering belief in Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace who has dethroned the powers of evil and will cleanse the world of hatred, hostility and death. And when I look at myself, as our lenten process requires me to do, and I see how hell-bent I am on avoiding the sort of vulnerability that is necessary if I am ever to fulfil my vows to care for you people in the spirit of Christ’s mercy, I certainly can’t claim to be a model of unwavering belief in Christ’s ability to heal me, let alone raise me from the dead.

So what are we to do when what we hope for seems doomed to failure? How do we maintain the faith when the odds appear insurmountable and there seems to be no grounds for hope? What do we do when the one we follow and whose victorious kingdom we anticipate is heading into a bloody confrontation with the most powerful coalition of forces in the world and refusing to call on the legions of angels who could enable him to meet force with force?

Praying for world peace at the present time does seem as hopeless as Abraham praying to become a father at the age of one hundred with a well and truly post-menopausal, and previously infertile anyway, wife. No matter how fervently we hope for it, and how many millions take to the streets to call for it, the odds appear to be stacked against it. So what does it mean to maintain the faith? Well, in this case, there is an important distinction to be made from the Abraham story. We are called to keep on trusting that God will fulfil the promises that God has made, and for Abraham that meant trusting that he and Sarah would become parents because God had promised it. But God has not promised us that there will not be a war in Iraq. And God has not promised us that if we work hard enough and pray hard enough we can bring about the abolition of war and the disarmament of the world’s powers. If fact, if you want a promise on the subject, it would be nearer the mark to say that God has promised that there will be wars and famines and atrocities on the earth, and that they will get worse.

All too often in the last couple of centuries, the church deluded itself into thinking that its mission and prayer were somehow part of a final stage of evolution whereby the world would steadily progress into a nirvana of peace and love and health and happiness. But the witness of the apostles and our forebears in the early church seems to be rather less optimistic about the perfectibility of the current world order. Instead they called us to be lights shining in the darkness, and to be pockets of witness to the reality of Christ’s victory over the powers of evil and his imminent return to destroy evil, hatred and war and establish the reign of justice and peace. There is a big difference there. We are called to trust in God’s promise of peace, but God’s promise is not that if we work hard enough we can persuade the world to embrace peace, but that Christ will come in glory to destroy war and establish peace.

Our task is to bear witness to Christ’s imminent victory by trusting and cooperating with the one who brings life from death, rather than behaving as though we, and not God, held the destiny of the world in our hands. It is still right to take to the streets as advocates of peace, and light candles at vigils as millions are doing tonight, the sign petitions, and support the church leaders’ six point plan for removing Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime without recourse to bombing innocent Iraqis, but we do so as a witness to our commitment to obeying the Prince of Peace come what may, not as an expression of a faith that such actions can save the world. Sure, every now and then such actions produce a little victory, but as the people who took to the streets and removed the Marcos regime in the Philippines would probably tell you, such victories are not the catalyst for major outbreaks of peace and justice and good news for the poor. Maintaining the faith in the face of a world hell-bent on war is not about believing we can stop it, but about refusing to cooperate with it and allowing the Prince of Peace to transform us into people and communities that shine the light of peace in the midst of the darkness of hatred and hostility.

Which brings me to the other side of the question. What does it mean for me to keep the faith when the seemingly insurmountable odds are within myself? It is one thing to talk about the need for forgiveness and reconciliation on the global stage, but if I find myself unable to even bear witness to it by turning my own rhetoric into the small scale actions of treating those around me with genuine love, care and compassion, then the words aren’t worth the puff of air they were uttered with. For me as I pray and examine myself and receive counsel this Lent, that is the ugly face of what I am seeing in myself. I am confronting the reality of my own talking the talk while simultaneously refusing to open myself up enough to others to expose myself to their pain and confusion and actually offer care and concern. That realisation is all the uglier because I am a pastor who has made vows to love you and care for you as Christ the Good Shepherd does. And as I examine the obstacles within myself, they look as insurmountable as Abraham’s pre-Viagra hundred year old withered body and I can’t see a way through them or what might lie beyond them.

But when we look at ourselves, there is a promise we are called to trust in. We are called to trust the promise that not only are we regarded by God as righteous when we offer ourselves to Christ, but that we will be progressively transfigured into the image of Christ. But in a sense, that is where the rubber really hits the road in this Lenten journey of renewing our commitment to following Jesus into the fullness of his life and love. For this is where we are challenged not just to offer our intellectual agreement that something seemingly impossible is possible for God, but to offer our cooperation to the one who can and will break through our defences and lead us through into the terrifyingly unknown places beyond. It is that act of offering our cooperation that is the hard and disciplined work that Lent annually reminds us to stick at all year round. It is not about earning our salvation, but it is part and parcel of the act of accepting the gracious gift of God’s love and mercy.

So maintaining the faith is not about having a picture of how God is going to bring about the seemingly impossible transformation and believing that such a plan will work. It is often much more unknown than that, and is about trusting that God is bigger than the obstacles and entrusting ourselves to whatever God calls us to do in the face of them. For me, I feel quite powerless in the face of the powerful forces of resistance within myself. I am recognising that when it comes to the provision of basic person to person pastoral care, I am not a pastor’s bootlace. And I have become very good at hiding behind my gifts in carrying off major ecclesial and liturgical projects and using them to create ways of avoiding dealing with the things I am afraid to tackle. I don’t know how that will be dismantled and healed. But I am no more called to understand how it will happen than Abraham was called to understand reproductive biology of for senior citizens. Rather I am called to trust that God is more powerful than any obstacles or forces of resistance I have cultivated, and to open myself to hearing and cooperating with whatever God would do to get me beyond them.

As we undertake this Lenten journey together, each of us is being called to take new steps into the experience of God’s transfiguring mercy and love. And many of us will be called to journey in directions that bring us up against things that stretch our capacity to believe that things are not hopeless and that God will reconcile all things in Christ. But each time we gather at this table to pray and break bread, we receive the witness from those who have gone before us that even the tragedy of the torturous killing of Jesus at the hands of people like us can not derail God’s project of reconciling us and our war-weary world, but in the most stunning demonstration of God’s generosity his broken body actually becomes the bread of life that nourishes us for the challenges of the unknown road ahead.


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