Sermon for Sunday October 21st, 2012
We do not live in an age which speaks much if at all of Virtue. Being Virtuous has a rather Victorian ring to it, and yet for much of Western history, largely under the influence of Greek culture and philosophy, the Virtues were in part understood as something into which the growing child ought to be formed.
In Classical Antiquity, there were the four Cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Courage, to which the early church being born into this culture swiftly added via St Paul, the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Love. All seven are deserving of deep consideration, not least because the meaning ascribed to each has changed dramatically from how they were first conceived.
Words of course change their meaning down through the ages, but these are words which are tied to fundamental understandings or aspirations of what it means to be human and in the case of the three theological virtues, what it means to be children of God. Faith, Hope and Love are the looked for fruit of a Life immersed in the life of God.
And this evening we think about hope, and the nature of Christian Hope, something which is utterly different to hope as commonly understood.
Martin Luther is reputed to have said something which gives us a glimpse of the Radical nature of Christian Hope, ‘If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree’. As with so many of such ‘famous sayings’, it is in all likelihood not true that he said it, there being no record of his saying it prior to 1944. But be that as it may, this saying ‘If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow I would plant a tree’ encapsulates Much of this most significant Theological virtue. Staring the End of all things in the face and then calmly expressing another possibility, an impossible possibility. Christian Hope is as Action as much as a thought – it directs us to live in a way that makes no sense amidst the death narratives of the world in which we live, And as such, Hope is as timely today as it ever has been.
Whilst we have no sense that the world might end tomorrow, [although given the propensity for such predictions, no doubt someone somewhere has suggested it will] – we do live in an age in which to say we face an uncertain future is putting as hopeful a spin on it as we can. I don’t mean with regard to the future of the Diocese of Dunedin, but to the future of the whole Created order and humankind’s place within it. The end of the line looms ever larger and the temptation to live for the moment it seems has never been so overwhelming. From Soundbite politics to aimless hedonistic lives – will live not only in a culture which is as ahistoric as any previous, but also one in which the Future is erased from the horizon of consciousness, perhaps because it seems too horrific to think about, or to live into with hope.
Having had an amateur interest in Climate Science since the mid 1980’s when I first became aware of what we now call Climate Change, I have watched as the signs of change have arrived with ever increasing rapidity, until we are now seeing unmistakeable signs of a climate which had passed the ‘tipping point’ and is heading into a period of accelerated warming. And that has not gone totally unnoticed as people think of the future. There was a very definite anti-echo of Luther’s sentiment very present in the UK in the year or so before I left to come to New Zealand. A sense of hopelessness that was expressed in a form of ‘the world IS ending so we are not planting trees’ Young couples getting married, in itself always something which expresses hope – were increasingly heard to say ‘but we will not be having any children, for we fear for what the future holds for them’. I remember a generation ago telling the youngsters to whom I taught science that Climate Change would have perhaps unthinkably dark ramifications for their children. And so it seems for some of that now grown up generation, they sense that this might indeed be the case – choosing not to have children, a symptom of a deep underlying nihilism increasingly abroad as hopelessness seems to grow in the sometimes unconscious actions of our lives.
Choosing not to have children is to embrace as a choice, as a Good Thing, something which down through the ages has been understood as a curse, that of barrenness. The metaphor of the human as Consumer, just making a choice, picking a lifestyle, undeniably justifies these unconscious hopeless leanings, but throughout history until this day such a choice would be seem as life denying. We seem to have lost sense of what it is to live.
And that choice brings us to the strange story of Abraham and Isaac – Strange, indeed terrifying, and yet a story which goes Right to the heart of the Christian apprehension of Hope, a strange hope which finds no other reference in the world in which we live. That we should look in this dark tale for hope seems at best counter intuitive, at worst perverse. For it is a story about the erasing of the Future, Yet in that very sense of foolishness lies its extraordinary power.
Our reading is the culmination of that story of human hopefulness, of barreness, overcome. Of Joy of delight, but suddenly darkness – a story about the investment of that human hope in the birth of a child.
We read a little earlier in Genesis 18 of the visitation to the aged Abraham and Sarah and the promise of a son – ‘Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind Abraham. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’ – and we know the story, Sarah in due time bears a son and names him ‘Laughter’, or Isaac. The son of laughter who is born against all human hope and expectation. Abraham who has no hope for a son, has a son, and yet this earlier part of the narrative does not as yet touch on Hope as conceived in Christian faith. For Christian faith is in a real sense not a thing of the miraculous. Christian HOpe is not a sense that a miracle will occur – Jesus himself points his followers not to the miracles, not to the signs, but to that which they signify. The birth of Isaac is a sign of the presence of God, but as yet it is not the ground of faith. Christian hope is not about the WOW of the utterly amazing and rationally inexplicable miracles which still occur around us, but something Other. Don’t pin your hope on miracles Jesus says, pin your hope on me, on my life giving word, and so the story goes on to tonights dark text
To begin to understand what this text might possibly mean and how it reveals to us the heart of the Christian virtue of Hope, we need also to have a feel for something else which for better or worse we no longer acknowledge – that is lineage and particulalry patrilinearity, lineage through the male line.
Abraham had his son! Isaac! The sardonic laughter of Sarah converted in this miraculous birth to exultant laughter, full of wonder and joy – hope it seemed was to continue. that desire for continuation, for continued life – the Human triumphant YES! – but then suddenly faced with the NO! The strange and killing word, Kill your hope, Abraham. Kill YOUR hope. You have invested your entire future in this boy, He is your hope. And this Life giving, Hope giving word of God came to Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’
For Abraham the call to sacrifice his son was no more nor less than the call to die. To have children was to have Life – true life, life that had continuation – it was the way in which death could be cheated, it was and indeed Is the continuation of that human sense of hope for something more and better, in and of ourselves. Still even against the backdrop of all that seeks to overwhelm us in so many ways, still people Do desire to have children, to see their Life extended, Life on Our terms. If we don’t have a sense of the significance of lineage we miss the point here – Abraham in sacrificing his son, lays down his own future, his own life. Everything is invested in Isaac. “Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, then come follow me.” The Word of Grace is at once an invitation to death, to say no to our own investments, and to Life to discover the treasure of life on God’s terms.
As Abraham and Isaac make this literally ‘terrifying’ walk to Moriah, What lies ahead of Abraham facing this literally terrible call? Nothing. Extinction. Blackness. Eternal night. The end of the line. Death. And it is in confronting that that Abraham discovers Life, a life that is not his own, but one that is Given.When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’
And Abraham, acting in faith reveals the true nature of Christian Hope, that it is not something which we can naturally drum up within ourselves, rather like whistling in the dark. No, it is the gift of God given in the moment when we give up on our own lives. When we lay down our own lives, which is the meaning of the words of Jesus, For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. It is only in the knowledge of God as the one named ‘The Lord will provide’, that we turn from all our futile death denying attempts to live for ever. To have faith is to have already got your dying over and done with, and thus to know something far more sure and certain
St Paul says You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. Abraham as we know is to bear much fruit, to be the father of many nations – but first he too must truly comprehend the grace of God, that God will provide! That it is the indestructible life of God which is the world’s True hope.
A few years ago I went with some of my fellow ordinands to visit a mosque in the east end of London. We sat and listened politely to the Imam, who lectured us all on the superiority of Islam over Christianity. Finally he became a little more hospitable and referred to a common ancestry, that of Abraham and mentioned this story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. One of my friends suggested that in that story was the roots of Christian faith. Abraham in the end did not give up his son, but received him back from death. ‘Islam if I understand it correctly,’ he said, ‘teaches God has no son. As you know, we Christians do not believe that to be the case. God as you say did not require Isaac of Abraham. As we Christians believe, that was because he gave his own son for the life of the world’
To be Christian is to live in and through and out of THAT life, for all our hopes and dreams fade like the morning mist. In the end we all like Abraham must come to that place if we are to live a children of Hope, children of the God who provides. We must all come to the blackness of Good Friday, to know all our hopes and dreams extinguished and then with no light at all, to press on in faith to the Glorious hope expressed on Easter morning. For indeed ‘On the mount of the Lord it has been provided.’
And thus as Christians even if we know with certainty the world is ending tomorrow, we do not be joining the rest of the world in the hedonism and despair of nihilism, rather, in our own embracing Christ in his death and resurrection we reveal something which might by its strange light call the curious to a truer and deeper life. We might indeed choose to plant a tree.