Sermon on Sunday 8th March 2020 at Llanos
Based on Psalm 121, Genesis 12:1-4, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 and John 3:1-17
Opening prayer: May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord our strength and our redeemer.
As I’m sure will be apparent to anyone listening to the readings this morning, the theme for today is “Faith”. And before dismissing this subject as being one we don’t do, allow me to point out that every one of us regularly demonstrates our faith, particularly when we board an aeroplane. For I’m no expert on aerodynamics and would struggle to explain the science that keeps this huge machine airborne, but I have absolute faith in the designers and manufacturers who created it, so am happy, in spite of my lack of understanding, to commit my life to their skills. Similarly I have no knowledge of the pilot or how skilled they may be, but I have absolute faith in the system that trained and certified this person as capable of flying. Of course mistakes do happen. Planes do sometimes have faults and Pilots do occasionally go crazy or make an error and crash a plane, but this is so rare that most of us have absolute faith in both plane and pilot and regularly commit our lives to them. So don’t try to kid me, or yourself for that matter, that you don’t have faith!
So, as said, all the readings this morning are about faith. The first, Psalm 121, often misunderstood because the old King James version incorrectly reads “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help”, wrongly suggesting that the Psalmist found their help/comfort in the hills themselves. This interpretation fits quite well with the concept Margie and I each separately explained two weeks ago when looking at the Transfiguration of Jesus, that hills or mountains in the Bible tended to represent holiness or the presence of God; that many of us feel closer to God spiritually as well as physically when climbing mountains. But this, I believe is a completely wrong interpretation of Psalm 121; a better translation being “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where will my help come from?” as was read this morning, suggesting that, far from being a source of comfort or help, the hills were in fact seen as the problem, for which help was needed.
So if, as some believe, this psalm was written by David, the soldier king, he may well have been examining the hills with a soldier’s eye, looking for potential ambush or attack. Others, however consider this may have been the prayer of a weary traveller, seeing with dismay the hills they have to cross and knowing how exhausting they will be; an emotion with which I can well empathise. Either way, the response in seeing these hills is one of a need for help, perhaps as a ‘Burr’ translation “When I look at the hills ahead, then who on earth can help me cope?!” And it’s in that spirit that the answer comes back “The only help I need comes from the Lord, who created the whole universe.” And as we continue to read this psalm in that context we see something of the incredible faith: “He never sleeps and is always alert to your every need; He’ll give strength so you don’t stumble; He’ll protect you from the power of the Sun during the day and from the risk of Hypothermia at night; in fact he’ll protect you against your greatest fears at all times, so just trust him.” And that really IS faith. How often we have huge hills to climb and need this psalm. And yes, many was the time as I struggled with the weakness of my body on the final ascent of Kilimanjaro that I repeated this psalm and experienced the literal truth.
Then, turning to our second reading, from Genesis; what immense faith is demonstrated by Abram. Let’s try to put ourselves in his position. Had we carried on with the rest of the verse where this reading ended, we’d have heard that Abram was 75 years old when he set out from Haran, in North East Turkey, for his journey to Canaan. That’s some age as many of us will recognise. He didn’t at the time know where he was going, but it was to be a journey of over 500 miles, which is about equivalent to setting off to walk from here to Perpignan! And worse, the terrain was pretty dreadful, fairly similar to that between Almeria and Malaga, with massive mountains, rising at Cedars, Mount Lebanon, to well over 10,000 ft high, to one side and the sea on the other, with frequent river valleys to cross. Abram might well have looked at these hills and wondered where his help was going to come from. But when God told him to leave, he went without question or complaint, following Gods instructions with no idea where he was going. That’s faith! So, as stated in Hebrews 11:8, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called and set out, not knowing where he was going”
And you know what? This was only half the journey! They’d already walked in a large family group a similar distance North West from Ur of the Chaldees, on the Persian Gulf, up the Euphrates valley to its source, and it was here that they had wearily settled and from where God was now calling Abram to move on. The group they’d been with included Abram’s father Terah, brother Nahor and orphaned nephew, Lot, whose father, Haran had died earlier and after whom they had named the area where they had at last settled.
But you know, however tough that might have been for Abram leaving his family and home, can you imagine what it was like for Sarai his wife? OK we most of us remember what it was like to retire and go south, but at least we knew where we were headed. It was interesting enough when I suggested to Jean that we retire to Spain, but her reaction if I’d just said we’re going South and will decide where later, is one I just couldn’t imagine! So yes, for all three of them, Abram, Sarai and Lot this required incredible faith.
And in our New Testament reading, St Paul in his letter to the Church in Rome commends this faith as one that exemplifies all he had been teaching. That we could never earn God’s love and forgiveness other than by demonstrating our faith and trust in Him as Abram had. So Paul is at pains to emphasise this fact that we can never deserve our place in eternity, that God’s promise to us is the undeserved gift resulting from our faith, but that although this does not depend on any good works we may do, yet such good works should nevertheless be the inevitable outcome, the evidence that our faith is genuine.
And this aspect of faith is further explained by Jesus in our gospel passage as he challenges Nicodemus with the need for new birth, utterly beyond all normal human logical thought. But indeed this is the unavoidable consequence of true faith. As we accept God’s grace in forgiving our inadequacies to offer complete acceptance and reconciliation, then that acceptance must necessarily lead us, if we’re genuine, to completely reconstruct our lives, so that our values, our ambitions and our concerns for others all become totally subservient to the will of God; not in hope of earning His favour, but from a spirit of utter gratitude. And what a great counter Jesus gives in this passage to those who maintain that Christianity has been the source of so many wars, for Jesus reaffirms that his coming to Earth was not in any way judgemental, but solely in order to rebuild relationships between God and Humanity. So these last two verses of this reading were required learning for me as a child and we regularly used to sing the words of an old hymn based on these verses:
He did not come to judge
the World; He did not come to blame
He did not only come to seek; to save He also came
So when we call Him
Saviour, and when we call Him Saviour
So when we call Him Saviour, then we call Him by His name.
And there again is the need of faith; for it’s only by faith that we can know that our relationship with God is fully restored.
So much about faith, but what can I learn from these readings? Well in particular, the value of faith, and that we’re never too old, too good or too religious to learn. For Nicodemus was a very religious, good and well educated young man, but he had a great deal to learn. St Paul was an extremely religious man who could boast that he’d kept all the law, but he acknowledged he had much to learn from Abram.
And Abram? What a lot we can learn from him; his absolute trust and obedience. I guess many of us would have said “No, I’m too old for adventures or new challenges, just leave me alone!” I’ve certainly met folks here in Spain, who are happy to tell me they used to be regularly involved in Church in Britain before they retired, but seem to believe retirement includes retiring from Church as well as work. Yet who knows what else God may have in mind for us after retirement? Abram was 75 when he retired South, yet most of what we know of him was achieved in these later years – he had a very full life after leaving Haran; 100 years of life in fact, filled with many more challenges, joys and of course, sorrows, but he continued serving the Lord in faith. The sorrows included, as they do for so many of us in retirement, the loss of his wife, but even in that sorrow, Abraham, as he was known by that time, took up the challenge in faith continuing his journey, now with Keturah as wife, for a further 60 years – an important lesson for any of us who feel like giving up when sorrow or other tragedy overtakes us. God promised him he’d be a father of many nations when he left Haran childless, a promise he must often have questioned, but now indeed many nations do count Abraham as their father, the revered patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as God was, as He always is, faithful to the promises He made.