This sermon is about faith in the dark times. It was in response to a tragedy: one of our church teenagers, Kieran, recently drowned whilst on holiday in France. This has, of course, been devastating for the family, and upsetting for many of us: he was well-known, well-liked and people had watched him grow up in the church.
This was my attempt to talk about some of the feelings and questions that this sort of tragedy raises.
One of my favourite books is the Hobbit. It’s a great story about a small creature, a hobbit, who is visited by a wizard and propelled into a journey with 13 dwarves to retrieve their treasure stolen by a dragon. On the way, Bilbo the hobbit has many adventures, discovers a magic ring that makes him invisible, faces many dangers, discovers things about himself that he didn’t realise, and does indeed help retrieve the treasure and defeat the dragon.
It’s an inspiring story about someone seemingly insignificant making a significant difference, about there being more to them and more to the world than they realised. And of course, that’s the same for Abraham in his journey.
Like Bilbo, Abraham starts out living a comfortable life with his family and his possessions. When, suddenly, he is called by God to go to a strange place, a land that God will show him. But, of course, it’s really not that straightforward is it?
Abraham doesn’t just travel for a few days or weeks and then stop and receive all the things that God has promised him. He travels, and then travels some more. He has adventures, bargains with God over the fate of cities, meets with strangers, falls out with his closest family, makes a mess of things, has a long-awaited son, and dies owning only one small part of the land promised to him by God.
“They did not receive the things promised” the letter of the Hebrews reminds us. “They only saw and welcomed them from a distance.”
The whole of Hebrews chapter 11 is about faith. It starts: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” We’re then given a whole list of examples of people who lived by faith. These are the great heroes who we’re meant to emulate. Except, like Bilbo, they’re not quite as heroic as we might think.
Bilbo helps defeat a dragon and steal its treasure. He is taken on by the dwarves as their burglar, despite looking more like a grocer than a burglar. He gets lost and has to be rescued. He catches a terrible cold. He spends quite a lot of the time scared and, right at the end, betrays his friends. Not exactly heroic. Not particularly an example to be emulated.
Except. Well, neither was Abraham a lot of the time. He lies. He falls out with his closest relatives. He hands over his wife to a king to save himself. Twice. He laughs at God when God tells him his plans. He gets his slave girl pregnant to have the son he wants. And then sends them away when his wife finally does have a son.
And the rest of Hebrews 11 is pretty similar. Abel is murdered. Noah gets horribly drunk. Abraham’s sons and grandsons are conmen, liars and thieves. Moses is a murderer. Rahab is a prostitute. David commits adultery and has the husband killed.
If this is the best that the marketing department can do, you might be forgiven for thinking that they should hire a better PR firm. Or, perhaps even get a new product. But, of course, this is exactly the point. The life of faith is the life that we, with all our past mistakes, our problems and our doubts, are called to. The life of faith is something that can be lived out by people who make a mess of things, go to bed, get up and make a mess of things all over again. How do we know? Well look at that list!
That isn’t, of course, the whole story. Bilbo does get the treasure. Abraham does go on that long journey to the land God promises. He does discover more about God, does seek to put his faith into action. Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
Faith isn’t about believing impossible things for no good reason. It isn’t about leaving your brain at the door. Faith is about being sure that there is more to hope for and certain that God is there, even when it feels nothing like it. Because faith is sometimes about hanging on by your fingernails, faith is sometimes about trekking through that desert not really knowing if you’re heading the right way.
Abraham didn’t get the land that he was promised. But, because of his actions, and God working through him and with him, that land became his descendants’ inheritance. Abraham’s faith wasn’t based on the fulfilment of the promises. It was based on his encounter with God. It was based on the promises made to Abraham by God. Promises so seemingly absurd that Abraham laughed at them. He had no idea how they could actually be fulfilled. Abraham’s faith was based on him meeting with God, on the on the understanding of God’s love and God’s call that he had.
Abraham met with God and discovered that he cared about him. Abraham discovered that God was actually bothered about what happened to him, wanted more for him, and called him on the adventure of finding out what that was. That was the faith and hope that Abraham had. And that’s the faith and hope that we can have too.
It’s the faith and hope that Jesus talks about in the reading we heard from Luke. “your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” he says. “Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted”. That isn’t really about a heavenly deposit account that you get to spend later. Treasure in heaven isn’t stuff that you get only in heaven. It’s stuff that belongs in the kingdom of God. It’s about those actions, those attitudes that place what you do and what you are within the rule of God, inside God’s kingdom. It’s about sharing the priorities and values of God himself.
It’s about how you live your life, what you do with your time, how your treat your work colleagues, your neighbours, your friends, the choices you make in the supermarket, when you watch telly. It’s about living looking forward to the heavenly country, the city prepared by God. Which will be on earth. This isn’t about getting ourselves ready to escape to somewhere else, it’s about bringing more and more of God’s creation back into God’s kingdom. The good that we do, the treasures of heaven that we gain now, will be part of that kingdom. The difference that we make now lasts for eternity.
This is what the adventure of following God is about. This is what that faith and hope is about. And at times that’s difficult. Really difficult. At times it’s the wilderness of wandering through the desert, or waiting for you don’t really know what. At other times it takes you to places you wouldn’t otherwise have seen, leads you to do things you didn’t even realise that you were capable of. Because, without God’s power, you probably weren’t.
Paul talks about God working in all things for the good of those whom he has called. As I’ve said before I don’t believe that this means that God causes bad things. I do believe that it means that God is at work in any situation, no matter how horrendous. I do believe that it means that God gives us his Spirit to give us the help we need. We’re not meant to do any of this on our own. We’re not meant to do this under our own steam, in our own strength. We’re called to do it with the power of God’s Spirit in our lives, with the help and strength and support of those around us.
What Bilbo discovered on his journey was how much bigger, more wonderful, and more frightening the world is than he ever imagined. He also discovered more about himself, about depths that he didn’t realise he had, talents that he had never used. Abraham discovered that the God he thought he knew was bigger, more wonderful, and yes, more frightening than he ever imagined. He discovered things about himself and, slowly, slowly became more the person that God was calling him to be. He discovered that what he thought and what he did wasn’t totally in line with God. But, we can look at Abraham and see a person motivated by faith in God.
Of course God calls us to live the whole of lives in ways that reflect his love and his purpose and his power. Of course God calls us to live lives that more and more reflect the life of Jesus. And God gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to help us to do that, to help us to seek to live out Jesus’ risen power in all that we think, say and do. But that’s not where we start. That’s not where any of the heroes of faith started. We start from exactly where we are.
That might be screaming at God to come down here and get this sorted right now. It might be picking yourself up again and staggering a few more steps on the path. It might be saying to God ‘what’s next?’ It might be asking God to help you see what in your life at this moment needs more of his power.
It is about looking beyond what we can see to what we have been promised. And that’s hard. It’s hard when things are going badly. It’s hard when things are going well. But it’s about setting our heart on the kingdom of heaven, about longing for the heavenly country, the new city which we have been promised, and having our lives changed by that longing. It won’t be easy. But it will be worth it. Amen.