Genesis 12.1-4a & John 3.1-17
“Through fasting, prayer and acts of service you bring us back to your generous heart.”
That line from the Lent Eucharistic prayer has become our catchphrase this Lent as we focus on generosity – God’s and ours. And we began our Lenten journey on the mountain with the Sermon on the Mount, considering how to be cheerful givers by storing up treasures in heaven. Last week, we were in the desert resisting the temptation to see the desert as an empty place by seeing God’s generosity even in times of apparent scarcity.
Now, we zoom out from Jesus’ 40 days in the desert to the big picture story it encapsulated, the journey to the Promised Land. And our two readings today paint for us, not the Hebrews on their 40 year journey, but the even bigger picture of the whole people of God on their journey, which began with Abraham leaving his father’s house and reached its destination with Jesus on the Cross.
At the beginning, we find Abraham in a place called Ur, one of the great cities of the ancient world, but (as I joke with the children in school), probably no better than it sounds – euh! And then he meets God:
“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.'”
Abraham, or Abram as he was at that stage, was already rich in the things of this world, but God had a bigger plan for him, a plan that would enrich him spiritually and emotionally, but also a plan to bless the world through him. But to receive those blessings, he had to go. He had to leave Ur and go to the Promised Land. He had to journey with God in order to discover God’s generous heart. And God’s heart proved to be generous beyond his wildest dreams.
He had to leave his father’s house, but in return he was given a great family as many descendants as there were stars in the sky, all the families of the earth, in fact. He had to leave the place that had made him rich, but in return he was given a land of his own. He had to leave behind his country and kindred, his heritage, his ancestry, his very identity, but in return he received a new identity, changing from Abram to Abraham (the ancestor of a multitude). He had to leave his own plans and ambitions and agree to walk before God all his days, but what appeared to be a sacrifice turned out to be blessing without limit. The journey was costly, but every ounce spent on the journey turned out to be investment in the kingdom of God.
What he discovered, as he travelled, was that God is generous beyond human imagination. And what Abraham received in his story is presented to us as just the start – a mere hors d’oeuvre – just a foretaste of the generosity God plans to lavish upon the whole human race, a blessing that is for the whole world – through Abraham and his descendants.
That generosity, of course, finds its ultimate expression in God’s gift of himself in Jesus: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” And our epistle reading for today (if we had read it) from Romans 4, reminds us that it is through God’s gift of his Son, that we too become Abraham’s descendants and heirs. So we inherit his blessing and we inherit his promise of a vocation – that, through us, ‘all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
But to receive that blessing, we, like Abraham, have to journey with God. The Christian life is a journey of blessing, where what seems like loss and sacrifice turns out to be so much treasure in Heaven. And as I hope you all know by now, I do not mean, when I talk of heaven, some abstract other world you go when you die. If anyone is still thinking that’s what heaven means, please bin that thought once and for all. I mean the kingdom of Heaven, God’s kingdom, the kingdom that becomes a reality for this creation when God is restored as its king; where we put aside our desire to rule our own lives and submit to his kingship and allow him to rule our lives. That kingdom is the Promised Land. And the Christian life is a journey towards it.
But like the Hebrews travelling through the desert, it is not just our ultimate destination. It also becomes a reality in the here and now as we hand our lives over to God and obey his will rather than our own. If we hand our lives over to Jesus, he gives that kingdom through faith; not by our own efforts, but through his Cross – the Cross that puts to death our sin and death and brings us alive in his Kingdom. And every time we hand over a little part of our lives to God, the reality of the kingdom of Heaven comes alive in us and we discover a little more of God’s generous heart.
But, you see, too often we try to live as though church were dependent on our own efforts. And those efforts seem weaker and less effective the more we go on. Church seems to be run by exhausted people. And we run it as though it were poor. We have no money, our congregations are declining, we’re all getting older, there’s no-one to help. But my friends, this is the journey to the Promised Land. And if only we would leave our father’s house and journey with God, we would find him generous beyond our wildest dreams.
Over and over, God’s word promises us unlimited generosity and blessing if only we would live by it:
“He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything?”
“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? If you then, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give?”
“Do not be afraid, little flock, because your Father longs to give you the Kingdom.”
“Ask and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
I think God is opening so many doors for the church, but we’re not walking through them, because we would rather stay in Ur than travel to the Promised Land.
We would rather stay with the familiarity of Church as we’ve known it, when God is opening doors to a new and richer church. We’d rather stay with our inherited identities, thinking back to what our ancestors would think of us rather than accept the new identity and the new family God wants to give us. We grudge what we give to church, in time and money, rather than seeing that these are the very means by which God is blessing us – and, through us, blessing all the families of the earth. As with Abraham, what appears to be sacrifice turns out to be blessing without limit. The journey is costly, but every ounce spent will turn out to be investment in the kingdom of God. We must be generous in order to discover God’s generous heart.
But the Promised Land is always a place of uncertainty. We are given very few details about what it will be, so we just have to trust. To journey there is always going to require faith. The security of what we have will always seem more alluring, even though we know it’s not enough. We’d rather live with our lurking anxieties and comfort them with the small comforts our own efforts can provide.
But to discover God’s generous heart, we must give everything over to him. Everything in our lives has to be up for grabs – the way we do Church, our diaries, our wallets, our habits, even our relationships. Jesus promises that everything we hand over to him he will give back 100-fold, but we must leave it and follow him. We must trust that it is for our blessing, that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save it” that the land he is leading us to be generous beyond our wildest dreams.
We are called to journey, not clinging to the past or to our acquired riches, not yearning to return to Ur or Egypt, but recognising the reality of God’s kingdom in our midst as we hand over each bit our lives to him and learn to live “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Do not be afraid, little flock, because your Father longs to give you the Kingdom.” So leave your father’s house and journey to the land that God will show you and, through fasting, prayer and acts of service, God will bring us back to his generous heart.
Preached: Thrimby (joint) 12 March 2017