Sermon for Lent 3

304 24.3.19 It’s a deal: Brougham Lent 3

Last week’s Old Testament lesson told of the Covenant that God made between himself and Abram. It included all sorts of gory details about cutting a heifer, a goat and a ram in half as a sign of the Covenant.

This, of course, provoked questions about why we have all these gory details, and the answer has to be, as so often in the Bible, that this was the way things were done at that time. For long enough under English law, we had ‘indentures’ – pieces of paper (or perhaps vellum) on which were written two copies of the agreement. This was then cut in half in an irregular pattern, so that in future it could be tested by seeing that the two halves fitted exactly.

And the farming community and the gipsy community are perfectly well accustomed to agreeing a deal with a handshake.

Different times: different ways.

But the important thing today is that this was a Covenant, a deal. Two parties are involved: God and Abram (representing all mankind).

God makes His offer, His invitation, to us. We are free to accept or reject. Our faith is not about some sort of guarantee of forgiveness or salvation, regardless of our actions and thoughts. We are offered forgiveness in exchange for repentance. Our side of the bargain is that we admit that we have done wrong and determine to try to do better. God’s side of the deal is permanent.

We know that we are mortal, with mortal weaknesses, so we know that we will routinely fall short.

Today’s reading, from the prophet Isaiah, continues this same theme of invitation. Listen again to the first part. It is headed –

An Invitation to Abundant Life

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.

Isaiah tells us of God’s invitation: ‘if you are thirsty, I offer water; if you have no money, you can have wine and milk without price.’ ‘Why do you work at something which does not satisfy?’ ‘Listen, that you may live.’
And the prophet goes on, apparently, to say that God will offer a Covenant…. Will offer a Covenant. But I thought we had that last week.
Only a few days ago, I discovered that Hebrew has no tenses. To us, will offer implies something in the future. This Covenant has been offered, is offered and will go on being offered – for ever. The parallel is with the Exodus, when Moses asks God what His name is. The answer is: I am. If we take out our English notion that that implies the present tense, then I am simply says that I always have been and I always will be.
God’s Covenantal Love is available yesterday, today and tomorrow. It is permanently on offer. All we have to do is to accept it and reciprocate it!
God cares for us both as a father and as a judge. This also came up last week.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks cites the experience of Niels Bohr, the eminent physicist, when his son stole something from the local shop.

“He found himself thinking of his son as a father would do, then as a judge would do, and realised that while he had to think both ways, he could not do both simultaneously. He had to switch from one to the other. That is what monotheism asks of its followers: to think of God as both a father and as a judge. A judge punishes: a parent forgives. A judge enforces the law: a parent embodies love. God is both, but it is hard to think of both at the same time.”

We have a theme which is running through our thinking and our sermons this year, the theme of healing. Healing in the broadest sense. Healing of body and mind. Healing in the sense of providing support when there might not be physical healing. Healing of divisions between peoples and nations, between religious groups and even within religious groups. Healing of our relationship with God.

All of us are at various times in need of healing in this sense. Quarrels have a way of being handed on from generation to generation. We all say how stupid it is, but we all do it!

The various parts of broken Christianity have been pretty horrid to each other in historical times. We are very slowly moving in the right direction. We gave up burning Catholics at the stake a long time ago, but in my lifetime the animosities and misunderstandings have been rife. I’m glad that I have lived in a time when have come to respect each other and learn from each other.

The next step is full inter-Communion. I don’t know how or when that will happen. It would be wonderful to see it in my lifetime.

The next, and much bigger, step is inter-Faith understanding. In speaking of Abram and the Covenant last week, we recognised that three major Faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all sprang from the same roots and all trace their lineage back to Abram. There do seem to be moderate voices in all three looking for understanding. And we all know that, historically, the ‘grassroots’, the friends and neighbours of different faiths, have been able to live together in harmony.

It is only when extremists begin stirring up trouble that too many get drawn in to trouble.

If we will agree to our side of the Covenant, then God, in His love, will give us the strength we need; He will give us the words that will help someone through a difficulty; He will give us that moment of pause before we rush in to a situation; He will give us the guidance to get through a problem of our own, whether it is to do with illness or some dilemma we face; He will tell us what to say when we are challenged about our faith, either by a non-believer, or by a Christian of another persuasion, or indeed by someone of another faith.

When I say these things, I’m not just quoting from some book which tells you what you might usefully say about healing. I’m quoting from my own experience. I’m quoting from situations where I might have felt alone, but afterwards saw that it was all guided

Let’s now take a look at the second lesson and consider what God does not offer, contrary to some ancient teachings.

The God I believe in does not bring down the tower of Siloam in order to punish the people below; nor does He carefully hand-pick the 18 who died because they were greater sinners. Jesus, in our reading, says ‘Unless you repent, you will all perish’. And it is eternal death of which He speaks here. Neither does the God I believe in hold the falling tower up while the people get out of the way.

Jesus’ parable of the fig tree gives another angle. As it happens, in the Communion readings yesterday, we were offered the story of the lost sheep, where the shepherd will go and find even just the one out of the flock that has got lost.

This, and the fig tree, offer the same idea. God will always be looking out for the one who has strayed, in the hope of bringing them back.

The fig tree is offered one more year, with much watering and fertilising, in which to bear fruit. If even that doesn’t work, then it is indeed time to cut it down.

Let us pray…for whatever healing is necessary for us and those we know…..for the world, with its divisions and animosities…..for our own relationship with God and our agreement to our side of the Covenant…..