A sermon for early Advent 2014 based on the story of Abram and Sara (Genesis 12-21) and 2 Peter 3:8-15a (the lectionary reading for today).
The story of Abram and Sara is one of the oldest known to human kind. As far as we can tell it refers to sometime between 1500 and 2000 years before Christ. This is in the middle of the Bronze age, a little after the completion of Stonehenge. It pre-dates writing in the region so, if it refers to real people and real events, it must have been passed on by word of mouth for many generations. It would have been told by people sitting around a fire and telling each other stories to pass the time. It would have been passed from parent to child and from grandparent to grandchild.
Most biblical scholars suggest that it was probably written down during the Jewish exile in Babylon in the early 6th century BC. This means that if the stories are based in fact then they must have been passed down by word of mouth for nearly 1,000 years. Imagine relying on word of mouth stories to learn about events at the Battle of Hastings. I’m not sure we’d consider that very reliable would we?
There are a lot of “ifs” in what I’ve said so far because many Biblical scholars question whether the stories are true in a historical sense at all. They suggest that the most likely origins of these stories is that they were created by the people who wrote them down. They probably didn’t create them out of thin air but from existing folk stories. Even if the stories had some basis in fact then they were almost certainly heavily adapted. The writers felt free to do this because they weren’t writing them to record history, they were writing them to express religious truth.
Whether the stories are based in fact and handed down orally over the generations or were largely the invention of 6th century poets we have to come to the conclusion that the events recounted may not have occurred in the way they are recorded. To put it a little more bluntly – the stories may not be true.
So how should I preach from a story which may not be true? At one level this is the story of a miracle. A 99 year old man and a barren woman who is only a little younger have a baby. Many preachers have told the story as proof that God can work miracles. We need to tale a step back though. If the story may not be true then it can’t be used to prove anything. If we take modern biblical scholarship seriously then we can’t preach about the story in that way. A miracle may have happened but this story is very far from conclusive evidence that it did.
If we take that scholarship seriously then we have to think much more about what it tells us about the people who wrote the story down than about the original characters. The people who wrote the story down were probably in exile in Babylon. They were a community that believed their faith to have deep roots over many centuries. They believed it was rooted in the experience of the Canaanite patriarchs, that it had survived slavery in Egypt and the Exodus. That faith had supported the community through the time of the judges and found fruition in the Kingdom of David and with the completion of Solomon’s Temple. But now Israel had been defeated in war, the temple had been destroyed and what was left of the population had been taken into exile in Babylon. The community had a strong sense of the past but real fears for the future. It must have seemed to many in that community that their faith would die out within a generation. It must have seemed to many in that community that their faith was barren.
Does it therefore surprise us that one of the stories that they picked up and developed was of a barren women who gave birth, of a childless old man who was promised that he would have descendants who would outnumber the stars? Perhaps most importantly this Advent, is it surprising that one of the key themes of that story is one of waiting in hope and faith over a time-scale that is far greater than that of an ordinary human life. That community was in crisis and the stories they adopted reflected that crisis. Those stories drove them to keep their faith alive, to look to the future. If an ageing man and a barren woman could maintain a faith to pass on to the succeeding generations then so too could they regardless of how bleak their own situation looked. If they could keep their faith alive as the politics of the world swirled around them then one day surely it would burst forth again with life and vitality.
The power of thinking about this story in this way is that it speaks to us today. Most of us within British Christianity fear for the future. Traditional churches are in crisis, declining in numbers. Pews are populated with people almost literally as old as Abram and Sarai. We are not physiologically barren but we are spiritually barren, many of our churches are devoid of children. Within our own area Methodist churches at Bollington and Wood Lanes have closed over recent years. There are many others that will not last another decade. If we stop and consider the situation rationally then our faith faces a similar crisis to that faced by Judaism in Babylon.
We can gain reassurance from the same stories. Stories that remind us that God works on a much longer time-scale than we can ever imagine. Stories that remind us that God’s love will prevail regardless of what happens in the world around us. Stories that remind us that our part in this is to wait patiently in faith and hope.
This is a real challenge in the modern world. It is not just the dwindling size of our congregations that worries us. We see a world that seems to be sliding further and further from the vision of God’s Kingdom that the Bible presents. We see a world in which divisions between rich and poor are growing more quickly than at any time in history. We have a government who has this week announced further massive cuts in spending on welfare. We know these will impact on the poorest members of our society at a time when the government are obstinately refusing to raise taxes on the rich. Further afield we see workers exploited to provide cheaper and cheaper consumer goods. The natural world over which many of us believe God granted us stewardship is being raped for its resources. Despite clear evidence that burning fossil fuels is going to lead to the destruction of the planet we continue to expand our search for oil and gas and coal. It is all too easy to give up, to lose, hope, to abandon God.
Yet I still have faith that God’s Kingdom will come. I believe this because of the state of the world rather than in spite of it. It is all too clear to me that a world that drifts so far from God’s will is destined to fail. The more I watch the world descend into an abyss, the more certain I become that it must one day rediscover God’s will. It becomes clearer and clearer to me that the only way that we will be able to survive in harmony as a race on this planet is if we rediscover the the commandments to love our God and our neighbour. Over the coming years I predict we will will face many hard lessons but eventually I am convinced that the world will realise its loss and will return to honour those commandments. I don’t know when this will happen, I suspect it will be a very long time, far beyond the limit of my life, but I have absolute certainty that it will. I have certainty because I can see no other option.
In the meantime, our role is to wait patiently in faith and hope like Abram and Sara. Patiently but not passively, we must continue their journey. Our role is to be faithful to the God of our ancestors and to nurture that faith for the benefit of our descendants who will eventually outnumber the stars. It will almost certainly be to continue to be a member of declining, niche community. It will be to share communion with the small group of friends who want to share the task of nurturing that faith with us. We must do this because one day, some time in the distant future, the world will realise the error of its ways and start to look for an alternative. It is essential that we have lived and acted in faith and hope in the meantime in order that we can provide that alternative.
Peter chose some rather flowery and apocalyptic language to describe it in the passage we heard earlier but I believe he is saying the same thing:
8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to [the day of the Lord], make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 15 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation.