SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
6th July 2008
Gen 24.34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30
If your memory is half decent you may recall that a few weeks back we began history’s fastest ever flirtation with and scurry through one of the great narratives of our faith [2017: the lectionary does that to us!]. We jumped like out of control exocet missiles from the bitter laugh of Sarah to the miraculous faith of Abraham on the mount of sacrifice, and, before we have a chance to absorb the miraculous intervention of God we find the miraculous child Isaac fully grown and getting his own wife. Really to dwell with the story properly we need to begin with the visitation of the three angels and the biter laugh of Sarah, and see her journey through to the joyous laugh in the chapters that we omitted. For Sarah, who laughed bitterly when she learned the impossible news she was to become the mother of a nation, becomes the woman who laughs with the joy of the universe as she sees God’s promise realized I the birth of Isaac: ‘Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”’ This is the laughter of grace, the laughter of a human life invade by the breath of God. There was an unfortunate phase in charismatic history when laughing in the Spirit became a world-wide phenomenon: while I think it was a plastic imitation of the laughter of Sarah, perhaps I need to swallow my scepticism and acknowledge that laughter can well be a sign of the invasion of God in human lives.
The conception and birth of Isaac, like that of Jesus centuries later, is a miraculous intervention of God in human history. But the story-teller wants to make it quite clear that God works in ways other than the miraculous – or, rather, that the natural processes of history and nature are themselves miraculous. Isaac grows up, and, after his mother has died, finds himself a love-partner. Rebekah becomes one of the great characters of the bible, feisty, kind, industrious and fallible. It is to be twenty years before she gives birth to the ambivalent twins, Esau and Jacob, another story full of God’s miraculous workings in the ordinary and sub-ordinary workings, even in the chicanery of human lives. But to that some other time! Her fidelity to God is enormous, and she does not shrink from learning even from her own mistakes and sins.
To learn from mistakes and sins: that surely is the challenge of serving God. Not that we will never sin – much less never make mistakes. The old Book of Common Prayer prayed penitentially, in the Litany that we use each Friday, ‘forgive us our all our sins, negligences, and ignorances’. While it was written in a different era to ours, and I’m not sure that ignorance is a state requiring forgiveness, I do think deliberate dumbing down of our lives is, and the deliberate choice to ignore the signs of God in our lives and the lives of those around us, and the signs in the world around us, is needful of God’s forgiveness.
Fortunately Paul agrees with me! In writing to the Romans he exclaims ‘Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened’. It is Paul’s belief that we as human beings – all human beings – have the opportunity to see the possibilities of God, the claims of God on morality and ethics, and the claim of God to have first place on human lives.
Arguably Paul sees more than anyone else the extent to which we fail in our calling as human beings. Rom. 7, this famous passage, is not altogether or even much about Paul – who elsewhere describes himself, boldly’ ads ‘as to righteousness under the law, blameless’. It’s a big call, and Paul does not make it lightly.
There is not altogether anything new under the sun. I lament much in our society – the taunting idiocy of the man in Whanganui yesterday who sold his soul to the Hell Pizza chain for $5000 last week may be a piece of minor gamesmanship, but his actions and the very existence of that chain – which I boycott – make it quite clear that ours is a society determined to mock any claims that there is an authority greater than what we can see or measure or scientifically prove. Such a society may arguably have fun, but is probably running risks even at a sociological level, let alone what we might call a ‘spiritual’ level. For to lose touch with that intangible entity that we might call ‘spirit’ is to lose touch with all that separates us from sheer animalism – that sort of animalism that produces a Mugabe or a Pol Phot. That at the very least should warn us that western society is taking huge risks on its current paths of consumerism and decadence.
Sadly it is a popular place to be. Life is more fun if we can sell our soul to the devils of our society. If I can, while my virility serves me well, sleep with whomsoever I want whensoever I want then life could be quite exciting, though I suspect something would slowly die with in me as I passed from partner to partner, experience to experience. If I can use and abuse whatever chemicals I like life can be a buzz, until the chemicals wear off and I need to find more, or to fuel my expensive habits with crime. These are extremes, of course, but the human determination to shut God out of the equations of existence. There are others: suicide rates, depression rates, domestic violence rates all suggest a society out of touch with the spiritual demands of a Creator God – though of course these do in a lesser extent exist even within faith communities when we fail to live up to God’s demands on us. By and large though, society remains, in the west, determined to sell its soul to the devil, whether in the form of the Hell Pizza chain or more dangerous flirtations with the dark side.
Paul’s response is to demand costly, Christ-focussed love of his people. We can only grow into that call by surrendering our lives to Christ. Like a soul we can’t touch Christ, though I believe we reach out and touch him in communion. We can way Christ or measure Christ or Christ’s Spirit in our lives, But we can experience his touch and his transformation as over and again we surrender ourselves to him. Paul calls that being ‘a slave to the law of God’. Jesus calls it joining in the dance: he plays his lute, but will we dance?