A promise delayed, but not deferred ...
You know all of those charts – we’ve all seen them – showing how much wealth is in the world, how much food, how much of God’s good plenty to go around? Enough that no one should be hungry, if only we could learn how to share. Enough that no one should feel that their life simply doesn’t matter.
Jesus is often obscure in his messages to his disciples. Like any good teacher, he has an annoying habit of offering more questions than answers. But not this time.
“Sell your possessions, and give alms,” he says. You can’t get much clearer than that. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
“Ah, but we live in the real world,” we say. Have we lost faith in the coming of the kingdom of God?
“Faith,” writes the author of the letter to the Hebrews, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
What do we, living in the real world, consider articles of faith? I hope for an end to ISIS activities, and the diminishment of violence and violent rhetoric around the world; but I do not place my faith, my hope, in politics. My faith is in God, and the living Christ.
I do not see too much progress in the reconciliation of races, in the elimination of racism, in the equity of opportunity, and privilege, and power. But after all, my faith is not in history, nor in legislation, no matter how worthy and important. My faith is in the Spirit of God that moved upon the waters, bringing life into being, one life, and it was good. My hope is in the goodness of God, and of God’s kingdom.
It helps that I have a comfortable life in which to wait, I acknowledge that. But I would be more than foolish to place my faith in the stock markets, or the invisible finger on the scale.
There are those, the letter writer adds, who died without seeing their promise fulfilled. We know about that, too. We know about the promise delayed.
The choice that our faith offers us is whether to continue in hope, knowing that God is good and will come through, whether in our lifetime or another; or whether we turn cynical, and fall asleep, or turn away, or try ourselves to play God.
What happens when the promise is delayed?
The example of Abraham is not as instructive as we are sometimes given to understand. He is held up as a model of faith, reckoned to him as righteousness; but in the face of delay, and a crumbling decay of hope, he and Sarah decided to edit God’s promise, and design a detour so that they might achieve the same means by another way.
God promised that Abraham and Sarah would have a son, even as old as they were, and that this would be a sign of God’s promise. But at a certain point, Abraham and Sarah had a conversation in which they agreed that this was ridiculous, impossible, could never happen. And so they decided to use Hagar.
They decided to use Hagar.
Hagar was a slave. She was Sarah’s slave. Maybe she was well-fed, well-housed, perhaps well-treated, until her mistress decided otherwise and tormented her into running away. No matter; what is abundantly clear is that Hagar was a slave, and at this point in the story, she became Abraham’s sex slave, and Sarah’s reproductive slave.
Sarah and Abraham would not wait on God’s promise, they would not keep faith with the covenant, and they used and abused Hagar because hope was not enough for them. They decided to play God with the promise and with this poor Egyptian woman, and I have to say, I think they got it wrong.
Fortunately, my faith is not in Abraham and Sarah, but in the living God and the new covenant that Christ has made with and for us.
Because that is just where Abraham went wrong. God’s promise was not a fairy godmother’s wish for Abraham and Sarah, the wave of a magic wand. It was a covenant. It was part of a relationship which said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”
Of course, God remained faithful to the promise, despite Abraham and Sarah’s detour, despite our unfaithfulness:
“I will be your God, and you will be my people.”
People of the kingdom of God, in which the meek inherit the earth, and the poor are blessed, and the prisoners, the slaves, the captives are set free. In which swords are beaten into ploughshares, and war is no longer studied, except as a subject of ancient history.
We meet this morning the day after the anniversary of the first use of nuclear weapons as an act of war.
We meet in a world still waiting for the ploughshares to outnumber the guns.
We meet at a time when the meek are mocked for harbouring hope, and the poor are as likely to be blamed as blessed.
What do we do when that promise is delayed?
We know that we are part of the promise, that we have a part to play in God’s plan, in God’s kingdom. Whatever we do to act on the promise of the kingdom of God, it must be for all of God’s people. We cannot focus on the promise to ourselves and forget our neighbours, much worse use them for our own purposes.
Abraham and Sarah used Hagar to further their part in the promise at her expense. They forgot that she had her own relationship, her own covenant with the living God, just as valid and vivid as theirs. God spoke to Hagar directly more than once. She was not expendable, exploitable, in God’s economy.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Risk believing in the promises of God, says Jesus. Have faith. Risk the faith that the promise is not for us alone, but also for Hagar, that there is enough of God’s mercy for everyone. Spend hugely on the welfare of others, and know that there is enough for all. Do not forget to bless the poor, nor to lean into the wisdom of the meek.
Have faith that God will be true to the covenant, be assured of the kingdom of God, sight unseen. Live now as people of the living God, children of the promise.
Follow in the way of the cross, knowing that only such boundless sacrificial love rebounds as glory.
Would that this world could see such faith.