I heard someone say on the radio the other day that maybe one good thing about the recession is that it's giving all of us a once in a lifetime opportunity to reassess the way we live and to start over again. She was certainly an optimist, a glass half-full person! But she went on to explain that because we can no long afford holidays, houses, possessions and nights out on the town maybe we now have the chance instead to re-evaluate what really matters in our lives. This is a chance to prioritise things like our health, our relationships and what we're achieving.
Of course, it's easy to push this kind of argument too far. If someone's home is being repossessed, if they've lost their job and have no prospect of getting another one soon, if they're desperately in need of a holiday or badly need some new possessions, health, happiness and relationships can be damaged, not strengthened, by a crisis and we can end up achieving absolutely nothing as a result. But I guess the point needs to be taken that we've become over-reliant on things and should consider whether there something missing in our lives that money and material success couldn't buy.
This is what Abraham and Sarah had concluded when they first heard God's call. The great age of Abraham clearly signals that, with this story, we are in the realm of legend. Otherwise, for Abraham to be able to walk at all at the age of ninety-nine would be an amazing miracle, and that's before we come to the momentous promise that - although childless at the moment - he and Sarah will become the ancestors of a multitude of nations.
What is happening in the Bible's account of Abraham and Sarah's life and wanderings is that the two of them are progressively being reborn. The way that Genesis tells their story, it's not described as a sudden transformation. Instead, it happens bit by bit, with the covenant promise being repeated by God at intervals along the way. The two of them have already left behind their old religion and customs, and their old home and settled way of life, and now - in this episode - they leave behind their old identities as well and get new ones.
It's a bit like a mid-life crisis when people realise that their life so far hasn't amounted to much and decide to go in a radically new direction. It's certainly like a religious conversion. Research has shown that most people come to faith gradually, over a prolonged period of time stretching into years. Perhaps that's what was happening here to Abraham and Sarah.
I went the other week to my first citizenship ceremony, an occasion when a group of people from all over the world swore allegiance to the Queen, to the British family and to British values like democracy and tolerance. It struck me that those of us who were born here don't have to make these commitments. We simply take them for granted, if we ever think about them at all.
Refugees and economic migrants point the way for the rest of us, I think. They challenge our ready-made assumptions and our settled ways of living by their willingness to up sticks and leave behind their old lives, their old network of family and friends, their former identities even, in order to cross new frontiers and begin life over again. This is what Abraham and Sarah did, except their their life-changing event was as much a spiritual pilgrimage as it was a geographical one. Even those of us who never leave the place where we were born can join them on that spiritual adventure.
Paul often talks about Abraham in his letters to the new Christians scattered around the eastern Mediterranean. He knew that Jewish people looked to Abraham as their ancestor in the faith. And, of course, he knew - because he himself was Jewish - that another distinctive thing about followers of the Jewish faith is that they keep the Law of Moses, or Torah, which was only revealed long after the time of Abraham. To this day, many Jewish people would still believe that the only way to be put completely right with God is to obey that Law. But, since he was alive long before the Law was revealed, Abraham has to be someone who kept faith with God - and was put right with God - without following the Law. And that, to Paul, is a pointer to the way things are going to be in the new dispensation which was inaugurated by the death of Jesus for our trespasses.
In a later part of Abraham's story than the episode which we heard today, the writers of Genesis tell us that Abraham's faith was counted to him as righteousness. In exactly the same way, says Paul, when Christians put their faith in Jesus that too is counted to us as righteousness. In other words, it's no longer necessary for us to try to follow the Jewish Law in order to be put right with the God in whom Abraham put his trust. So long as we live in the spirit of love and compassion which Jesus exemplified, we have done all that God requires.
Two other things stand out from Paul's account of Abraham's faith. First he emphasises that Abraham continued to hope even when hope no longer seemed reasonable by any rational standard. How could it be that Abraham should become the ancestor of many nations when he was already, supposedly, a very old man and his wife could not bear children? But he went on hoping anyway.
Second, no distrust could make him waver concerning God's promises. We live in a distrustful age, when people demand positive proof before they will believe in anything, and when the natural inclination of Mr or Ms Average is to be cynical about any sort of promises - whether they be political promises, or promises made by our employers, or vows of eternal love and devotion. The challenge for believers is to rise above that kind of mindset and allow no distrust to let us waver concerning the promises of God. God is the one person who always keeps his word and whose promise of eternal love can never be broken.
We also live at a time when hope is in short supply. Recently a government minister was ridiculed for detecting some greenshoots of recovery in the economy. I heard Tony Blair being chastised last week, also, for failing to bring peace to the Middle-East. 'Not yet,' said Tony Blair, but the interviewer seemed to think, 'Not ever!' And, similarly, there are lots of people who are waiting for Barack Obama to fail in the many goals he has set himself. Some prominent scientists are beginning to say that it's too late to prevent runaway global warming. Some financial commentators think that no one - not even Barack Obama or Gordon Brown - can stave off a full scale meltdown of the world's economy. And some political forecasters see no hope for a peaceful solution to the Israel Palestine question, or to the conflict in Afghanistan. But Abraham was a different kind of person. As we have heard already, he was a glass half-full person not a glass half-empty person. He continued to hope even when there was no room for hope
That, says Paul, is the way that Christians should be. We should always hope against hope. And that's not just a question of crossing our fingers and saying our prayers. It's about going out into the world and working for positive change in the power of God's resurrection hope, because Christians always remember that Jesus was raised, even from death, for our justification. Nothing is therefore impossible for God, and for those who love him.
Hoping against hope doesn't mean that whatever we do in Jesus' name will be easily vindicated. Even though we hope that right will prevail, we may have to lose our lives trying to do what is right. Hoping against hope means that even when we are overwhelmed by impossible odds, and even when we lose our lives for Jesus' sake and for the sake of the gospel, we still trust that we will be saved beyond death and in spite of failure.
Of course, Jesus is talking about his own life as a template for discipleship, about how we have to embrace his willingness to die for others if we are to follow his path of radical obedience to God. I guess we all hope and pray that we will not be brought to the sort of time of hard testing which he is describing here. But there are other more everyday lessons we can learn even if we do not find ourselves facing the final test of giving up our lives for the sake of the gospel.
We can learn from this passage to think differently from other people about the meaning of ambition, for God's understanding of ambition is totally different from the human understanding of what it means. What does it profit a man if he gains an annual pension of £693,000 and yet loses his good name? Sir Fred 'The Shred' Goodwin, former boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland, must be contemplating that question now. His ambition was to make a lot of money and secure a watertight pension that would ensure his fortune and allow him to live happily ever after, and it seems he's achieved that ambition. But what can he give to get his good name back? And how must it feel to know that everyone who once celebrated your success is now ashamed of you?
This passage also invites us to learn to think different about failure. If we are to be true to the message of Jesus we have to give churches, and ministers and lay people, permission to try risky ventures, fresh expressions of church for instance, or ambitious schemes of one kind or another, and then perhaps to fail in the attempt. And instead of condemning such boldness when things go wrong, and calling it reckless or foolish, we must be ready to say that sometimes we have to lose everything for the sake of the gospel if we are to give ourselves the chance of sometimes succeeding. For those who only want to play safe with their life will lose it.