Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Wonderful Promises

Genesis 15.1-6, Luke 12.32-40
Today's reading from Genesis contains a wonderful promise of God's graciousness. Abraham has already been blessed by Melchizedek, King of Jerusalem, in a mysterious ritual including bread and wine, and he has already been promised that he will be the father of a great nation and that his descendants will be more numerous than the dust and will inherit the land of Canaan. Now he is promised that God will be his shield and will give him a great reward.
Despite all of the promises that have already been showered on him, Abraham is sceptical. Like Sarah, he's very conscious that he is getting on in years. According to one of the traditions which Genesis is following, he was 75 years old and Sarah was no longer able to bear children. We may suspect that the story tellers were exaggerating. Sarah was still young enough to have been coveted by the Egyptian pharaoh as one of his wives, but it's clear that the cards were stacked against them.
Abraham had appointed a former slave, now apparently a free man living in Damascus, as his heir - presumably because of his faithful service to Abraham and Sarah in the past. Let's hope the poor guy wasn't already spending his inheritance, because God here reassures Abraham that one of his own children will be his heir. He and Sarah are only two people but their descendants will be more numerous than the stars.
This time we are told that Abraham believed the promise. When we believe the impossible promises of God it is counted to us as righteousness.
Our Gospel reading is a loose collection of sayings which Luke has pulled together. The first saying is another word of comfort for small groups of people who feel that they have been left to face the big wide world all by themselves. Abraham and Sarah were just a couple standing shoulder to shoulder as they wandered through the wilderness. This saying is addressed to a slightly larger group, a little flock. As we look around us we may feel very few in number compared to the society around us, but it is our Father's pleasure to give us the kingdom, just as it was his pleasure to make Abraham and Sarah the ancestors of an entire nation.
The next saying reminds us that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Perhaps it is a different version of the same saying. 'Sell your possessions and give alms.'
The third saying  tells us, 'Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure' which neither moths nor thieves can harm or diminish. Saving money, building reserves, taking care of our material needs cannot be our priority. Doing what God wants has to come first because all of these other things are subject to the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.' Savings can be eaten away by inflation or swallowed by a single misfortune. We can protect our material interests and then find that in the process we have neglected important relationships that would have brought us more lasting joy. And what could be more important than our relationship with God? Financial security can so easily become a distraction from the main agenda, and life is too short.
The three little parables are shorter versions of stories told at greater length elsewhere. We should be like  bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive, or slaves waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, or like slaves awaiting the return of their master from a long journey or a very busy day. Apparently it was unwise to be caught napping, even if the master or the bridegroom didn't arrive until just before dawn!
Perhaps a modern analogy would be waiting in outpatients or accident and emergency for our name to be called. The wait might be a very long one, it might be the middle of the night, but if we doze off we might not hear when our name is called. If, however, we remain alert the doctors and nurses will attend to our needs.
Jesus makes clear that he's not talking about any ordinary master and slave relationship. Even though it's late when the master comes, he is so impressed by the slaves' devotion to duty that he takes off his best clothes and insists on serving them with a hearty supper instead. Actually this is quite the opposite conclusion from another version of the same story, where Jesus asks incredulously, 'Which master would really do that?' and warns his followers that even when we have done what God expects of us we should still say to ourselves, 'I am no more than a slave. I have only done my duty.' But this version of the story emphasises God's graciousness, like the earlier sayings and the Old Testament story.
Finally Luke introduces us to another parable where the owner of the house says that he, or she, would have installed a burglar alarm or had new windows fitted if they had realised their house was going to be broken into. Luke juxtaposes this story with the other two because he thinks they all make a similar point, that we never know when God is going to spring a surprise on us and demand immediate action. In this case he hints that Jesus was thinking about his return at the end of time, but the point still applies if we are talking about the new challenges that we face in everyday life.
The message for a small church from our readings today is that we need to live by faith, to expect to be asked to do the unexpected, to be ready to do things that might normally seem beyond our capacity, to have something in reserve but to be prepared to spend it as we rise to the challenge of meeting God's agenda, and to keep alert as we wait to see what God has in store for us. That is a tall order for a small company of people but we should not be afraid because, just as God blessed Abraham and Sarah, it is his good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

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