Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the First Sunday of Lent 2016
Start Date 14th Feb 2016 10:00am
Description

The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

Well, dare I ask how your Lenten discipline is going? Not the kind of question one asks in polite society, but nonetheless pertinent on this First Sunday in Lent. Whether you've given something up, or taking something on, the Sundays in Lent are a good place to take stock as we make the seasonal journey through this time of penitent reflection.

It wasn't quite the response I was expecting, or at very least hoping for, last year when I was part of an Arabic course at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies here in London. Rather smugly, I was talking about the rituals behind Ash Wednesday and had managed to find one or two bits of vocabulary, include the words used in Arabic for Lent: الصوم الكبير (As-saum al-kabir) which means literally the Great Fast, of course relating to the 40-day Fast of Jesus in the Wilderness.

But for my fellow students, who were mostly Muslim, they wanted to know exactly what this 'Great Fast' involved. How many hours a day do Christians go without food? Must they give up water as well? Does it last from dawn to dusk as with Ramadhan? Do families gather at the end of the day to break-the-fast?

Slightly sheepishly, and full of admiration for their own devotion, I explained that for most Christians in the West the 'Great Fast' is limited to giving up alcohol or chocolate, perhaps fasting on a Friday or perhaps following a particular pattern of prayer. I began to feel somewhat anaemic in my keeping of Lent.

And even with these small tokens, if we are honest, we often struggle: fearing that we might seem like a 'party-pooper', we accept the glass of wine, consoling ourselves in that very Protestant way that salvation lies not in what we do, but in what we believe. We doubt our own strength of character, and perhaps we wonder what God is doing.

In this series of Matins sermons in February, I am following the journey of Abraham, the great patriarch of the Old Testament, on his journey from Ur of Chaldees in southern Iraq, to Haran in modern-day Turkey, and then onto Shechem, today in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank. I am taking as my guide for the journey an excellent book which I commend to you—'Abraham: a journey through Lent' by the Australian writer and academic here at King's College London, Meg Warner.

Last week I began with the Call of Abraham: a sermon which can be found on the Abbey website. Today, I am considering the Promise made by God, the promise of land and of a great people.

And intriguingly what we hear today challenges our assumptions about Abraham, especially within the traditions of Western Christianity, since the figure of Abraham is held up for many of us as the great exemplar of faith.

Just think of those great passages from Romans 4 and Galatians 3:

Romans 4.13: For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.

Galatians 3.8-9: And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.'

But by contrast, rather like that feeling of inadequacy about keeping a Holy Lent, what we actually see here in Genesis 15 is more about Abraham's doubt and God's faithfulness; less about the certainty of the Patriarch and more about the enduring love of God.

Let's look a little more closely.

The passage opens with '1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision'. So what are 'these things'? Genesis 12–13 give us the narrative of Abraham moving through the land, building altars and laying claim to territory. When famine comes, Abraham moves on to Egypt but in so doing endangers both his life and that of Sarai, his wife. But all turns out well: he and his nephew, Lot, who has also travelled from Haran, become very wealthy. In fact, so wealthy that the land cannot contain them both, and they are forced to go their separate ways. In so doing, however, the natural successor that Lot represented—Abraham's brother's son—moves away, and despite being rescued at one point, Abraham is painfully aware of the fragility of his situation.

Genesis 12 has the words of the promise:
1'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

And it's to this that Abraham is responding:
'O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless … You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.'

And this is despite the Lord's words of assurance:

'Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.'

In other words, what is being articulated here first and foremost is Abraham's uncertainty, the fragility of his position and his doubting of God's promise to him. The Lord had promised that he would be the Father of a Great Nation, but how on earth would that happen if he didn't even have a son and heir, and his natural successor, Lot, had gone AWOL?

Importantly, perhaps, for us it is not Abraham's great faith which elicits the promises of God, but rather his doubt and uncertainty. God's assurance arises precisely because of Abraham's questions not in spite of them. Only then is the true depth of Abraham's faith recognised: 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

And the assurance that God gives is striking in its character. You may well recall that the original covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai was a bilateral one: you keep your side of the bargain, and I'll keep mine. Exodus 19.5 set it out:

Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.

Whereas the covenant made here with Abraham is entirely different, it is unilateral. I, the Lord, will keep my covenant not matter what:

'Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.' Then he said to him, 'So shall your descendants be.'

No ifs, no buts, no maybes. Unconditional. The assurance of God's faithfulness.

So as you make your Lenten journey, do not be put off by the paucity of your offering, nor daunted by the apparent spiritual strength of others. Like Abraham, there may be a foundation of doubt and uncertainty first, before faith comes later. Rather, know that God's love for you is unconditional and his faithfulness endures for ever.

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