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FORWARD BY LOOKING BACK Heb 11:1-3; 8-16 & Luke 12:32-40

My son informs me that when out hiking in the country you’re not lost if you know where you’ve come from and where you want to get to. In other words, if you think you are lost and don’t know which direction to turn or where someone in a car could pick you up, the situation is not hopeless. So long as you know where you set out, how long you’ve been walking, roughly what direction you’ve come in and where you intended to get to, someone can work out where you might be with the use of a map.

Faith the spiritual compass
But if I was told to travel over 1,000 miles across semi-desert countryside to a place I had never seen before, I would do make sure I had a compass if no map were available. Abraham was 75 years old, had never left home before and God called him to up and leave. He was to travel on foot, perhaps with a few donkeys to carry the loads, taking his family and dependents and their herds. He was to leave Ur ono the Persian Gulf to find the Promised Land. This was about 1900 BCE, and the compass was not to be invented until about 3,000 years later and that by the Chinese! Travellers relied on observations of the sun and stars, seldom going out of sight of human habitation. So what helped Abraham make his way, guiding him on his pilgrimage to the Promised Land. The letter to the Hebrews tells us it was his faith. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. He trusted that this journey was not futile, and that when he arrived he would know that.

Faith is not folly
Faith is something that is often misunderstood or misrepresented. We sometimes hear people say to us: “I wish I had your faith!” or “Her faith helped her through!” Those who attack religion often portray faith as a leap in the dark, a tendency to believe things that have no real evidence. As people of faith we need to re-evaluate what it means so that we nurture what is precious and vital to being Christian. Faith is not an irrational decision to step out into the darkness, despite what we read about Abraham. Faith is also not a thing which some people have and others not – as if it were like the gift of playing the violin or being able to make wonderful pastry. A good part of Hebrews is a discussion of faith and what comes through clearly and repeatedly is that faith is a relationship, it is an attitude which one decides to embrace or reject So faith is not folly, even though it may have a high degree of risk or uncertainty.

Faith has a history
If you read the whole of Genesis, you realise that Abraham had a background of faith already by the time God calls him out of Ur. His venture grows from his conversation with God, the same God who created the world, saved Noah and made himself known to many others. Although we don’t know anything about Abraham’s upbringing, we are given a list of his ancestors and we can understand that he has a heritage of faith to draw upon. Today’s set reading from Genesis 15 records a conversation between Abraham and God. Abraham has already tested his rather impersonal knowledge of God and so far things have worked out quite well for him. So his faith is not blind. But now comes a new direction in his faith-story: what he wants more than anything else and has not so far had is a son. It is also something that God has promised him and so Abraham understands that an heir must be central to God’s purposes. But he cannot see how it can come about since he and Sarah, his wife, are too old – at least in his assessment of the situation! His faith enables him to go on believing in God and going where God leads. So when he stands talking to God under the starry sky, his faith is a mixture of what has already gone before and what he longs for in the future. What is more, this attitude towards God is all that is needed for him to be counted as righteous, to be “saved”.

Faith is the air we breathe
Hebrews’ commentary on the Abraham story makes faith the air that Christians must breathe in order to live spiritual lives. In fact this way of telling the story of faith links people of nowadays to people of the past. Like Abraham, we are part of an ongoing story. It is the air of a country that many have breathed before and which we now breathe for ourselves – an air that is thick with the aromas and richness of this strange territory which we call faith. It is an air that is at once fresh and full. Like our sense of smell, it has power to evoke memories, and in this case the memories are those of our ancestors in the faith: those whose experiences were of learning to relate to God, to risk his guidance, to go they knew not where, but towards a Promised Place, a land of fulfilment. The way that Hebrews describes it is that Abraham set out not knowing where he was going; he camped for a time in the Promised Land, knowing it was not permanent; he and his wife conceived despite thinking they were past it. Because of all this, he became the ancestor of a people of faith as numerous as the stars or the grains of sand on the shore. The thing that characterised these descendents in the faith was that they desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one. They died without receiving the fullness of what they hoped for, but they greeted what they saw from a distance.

Looking forward in faith
In his unique and striking way Jesus took this heritage of faith into new dimensions. The country that faith longs for he called the Kingdom of God. Do not be worried, little flock, he said, your Father really wants to give you the Kingdom. He then went on to explain how to be in a better position to receive this extraordinary gift. The trouble is that Jesus’ instructions were so radical we still struggle to accept them. In short he said: get rid of things and get ready. He illustrated the sense of readiness by painting two word pictures: that of the master returning from wedding celebrations or a thief who uses the element of surprise. He didn’t mean that the Son of Man returning would be a drunken boss, rolling up in the wee small hours, or that he would be a robber breaking and entering when the world is asleep. He simply used these striking images to illustrate the unexpectedness of the coming of the Kingdom. What’s more the unexpected time or arrival will also include unexpected ways. The servants know their master, but they also know that he is unpredictable. He is not necessarily an easy master, not one you can please by going about your ordinary tasks routinely. If you are prepared to put up with his ways, what fun you might have! Do you know of any other master who will come and, laughing, serve you a feast himself in the middle of the night? In this way, Jesus taught us that faith can be exciting. It is fuelled by a deep longing to know our master better and to see more of what our enthralling God can get up to. But faith is also firmly grounded in what the people of God have experienced down the ages, not a dogged persistence which is foolish and against all evidence.

To hear that God is unpredictable may not sound like good news to some. We live in unpredictable times when climate change causes havoc such as the floods in Pakistan. We fear for our childrens’ future with the uncertainty of world affairs whether it is economic collapse or terrorist threat. But Jesus says Fear not little flock! There is a sense in which I believe in a God who makes it up as he goes along. I don’t believe in a God who makes and carries out plans. But I believe in a God who has good purposes that can never be thwarted. That means he is always responding to the situation, good or bad. He is the great improviser, the spontaneous one, who may be unpredictable in his way, but who is utterly dependable to be true to his perfect nature. He may surprise us by putting on an apron rather than putting his feet on the desk and barking orders into the phone. We may indeed feel lost in the present times, not sure what is going to become of the Church, that home of faith many of us are so used to inhabiting. But we know where we have come from, for we are part of the heritage of faith, and we have the promise of God about where we will eventually end up. That does not mean we are lost: it simply means that we don’t know quite where we are going next, nor how God will respond to any given situation. But then how boring the game would be if we always knew where the opponents’ return of serve would land! Anyone for ....faith?

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Lord of heaven and earth,
as Jesus taught his disciples to be persistent in prayer,
give us patience and courage never to lose hope,
but always to bring our prayers before you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.