sermons by ian banks

Count the stars

The heavy rain here over the last few days reminded me of the story of Noah. If you recall, God said to Noah: I’ve had enough of the violence and corruption. I’m going to wipe the slate clean and send a flood to destroy almost everything and everyone.

You’re to build an ark, so high and so wide. You’re to gather animals, 2 of every kind and put them in the ark. Store enough food for you, your family and the animals.

In reply, Noah said… well, absolutely nothing! Nowt. Not a peep for verse after verse, chapter after chapter. Nothing until well after he lands. Isn’t that incredible?

I have a pet theory that if God had said to Abram that I’m going to send a flood and wipe everything out then Abram would have argued and pleaded and negotiated. We might have ended up with the story of Abram and the very high tide… Less dramatic I grant you. But maybe the unicorn would have made it through this time, making my grand-daughter very happy!

Did I catch you at a bad time?

Which brings us to Abram and what seemed like a very odd reading today from Genesis.

God seems to have caught Abram at a bad time, as if Abram got out of bed the wrong side. Look again at the reading and Abram is pretty short with God, isn’t he? It’s as if he says “I’ve heard this all before” and challenges God to be clearer about what he’s really promising. Then, when he gets that clarification, he asks God to prove it!

We also have here a story of a sacrifice, with animals cut in half, mysterious fire-pots and torches – which all seem a bit strange and alien. A relic of a time long past.

Then, there’s Abram in a thick and dreadful darkness whilst in a deep sleep.

Finally, we have a bit which is strangely missed out in our set reading today, as if the authorities who make the choice on what to read in church are a bit embarrassed by it. In verses 13-16, we have God making a pretty significant amendment to his contract or covenant with Abram. And he seems to do it on the sly whilst Abram is sleeping, perhaps so that he doesn’t have to argue with him again! Maybe it’s a tactic Theresa May should have used with Brexit?

So, what the heck is going on – and why should we care?

Still waiting

You can have some sympathy for Abram. 3 chapters ago in Genesis for us, but around 10 years earlier for Abram, God had said to him: come with me and I’ll give you descendants and land. Abram had kept his end of the bargain. He’d left home and gone when God had asked him to – but so far: nothing, nowt. He was living on someone else’s land not his own. Sarai, his wife, was barren at the time of the first promise and she’s still barren. Abram is now in his 80’s and you can forgive him, I think, for saying to God, with perhaps the sadness of someone still waiting for a child: “Look at me, Lord. You promised me children and they’ve not come. So, what are you going to do instead?”

Count the stars

In response, God says words to the effect of: “Patience. I’ll see you right. You will have children”. Then he uses that amazing visual aid. He says to Abram “Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be”. Abram had said look at me… God said look up, look beyond. I’m going to wildly exceed your expectations.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been anywhere and seen the clear night sky in all its glory? Somewhere with little cloud or light pollution? You can imagine every night Abram coming out of his tent, looking up and being reminded of that promise.

If we’re to take something from this then sometimes we need patience too. Things don’t happen straight-away but we need to hang on in there. We need to see beyond our immediate circumstances and count the stars…

Give a little credit

“And Abram believed God and he credited it to him as righteousness.” We normally think that it’s God crediting Abram. But the wording is unclear – and it could be the other way around. Perhaps it’s Abram crediting God? Abram saying that God was trustworthy, despite from Abram’s perspective, plenty of evidence to the contrary?

Whilst that may seem a bit of a leap, answer me this: Do we still trust God when it doesn’t seem to be going the way we thought or when nothing at all seems to be happening? When we seem to have waited long enough? You have to hand it to Abram for hanging on in there.

Prove it

Then God promises Abram land, again. But this time, for some reason, Abram says: prove it! Somehow Abram accepted that he’d have as many descendants as there were stars in the sky – even though he was in his 80’s and his wife barren – but the promise of getting this particular parcel of land somehow seemed to him a tad unlikely! A promise too far…

You wonder what Abram was thinking. “Well, God, you’ve given yourself a bit of elbow room by saying “all the stars in the sky”. It’ll be hard to pin you down to a particular number. But you can’t back down from such a big promise without looking silly – so you must really mean it. Whereas the promise of land, this land, now that’s very specific. Perhaps you’ll find an excuse to back out of that one?”

Far-fetched? Maybe. But don’t we sometimes do the same though? We accept the big picture but some-how we quibble with the details, the small stuff, and get distracted. How often do we argue about the smallest things yet somehow the really important matters we just accept or take for granted?

So, Abram says prove it. And God says, OK, I will. Then the funny stuff with the animals happens. But what we see here was not unusual for the time. Blood covenants were made by separating animals into two and both parties passing together between the halves. The difference here was that it was just one party, God, who made all the moves. Abram was asleep! The covenant was all on God. This wasn’t a negotiation, you do this and I’ll do that. God made a binding commitment on himself – and asked nothing more from Abram in return.

God not letting go

Now Abram wasn’t a paragon of virtue. Passing his wife off as his sister, effectively making her a prostitute, not once but twice, to save his own skin, is hardly the mark of the hero figure that we sometimes make him.

But those failures should reassure us. Faith is God not letting go of us – rather than us not letting go of God. And he doesn’t hold on to us because we particularly deserve it. We can be flawed just like Abram. But from beginning to end, the Bible is all about God in search of man, God looking out for us so that we can be in relationship together.

While you were sleeping

And Abram sleeps, a deep sleep. Perhaps we’re reminded of Adam? During his deep sleep Eve is made. During Abram’s deep sleep long-term commitments were made for hundreds of years into the future. But there’s bad news for Abram there too. It will be many generations before his descendants inhabit the land, before the promise is fulfilled, and they will be enslaved in strange lands in the meantime.

You wonder, why did God say this while Abram is sleeping? Seems a bit sneeky doesn’t it? Had God had enough of Abram’s backchat? Did he not want another argument?

Well I think it was more about God caring for Abram, knowing it would be too much for him to take. Anaesthetising him against something that might be too painful to bear or comprehend? Perhaps it was like those hypnosis DVD’s to help you quit smoking or eating too much – God talking to Abram’s subconscious in a way that he’d remember and make part of his being? If God had put a different disk on then Abram may have been cured of his sweet tooth or he might have cut down on his 60-a-day habit. But, as it was, the future of his descendants was mapped out for him.

The ultimate sacrifice

Abram journeyed with God for many miles and for many years. For a long time there wasn’t much to show for it. In the next chapter, Abram does get a son but it’s not with his wife, it’s with Hagar, Sarai’s servant. The treatment of Hagar and Ishmael is perhaps one we’ll come back to another time, but it’s uncomfortable reading and rarely preached about. We have to wait another 14 years for Isaac to come along, with some mis-steps along the way.

And we’re now in Lent, in the journey towards Easter. In our own journey, sometimes the promises of God take twists and turns before they come to pass. We too suffer reverses and disappointments but God’s long-term purpose, his covenant with us, is still there.

Of course, at Easter we remember that the ultimate blood sacrifice was Jesus – and yet again the covenant was all on God. He took it all on himself.

Look up, look beyond

You and I need to trust that he knows what’s best for us. That he’s playing a long game for our benefit. We can be flawed and imperfect too but he’s still there for us. We need to look beyond our immediate circumstances. To look up, to look beyond and count the stars…

And in our Gospel reading today we’re reminded that very often it’s our reluctance to be looked after rather than his reluctance to provide that care.

Luke 13:34 – How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

That verse looks back at Psalm 91: He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall trust.

God has a mothering desire to care for us, to look after us, to be in relationship with us. In Psalm 91 that offer was accepted. In Luke it wasn’t, they weren’t willing.

So, what about you and me? In our journey towards Easter are we willing to accept what God has to offer us, to accept life in Jesus, to be gathered under his wings – or do we turn Him away?

The wonderful news is that, whatever we’ve said in the past, it’s not too late for us to say yes now. Amen.

Count the stars’ was delivered by Ian Banks at St James Heywood, on Sunday 17th March 2019. Then later at Four Lanes End Congregational. It’s based on Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18 and Luke 13: 31-35.

For Ian’s next offering, on Mary anointing Jesus, please follow this link. For more by Ian please follow this link. Or click here for more about St John with St Mark, Bury.

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