Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; Luke 12:32-40
8th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 11.08.2019
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Certain things in life don’t make a lot of immediate sense.
For example, how can the England cricket team be world champions one week, and then be bowled out by Ireland for 85 in their very next match. (And let’s not mention the Ashes).
Or how can one of the most popular programmes on TV at the moment be about people who are totally un-famous trying to couple up in the most forced and artificial of environments.
Or how can people viewed as unsuitable for leadership a few months or years earlier now been seen as having great leadership potential today?
In our gospel reading, Jesus says two extraordinary things that don’t make an awful lot of sense at first reading either. Indeed they seem totally wrong.
The first is this: “Do not be afraid little flock, for your father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” The kingdom is what the people of Israel have been longing for for centuries. They have been longing for a land that is their own, not controlled by others, a kingdom that is greater than those around.
Think of the passions stirred up by Brexit, the desire to “take back control”, or in America, the chants of “make America great again”. Forces of nationalism, even in democratic countries, arouse strong emotions, and can even lead to violence, as the recent gun massacres in the States and the recent report into the intimidation of MPs in this country have highlighted. And on an international scale, we have seen how such forces can all too easily end up in conflict and war.
And yet, here, Jesus is saying that the kingdom will be given not to the forceful, the vociferous, but to those he describes as “a little flock of sheep”!
On summer holidays you may have gone for walks that have involved walking through fields where animals are grazing. Even cows can be relatively unintimidating, although one time in Northumberland we did have to run to avoid a stampede when we inadvertently got between a calf and her mum. But sheep are totally the opposite. They panic at the first step of human approach. They are incapable of causing fear or harm.
And yet it is those who are described as being like sheep who receive the kingdom. “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”
It is those who do not grasp after power but choose to follow the Good Shepherd that receive the kingdom, the kingdom where the God of love, compassion, justice and peace reigns.
It seems back-to-front thinking, but in a world which feels like it is becoming increasingly polarised, where to be heard and to have influence, things have to be said in increasingly strident and extreme ways, the way to make a difference, the way to change things, is ultimately through humble service.
A second thing that Jesus says that on first hearing would have struck his listeners as just plain wrong was about the master and his servants. The servants were to wait up until their master returned from his evening out. Nothing strange there. In the Roman world of Jesus’ day, slaves and servants were expected to meet the every need of their masters, and if that meant staying up to way after mid-night, keeping the water warm in case the master wanted a wash, cooking some food in case the master wanted a mid-night snack, keeping the house ablaze with light so that the master wouldn’t stumble in the dark, then so be it. And woe betide the slave that failed in their duties! But what is extraordinary, almost absurd in the story Jesus tells is that when the master returns, he rewards the servants by serving them! He strips off his fine party garments and puts on a servant’s loin-cloth. He bids them recline on his couches. And he brings them food and waits upon them. In a world where slaves and servants were viewed as disposable commodities rather than human beings, and could be put to death at the merest whim of the master, such behaviour is totally upside-down. It would have been viewed as totally ridiculous.
And that is the point. God treats us like the master his slaves. With lavish generosity, with totally unexpected love and affection. With laughter and joy. All in response to our simple act of obedience, of living lives that know that He may be present among us at any time.
Such a story has resonances with other famous words of Jesus, that he spoke to his disciples on the final evening before his death. “In my father’s house are many rooms… I am going there to prepare a place for you.” Jesus, the Son of God, the one who is worthy of all our worship and praise, goes ahead of us to prepare a place for us.
It is one thing to say that the earth belongs to the humble and meek; it is one thing to say that God turns the tables upside-down and serves us and loves us; but it is another thing to believe it and allow that belief to shape how we live. That requires faith, the theme of our New Testament reading.
Faith, in the words of the writer to the Hebrews, is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” It is about looking forwards to the future that God promises us, and looking upwards to the God who is with us.
Take Abraham, the writer to the Hebrews says. Abraham is asked by God to up stakes, to leave his ancestral home and extended family in wealthy Mesopotamia, and head off in a direction he does not know to a destination yet to be revealed. That he does so is down to faith – a willingness to believe that the God who is calling him, though he cannot see him, is good, loving, gracious, kind. Who longs for the best for him.
Faith is like that for us too. Believing in the goodness of God. Believing that though we can’t see the whole picture, though from our perspective things may seem to be going backwards rather than forwards, believing that our God is a loving and compassionate God, who works things out for the good.
That requires faith. To believe that when a loved one falls ill, when we lose our job, when a relationship fails, when tragedy strikes, God remains a God of love and goodness, who is able to redeem a situation, bring light out of darkness, bring goodness out of what seems irredeemably bad. Faith means trusting in the character of God, being certain of what we do not see.
And faith means being sure of what we hope for. Not only looking upwards to the character of God now, but looking forwards to the fulfilment of God’s promises to come.
Abraham, the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, trusted God’s promises for the future. He believed that God would give him children with Sarah, despite their advanced years, and that his offspring would have a land to call their own. He believed and acted on those promises.
For us too today, we have promises from God. He promises us that the meek, the humble, those who reject the way of force and violence, of strident rhetoric and the vilification of those who disagree with us, those who seek to serve rather than lord it over others, those will ultimately be the ones who inherit the earth, who win the day, even if the daily experience seems far removed from that. Faith means believing in God’s promises, despite the knock backs we may receive.
That may mean at work, where we may feel regularly trodden on by those more vociferous in achieving their ends. It may mean in the current political discourse where the voices of moderation seem to be drowned out by those on the extremes. It may mean in our own homes where we feel taken for granted or taken advantage of.
But it means believing that ultimately God’s promises will prevail, that we are on the right side.
And as we look ahead to the end of life, it means trusting in God’s promises of life beyond death, of believing that he goes ahead of us to prepare a place for us. That death need not be feared. That can be tough. But as we trust in God’s promise of eternal life, we can find the peace to live life now, knowing that he is with us, and will always be so.
We are called to a life of faith – to look upwards and place our trust in the character of God, and to look forwards and place our future in the promises of God. When we do so, we will begin to see the upside-down world that Jesus speaks of coming into being.