(Genesis 15.1-12. 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35)
Our Old Testament reading today concerns our forebear in faith; that wellspring of all the faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that trace themselves back to this archetypal man, to Abraham’s faith. Whatever the hateful ideology of the perpetrators of violence might say – all Jews, Christians and Muslims share this common ancestry. In today’s reading, however, Abram – as he still is at this stage, before his re-naming – Abram is anxious about the future. He and Sarai are childless, unable to imagine how the promises of God might be fulfilled. The future looks grim, despite assurances from God not to be fearful. And then Abram is brought outside to gaze upon the stars: ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them,’ he is told. ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And so the faith of Abram is re-kindled.
On Ash Wednesday I offered those of you at our services a poem: Lent by Jean Watt
Lent is a tree without blossom, without leaf,
Barer than blackthorn in its winter sleep,
All unadorned. Unlike Christmas which decrees
The setting-up, the dressing-up of trees,
Lent is a taking down, a stripping bare,
A starkness after all has been withdrawn
Of surplus and superfluous,
Leaving no hiding-place, only an emptiness
Between black branches, a most precious space
Before the leaf, before the time of flowers;
Lest we should see only the leaf, the flower,
Lest we should miss the stars.
The poem invites us, in this season of stripping bare, taking down, to not forget that we do that in order to see the stars, the bigger picture, that which lies beyond the immediate, that which it is easy to miss. In this a week to make us all anxious, uncertain over the future, what might enable us to see the stars, enable the re-kindling of faith and hope?
Our epistle and Gospel offer some clues as to what that looking for the stars might mean, and that re-kindling of faith. For Paul, the contrast is with those whose ‘god is the belly’. Words which suggest the calling is about getting beyond our immediate desires and cravings and seeking to satisfy those; refusing also to fan the flames of those desires in anger and the insatiable need for more. Instead to see our citizenship, our final rootedness and identity, as in heaven, among the stars, the eternal.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus, like Abram, has every reason to be anxious. The ‘wise’ counsel him to leave, and avoid his pursuer, Herod. He is making a name for himself, and he would do better to lie low. Jesus, however, offers, in counter to Herod, the one he names as a fox, no desire to hide. He will continue to do what he is called to do, bring life and cures to those he meets. And not walk away from those centres of power which feel threatened and so threaten him, but walk ever toward Jerusalem. And he then offers this remarkable image to that city of power and broiling tension and death, where the fox resides. Jesus offers himself, not as the Lion of Judah roaring a response, but as a mother hen, gathering her squabbling chicks into the shelter of her wings, if only they were willing. The hen has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill the hen first.
In Philippians, Paul urges his readers to imitate him – not in being Paul, but, in turn, in imitating Christ, our mother hen. Together, we are called into that imitation of Christ which opposes the fox not with bared fangs, but in the gesture of love that gathers to her bosom all the children of Jerusalem.
In the febrile atmosphere of this coming week, who is offering a glimpse of the stars? As we all woke to the terrible news from Christchurch, children across the globe were gathering in their thousands, striking from their studies, to ask the world to wake up to climate change and act. Those are the actions which re-kindle our faith in our future.
Abram, after staring at the stars, later still finds himself within a deep and terrifying darkness, standing amongst slaughter and death and destruction. But he holds on to the promise, arrives at an understanding of the promise given, moves forward with faith and hope. May we, in this season of Lent, and in the week ahead, do likewise. Amen.