Sunday, 12 March 2017

Second Sunday of Lent 2017

Last week, Stuart posed us the question, ‘Who is Jesus to me?’ My answer is this: Jesus is the Lord of my life. He is the call of God on my life. He speaks, and I listen. He leads, and I must follow.

This morning I’d like to do three things. First, I want to offer meaning for several key words in the short reading we have heard from Genesis, concerning what the Lord is going to make of Abram. Then, I want to tell something of my own story. And after that, I want to leave you with some questions to reflect on this week.

The first word I want to note is ‘great.’ The Lord will make of Abram a great nation, which is to say that God has a bigger vision than family ties. And the Lord will make Abram’s name – his identity – great. In fact, the name Abram already means ‘Great Father’ or ‘Exalted Ancestor’ – and he was childless. In his old-age, there remains an unfulfilled call on his life that God wants to address.

The second word is ‘bless’ or ‘blessing’ or ‘blessed.’ This word describes being released into fullness of life, like we first see in Genesis chapter 1. It is an expansive thing. Paul sees it as giving life to the dead and calling into existence the things that do not exist. Jesus calls the dynamics of receiving and extending blessing ‘seeing the kingdom of God,’ and compares the release of blessing to giving birth to a new life, with all its possibilities.

The third word is ‘curse’ or ‘curses.’ This word describes freedom being constrained, but constrained for a specific purpose. Long or short, God’s curses or punishment or penalty are for a limited period (poetically described as to three or four generations) and in order that together we might come into fuller blessing (The Lord’s steadfast love is poetically described as extending to a thousand generations, or being beyond measure). Curses can be God’s ‘Not yet’ or ‘Someone else ahead of you’ answers to our prayers. Sometimes they are the consequences of our actions, or the actions of others. They are real, but they are not intended to define us for ever.

The fourth word I want to note is ‘Haran.’ Haran is a place. Abram had set out with his father Terah from Ur heading for Canaan; but when they reached Haran, about half-way-there, they stopped. Back in Ur, Terah had lost a son, and Abram a brother, called Haran. As it happens, the roots of the two names are unconnected; but the similarity in sound was enough. Grief can be like that. It can hit us at unexpected times and in unexpected places. Reminded of his greatest loss or disappointment, Terah is unable to move on, unable to fulfil his dream. But after Terah dies, God will not allow Abram to be defined by half-measures or second-bests or lengthy detours or the pain of past losses. The Lord calls him to leave what has been and step into what will be. And he will use blessing, and curses, and even ‘Haran’ to make something great.

With these words in mind, let me tell you part of my story.

To set the scene. Jo and I met at university in Sheffield, where we both took Biblical Studies. At the start of our third year, we got together; and as we approached the end of our degrees we knew that we wanted to be together, and thought that we would like to stay in Sheffield, but didn’t know what we would do. One day as I was walking along the street, the voice in my head that I had come to recognise as belonging to Jesus said, ‘I want you to get ordained; but not yet.’ So I shared that with Jo and with our vicar; and stayed on in the department to write a PhD, while Jo joined the staff team at church as an administrator; and we got married. After I graduated, we tried to leave Sheffield but it didn’t work, and I also joined the church staff, initially part-time working with international students, and eventually full-time in various roles. Some years later, there were changes in the team; but we felt that we were part of the continuity, rooted there, long-term. Then one day, again as I was walking along the road, Jesus said, ‘I want you to leave this place and go to the place I will show you.’ Just like Abram.

We shared that with the team, and while they didn’t want us to go, they felt that it was what God was saying. Someone on the staff knew a vicar in Australia who we might talk to, and so we did, and he invited us to go out to Perth and see what might happen, with absolutely no guarantee of anything at all.

We sold our house in two weeks, without an estate agent, through word-of-mouth. The mother of the boyfriend of the daughter of a friend had got divorced, and needed somewhere to live. Our house was perfect. The only thing she wasn’t happy about was the price. She felt we weren’t asking enough, as we’d get more on the open market, and she would be making us homeless. We explained that we were making ourselves homeless and that if she wanted to spend more, she’d have to buy from someone else, as we were asking what we were asking. And in the end she relented. So we were blessed by a buyer, and our buyer was blessed through us.

We packed our lives into shipping containers and, with two small children in tow, flew to the other side of the world on a year-long visa, excited to discover what God had in store for us. And when we got there, God went silent. (Or almost silent. The one thing I heard Jesus say was ‘This is not the thing I have for you’ in relation to an invitation to explore a possibility.) We could only stay for 90 days at a time and had gone out, initially, until Christmas. Had we known that we would only be there for three months, we would have had a great holiday, a sabbatical to recharge. But we didn’t know that. Everyone we met, we were asking, ‘Is this why we are here, Lord? Is this the door you are opening?’ Had we heard Jesus rightly? Had we sold our house for nothing? It was emotionally draining. Unseasonably, it rained the whole time. We could only hang on in trust. And cry, a lot. But as the time came to leave, with nothing to come back for, we decided to return to Sheffield and push the door to ordination.

We returned to Sheffield with no house, no work, and no school place for Susannah, right up against her starting date. Quite miraculously, the door opened for her to start at the always-oversubscribed school several friends were starting at, just one day behind them. Just as miraculously, the church pre-school, undersubscribed for the first time in years, had a place for Noah: they were an answer to our prayer, and we were an answer to theirs. And we found a house newly offered to rent, just a few doors away from some good friends. The owner wanted to try out apartment-living instead, while keeping a fall-back: again, the Lord blessed us through someone to whom we were in turn a means of blessing.

God did something in us out in Australia. To this day, I can’t name it; but I’m sure it would not have been enough to have had a nice holiday. And in our coming home, the Lord revealed his glory through his steadfast love and great faithfulness.

There is far more I could say. Abram is the father of all those who live by faith, and I could tell you stories of recurring patterns of God making something of our lives through the same processes by which he shaped Abram. I could tell of the curse of not finding a place to go to beyond curacy, and how a door opened-up to come here. And while there would be overlap, in telling her story, Jo would tell you our story from a different perspective. In fact, she tells it better, so you should ask her to do so.

You’ve heard my story, or at least a small part of it. What about yours? Here are some questions to think about and to talk about with at least one other person this week:

Where have you known blessing, from the Lord and through others?

Can you tell of ways the Lord has been able to bless someone through you?

In what ways have you experienced curse? Can you think of examples where this has in time opened into greater blessing? Is there something in your life right now where you are asking, ‘How long, O Lord?’

What is Jesus calling you to? Is there a past disappointment holding you back? Will you set out anyway?

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