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Life in Death: the Promise of God

Second Sunday in Lent: 16th March, 2014
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Genesis 12:1-4; Ps 33; 2 Timothy 1:8-10; Matthew 17:1-9

The overarching theological and Biblical theme that spans Lent and Holy Week is life in death. It is not a very popular theme these days, or at least the death part of it is not. Many churches today aim for an up-beat Lent, a let's-not-dwell-too-much-on-death-and-skip-to-resurrection Lent, but traditionally this is a season of mourning. It is a time to focus on the way of the cross. "If any want to become my followers," Jesus says to his disciples, "let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24). We fast and pray and mourn for our souls that are in a very real way dead in sin. Here at St Peter's the traditions of the church are important to us. As I mention in my pewsheet musings this week, even our church furnishings reflect this ancient Lenten theme, a practice laid out in the 11th Century Sarum Missal. From Ash Wednesday we veil the reredos, the statues and the paintings with the Lenten Array, the ashen cloth of mourning.

Our reading from Genesis today marks the beginning of a four-generation account of the origins of the community that became Israel: Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 12-25), Isaac and Rebekah (Gen. 25-27), Jacob and Rachel (Gen. 25-36), and Joseph (Gen. 37-50). It is a story of life overcoming death that began in such a dramatic way in the Garden of Eden, as we heard last week, and now continues in Haran with Abram and Sarai. Abram receives a call from God to leave his country and his kindred in search of a new land. The call comes with a divine promise: "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing" (v. 2). But even at the start of the saga seeds of doubt are sown. We are told that Abram is 75 years old (although admittedly his father died aged 205) and we soon learn that he and his wife Sarai have no children. Is God's promise trustworthy? Will death prove stronger than God's promise of abundant life?

Salvation history, as told in the great Biblical narratives, has as many cliff-hangers as the most gripping of television dramas. The promises of God draw the ancestors of Israel into life and into the future, but the threat of death and failure is a constant theme that tests their trust in God: infertility, child sacrifice, family feuds, famine. No one ever said it was going to be easy. These are stories that have encouraged the people of Israel for thousands of years to keep going no matter how hard things get, to hold on to the promises of God even when evil seems to be gaining the upper hand and everything seems hopeless.

The earliest Christian communities told and wrote down modern versions of these ancient faith stories. In our gospel reading from Matthew today, the threat of death is building, and Jesus has told his disciples that he is being called to go to Jerusalem, where he will undergo great suffering and be killed. But they are to be encouraged, God's promise of life will be fulfilled and Jesus will be raised from death on the third day (Matt 16:21). The account of the Transfiguration then comes as a physical affirmation of this promise that death will be overcome. Jesus' face shines like the sun, his clothes become dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appear to the disciples on the mountain.

Paul's second letter to Timothy does not utilise a traditional narrative form, but the message is the same: "Brothers and sisters: Join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Tim. 1:8-10).

The past few weeks have been a vivid reminder to me of the importance of trusting in God's promise of life in death. There has been so much death in our parish over the past few weeks. We have lost Stephen Churton, Janice Hughes, Ted Williams, Roger Bryce, and just this morning twenty-year-old Julian Thornton's life support will be turned off after a tragic accident on Friday. I lost my younger sister in a climbing accident, so I know something of how hard it is to hear God's promise, to trust words of faith in a place of grief and doubt. But I also know that God's promise is true. Abram and Sarai did indeed become a great nation, Moses freed the Egyptian slaves, Jesus will rise from the dead on Easter Day, no matter how dark and hopeless it may seem today.

Those who were able to come to church on Ash Wednesday will recall that I shared a George Herbert poem with you entitled "Mortification"; my sermon is on the parish web site if you want to read it in full but this morning I'd like to just read again the final verse:

Man, ere he is aware,
Hath put together a solemnitie,
And drest his hearse, while he has breath
As yet to spare;
Yet, Lord, instruct us so to die,
That all these dyings may be LIFE in DEATH.

There is life in death; that is the promise of God to the people of Israel; that is the truth of our Lenten journey and the glorious hope of Easter Day. Thanks be to God.


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