There are some parts of the Bible which can feel like a bad joke, moments when we wonder what on earth God is doing. Today’s readings are a perfect example.
Here is Abraham, who has been called by God to leave his settled existence in the city of Haran in Mesopotamia, to go out into the wilderness of Canaan and found a new nation with his wife Sarah. But they are childless, and Abraham is already 70 when the call comes. Sarah too is well past the age of childbearing. How can they be the parents of a multitude when they aren’t even the parents of one? Nonetheless, seduced by this promise, they go. But decades pass, and still the child doesn't appear. God keeps promising – today’s reading comes nearly thirty years after that first promise – but nothing seems to be happening.
What is God up to?
The truth is that Abraham and Sarah are about as unlikely a pair of candidates for the founding of a nation as it is possible to imagine. There must have been plenty of young, fit, and fertile couples in Haran who could have done the job far better. Why did God have to choose them, and put them and those around them through so much misery in the process? What is the point?
And then there is Jesus in our Gospel reading. There's nothing obvious about God's choice of him as Messiah either. Born to an ordinary family in an out of the way part of the nation, with no connections and no influence; who is going to listen to him? Why not choose someone with some clout to start with? If this is God's master plan, then it doesn't look very masterful. Still, by hard work, courage and dedication Jesus has managed to build up a considerable following by the time our Gospel reading is set. He has healed people all over Galilee, been acclaimed as a teacher, wowed the crowds with his stories, touched the lives of many individuals. St Peter has just had a moment of revelation. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” he has exclaimed. Jesus’ mission finally seems poised for take-off.
But suddenly he starts talking about being rejected and being killed. What's gone wrong? Surely this can't be God's plan. What would be the point of all that earlier hard work if it ends on a cross? It makes no sense to Peter and he lets Jesus know what he feels in no uncertain terms. There was a widespread conviction at the time that God's Messiah would be a triumphant leader. Indeed that was one of the ways you could tell that he was the genuine article, the real Messiah, that he would be successful in his mission, that his enemies – the enemies of God – would all fall before him. Suffering and death were signs of failure. A crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms.
With hindsight we know, of course, that Abraham and Sarah do indeed have a child in the end, and Jesus’ death on the cross is followed by the resurrection. But that is no comfort to Abraham and Sarah, or to the confused disciples at this point. As far as they can see, disaster is looming, and all their efforts have been for nothing. How stupid must Abraham and Sarah feel, repeatedly insisting that God has promised them a child at their age, when that child shows no sign of coming? And the disciples are surely starting to think they have been taken for fools by this man in whom they placed so much trust but who seems now to be hell-bent on a confrontation that is bound to lead to his death. No wonder they all run away when he is arrested.
What the Bible describes in these stories is an experience I suspect we have all had at some time, that moment , stuck in the middle of something, when we think, “What’s the point?” Perhaps we have been slogging away at some job which seems to be going nowhere, or fighting some battle which we are beginning to realise we will never win. We question why we ever started, how we were so stupid to ever think it was going to work. Cynicism and despair eat away at our energy, and it is tempting just to throw in the towel.
The Roman Christians St Paul writes to probably asked that question often. There they are, living at the very heart of the Roman Empire, dealing daily with an oppressive regime the likes of which we can scarcely imagine, seeing their friends and family arrested and dragged off to die squalid, degrading and terrifying deaths in the arena. It must have often seemed to them that this new Jesus movement hadn’t got a hope in hell of surviving. There are so few of them, and the forces ranged against them are so great. And did it really matter anyway? Was this message really worth dying for, or was it all a waste?
Paul points them to these stories of Abraham, Sarah and Jesus to help them through these hopeless moments. Don’t read into what is happening to you a message that you have failed, or that God has, he says. God is still with you, just as he was with Abraham, Sarah and Jesus at their lowest moments. In fact, God’s choice of these unlikely heroes and the experiences they go through only serves to underline the fact that this is God’s work, not theirs. Through Abraham and Sarah he is showing that this nation is his gift, not something that they have earned or won for themselves. In Jesus’ willingness to face a humiliating death rather than go back on his message, he is demonstrating his absolute solidarity with those who most need him, those who are condemned and cast out.
Today's Psalm put it in a nutshell. “He does not despise … the poor in their poverty” It's not just that he wants to help those who might, with a bit of a hand up be able to sort themselves out and give something back to repay the investment. There is nothing calculating in his commitment. He does not despise the poor in their poverty, it says. Even if they are never going to amount to anything in the world’s eyes they are still precious to him. Again and again in the Bible we see God coming to people who are helpless; slaves and exiles, childless women, refugees, the discarded and discredited of the world, those who just don't count and don't matter to others. God is still committed to us even when we have nothing to offer, even if we will never have anything to offer. It’s not just the deserving poor he loves, but the undeserving poor too. He loves them, not because they can return his love, but precisely because they can’t, and so they need him all the more.
And it’s not just about poverty of material things either. It’s about poverty of spirit, poverty of aspiration, poverty of ability, poverty of hope, poverty of imagination – all the things that keep people down, the things that they may never be able to do anything about. None of these things is a barrier to God’s love.
Of course it is good if we come through, if we grow, if we succeed, if we find peace and the assurance that it has been worth the struggle. It is good to get to the moment of resurrection. It is good to discover that Sarah did, eventually, give birth. But those are Easter moments, and for now we are still in the midst of Lent, not sure what will happen in our own unfinished stories, not knowing if it will all come out right one day, still living with the questions and the doubts.
Yesterday quite a few of us went to visit Canterbury Cathedral. We heard about Thomas Becket, the medieval Archbishop who was famously murdered there by a bunch of knights who thought they were doing their king a favour. “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” he had exclaimed in exasperation, probably never intending that anyone would take him literally. But those knights had done just that, and soon Thomas lay struck down in the Cathedral and dying. What a singularly pointless way to go – all for what was probably a misunderstanding. After Thomas’ death the king repented, very publicly, in sackcloth and ashes, and the Cathedral itself became a centre of pilgrimage. Many people found strength or healing by visiting the site of his death. Much good came from his death, but Thomas didn’t know that as he fell and lay there dying. All he knew was that his life was being snuffed out on the cold stone, snatched from him for nothing, when he was unprepared.
In modern times too, many have died as political prisoners at the hands of unjust regimes – did they have any idea that their deaths were anything but a useless waste? Did they think that one day the cause for which they fought would triumph? They couldn’t know. They were stuck in the middle of the story, and I am sure that many have sat in prison cells wondering if their sacrifice had any point to it at all.
The good news for them, and for us too when we feel like that – stuck in the middle of a story we can’t know the end of – is that whether our lives end in outward success or failure, acclaim or ignominy, whether we achieve our goals or feel that we have never really amounted to anything in the world's eyes, we are just as precious to God, who "does not despise the poor in their poverty". Today, in mid-Lent, let’s not hurry on to the happy ending of Easter. Let’s take the time to realise that just where we are – even in poverty, of spirit, of money, of hope – God is with us and God loves us, and then perhaps we can let Easter come in its own proper time.