Sunday, July 9, 2017

An Improbable Past

An Improbable Past
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 9, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
Deuteronomy 26: 5-11
Hebrews 11: 17-29
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives   
For your eyes show the way
    Your mind knows the truth
    Your being is the life.

Last week was a great Sunday, and one I won’t forget. Thank you so much for the great welcome that you gave. I remember the music, those beautiful patriotic songs, the energy that was here, the excitement of a new beginning, while awaiting a holiday of great remembrance and celebration, the celebration of the birthday of our nation, the day that the idea of America was put into writing. Last week, I proclaimed boldly that it is now time again for another Presbyterian Revolution, pointing out and remembering that that original American Revolution, the very spirit of 1776, was founded on Presbyterian Principles, and how much those principles need to be revived, recultivated, and retaught in our contemporary American culture, for we find that they are truly missing, and truly missed. I tried to simplify those Principles into three basic ideas.
1.      A Firm Faith and reliance on God, knowing that God is sovereign in everything that we do and all that is, can give us the security and confidence to live out the other two. . . which are

2.      That we focus on the means and not the ends, for with faith in God the ends will take care of themselves. . . we need only focus on what we are being called to do and to be at any given moment, and offer it willingly and freely and repeatedly our entire lives

3.      Love our neighbors, see in ourselves and in each other, and in those whom we may disagree, the fact that we each are children of God, who have something important to bring to God’s table, that just as we each are called to do and be ourselves at any given moment, so too is our neighbor, and that we will work that they may be free to bring their own offering as well.

I thought that over the next three weeks, starting today, we could take a look at each of these three concepts in much more depth. So the first for today is, a “Firm faith and reliance on God, knowing that God is sovereign in all that we do and all that is.” With this in mind I chose the Old and New Testament Lessons for this morning, for they both have to do with faith, and how the proof of the past, the vibrant memory of God’s workings up to this point give shape to our faith, and supply us with the confidence we need in order to live by faith in the present and heading into the future.
The first reading is from Deuteronomy, which is Moses’ departing words to the Israelites, whom he has led to this point. He is telling them to remember who they are, and that identity is shaped by what God has done for them, and they need to remember, for when they have been living in the Land that God has given them, they may be prone to forget. Listen to this:
Deuteronomy 26:5-11
you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

Notice how this statement of faith, this statement of identity is filled with remembrances of what God has been doing from the beginning, how the past gives them that identity, and how the past gives them that sense of assurance. .  . and how simply remembering this must be central to the ritual and religion of their lives.
The New Testament Lesson comes from Hebrews 11, which starts with a famous statement defining faith, and then goes through a list of heroes from the Old Testament recounting how their faith was instrumental in their journey walking with God. . .  Hebrews 11: 1-3 defines faith this way:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. . . by faith our ancestors received approval. . . by faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. . . look at how the idea of hope for the future is connected to faith, and faith is connected to what God has been doing in the past, the past gives us hope for the future, for the past we can see, or have seen, or can study, whereas the future remains unseen. . . but it is all connected in the Word of God. That is a profound few verses. . . bringing us to later in Hebrews 11, this verses 17-29, which gives us a glimpse of what this whole chapter is doing.
Hebrews 11: 17-29
17 By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, 18 of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” 19 He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. 20 By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau. 21 By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, “bowing in worship over the top of his staff.” 22 By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions about his burial.
23 By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. 24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.
29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.

And I stopped it there, but it could have gone on and on. If I had chosen verses before these it would have included men like Abel, Enoch, and Noah, and if I had chosen verses after these it would have included the fall of the walls of Jericho, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David, Samuel and all the prophets. Women and men facing amazing trials, all the time God is working out His amazing Will through his amazing story.
Have you ever seen a sunrise or a sunset that was so beautiful that if someone tried to paint it, tried to capture it as realistically as possible, no one would believe that it was real. That the colors, were so vibrantly pink or glowing orange, or majestically purple, that no one would ever believe that such a painting would be real? No it must be imagination, it cannot be real. If so you will understand what I’m getting at this morning. On Easter morning I did something different this year. Rather than writing my sermon ahead of time, breaking the great commandment of “Thou Shalt Never go to bed on Saturday night whilst thy sermon is incomplete. . .” Instead I decided that I would get up early in the morning, before the light, and experience the sun rise, and write my sermon then. . . now in many ways that was an act of faith in itself, for what would I have done if writer’s block ensued. . . I mean you’d think Easter is easy to preach about, for it’s the main deal afterall, but you find that it actually is challenging, because everyone has heard it all before, it is so central, and actually each sermon you preach during the year should reflect in some way back to the Resurrection, so on Easter you have all that added pressure of the culmination, and not to mention the fact that the pews are much more full than normal, as friends family, and those folks you see only twice a year make their way to church. So I’m taking a big risk. . . stepping outside the fold of routine, breaking an important commandment, and laying it all on the steadfast love of God and the Holy Spirit’s always, please God, perfect timing. Now I expected to describe what I saw, as the sun rose over the mountains in my front yard, but instead I was overcome by the sounds. You have never heard birds like I heard, a veritable trumpet symphony proclaiming the dawn, the far away roosters trumpet followed by the repeated theme of the whippoorwill’s solo followed by a chorus of indistinguishable songs, blending together in a joyous harmony like you wouldn’t believe. . . . and you wouldn’t believe it had you not heard it yourself. I can’t begin to describe it. . . such things are improbable to say the least, which is what we call impossible things, that though since they happened we have to acknowledge. That sunset we couldn’t paint was improbable, and the chorus of birds that Easter Sunrise was improbable, and the past which has led us to this very moment is improbable.
It should not have been, and we should not be here. So many things, and many is not enough, because it truly is every happening since the beginning of time. . . and if any one of them were different, we would not be standing here right now, maybe we would be somewhere else, maybe we wouldn’t even be, maybe there would be no being at all, but there is, and the only possible explanation for its being is God, there is no other logical, rational and honest explanation. All others fall short and deny too much. . . like it is a coincidence, and accident of history and physics that a planet would exist at the exact distance from the sun to support life, or that there would be a central nervous system with in human beings that gives us not only animation but sentience and awareness.
That a man leaving his people, everything that he has ever known to head out into the wilderness to grow old with his barren wife, and then finally after too many years to be possible, has the child, and from him a nation more vast than the stars in the sky, through which the whole world would become blessed, is born. That’s improbable, or That a baby, escaping the murderous decree of the Pharaoh would be saved from the basket, raised in the palace, flee across the desert only to find God speaking to him from a bush of flames that did not burn. . . that he would lead those people out of slavery, through the parted red sea, improbable, that a young shepherd boy with a sling and a stone could defeat a giant, play a harp, and go on to become king, improbable. . . that a kingdom could be destroyed, and all inhabitants sent into exile, under the rule of Babylon, then Persia, and not be lost in the dust bin of history, but exist even so into the future as a people, a book, and a religion. Improbable, for it only happened this once. . . and That the religion would point to a promised Messiah, and that during the time of the Roman Peace, a man made peace won by force and systems of oppression, would be born a Prince of Peace, who would teach of a new kingdom, a kingdom of God that was near, a true peace not made by force, but by and through love, love that is defined by sacrifice, ultimate sacrifice, and that this man was crucified, on a cross, laid in a tomb, but the tomb couldn’t hold him, death couldn’t hold him, nothing could, for he was the Word who was there at the beginning, shaping and forming this completely improbable history since its inception.  It is a beautiful story, but an improbable one for sure. . . and it doesn’t end there, but goes on, and brings us here today, here in Zuni, Virginia, each with our own improbable past, the winding roads of our lives that bring us here today.
Where do I even start with my own life. . . do I start with two college kids, one at Virginia Tech, my father, and one at Radford, my mother. . . on a blind double date. . . I think there was actually a cancellation of plans that made it happen. . . but Dad came close to going to Hampden-Sydney instead, but something made him want to be an architect, but he didn’t become an architect, he ended up majoring in Math, which he could have done at Hampden-Sydney, and if one iota of that story was different, I wouldn’t be here. . . and each event since, has led me here, I didn’t control those either, I didn’t plan it, it was provided for me, each step perfectly formed.
One of my favorite words in the Bible is the second Hebrew word in Genesis. . . The Hebrew Bible begins with the words, Breshit Bara Elohim. . . we translate those words as “In the Beginning God Created.” Breshit – in Beginnig or to begin with. . . Elohim – is the word for God. . . and then you have Bara. . . and bara is the word we translate as create, but its meaning in Hebrew is much more interesting than merely to create. One thing about it is a word with a limited subject, in other words not just anyone can Bara. . . in fact no one can Bara except for God. . . that significance is lost in translation because in English, I could use create to describe what God is doing, or I could use it to describe myself creating this sermon, or an engineer creating a new way to separate peanuts from their shells, it doesn’t matter in English, but it does in Hebrew, and it is important in understanding the way God baras our world. The other interesting idea about that word is that the Greeks way back 300 years before Christ used the word Epoisin to translate bara, and that is the word from which we derive our word poetry. . . so God is like a Poet, an artist, and an artist is constantly at work, never making mistakes, but constantly shaping and forming, perfecting. . . Now if  you look at what God does, what Bara-ing is it includes some amazing things, speaking light into existence, separating the waters. . . I’ll do a Sunday School or Bible Study class on it at some point because I can go on and on, but I won’t today, but it is amazing stuff and it includes everything up to and including everything that has brought us to this minute to praise, sing, and bless his holy name this morning here at Bethany.
 Now I ask a question. What is your response to something like that. . . mine is awe and wonder at first. . . I’m in absolute awe of that very reality. . . the idea that there is a God, loving, steadfast, eternal, omnipotent, beyond words, shaping history. . .I feel awe and wonder, I feel gratitude, and probably most important hope because I know that the God that has led us all here, will continue to lead us in the future, and it helps to look back, remember, feel that awe, wonder and gratitude, again and again, that is why Moses told the Israelites in his address to recite the story about the wandering Aramean, who is their ancestor, why the author of the Book of Hebrews recounts all who have lived by faith, and why I have asked us each this morning to look back at our own lives, because all of that matters, and should give us the hope and the faith we need to take the next step.
I said last week that this faith in the very sovereign providence of God is the foundation on which the other two aspects of our revolution will rest upon. Those two we will look at in the coming weeks: Next Week, focusing on the means not the ends, which makes sense of God is and has been shaping this His world, and then the week after: loving our neighbors, realizing that the same God who is working in and through us, also is working in them. Awesome stuff!
Now before I go I want to leave you with something. . . Every year while I was a teacher at Blue Ridge I wrote a poem dedicated to the graduating class, meant to be memorable, or inspiring, or challenging. One year I wrote a poem that included four mini verses inside, which I entitled “Four Songs before you Go” The last of those is applicable today so I’ll read it, it goes as follows
Now time moves on and we must go
Our paths diverge apart we know,
But we'll remember standing here
Arm in arm, with fears, in tears
And on that day in the future we
Will be beyond these fears you see,
For each step we take, we take in doubt,
Until after it has all worked out."

(The rest of "Four Songs Before You Go" click here)
Can we have the same faith in the future that we have in the past? On our best day we say emphatically, Yes! But why then do we hang on so tightly? Worry so often? May God grant us faith, that the improbable past, will and does lead to a future where only one thing is possible, that which God wills. May it be so.