When I was a child, Palm Sunday was a joyous day. Hopefully the spring weather would be kind, and everyone who was able would gather early, half a mile away in order to process with a real life donkey to church. We would sing and wave crosses woven from palms. Those who hadn’t been able to form the procession joined us at the church doors and we would sing together our praises to God.
This year none of that is possible: we cannot meet, we cannot process, we cannot even open our church doors. We must stay at home, but we can still sing our praises, and we can still wave our palm crosses.We can decorate our doorways with greenery to create a ‘procession’ along the streets in which we live, and we can still meet Jesus on his way to the cross.
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, and begins our journey to Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday, to Easter Sunday; Palm Sunday takes on a journey through death and life. We can still engage with all these episodes in the story, but this year we have to do so from home.
Jesus and his disciples travel to Jerusalem for the holiest of Jewish festivals: the Passover. They will have done so before, it is the pilgrimage that everyone takes during their lifetime, and a popular one due to the warmth of the season and the good camping conditions along the way. The city would be full and so the Romans would have sent additional soldiers to ensure that the festival was a peaceful one. Pilate himself would be in attendance.
In Middle Eastern culture, how much you value a person was shown by how far you would travel to meet them. It still is. Pilate being a man of honour, of status and power, could have expected a huge retinue to come and meet him, and to travel out quite a distance to do so. Jesus being an itinerant preacher maybe not so much; and yet there are few records of Pilate’s triumphal entrance. As Pilate was entering the city from one direction, Jesus was approaching from the opposite, and what we do know is that crowds went out to meet him.
By choosing to meet Jesus on his journey, the crowds were making a statement of faith and hope in the one that could be the Messiah, but also a political one, hoping that he would release them from Roman oppression. It was in many ways a courageous and dangerous thing to do, but it was, after all, Passover, a time when the Israelites’ release from Egyptian oppression was remembered and anything was possible.
This does not mean that there weren’t people who rushed out to meet Pilate. It is worth remembering the two ‘Triumphal Entries’ when we come to Good Friday and the voices we hear from the crowds.
But that was then, and this is now. We are not able to travel outside to meet with anyone, let alone greet a Messiah, but we can travel inwards. We can find a time and space (no matter how cramped it may be with everyone at home), to read through the passage, to reflect on the journey, to speak our hopes and fears to God, to listen for a still small voice reply. Perhaps that is the gift of this Lockdown Easter, that we are able to travel internally, to address our spiritual selves and connect with God in ways that we have never been able to do before.
Today in Britain is Mothering Sunday. It marks the halfway point of Lent when we can take a breather from our Lenten sacrifices; it is also, traditionally people return to their ‘mother church’, especially important at a time when teenagers were often working away from home in the ‘Big House’ or in service elsewhere. It was a rare weekend off, and walking home flowers would often be picked to give to their birth mothers.
Over the years and Mothering Sunday has warped into Mothers’ Day, a day when mums are thanked and spoiled. Most other countries also celebrate Mothers’ Day, but often later in the spring, and it has very little, if anything, to do with Jesus.
The traditions of flowers for mums has continued, although these often come from a florist now. Most churches produce posies of spring flowers to give to all the mother figures in the congregations, pubs and restaurants do very well from doting children and observant fathers taking mum out for lunch. Other gifts and breakfast in bed have become part of the tradition too.
Of course, this year, 2020, everything will be very different. Thanks to the Corona pandemic, churches will not be holding services. Restaurants and pubs are shut. Social distancing means that mums who live far away cannot be visited. This does not mean that Mothering Sunday has been cancelled.
Mother church is still there. Many churches are keeping their doors open for people to pop into for peace and reflection and personal prayers. Many churches are holding on-line services which you can take part in at home. It’s not the same, but you will know that others are doing the same as you at the very same time, even if you can’t greet them over coffee afterwards, and you have to pick your own posy.
We can still phone our mums and send cards from a distance. Likewise we can still leave gifts of spring flowers and prayer cards on the doorsteps of those who are having to ‘socially distance’. And we can pick up the phone and hear another human voice.
One of my favourite passages from the gospels is when Jesus weeps over Jerusalem:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’
Perhaps you were hoping for a more cheerful and heartwarming passage, this somewhat harsher. It comes towards the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he knows that he is facing death, and yet his heart is still beating for the people of Jerusalem, even though they are planning to destroy him. Jesus speaks of wanting to protect God’s people, but he doesn’t use the language of a warrior waging battle, or the terminology of the SAS swooping in for a daring rescue; instead he uses the language of a mother hen.
Jesus longs to gather his brood under his wings. Hens have been known to protect their chicks by using their wings as protection against snow, and against fire, even to the point of their own lives being sacrificed. In this passage we glimpse the sacrifice that Jesus will be making at Easter, and also the protection that Mother Church can give to her children.
It is good to be reminded at this time of danger and isolation, of the loving sacrifice that Jesus made that first Good Friday. Jesus understands fear, and weakness, the struggle to breathe as the human body fails: Jesus understands grief. Our Heavenly Parent also knows the grief of the death of a loved one. Our faith is in one who not only understands, but has experienced life at its most painful and most frightening.
We are also reminded that Mother Church is more than a holy place where candles are lit, flowers arranged, coffee poured, and the peace shared. It is a place of worship, or reminding ourselves of God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice. When we are able to meet we are reminded through our Bible readings, our hymns and prayers, the bread and the wine, and perhaps even the vicar’s sermon, of the hope we have in God who not only died, but lived and continues to live for all eternity, and invites us to gather under his, her?, wing, to share in that life that is full of love.
After weeks of some really quite gruesome adventures with Abraham and his family, we have some good news to share. Stand aside Horrible Histories, there’s a birth to be celebrated!
Time and again, God had promised Abra(ha)m that he and his wife would conceive a son; time and again God had said that they would become the Ancestors of a whole nation and have as many descendants as stars in the sky and grains of sand in the dust. Now God’s word and promise have come to fruition. A son, Isaac, has been delivered of Sarah in her extreme old age, and Abraham is seeing the fruit of faithfulness, at last.
Interestingly, this passage speaks not of the promises to Abraham, but to Sarah:
…the Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised…
God speaks, God promises, God acts: God is faithful and his word is true.
This is a huge challenge to many of us. How often do we say that we trust God and yet struggle with our own desires to make things happen, to be in control of our own lives and time frames? It is so much easier to say the creed as a statement of historic facts about our faith, than it is to live with the challenge, that what God has said, what God has promised, will happen.
Abraham and Sarah had to learn the hard way: their marriage was put under considerable strain as they sought ways to ‘help’ God along. Hagar and Ishmael have become casualties of this lack of faith, of this need to be in control and make things happen by human methods. Abraham is often referred to as a man of righteousness due to his faith, and yet in this series we have seen moments of a severe lack of faith: it is not so much Abraham who has been faithful to God, but that God has been faithful to Abraham.
And so it is with us.
The writer to the Hebrew Christians considers this faith and hope in God’s word, referring to it as
a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul,
This child of joy, of the fulfilment of a long held promise, is the physical embodiment of God’s word. He is also a little boy, a child born into the covenant which God made with his father. Abraham takes his true son and enters him into the covenant faith by circumcising him at 8 days old. The Nation has begun and the foundations of the Jewish religion. It feels like the ‘feel good’ ending of a thriller, but we know that this is just the very beginning. The climax is yet to come, and it will do so with the birth of another boy child, one who will also be circumcised at 8 days old, and one who will herald in a new covenant. For the Hebrew Christians the connections were still being made, for us, with the gospels and holy writings to hand as well as lived experiences of generations behind us, the connections should be clear.
God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah was fulfilled in the birth of their son Isaac. God’s promise to the whole of humanity was fulfilled in the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Our hope is not in our own actions and abilities, but in the God whose promises were true for Abraham and Sarah. Those promises still hold true today.
Read the story of Isaac’s birth here. Read the passage from Hebrews here.
According to the writer Phyllis Trible, ‘Hagar is a theologian’.
She is also,
the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.
Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible
Hagar was one of the slaves brought with Sarah and Abraham out of Egypt. Completely powerless she come to her mistresses attention and is chosen to become the surrogate mother of her child. Perhaps in the practically prehistoric patriarchal times of Genesis, this would have been deemed an honour; to modern readers it is obscene. Hagar’s story smacks of human trafficking, of sexual abuse, and quite literally slavery.
When Hagar does what Sarah has never been able to do, conceive, she may well have thought that her place in the household would have become elevated, it seems as if she acted as though she deserved it, Lording her pregnancy over Sarah until she cannot bare to be anywhere near her. Sarah is overcome with jealousy of Hagar’s pregnancy and grief at her own inability to bare children, but that is her story and not Hagar’s.
Life becomes intolerable for Hagar, pregnant within a household that offers her no status or protection,without mother or sisters to accompany her through her confinement and allay her fears, with no-one to bring her root ginger to chew on when the sickness overcame her or to comfort her when hormones leapt out of kilter as her body grew the fingers and toes of her master’s child.
In despair, Hagar leaves ‘home’, and this is where her identity as theologian begins to form. Hagar settles by a spring in the wilderness, on her way to Shur. There the angel of the Lord speaks to her and she hears God’s voice. She hears the instruction to return to her harsh mistress and uncaring husband, and she also receives the ‘annunciation’ that she is carrying a son, who will grow to be strong and arrogant and at odds with all his kin’. This child is not the promised child, and the ‘family’ in which he lives will not be his home. However, he will be called ‘God hears’, Ishmael, and his offspring will be more than can be counted. Hagar, like Sarah, is to become a Matriarch.
It is Hagar the theologian who names God ‘El-roi’, ‘God who sees’; despite her lowliness, God has heard and seen her plight, and has visited her in order to bring her safety.
Hagar does indeed return ‘home’ and bear a son who is named Ishmael. Years pass, and Ishmael has grown into a teenager before God’s promise to Sarah is fulfilled and Isaac is born. Isaac also grows to be strong and healthy, and as he is weaned Abraham celebrates with a great feast. Sarah sees the two boys playing and fears that Abraham’s firstborn son will inherit the blessings. God’s words to Hagar are beginning to play out, Ishmael is indeed at odds with his kin; perhaps he was playing ‘the wild ass’ and being too aggressive with the toddler, perhaps his ‘hand was against’ his half brother, and Sarah, over-protective of her precious son, panicked.
Hagar finds herself in the wilderness once more, and this time not by choice, she has been cast out. Abraham, although distressed on account of his son, seems to care nothing for Hagar. He wakes her early, and loads her up like a donkey with bread and water and sends her with their son, out. Once more Hagar finds herself homeless and abandoned, a pawn in another man’s life.
Once more, though, Hagar, at her lowest point abandoning herself to death, communes with God. Hagar lifts up her voice and weeps, but God hears her son, and guides her to a well of water to revive them both. He affirms the promises given in pregnancy and the last we see them they are hand in hand walking towards the water God provided for them in the desert.
Despite all the odds, Hagar, and her son, survive, making a home in the wilderness. They will never belong to Abraham’s blessed family, and Hagar returns to her roots to find her son an Egyptian bride.
Remember how Abraham greeted the three visitors to his tent? The care he took of them, washing their feet and preparing a feast for them? Remember the message of blessing that they brought and the way that Sarah struggled to believe it and laughed? Now we enter a hall of mirrors, and Abraham’s story is twisted and distorted so that the reflection is recognised only as a grotesque image of the true.
Lot and his family have settled in Sodom. Although when Lot and Abram separated, Lot chose the fertile plains, he has come to make his home in the seedy city that Abram was once led out of by God. Here in Sodom, Lot has raised his family, and his daughters are now betrothed to be married to locals. The trouble is, God is so sickened by the depravity of the Sodomites that he has come to destroy the city and all the evil within it, sparing only that which is willing to be spared. Lot has been given access to this escape route, and God has sent two angelic guides to escort them out of harm’s way.
We see the goodness in Lot that God wants to preserve, in the way that he shows true hospitality to his guests, and there is nothing he would not do to protect them. When the locals come rampaging, having smelt fresh blood, Lot goes outside to send them away. They are seeking to dominate and destroy and demand that the guests be handed over to be raped. No wonder God feels the need to completely obliterate this city and its population. Lot, tainted by his time as a resident, tries to appease the marauders by offering them his own daughters to be molested and raped. Thankfully for them, the gang are not interested, but it still takes the divine intervention of the angels to save Lot when they ‘press against him’ and try to break down the door.
The angels are in full SAS mode now; they send Lot out to gather any other family members so that they can escape together. The men engaged to his daughters do not believe their future father in law, think he is jesting, and refuse to come. As dawn breaks it is only Lot his daughters and his wife who are gathered for this minor exodus, and even then they linger, somehow unable to let go, despite knowing how unhealthy, unholy, their adopted homeland has become; perhaps this is the first place that they have felt settled in since departing with Abraham on their grand adventure? The angels have to force them out of the city, seizing each of them by the hand and hauling them out of the city, giving them stern instructions to flee, to run to the hills, to not stop or look back. The instructions are clear, but Lot says ‘no’.
Once again Lot settles for the easy option, scared that he will not make it he pleads for a half way measure, of running to a nearby gathering, Zoar, meaning ‘little’. God has offered him the hills and he has settled for the smallness of the valley. Unlike his uncle, Lot has no sense of vision, so sense of what God can do, no sense of the blessing that God longs to pour out. Instead he is full of fear, of doubt, of ‘littleness’.
How often do we settle for less than God wants us to have? How often do we say no to the offer of something grand and settle for the small and known, placing boundaries upon our own lives and limiting what God is able to give us, bestow upon us, equip us to be able to do. In the time since Abraham and Lot parted ways, Lot and his wife have born children who have grown to the marrying stage, while Abraham and Sarah are still awaiting God’s promise of a family line. It is the older couple who are able to keep believing, despite their doubts and their outbursts of (inappropriate) laughter; whilst the younger struggle.
The angels agree to Lot’s mediocre methods, and he and his daughters are saved from the sulphur and fire that is rained down upon their former home. Lot’s wife, however, cannot be saved. Her heart is where her home is, and she pauses to look back with regret, and as she does so she is overcome by the sulphuric attack and is turned into a pillar of salt.
How easy it is to look back on the familiar, on what has been, and view it as ‘good’, to reminisce, to bathe everything in the golden light of memory. We forget the difficulties and the troubles, seeing only the challenges of now. Yes there are challenges now, there always are, but the God who saved Lot and his daughters, who heard Abraham’s plea, who promised a barren couple that they would one day have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky, still speaks today.
God speaks promises, words of comfort, and also words of challenge. We are not to be so afraid of the new things that God is doing, because God has always done new things. God’s character may be unchanging and true, but God’s actions and the way that we are divinely challenged are dynamic.
When God comes to ‘rescue’ us from our current situation of complacency, lack of vision, fear of change, we have two options: we can say yes and follow even into the unknown, or we can say no and hide in the small places, stagnating, and turning to salt.
I’ve just been researching a composer called Salomon Jadassohn (no, I’d never heard of him before either!), and although I’ve discovered a lot of fascinating facts about him, I don’t feel I really know the man at all.
How well do I, do you, know God? Not just facts about Him, really know Him, the difference He can make as He meets us in our everyday lives. Surely the best way to get to know someone is to talk with them, listening to what they say. And this may well change our attitude to what’s going on in their world. Do we find dialogue with God difficult? Does it spill over into praying for other people?
In this week’s unfolding story of Abraham in Genesis 18; 16 – 33, he learns a little more of God’s true character. Abraham is horrified to hear that God intends to annihilate Sodom and Gomorrah because of their persistent, flagrant sins, for Sodom is where his nephew Lot has made his home, and Abraham, (for the second time) wants to do all he can to protect him. With great trepidation, Abraham appears to bargain with God, ‘beating Him down’ from saying He would save the city if there were 50 God-fearing people there, to promising not to destroy it if there were just 10. (Phew! That should save Lot’s family, then. Er, not exactly, but that’s another story.)
Abraham starts His prayer for Sodom by stating God’s character; He is totally just, totally fair. For any sort of prayer, reminding ourselves, and the powers of darkness of who God is and what He is like, is always a good starting point. As we speak of His holiness, His power and His love, it puts things into a clearer perspective, and as we remember what He has done, our faith rises.
Unfortunately, Abraham seems to have forgotten God’s original promise to him,
All families on earth will be blessed through you.
Gen. 12; 2-3
Abraham hadn’t needed to try to bargain with God, he didn’t change God’s mind. All along God has never wanted to destroy anyone with a heart for Him, and even today, he still gives us every chance to turn to Him.
In John 3; 16 -17, Jesus is revealing his Father’s true character of love and grace; He doesn’t want anyone to lose out. “For God loved the world so much that He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. God sent His Son into the world, not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him”. And just in case we haven’t got the message, in Matthew 18; 12 – 14 Jesus tells us the parable of the lost sheep. The Father isn’t concerned with great numbers, but with the state of individuals’ hearts. If I had been the only sinner in the world in need of finding the way back to God, Jesus would have come to die for me anyway. I find that absolutely mind-blowing, and so humbling.
One final thing from this story: I find it easier to pray for people I know and love. I think that’s only natural, but sometimes God may call on us to intercede for faceless, nameless strangers. We live in a blame and shame culture, so there may be a nagging thought which says that the people of Sodom deserved everything that was coming to them. Who is more ‘deserving’ of God’s grace; the victims and families of a terrorist attack or the perpetrators and their families? ‘Deserving’ isn’t a word God applies to grace. ‘Needful’ is.
Sarah often gets overlooked in the New Testament. When St Paul, and others, write about faithfulness they refer back to Abraham, and speak of themselves as sons of Abraham; and yet, Sarah was just as faithful as Abraham, and God actually promises that the line of descent will come through her.
We do not know how Abraham and Sarah met. We are introduced to them as an established couple, still living with Abraham’s parents, but without any children of their own. They have been blessed many ways in their marriage but the lack of children is a deep sorrow and even burden for them. Theirs was a culture where your value as a woman came from the men around you: whose daughter you were, whose husband you become, and which sons you have borne. It was also incredibly important for men to have someone to inherit not just their property and wealth, but to carry on the family name.
God calls this couple to follow. Follow where, they don’t know; to follow who, they are not sure (this is a time before religion); to follow how, is quite a challenge. As they seek to follow God and respond to those challenges set before them, Abraham and Sarah make many, many mistakes. They remain faithful to God in the way that they keep trying, but in trying too hard they often make huge mistakes, and Sarah is the one who suffers the most.
There is a happy ending (spoilers for those following Sunday sermons): Sarah becomes the mother to Isaac, and lives to see him grow and begin to mature, along the way though, Sarah has to give up her home. As she and Abraham follow God, they take on a nomadic lifestyle which at times becomes quite dangerous. They are forced at one point to camp on the outskirts of the notorious and dangerous city of Sodom. When there is a shortage of food and the tribe seek sanctuary in Egypt, Sarah becomes a gift to the Pharaoh becoming part of his harem, in order to protect her husband. As God’s promise to Abraham of more descendants than he can count, clashes with her empty womb, she gives her maid to sleep with him. As she grows in pregnancy, Sarah not only carries the sorrow of an empty womb, but also endures the taunts of the mother-to-be who now carries the heir.
Sarah’s life is colourful and complicated. She and Abraham try to work out God’s meaning for their life when the promises seem hollow, but eventually Sarah does bear a child and names him Isaac, meaning laughter. More than this, as Abraham becomes the Patriarch, the father of many nations, Sarah becomes the Matriarch. The line of descent comes from the child she bore, and as time follows, the Jewish line continues to this day to follow from mother to child.
The joyful celebration of Shrove Tuesday and the feast of pancakes, soon drops to a dull sense of spiritual responsibility as we wake to Ash Wednesday and fasting season begins.
The concept of fasting has become rather confused in more recent years with fasting for weight loss and other health benefits claiming the headlines. Lent is not about shedding the winter layers ready for the warmer days and lighter clothes we look forward to: it’s about stripping away all that complicates life.
As Christians we have begun to take the view that fasting is optional, or a token gesture. Instead of talking about fasting we talk about ‘giving up’; and instead of ‘giving up’ we talk about ‘taking things up’ instead. Lenten fasting is more than coping without coffee for six weeks, or even about volunteering at a night shelter. Oh, and it’s a compulsory part of the Christian faith.
Let’s look at the ‘go to’ passage on fasting: Matthew 6:1-21. First thing to note is that Jesus doesn’t say ‘if’, but ‘whenever’. There is no opt out clause, it is an expected part of our spiritual practise to spend periods of time fasting. There will be times when it is important not to fast, such as when pregnant or breastfeeding, and if you are in any doubt, check with your doctor first.
It is also important to understand why we fast: looking at Jesus’ words in Matthew, the reason for fasting, for limiting our food, is to be able to focus more fully on hearing God’s will for our lives. What it isn’t about, is trying our hardest to appear the most holy, so Jesus begins by warning his followers to beware of being too overt:
Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them;
Jesus, Matthew 6:1
In our Instagram world, where everything needs to be photographed, commented upon and posted for everyone in the world to see, there are currently 2.2 Million users of #fasting. We don’t just feel the need to fast, but we feel the need to tell everyone about it. Obviously Jesus didn’t have social media to contend with in his day, but the same urge to let everyone know, persisted. Whilst we’re talking about insta, would you like to follow me @soulkitchencook, where I talk about feasting and fasting and share photos of what I’m not eating?!
True holiness, though, is what happens between God and ourselves, when no-one else can see. So how should we be observing this season of fasting?
Jesus begins his teaching by looking at almsgiving, which translates nowadays into ‘charity’. The giving of alms was the act of giving money to the poor; we still have almshouses which were simple dwellings built for the sole purpose of housing the poor and vulnerable. In Jesus’ time there seems to have been a habit of blowing a trumpet when giving to the Temple Treasury, perhaps this was metaphorical, but certainly large gold coins dropping into a solid chest could make quite a sound, whereas a few pennies gently placed into it, wouldn’t. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus notes a widow dropping her last pennies into the collection in contrast with the rather wealthy and showy ‘generosity’ of the pharisees.
It feels good to give, even better if everyone knows that you have done so. Which is why when football teams are sponsored by a company, their logo is displayed around the ground; why millionaires who make donations to hospitals, have wings named after them; why programs for the arts include a list of benefactors. And why #charity has 9.6 million users. This is not God’s way. A true gift is given freely and without credit; and as Christians there is an acknowledgement that anything we may have to give away, has been a gift of God’s blessing to us in the first place.
So what about prayer (#prayer 9.5 million)? This too has it’s users and abusers. In Jesus’ time, the pagans would use long lengthy prayers, partly to ensure that they had correctly addressed the deity concerned, and been heard.
It is easy to assume that a long prayer equals a good prayer and a short prayer is an immature prayer. The gospel account contradicts this…Jesus criticises the Gentiles for long prayers. When they addressed their gods (which usually included the reigning emperor), the Gentiles used long salutations. They wanted to be sure to use all the correct titles lest the ‘god’ (Caesar?) take offense. How ponderous this could become appears in the titular names for Galerius Caesar… The emperor Caesar, Galerius, Valerius, Maximanus, Invictus, Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Persecus Maximus, Carpicus Maximus, Armenicus Maximus, Medicus Maximus, Abendicus Maximus, Holder of tribunical authority for the 20th time, emperor for the 19th, consul for the 8th, Pater Patriae Pro-Consul…
Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth E Bailey
Contrast this with Jesus’ teaching to address God in prayer as Abba, Daddy, the very first word a child is taught. Prayer is to be personal, intimate, without fear… It is a way for us to come closer to God so that our hearts beat the same rhythm, so that our acts of charity and our alms-giving become second nature, a response to our relationship with God which has grown through time spent together in prayer.
We can see how prayer and giving go hand in hand, but fasting is still something of a misnomer. Fasting is uncomfortable, we get hungry and stomachs rumble and we are distracted; we may get headaches, or feel more tired and lethargic, so how can we do this to ourselves when God has blessed us with such an abundance?
Fasting in Jesus’ time was not just seen as a particularly devout practice for the prayerful, but also as a public means of lament. Someone in mourning might rend their garments and cover themselves in ashes (which brings us back to today). Jesus doesn’t condemn the lamentation, rather the public display, and encourages his followers to fast quietly. When Jesus fasted, he entered the wilderness to do so, he hid away, and it was the angels who ministered to him when he completed his fast. For Jesus the fast was a time of preparation, of strengthening his inner self, his resolve. It may also have been a lament for the people he was coming to minister to. Fasting intensifies prayer. Prayer becomes so much more intentional when we give of our own comforts, and the physical groans of hunger accompany our prayerful cries to heaven.
How powerful could lent become if we were to really engage with the threefold actions of fasting? If all of us as a gathering of Christians in one place (you could call it church) chose to fast together? What if, every day, instead of eating lunch we stopped to pray the same prayer? What if, instead of spending a pound of two on lunch, we gave it to a common fund?
This year, the group of churches I minister to is facing a radical upheaval. As expected there is a certain amount of disquiet among us. Nobody likes change, nobody likes to be kept in the dark, but that’s how it feels right now. There is temptation to dig in our heels and refuse to budge, refuse to engage. What if, instead of mourning a loss, we fast and pray to see what God might be giving to us?
So here’s the challenge: where possible, we fast from lunch. Instead of spending time eating we spend the time praying: each day at noon we all stop and pray the same prayer, one of hope and vision in which we recommit ourselves to serve God? What if we pool the money that we save from not eating lunch, to spend on something new and exciting that God is calling us to do in our communities?
If you were to visit me unexpectedly, I would probably offer you a cup of tea, and possibly a piece of homemade cake. If you were an old friend I might invite you to stay for a meal. British hospitality is often limited to a nice cup of tea and a biscuit. Perhaps it is something to do with our weather that makes us want to pull up the drawer bridge and hide inside; or perhaps it is our reserved nature. Middle and Near Eastern hospitality, much like the weather, is much warmer and much more extravagant. To not offer hospitality to a stranger is shameful.
Rory Stewart writes of his experience walking alone across Afghanistan, and relying on the culture of hospitality:
On the second afternoon after leaving Jam, Babur [the dog] and I turned from the broad snowfields of Chesne Sakina into a small side valley, invisible from the main path. When we reached a line of leafless silver poplars along a stream and a small group of mud houses, a man ran towards me crying, ‘Welcome, welcome.’ Seizing me by the hand, he told a man to feed Babur and led me straight to his guest room without asking who I was.’
The Places in Between, Rory Stewart.
Here in Genesis we find the epitome of a warm welcome. It is the heat of the day, and Abraham is resting in the door to his tent, but when he spies three strangers, he runs to them, dropping any sense of dignity. He may be concerned for their welfare, being out in the scorching midday heat, he may have just been glad of the company, or he may have recognised that these strangers were no ordinary travellers.
His first concern is to bring them cool water to wash their hot, dusty, feet. He settles them in the shade of a tree to rest from the sun and their journey. He offers them ‘a little bread’, which they accept, and then runs off to have a veritable feast prepared: he instructs Sarah to bake with ‘choice flour’, he then runs to his herds and chooses the most tender of calves to be prepared for dinner. Together with curds (soft cheese) and milk, they are presented to the guests: there is no scraping of the bottom of the biscuit barrel here.
As the three men eat, Abraham stands by ready to wait upon them. These guests are not random travellers, they are messengers, perhaps angels of the Lord, perhaps the Lord himself and attendants, perhaps the Holy Trinity themselves.The message they bring is one that Abraham has heard before, quite recently, that his wife will indeed bear a child, and within the year. Sarah, listening from within the tent, laughs when she heard this news. It sounds as if she has been taken by surprise, as if Abraham did not share the news with her when God himself had spoken it to him earlier. Her response is the same as Abraham’s: she laughs. Her laughter is that of doubt, how can it be physically possible now? She has waited so many years to hear this joyful news and now it is too late. Her laughter is not a quiet chortle to herself though, it is loud enough for the messengers to hear. A loud snort of shocked laughter? Out of control hysterical laughter born of grief and broken hopes?
When asked why the laughter, she denies it. It is not polite to laugh at guests and she has been caught out. Her laughter has also expressed her doubt in God, and even if she does think that God has forgotten her, she doesn’t want others to think that she has given up on God.
The messengers do not revoke the promise.Their visit, and their repetition of the promise affirm that the time has now come, and that Abraham, and especially Sarah, are to get ready for God to do something truly amazing in their lives. The long awaited son of the covenant is coming, and he will carry the covenant between God and his people down through the generations.
Hundreds of years later, God’s people, the ‘sons (and daughters) of Abraham’, will await the birth of another son of the Covenant. The wait will be long and many will give up, but the longed-for child will be born into a family, and he will renew the covenant; the longed-for son whose birth we celebrated at Christmas. In Jesus, a new covenant was made, one in which there is no longer a need for circumcision. The Jewish Christians will stumble over this at first, but the covenant is now between us and Jesus; it is our faith in his death, his sacrifice upon the cross, his hallowing of death, and resulting life in abundance, which is the basis of the relationship. For our part, we give not foreskins, but the whole of our bodies to live our lives fully as Jesus calls us.
Just as Abraham and Sarah have given up hope, after the taking of matters into their own hands has back fired, when their faith tank seems drained and they are preparing to step back into their dotage, God takes action. How easy it is to forget about God’s promises, to base our trust in God upon the feebleness of our own resolve and our limited ability to do the right thing.
Read Abraham and Sarah’s story here. Read about the early Christians here.