Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 25 February 2018.
I think that most if not all ambitious people have some idea of what they hope to achieve. There are visions of what success looks like – the posts to be filled, the status symbols to be acquired and of course shown off.
Now life may or may not see these ambitions fulfilled, but at least there is a notion of what is being aimed for. And for some it may be professional or occupational success, for others it may be excellence in sport and for others it may be to have a large and successful extended family.
But I do not think that in the realms of ambition one would expect at an advanced age to be instructed by divine revelation to uproot oneself from a settled lifestyle and embark of a career as a nomad.
Yet at a time when Abram may have been thinking not only of retirement but of end-of-life matters, he obeyed the vision and like the wise men so many centuries later, he followed a star into who knows where?
Abram was setting out into a realm of utter unpredictability and uncertainty, and yet it was this very act of obedience to a word or a vision that became one of the major turning points of human history.
There would be other visions and encounters with God, and yes even as a wandering herdsman he would indeed prosper. But Abram was doing far more than following a career plan. Rather, he was following a word and an idea, a vision and a person.
It was that wholehearted personal commitment and abandonment that placed him at favour in the sight of God, even when some of his own dealings were perhaps suspect.
But Abram did not follow a code of law – rather he was following a word to ‘Walk before me and be blameless’. Abram or now Abraham, given yet a new name and a deeper vision and purpose was living a lifestyle that depended on the provision of God while he was a foreigner in a strange land.
He owned his flocks and was master of his household and yet he had to rely wholly on where and how God was leading him.
And yet all this provides us with a pattern for personal discipleship, lived also in times and places where the certainties and securities of the church and the Christian faith can no longer be taken for granted.
This is where we find the gospel account of Jesus’ prediction of His rejection, suffering, death and resurrection. This too was wholly outside the instincts and expectations of the disciples and especially of Peter who was openly appalled at the whole prospect.
But Jesus had been continually tempted to pursue His ministry in a way that would avoid the cross. This was indeed the focus of His temptations in the wilderness by the devil and so when Peter revisited Jesus with the same temptation he was met with the same robust rebuke that Jesus who had meted out to Satan: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God! Thou shall not tempt the Lord thy God! You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve!’ And so to Peter: ‘Get behind me, Satan!’
For the principles that applied to Jesus also apply to His disciples down the ages. They have nothing to do with ambition or self-realisation or gaining power or position or prestige.
Jesus was clear and uncompromising in telling the disciples that they follow a path overshadowed by the cross. They live by the grace and mercy of God and not by what they earn of achieve or build.
To follow Jesus is to enter a new kind of land where the landmarks and direction signs are different. The old certainties of money and power, of controlling and dominating one’s environment and neighbours no longer apply.
Survival is no longer about being fitter, faster, more brutal or even more learned than the next man or woman. Success is not in being more fertile or glamorous or fashionable, getting onto the agenda and then controlling it and even dominating it.
Rather it is in taking up the cross and carrying it willingly with Jesus. If He had carried His cross, we can carry ours. Indeed, because He has carried His then we are enabled and strengthened and given new vision in carrying ours.
And yes for each of us it will be different – being frustrated in areas of personal or professional relationships, negotiating ill health of body or mind, dealing with hurts or rejections or betrayals of long ago and far away.
The central thing is that we are defined and our lives and established by virtue of being within the will and purposes of God.
Each of us may be challenged to launch out into a new venture of life and faith.
But Jesus’ promise, made solemnly and seriously as He was about to ascend into heaven was: ‘I am with you, to the end of the age.’ And He means it for each of us and for all of us.