This is the script of a sermon preached on the 20th September 2020. The Scripture for the morning was from Genesis 15:1-6.
Have you tried counting the stars in London recently? Perhaps some of you are listening to this sermon outside the confines of the big smoke and so the night sky isn’t an alien concept to you. But for those of us within the light-polluted bubble of the big city, seeing the stars isn’t a common occurrence – certainly not the sort of display that Abram was perhaps treated to. But although a Londoner on my Mum’s side and by choice now, I grew up in Sussex – where the jewels of the night sky aren’t hidden away but blaze brightly on a clear night.
Covent Garden's attempt at "stars", December '19.
I often look to the stars, figuratively at least – imagining what it might be like to explore them in my very own trek across the galaxy. The galaxy has long been a source of inspiration and metaphor and has captured our attention as a species for thousands of years. Some of the world’s earliest religious constructs were rooted in the dichotomy of night and day, and the stars were gods to be worshipped. And so, just what was Abram thinking, as he looked to the stars and heard God’s promise of future familial abundance? A legacy that dwarfed his wildest dreams, and was compared to the scale and grandeur of the cosmos?
We know for one that he is full of doubt – that this promise of a legacy that would live on for generations has remained unfulfilled, and that his only hope is through so-called illegitimate means. The role of family ought not to be underplayed in its significance here, and it is an aspect that many preachers before me have chosen to focus on when examining these verses. However, I don’t feel easy preaching about something that is so far removed from my own personal experience – as whilst I love my role as Godparent and adopted Uncle to Dawn and Simon’s twins: Ember and Nova, the idea of having children of my own is very far from my mind currently (a puppy might be a different matter…). I also will never struggle with the pain that is experienced by those whose hearts ache for children, but whose bodies are unable to do so. As well as this, by and large (although not entirely) our model as a society in Britain has also shifted, from one which depends on children to support and look after their elders in old age, to one which does not – you will undoubtedly have your own opinion on whether this is a good or bad thing. And so for me, Abram and Sarai’s pain is as alien as the night sky in London. I know it is real, but I cannot experience it.
A broken promise though, now that’s something I can relate to. Perhaps you might be able to as well.
For many, this year may have felt like a broken promise: 2020 was supposed to be bigger, better – the last few years have perhaps felt like a slog, with the news unrelenting in its angst and pain. Whilst big hitter issues like Brexit were far from behind us, there was at least a sense of “moving on”. Perhaps we found the work of activists like Greta Thunberg or Extinction Rebellion to be inspiring and promising; or the promises of reform on the Gender Recognition Act may have offered us a glimmer of hope. Maybe 2020 was going to be a year of change?
Or maybe not.
Other promises have been broken, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes not: weddings have been postponed, families have been kept separated, loved ones have died too soon, jobs have been lost, protests have been ignored and scorned, the most vulnerable have been conveniently forgotten once more, and the world’s poorest are likely to slip further into the depths of poverty.
Abram and Sarai were indeed rendered hopeless by the broken promise that haunted them. In the confines of their tent, they were surrounded by doubt, fear, and I’d imagine not a small amount of resentment. How minute their lives must have felt to them, when they had been promised and hoped for so much.
In May – July of this year, 563,000 young people aged 16-24 were unemployed – an increase of 36,000 from the previous three months (according to the House of Commons Library). Whilst Abram and Sarai were coming towards the end of their lives facing hopelessness, many of the UK’s young people today are facing years, if not decades of similar feelings of abandonment, broken promises, and disillusionment. According to a report produced by the charity “UK Youth”, young people (those aged 10-24, making up 1 in 5 of the population) are facing:
1. Increased mental health or wellbeing concerns,
2. Increased loneliness and isolation,
3. Lack of safe space – including not being able to access their youth club/ service and lack of safe spaces at home,
4. Challenging family relationships,
5. Lack of trusted relationships or someone to turn to,
6. Increased social media or online pressure,
7. Higher risk for engaging in gangs, substance misuse, carrying weapons or other harmful practices,
8. Higher risk for sexual exploitation or grooming.
Every generation undoubtedly has its challenges to face, but we must ask ourselves the difficult question: what are our children, our heirs, inheriting?
And for each of you too, what desolation have you experienced this year? What have you had but then lost, hoped for but been disappointed, trusted but faced rejection? Because it is not just Abram and Sarai, of course. There are people listening to this now for whom the future looks empty. Present reality has a way of overwhelming future hope, and the promises of God too often seem to remain just that, promises.
Yet, our faith in the Good News of Jesus Christ encourages us to not see hopelessness as the end, there is more to the story.
For when Abram stepped out of the tent and saw the stars and heard again the promise of his inheritance, he stepped beyond the now and heard the hope of the not yet. Outside, under the glory of the endless night sky, Abram is able to believe what seemed impossible in the close confines of his tent. The God who created the heavens and scattered the stars in radiance across the sky is the same God who promises him that he will have a son and, indeed, descendants to rival the number of the stars.
In the confined light-polluted nature of lockdown rules, of challenging relationships, of ill-maintained public services, of jobs we do not care about, is it any wonder we can’t see the glory of the night sky – the promise of abundance and of future hope?
And of course, there is no magic wand to be waved, no prayer to be prayed, or action to be acted upon, that will miraculously allow us to take a breath, to step outside our stuffy tents and to see the stars. It can often be another source of disappointment when we read the Scriptures and have such high expectations of the type of God we hope to see in our lives, only for that God to not materialise, the stars once again clouded.
Perhaps it just takes one step, one breath, one thought? Maybe today we can’t see all the stars, but we can glimpse one or two. The tent flap might only be open a smidge, but through it comes fresh air and the distant but unmistakable outline of a star. The tent might be closed, tightly shut, but we know the stars are out there or we see them on the TV and we allow ourselves to say “maybe tomorrow”.
For if we are to have hope, hope not only in what is to come for ourselves, but for the promises of God to be fulfilled in the coming Kingdom, then we also need to have patience and kindness – mostly for ourselves. Disappointment is a bitter tonic, that sits uneasily and will often resurface, causing a heartburn of the soul – and so we must nurture ourselves, find a kindness and a softness in our actions and words, and not give up on the hope of seeing the stars once again.
I might now say something like: “God always fulfils God’s promises”, or “we must have the patience of Abram and Sarai so that we one day might have our promises fulfilled”. But I won’t – because I can’t know that, I can have faith, and I can hope to see the stars again, but I can’t know the mind of God, any more than any one of you can.
Instead, might I offer this quote for reflection:
"Live now; make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again."
So said Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise, and I put a fair amount of stock in what he’s said over the years, if I’m honest. Let us find hope in the moments now, the glimmers of the stars now, the tempting break in the canvas of the tent that allows us to peer through and almost taste the outside. Where is your hope resting today? Where can you join with others to bring hope in amongst broken promises and heavy hearts? And how can you make sure that now, in this most precious moment that will never come again, can you make sure to live – even in the smallest of actions.