Reading, Genesis 25:7-11 and John 14: 15-23
Image, Isaac and Ishmael Bury Abraham, Gerard Hoet (1728)
We have been journeying with Abraham and Sarah for five weeks, and now, on the sixth, both lay buried in the cave of Machpelah. Across these five weeks we have seen the complexity of these great figures of our faith. We witnessed the virtue of their faithfulness and sacrifice, but also the ways in which they wounded each other and those around them. Abraham, from the beginning demonstrated his capacity for faith – responding immediately to God’s call, but we also saw the way fear could drive his choices, as when he gave Sarah over to the household of Pharaoh. Sarah herself goes from victim in that story, to perpetrator of harm in the tale of Hagar. And yet amidst failure both are exemplary – Abraham the paragon of hospitality (who welcomes the strangers into his home, and boldly bargains with God over the fate of Sodom) and Sarah, remaining open to laughter, open to the grace of God and the impossibility of Isaac. Through all these stories, the commendable and condemnable, God has remained faithful. Indeed, the steadfast kindness of God is so generous that not only does God not rescind the promise to Abraham and Sarah is spite of their follies, God seeks out Hagar and Ishmael, and extends blessings and promises to them.
Even the deaths of Abraham and Sarah are complex affairs. We know that after the near-sacrifice of Isaac the family is fractured by the trauma. Isaac departs the mountain by another path and Abraham settles in another land away from Sarah. And yet, when Sarah dies Abraham goes to her to mourn, weep, and procure the cave in which they both shall lie. Abraham’s death is also the time in which Isaac and Ishmael return to their father, together in the narrative for the first time since Ishmael was driven from their home. In these burial scenes the hurt and fractured relations sits alongside strange reunions and restoration.
Given the mythological and theological heft of a figure like Abraham, one might imagine the story coming to some kind of close… that the death of the great patriarch of faith would end the saga, in the way that Homer’s Odyssey doesn’t keep going after Odysseus finally makes it home. And yet, the structure of the Bible is already preparing us before Abraham’s death for the continuation of this narrative to the next generation. The preceding chapter – which we will come to next week – chronicles the efforts of finding a wife for Isaac, establishing him and Rebekah in Sarah’s home, signalling that a new generation has come of age. Abraham’s death is formidable, it punctuates the story, but it is written in such a way as to move us forward, After the death of Abraham God blessed his son Isaac. And Isaac settled at Beer-lahai-roi.
The Bible is a tale of generations. No one person ever lingers in Scripture for too long. Even the very great names are laid to rest, and often without seeing the fruit of their labour. Abraham dies estranged from his son with little indication of the coming nation, Moses dies on the fringes of the Holy Land, David dies before the Temple is built, John the Baptist dies in prison before Jesus is glorified, and even Jesus - just 14 chapters into the gospel of John – has to prepare his disciples for his death and departure. And yet, in each of these cases, the faithfulness of God and the emergence of the next generation is assured before death. Isaac is brought back into the narrative and comforted. Joshua is blessed by Moses, readied to lead the Israel to the promised land. John’s disciples receive assurance from Jesus that he is the one they have been waiting for. And Jesus promises his disciples that he will send them the Spirit who will counsel and equip them as they take up his work.
God’s eternal nature is not bound by the span of a human life (no matter how great the human). I will not leave you orphaned, Jesus reminds his disciples, exemplifying the nature of God’s relationship with humankind. The chain of witness and faithful servants has never broken, there is no death that can end the story – not even the death of God’s own beloved son. God’s loving presence spans the ages.
Why are we talking about this today? Besides the fact that we were up to this point in our Genesis series… Well, earlier this week we held the funeral service for Sierk – someone who served this church in manifold ways with passion and determination. Sierk, who it was told to me by several members, was the kind of person you said “what will we do it if Sierk isn’t here…” About a month ago we marked the death of Graeme Kay, who helped to bring this building to reality. On Tuesday we will hold the funeral for Anne Witherby who served the Kirk for many years, making needle points, doing flowers and, along with her husband Peter, producing the Kirk News. Many good and faithful servants of this church (as is the case of the wider church) have joined the great cloud of witnesses. Many who might rightly be described as institutions of this place, have gone (some to glory, others just unable to make it in person any more). People who have felt like such stable presences within these walls, so intimately tied to the congregation’s very identity, have and will depart. It is natural to feel (and perhaps fear) that such losses are insurmountable, that such losses signal the ends of eras and the closing of chapters. And sometimes they do, and sometimes enough of such loses contribute to the end of congregations, perhaps even denominations… but no loss, however large, ends the story of the church. No death can cease God’s faithful journey with humanity. The kingdom of God, the community of Christ, and the covenantal relationship spans generations, and God has never left the church without faithful witnesses to carry on the gospel.
Even if the fathers and mothers who taught us the faith have died. Even if those elder saints who helped awake and deepen our love of God through Sunday school, music, and fellowship, no longer grace those doors of a Sunday, the church remains, the presence of Christ abides, the Spirit dwells, and the call of God resounds. We continue on as the church, even as we grieve and adjust, from generation to generation because the church does not rely on any person, congregation, or denomination, the church relies solely on the faithfulness of God. As our Basis of Union puts it so eloquently: Church is able to live and endure through the changes of history only because its Lord comes, addresses, and deals with people in and through the news of his completed work. It is Christ who, day-by-day, constitutes, rules and renews [us] as his Church. After all, if the gates of hell cannot prevail against Christ’s church, what chance does time have?
The death of Abraham doesn’t end the story of God’s journey with what will become Israel, but testifies to the power of God’s promise and plan to continue on and on in covenant with humanity drawing us into the work of creativity, community, and blessing. So too, the death of Jesus does not end the story of God’s faithfulness with what will become the church, rather it testifies to the power of God’s kingdom by ushering in the sending of the Spirit to equip and counsel us as we seek to keep the commandments to love God and neighbour.
And so, like countless of the faithful before us, we mourn and celebrate the servants of the past, gone now to the great cloud of witnesses, and we carry on our task as disciples, trusting boldly in the faithful love and steadfast kindness of God, which spans across the generations, consistent and undefeated from creation to new creation.
Please enjoy a collection of sermons preached in recent months at the Kirk. If you have questions about the sermons, or attending a service reach out using the Contact Page.