Rev Dr Stephen Lee
Lam Ko Kit Tak Professor of Biblical Studies
Abraham and Me
Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrew 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
When our daughter was very young, she asked one Sunday morning, “Daddy, what are you going to preach about today?” I answered with a smile, “I have not decided yet.” With a serious look, she suggested, “How about ‘Abraham and me’ (meaning her)?”
Indeed, among the four liturgical readings from both Testaments on the ninth Sunday after Pentecost, two are focused on Abraham. What has Abraham to do with us today? At this moment in Hong Kong, as one contemporary Chinese hymn says, “Thousands of believers are up against the tide / Searching their scriptures low and high”; and is such a devotion no more than a ‘gospel of peace’ totally aloof from social reality? Well, that would depend on how we read and understand the teachings of the Bible.
“Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)
At first glance, this statement from antiquity apparently has nothing in common with the justice many people are striving for right now. However, the more “each [of us] does what is right in his eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25), the more we are sincerely convinced that our opponents must have “logs” rather than “specks” in their eyes (Matthew 7:3-5). We are certain that the one who threw the first stone did a wilful act of provocation, and so our subsequent retaliation must be justified – a response borne out of righteous anger. Thus, vicious cycles continue to accelerate, violence and hatred escalating, as evil triumphantly rages on despite universal condemnation. It is here that the apostle Paul chooses to refer us back to the book of Genesis: “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Roman 3:10).
Interestingly, the Bible did not examine every act of our father of faith to see if each was right or wrong. The attention is instead focused on the fact that “by faith Abraham. . . obeyed and went. . . longing for a better country – a heavenly one” (Hebrew 11:8-16). For non-believers, this may come across as a laughably feel-good Christian sentiment, even irrelevant. But if we as believers find ourselves holding similar views, we may want to revisit our elementary catechism. To borrow from the two approaches of ethics, speaking ‘deontologically’, all our righteous acts are no more than endeavors made by a ‘justified sinner’ (simui iustus et peccator). But speaking ‘teleologically’, we are all followers of Christ, determined to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). We must therefore learn to pray and keep watch together with our Lord, “yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39), in order to show our reverent devotion to the one true God. Our petition, “may Your kingdom come”, is never a plea to realize our own wished-for utopia, but, rather, a confession in faith that “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
We must exercise patience as we wait earnestly for the Kingdom of God. Consider this: from the time of Abraham to the birth of Christ, the people of God had undergone the imperial rule of many powerful empires – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Subsequently, from the ascension of Christ to His second coming, the Church has also been witnessing many lives transformed by the Word of God, from Jerusalem unto the end of the world. Should we overlook this ‘eschatological’ aspect of the gospel, we might be inclined to lose sight of “the reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15) amidst the “chaos and void” (Genesis 1:2) of the slogans and shouting by the crowds.
We must be careful of equating our identities as disciples of Christ with our socio-political stance, lest we forget that our Lord chose amongst His twelve apostles both “Matthew the tax collector” and “Simon the zealot” (Matthew 10:2-4) – the one a pro-establishment collaborator with the unrighteous and oppressive Roman regime, the other a die-hard militant campaigning for Jewish independence by violent revolution. Yes, both of them must repent (Luke 3:12-13; Matthew 26:51-52), but the question is, must they also first discard their respective political allegiances before assuming their roles as two of the leaders of the foundation of the Church (Revelation 21:9-14)? Today, as we in Hong Kong are confronted with this political crisis, we must ask, is it possible for us as followers of Christ – including senior government officials, political party leaders, the police Christian fellowship, ‘frontline’ pastors, and young Christians – is it possible for us to come together and “shut the door and pray” (Matthew 6:5-6), so that under the gospel of Christ, all may “humble themselves, and pray and seek [His] face and turn away from their wicked ways, [that He] will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14)?
The psalmist was right to say, “No king succeeds with a great army alone; no warrior wins by brute strength” (Psalm 33:16). Our Heavenly Father will certainly watch over those who hope in and fear Him. And yet, the Bible also ardently reminds us that it is in times like these when we must all the more wait upon Him and trust in Him with all of our hearts, because:
“You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Luke 12:40).