Great is thy faithfulness – Twentieth Sunday after Trinity 2012

One of the themes we like to dwell on in the Harvest season is that of the faithfulness of God.

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,

Sun, moon and stars in their courses above,

Join with all nature in manifold witness

To thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.

 

We recall the divine promise in Genesis, after the Flood, that

“While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease”. (Genesis 8:22)

Often we recall that God’s faithfulness seeks an answering faithfulness in humanity:

“If you obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments which I command you this day …   all these blessings shall come upon you” (Deuteronomy 28:1,2)

So there is a very happy picture of humanity living faithfully within the confines of God’s revealed will, and God faithfully preserving them from trouble.

Our psalm today celebrates this faithfulness of God.

Because you have made the |Lord your |refuge * and the |Most |High your |stronghold,
There shall no evil |happen to |you * neither shall any |plague come |near your |tent.
For he shall give his angels |charge |over you * to |keep you in |all your |ways.

But, on the face of it, this psalm is not true. Misfortune, evil, plague and suffering happen to people regardless of whether they are faithful to God or not. Indeed, you could argue that those who trust God may be more likely to find themselves on the receiving end of misfortune. This is the psalm that the devil quotes to Jesus when he is tempting him to test God’s faithfulness by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple. Jesus refuses; not because he doubts God’s faithfulness, but because he recognises that God’s faithfulness goes deeper than keeping trouble away from us. The bad things that happen, whether brought on by our own choices or by causes beyond our control, are not denials of God’s faithfulness; they may in fact be occasions to celebrate his unfailing faithful love in the very midst of trouble and disaster. There is a passage in one of the prophets that says:

Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food… yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17,18)

In the midst of disaster, the faithful one proclaims the faithfulness of God, regardless.

If we are to use this psalm with honesty, we need to think about what it means to be saved from disaster and destruction. There are evils that can hurt and damage our outer person, whether injury or illness, or financial or other misfortune. But these things need not destroy our essential self; they may even become means of strengthening and refining our essential self. We naturally pray to be protected from these evils, but perhaps it is more useful to pray that they may not have power to damage our inner person, that somehow we may be saved in and through them, and after all be better for them. Misfortune might teach us humility, or compassion, or wisdom, or patience. It doesn’t do that automatically – it might just as easily make us despairing and cynical and bitter. But God’s faithfulness shows itself in turning evil to good.

What do we read in the Epistle today?

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (Hebrews 5:7-9)

Jesus prayed earnestly and with tears to “the one who as able to save him from death” and he was heard. But he wasn’t saved from death – he had to endure the cross! How can you say, “He was heard?” Because that dreadful experience was transformed into something immensely fruitful. “He learned obedience through what he suffered”, and so was made perfect. That is to say, through his embrace of the cross, accepted out of reverent submission – “Not my will but thine be done” – Jesus completed in all particulars what God had willed in his faithfulness. And that instrument of shame becomes the tree of life – “a source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. For Christians, the ultimate expression of God’s faithfulness to his creation, to his people, to those who trust him, is  –  the Cross of Jesus. Paradoxically, the righteous man abandoned to suffering and death proves that God is faithful.

James and John in our Gospel today want the reward of faithfulness: “Grant that we may sit, one on your right, the other on your left, in your kingdom”. What they get is the cross; the cup and baptism that is holding to God through thick and thin, trusting God’s faithfulness whether that seems obvious or not; trusting God to bring us through and to deal faithfully and graciously with us, in ways we can neither guess nor understand.

Whether all is going well for us, or whether we are going through a time of difficulty and testing, let us proclaim more than ever the faithfulness of our faithful God, and trust him to look after us and bless us, whatever life may bring. And let us ask for grace to live faithfully, for the reverent submission of Jesus, that we too may be made perfect, and a means of blessing to others.

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