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Readings: 2nd Sunday of Lent

15 February 2013

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Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-end

Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth, that they may return to the way of righteousness: grant to all those who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ's religion, that they may reject those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!

AN ENTRY in Gerard Manley Hopkins's journal for 1874 records the event behind his poem "The Starlight Night", of which these are the opening lines. "As we drove home the stars came out thick: I leant back to look at them and my heart opening more than usual praised our Lord to and in whom all that beauty comes home."

His reflections on the starlit sky prompt him to muse that the world is to be purchased or received as a prize with prayer, patience, alms, and vows; further, all this is but the barn (a hint of Bethlehem) within which is Christ.

Years ago, when I was staying at a retreat centre among mountains, I looked out of the window one night, and saw the sky crammed with stars as I have never seen before or since. I went outside and stood in awe. Unlike Abram, I cannot remember where my thought led me, but I echoed the psalmist: "The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge" (Psalm 19.1).

Paul wrote that creation can reveal things of God (Romans 1.20), and Christian tradition has long recognised that, alongside the inspired revelation of scripture, the book of nature, or general revelation of God, is available to anyone who gives it time and attention. So Abram was led outside his tent to look.

Unlike most people gazing at a beautiful sunset, he was not left to interpret what he saw in the book of nature. Instead, God challenged him to count the stars, and to believe that his descendants would outnumber them. Their surprisingly direct conversation is the author's way of indicating that somehow people understood what God was saying to them.

In fact, this is the first time Abram has spoken to God: until now, when God spoke, Abram complied, apparently silently. But now there is an outburst: years have passed, Abram has done all he has been asked, but God's promise of fathering a great nation (Genesis 12.2) remains unfulfilled. So, when God again promises a reward, Abram complains that God's promises are hollow unless he has a child.

It is a bold way to begin conversation with God. It sets the tone for the rest of the Hebrew Bible, where human fellowship with God can be vigorous, and God does not seem to mind a robust exchange, preferring it to people's grumbling to each other.

The primitive ritual with animals and birds sounds strange to us; dividing them in two indicates that both God and Abram were responsible partners in this God-initiated covenant, while the smoking pot appears to be a sign of God's presence in fire - a manifestation that recurs in the biblical story, ultimately at Pentecost. For Abram, reading the book of nature led to encounter and covenant with a holy God.

This ancient story comes from a very different culture, but its message crosses the centuries, and surfaces in the other readings: like Abram, the Philippian church was to stand firm, imitating Paul's example; like Abram, Jesus persevered in faith, refusing the escape offered by friendly Pharisees. Centuries later still, what can we take from this for our Lenten journey of faith?

There is an implicit challenge to remain steadfastly faithful, not to let significant experiences (our starlit nights) pass unexamined, but to weigh them in the light of a prayerful, disciplined life. Abram's vision emerged from years of prayer and obedience. It took Hopkins three years to turn his starlit-night experience into a poem, during which time his reflections were shaped by daily worship in the monastery.

It is when the secure foundation is in place that we can respond faithfully to the unexpected; a well-founded life with God enables us to discern, and, as the collect puts it, follow what is agreeable to our profession. This Lent, has there been time to stand firm in the Lord, and, with heart open to God, to look at the heavens with imaginative wonder?

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