There’s a fascinating little word in the Old Testament reading today. It’s not an eye-catching word, though, and amidst all the mystery and drama of that reading you probably didn’t notice it at all. It came three times. It was the word “but”. “But Abraham said...But the word of the Lord came to him.... and then again, “But he – Abraham- said…” Surely, you are saying to yourself, she isn't going to preach a sermon about “but”...? Well, yes, I am. Because that little word says something very important about how a true and deep faith is shaped.
To understand why “but” matters so much in this story, we need to set it in context. It is part of the story of Abraham and Sarah. He is still called Abram here – God changes his name later. Abram means “exalted ancestor” but Abraham means “ancestor of a multitude. Frankly, though, at the beginning of this story, both these names look like a bit of a bad joke, because Abraham isn't going to be anybody's ancestor. He and Sarah have no children, and they are already well past the age at which they could reasonably expect to have any. In their society childlessness was regarded as a disaster, a sign you’d displeased God, a cause of shame.
Abraham and Sarah's story had started in the town of Haran in Mesopotamia, the cradle of Middle Eastern civilisation, and it looked as if it would end there. They seem to have been prosperous, but what was the point of that if they had no one to pass their wealth on to? But then God called them to leave their settled existence and go to the unknown land of Canaan. If they did that, he promised them that he would make them “a great nation”. It was just what they wanted to hear, because surely it meant God was going to give them a child. How else could they become a nation?
But the years passed, and no child arrived. What was God up to? Had it all been a delusion? Had they misunderstood God’s purpose? Understandably, they were starting to wonder.
One starry night, though, God spoke to Abraham again in the reading we heard today. “Your reward shall be very great...” said God. “This IS all going to be worth it.” And that is where that little word “but” comes in. “But Abraham said... “O Lord what will you give me?” Abraham argues with God. There’s only one reward he wants, a child; but there is no child and a servant is set to inherit all his possessions. If this is the best God can do, then he doesn’t think much of it.
Abraham argues with God, the Almighty, the Creator of all that is, the Lord of the Universe. I am sure that to many people in the ancient world, and to many people now, that would seem like a pretty dangerous thing to do. Think of all those ancient Greek and Roman Gods. You only had to look at them a bit funny and they’d turn you into an animal or a tree or a stone or something. You argued with divine beings at your peril…
Here, though, God just argues right back. “But the word of the Lord came to him, “this man shall not be your heir. No one but your very own issue shall be your heir...” We might heave a sigh of relief at this point. Ok Abraham, quit while you are ahead. Quit while you are still alive to quit at all. But Abraham doesn't... “But Abraham said, “O God how am I to know that I shall possess it?” Surely this is a question too far. But no, God answers this one too, and goes on to demonstrate his commitment to Abraham in that rather mysterious ritual with the sacrifices and the firepot, which scholars believe to be an ancient ritual for making a covenant. God’s relationship with Abraham is not that of a tyrannical ruler who demands unquestioning obedience, or else. It is that of a loving parent, who can cope with questions and challenges, who knows, in fact, that it is only when we question and challenge that we really grow.
I am prepared to bet that anyone here who is a parent will sometimes have wished their children would just do as they are told. But we also know deep down that it is a bit worrying if children always obey without question. It can be a sign that they are so frightened of being abandoned or punished that they don’t dare to challenge their parents or voice their own opinions. Children who question, however irritating it can be, do so because they know their parents’ love for them is big enough to take it.
Abraham’s story reminds us that it is not only ok, but necessary to say “but” to God, and to say it as often and as loudly as we need to. We are meant to argue with him, to complain to him, to be angry with him; it’s the way our trust deepens and our faith grows, faith that is real and true, faith that is our own, faith that will sustain us when we need it.
It isn’t just Abraham who argues with God in the Bible. It’s full of argumentative figures. Abraham’s grandson Jacob famously wrestles ,literally, all night long with a divine figure who represents God himself, knowing he has met his match, but he refusing to give in unless God blesses him even in defeat. He gets a new name as a result. He is called Israel, which means one who wrestles with God, and he gives his name to the nation that descends from him.
Moses tells God that he has chosen the wrong man when he speaks to him from a burning bush. Him? Confront Pharaoh? No way! It is the rule rather than the exception that the great prophets and leaders vigorously and repeatedly challenge God.
Jesus encourages people to voice their own ideas too. Throughout the Gospels he seems to relish conversations with those who come to him with honest questions, even if they aren’t the kind of people whose theological opinions would normally have cut any ice at the time; the voices of women, children, gentiles, the poor and disabled play a big part in shaping the faith he preaches. He doesn’t offer a package, take it or leave it, “because I say so”. No one is browbeaten, manipulated emotionally, or threatened into the kingdom. Everyone is an individual, and treated individually. It is important that it is so, because following him will be costly, and his disciples will need to be sure that they have owned their decision to do so.
Jesus’ attitude isn’t one that wins him friends among those who see themselves as official guardians of the truth. In today’s Gospel he is heading for Jerusalem, the heart of the nation’s life and faith. He’s not going to stay safely in Galilee, keeping his opinions to himself, going along with the civil and religious leaders of his time. He challenges their image of God , their beliefs about humanity, their priorities and values in a way so disturbing to them that they eventually crucify him for it. This is what healthy faith looks like, he tells us. It’s not something monolithic, settled, unchanging, but something that grows constantly, shaped by the things that happen to us, the people we meet, the doubts and questions and challenges that life throws at us. In all of these things we can encounter God if we are prepared to listen for his voice.
A theologian called John Westerhoff once described four different styles of believing that we tend to move through as we grow. He talked first about experienced faith, the accepting faith of early childhood which responds to the sights and sounds of worship but doesn’t really worry about what any of it means. Then there was what he called “affiliative” faith, the faith that is to do with belonging to a particular community. You identify yourself as a Christian or Muslim or Hindu because your parents or those around you are, rather than because you have made a conscious choice to do so.
But he said that these two fairly straightforward styles of believing weren’t really enough to sustain us through life. We also needed, at appropriate moments to have a searching faith, a faith typical of the teenage years, but not at all limited to them, which questions and criticises and even rejects. We need it because without it we never get to the fourth style of faith, the mature faith, faith that has been tested and is now consciously owned, faith which can be freely and fully lived out, with all the commitments that involves.
Doubts and questions aren’t a sign that something is wrong, but an indication that our faith is growing. The problem is, though, that it doesn’t tend to feel that way, either for those doing the doubting or for those who are looking on. Many church leaders discourage questions and doubts, and many church members are quite happy to leave it that way. The “package deal” faith, which simply asks you to sign on the dotted line seems temptingly straightforward. Believe this “because I say so,” or “because the Bible says so” or “because Church tradition says so,” spares us the trouble of thinking for ourselves. And a faith like that can seem fine when all is well in our lives, even if we know deep down it doesn’t really make sense to us or match up with our experience of life. But when trouble comes that sort of second-hand faith isn’t strong enough to sustain us, and people often end up feeling bitter, let down, as if they have been conned somehow, or that they have conned themselves.
God calls each of us out on a journey, one just as real as Abraham’s, and that means we will all sooner or later find ourselves in a new and strange land, in unfamiliar terrain, unsure of where to go, perhaps, like Abraham, facing a “deep and terrifying darkness”. When that happens what matters is not that we have all the officially sanctioned “right” answers off pat, but that we have discovered that the love of God is big enough to contain our questions and our doubts. “But” says Abraham to God. And God listens, just as he will to us when we dare to challenge him. And he answers with the words we really need to hear. “Do not be afraid.”