17 July 2016
St Mary, Hadlow
May I speak this morning, in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In almost every area of life with which I am involved at the moment I am being told that we face a demographic crisis, caused by the retirement of the post-war baby boomer generation.
Amongst the clergy I understand that 25% are over 60 and will be retired by 2020.
In the magistracy I think about a third of all current magistrates will have been retired by the same date.
Even in the Kingfisher Medway Trust all the other trustees and skippers are already retired from their day jobs and they recently had to increase the retirement age for skippers to 75 otherwise we would have had a real problem.
I am only two and a bit years away from my 50th birthday and yet in each of these areas I help to bring down the average age quite substantially.
And, although I hesitate to say it, the age profile of most Church of England congregations is, shall we say, also biased towards the mature side.
Now in each of those realms there is a genuine need and desire to bring younger people in to help redress the balance. The Church has changed its approach to ordaining younger people and there has certainly been an increase in young vocations, although whether the church will be able to afford them into the future is another question.
And we seek to do all we can to encourage and support young people as disciples of Christ here at St Mary’s and I am immensely grateful to all those volunteers in the church who do so much on that front. Some of our young people will be leading another service in September and I would really like to establish a more regular type of service, perhaps on a Sunday evening, which may act as an outreach to our young people. And our choir has a considerable band of young people who are going great guns, which is fantastic.
But I want to think about things from a slightly different angle this morning. Perhaps that will be my epitaph.
In the midst of all this concern about a demographic time bomb, and the need to recruit more young people to help defuse it, I do wonder and I worry – firstly that the more mature amongst us may feel undervalued – as though their membership is only tolerated until someone younger comes along, and secondly, in the context of church, whether the language of retirement has somehow worked its way into what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
So, today I want to pose a very simple question:
Are we ever too old for God?
Today’s Old Testament reading was about Abraham and his wife Sarah, so let’s think about them in that context.
Abraham first appears in the OT six chapters before today’s reading. In Chapter 12 of Genesis we first encounter Abraham and Sarah living in the land of Harran. God calls Abraham to leave that land and move onto a new land which God will show him and, further, God promises to build him into a great nation.
At this point Abraham and Sarah are not only childless but Abraham was 75 years old. Sarah is about 10 years younger and so is a sprightly 65.
At 75 Abraham would have been retired from stipendiary ministry, as a Magistrate and even as a Skipper of the Kingfisher Medway Trust.
But he did not say to God that he was too old to leave his home country and nor did he question what God might mean by making a 75 year old childless man into a great nation rather he upped sticks and set out into an unknown future. A great, indeed a classic, example of faith in action.
But in chapter 15 Abraham complains to God that he is still childless and has no heirs and he asks whether one of his servants will inherit his estate. But no, God says, you will have your own offspring and he shows him the stars in the sky and says that the offspring of Abraham will be just are numerous as the uncountable stars.
By chapter 16 Abraham has now reached the age of 86. So 11 years have passed since his initial call and still no children have shown up. It appears that they may have lost faith in God’s promises and so Sarah encourages Abraham to sleep with the Egyptian slave Hagar in the hope of fathering a child – and she did conceive and gave birth to Ishmael.
Interestingly Ishmael is viewed as being the forerunner of the Arabic tribes and as an ancestor of Mohammed. So Islam is an Abrahamic faith through Ishmael rather than through what happens next, but no spoilers.
In Chapter 17 Abraham is now 99 years old and God appeared to him and made him a new covenant. God said to Abraham that he and all his menfolk and descendants had to be circumcised. That is quite a big ask when you are 99, and I don’t think the anaesthetics were all that good.
But God also promised that Abraham would have another son – and that is would be the son of he and his wife Sarah – and that they would call him Isaac. What was Abraham’ s initial response to this promise? Actually it wasn’t blind faith and acceptance this time rather Abraham fell facedown and laughed. Seriously – Chapter 17 verse 17. He said to himself “will a child be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of 90?”
Isn’t that interesting – some 24 or 25 years after setting out in blind faith from the land of Harran Abraham’s reaction to the call of God is now to laugh in disbelief – surely I am too old, even God cannot do such a thing. And we shall see in a moment that he was not alone in this reaction.
Finally we get to today’s reading – chapter 18. We are told that the Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre. Rublev’s famous icon depicts this very scene. And it is a mysterious scene because it says that the Lord appeared to Abraham, and Abraham saw three men.
Some, like Rublev, interpret this as the Holy Trinity appearing to Abraham in three persons and others believe that this was God the Father accompanied by two Angels, perhaps the two Angels who appear at the start of the very next chapter. Of course, any definitive answer is futile, save that the Lord appeared and Abraham saw three men.
His immediate response to the presence of God is to offer hospitality, and so Abraham and Sarah rush to prepare a little feast for God. I am put slightly in mind of Peter’s response at the Transfiguration of wishing to put up a shelter for Jesus, Moses and Elijah and, of course, we are also reminded of the response of hospitality of Martha in our New Testament reading.
While the Lord was eating this feast one of the three says to Abraham:
“I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son”
This surely must put us in mind of the Annunciation – whether the person who spoke is the Angel Gabriel or the Holy Spirit this is still God bringing forth a miraculous child from hopeless circumstances.
But whereas the young Mary accepted God’s plan for her in simple faith, much like the younger Abraham had done 25 years before, on this occasion we are told that Sarah laughed when she heard this particular annunciation – she said to herself: “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
It would be easy to do an unfavourable compare and contrast between Mary and Sarah’s responses to the promises of God but that would be unfair on a number of levels – firstly, as we know, Abraham also laughed at the same promise and, secondly, it would do violence to the text which recognises that when you are young all things seem possible but as you get older more things become laughable.
And it is also heartening to know that the laugh of disbelief of both Abraham and Sarah turned into something much more joyful. The following year, when Abraham had turned 100 and Sarah 90, we are told that Sarah gave birth to Isaac, whose name means he laughs and she said, in verse 6:
“God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”
Isn’t that beautiful – the laughter of cynicism and experience was turned into the laughter of joy when God fulfilled his promise.
And, of course, through Isaac God brought Jacob and all the tribes of Israel into being, and so onto Jesus through whom we are grafted into God’s family. When God showed Abraham the countless stars in the sky and promised him offspring as numerous then know, deep down, that you too are one of those offspring.
But also know this, deep down. God is not finished with you yet, no matter how old you are. God is no respecter of the limitations of age and although we may all retire from our jobs, we do not retire from being followers of Christ. God still has a ministry and a mission for you that no one else can do, because you are unique and God put you here for a purpose.
And if that gives you a little cynical laugh and the thought, not me I am too old, then think on!
May God bring us the laughter not of cynicism but of joy and may all those about us share our joy as God works out his purposes in us, no matter our age.