by John, Lord Alderdice, on Trinity Monday, 11 April 2016.
Provost, Ceann Comhairle, Senator, Chaplains, Fellows, Scholars, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great honour to be invited to preach here in Trinity College on Trinity Monday, and an enormous pleasure to be part of this wonderful service in this magnificent chapel. I want to say a sincere thankyou to the chaplains for their kind invitation.
When I was asked to preach the sermon here on Trinity Monday, I had two guides to what I might say.
The first was the Lesson from Ecclesiasticus, chapter 44, read to us by The Provost this morning, as it is every Trinity Monday – “Let us now praise famous men….” It is good that we recall the distinguished and inspiring figures from the past who can be models for our own growth and development; scholars and academics from this great university who made significant contributions in Ireland and much further afield. In the past most of them were indeed men and so I was delighted to hear The Provost announce this morning among the scholarships, professorships and honours, an Honorary Fellowship conferred on Louise Richardson – a Trinity alumna and Irish woman who in January this year became the first woman Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford (where I work) in almost 800 years. What a wonderful development.
The second guide to my thinking was that this was Trinity Monday, but rather than concentrate on the Holy Trinity, I have decided to focus on another Biblical trinity, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, because these were famous men who, like all of you, were very different from each other.
In the first section of the second Lesson we read from Genesis chapter 6, verse 4, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days,” or as the Authorized Version has it, “There were giants on the earth in those days.” They were not only big in size, but they lived a very long time too. Whatever this means it is certainly the case that when we look back, the patina of history confers on figures from the past, a distinction that may or may not have been quite so apparent to their contemporaries.
As the second lesson continued in Genesis chapter 50, we read of Joseph, after the death of his father, Jacob, using for the first time that description of the Almighty with which we have become so familiar, when he spoke of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Since that time, so many centuries ago, those of the Abrahamic faiths have often used that appellation – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But despite being fathers and sons these three great patriarchs were very different people. This is why I chose to preach about them today, because all of you are very different people, and you will live your lives differently. If we simply think of the passage from Ecclesiasticus, about the famous men from the past, we may wonder whether it really applies to us at all. Some of you will become famous, and others distinguished in your various academic, professional and business lives, but is God only interested in those who become famous?
Let us look at what we know of these three patriarchs.
Abraham was of course the outstanding friend of God. His father Terah had left Ur of the Chaldees and ventured out in faith, and Abraham also took God at his word, leaving stability behind, and venturing out towards the land God had promised him and his children – children, even though he had no sons or daughters. This tested his faith greatly, and when Isaac was born in his old age, God tested his faith even further, calling on him to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham was by no means perfect. He made many mistakes. But he did demonstrate extraordinary faith in God and is an example to us, though we may think he was a model we can hardly hope to emulate. Is God only the God of outstanding people of faith, like Abraham?
Isaac was very different. If Abraham was the outstanding friend of God, Isaac was in comparison what we used to an ‘ordinary five/eight’. While some of you are probably too young, I can see many in the congregation who will certainly recall in the pre-metric days that five foot eight inches was reckoned to be the height of an average man, so the term ‘ordinary five/eight’ will be familiar at least to you as meaning ‘an ordinary and unremarkable fellow’. That was Isaac. He was an ‘ordinary five/eight’. He did not embark on great new ventures, indeed we read of him that “Isaac dug out the wells that his father Abraham had dug”. The Philistines had filled in the wells and Isaac was concerned to ensure the welfare of his growing family. But he did not look to new ideas – he just dug out the old wells that Abraham had dug. Even when it came to sinning he was not very creative. He repeated his father’s sins. Abraham’s wife Sarah was an attractive woman and when they went to Egypt, Abraham was afraid that he would be killed so that Pharaoh could have Sarah for himself, so he told a lie. “She is my sister,” he said. It wasn’t true and he was soon found out, but Isaac did just the same. Abraham, his father, had found a lovely wife for him – Rebecca – and later, during a time of famine they went to the land of the Philistines for food. Fearful that his beautiful wife would be the death of him, Isaac said “She is my sister”, just as his father had done with Sarah in Egypt, and just like his father, he was found out. Isaac was not even original in his sins. He was an ordinary five/eight, and God was not just the God of Abraham, he was the God of Isaac too.
But God is also the God of Jacob, and Jacob was an obnoxious fellow. The younger of twin boys, he was always out to overhaul his older brother, Esau. One day when Esau came back from the countryside, exhausted and hungry, he asked Jacob for a bowl of stew. Instead of just giving his brother some stew, Jacob bargained with him – “give me your rights as the first-born and I will give you the stew”, he said. “If I die of starvation the rights will be not be worth much,” said Esau, and sold his birth-right. But this was not a one-off event. Later when Isaac was old and blind, Jacob, with his mother’s help, purposely deceived his old father into giving him the special blessing meant for Esau, and it caused a long-term rift in the relationship between the two sons. Later Jacob also played a trick on his father-in-law Laban, in order to increase his flock of animals at Laban’s expense. In fairness to Jacob, Laban had previously played tricks on him, but no matter, this was the way that Jacob behaved even without due cause. He was a twister and an obnoxious fellow, but God was also the God of Jacob. He is the God of each succeeding generation – of Abraham the outstanding friend of God, of Isaac the ordinary five/eight, and of Jacob the obnoxious fellow. He is not just the God of famous people, of faithful people, of first class honours people, he is also the God of the ordinary, quiet, unassuming person, and even of the difficult, troubled, problematic person.
He is the God of all people, but also of all time. God is not trapped in the past as our ideas about him often are. We rightly praise famous people from the past, but we must venture out into the future, moving on to new things. The history and culture we have inherited are important and we should value them, but whether it is law, or culture or religious doctrine, structure or practice, we should not be stuck in the past. Instead these should be a foundation that gives us the confidence to take risks and venture out. We are called to unwavering faith, but not to unchanging beliefs. As we follow the Spirit, and grow in faith, whoever we are and whatever our talents and limits, God will be our God and we must follow God’s Spirit if we are to be his people in each succeeding generation.