This summer, I’m preaching on the semi-continuous lectionary texts–which means that from now until the end of August, my sermons follow the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs from Genesis. Today, we began the series with Abraham, Sarah, and the birth of Isaac.
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Welcome to the first sermon in our preaching series on Genesis! We’re in for a great time. Genesis is one of my favorite books of the Bible. It came into being when people thought that Arpachshad and Melchizedek were good names a baby, when marrying more than one wife counted as biblical marriage, and when it wasn’t out of the question for your god to occasionally demand human sacrifice.
There are more than a few things about the life and culture of God’s chosen people in the book of Genesis that are a little…outdated now. But beyond the culture, there are characters that come alive, that seem like they could be our sister or brother or neighbor or friend:
There’s the aging couple looking at their fertility options. There are the twin brothers who are always trying to one-up each other. There’s the single mother praying to God for enough to get by until the next day. Their joys and sorrows and hope and despair transcend barriers of time and place: they are real to us.
The book of Genesis was shaped over hundreds of years of oral storytelling, and scholars believe it was finally written down between 1000 BC and 500 BC—the five hundred years between when King David reigned and when the people of Israel were thrown into exile. There are layers and layers of voices in here, not the least of which is God’s. Genesis is a marvelous book whose two big purposes are to tell the stories of how God chose us, and to record the promises God made to us.
And if Genesis were a movie, we would be walking into the theater about forty minutes late, so there’s a little bit that we need to catch up on before we talk about today’s reading. Please help me out:
(Note: my congregation aced this portion of the exam.)
Who knows how Genesis begins? (Creation.)
And do Adam and Eve stay forever in the Garden of Eden? (Nope!)
Nope, they get kicked out, and they have some kids. Who remembers the names of their kids? (Cain and Abel.)
Yes! And after that whole messy story, they had a third kid. Anybody know his name? (Seth)
Good! Now, Seth and Cain both get married—don’t think too hard about where they found their wives—and many generations later, Noah was born. What happened to Noah? (A flood!)
Good! But God preserved Noah and his wife and his three sons and their wives plus all the animals on the ark, and eventually the flood subsided and humanity began to populate the earth again, and several generations and one Tower of Babel later, there comes Abraham.
Except he’s not called Abraham yet. He’s called Abram. And he lives in a land called Haran, which is in present-day Turkey.
One day, God appeared to him. This was the first time that God appears to anyone personally since Noah, generations ago. And God says to Abram: Go.
God wants Abram to leave his home and his brothers and travel south to the land of Canaan. God makes Abram three promises:
1) God will give him that land.
2) God will make of him a great nation.
3) God will make him and his offspring a blessing to the whole world.
And Abram went. He was 75 years old when he packed up with his wife and nephew and goods and set out.
Now, it didn’t all go as smoothly as they all might have hoped. When they got to Canaan, there were already people living there. And so although God appeared again and repeated the promise that this land would be given to Abram, Abram keeps going, heading south into the desert and toward Egypt.
It doesn’t go perfectly there either. Abram and Sarai start losing hope that Sarai could conceive, and even though God reappears again and repeats the promise of many descendants, it’s just…not…happening. So Sarai suggests that Abram use Sarai’s slave, Hagar, as a surrogate. Abram does; it works; Hagar bears Ishmael.
Now God appears again and once again promises Abraham offspring. At this point, Abraham is 99 years old. 24 years have passed since God made those promises, and here was Abraham, older, but landless, and childless, and not feeling very blessed. And oh yes, he’s “Abraham” now, God just decided to rename him “father of multitudes”—it’s almost like God’s trying to rub it in. So when Abraham hears the promise again, he falls on his face and laughs. “Are you sure, God?” he says. “Are you sure you didn’t mean to work through Hagar? I already have a son through her.”
Nope, says God. Sarah it is.
And then God disappeared again for another year. And that is where our story picks up.
Now keep in mind: it has been 25 years between when Abraham first encountered God and received these promises and now. He is one hundred years old. And yet still, when Abraham looks out from his seat by the Oaks of Mamre and sees those three figures in the distance, he races to meet them.
He pleads with them not to pass by. He hastens to Sarah to ask for cakes, he runs to choose the fatted calf, he hastens to prepare it. Even after 25 years of waiting, Abraham is still ready for God to show up, any minute now, maybe even in these three guests.
One method of reading a bible passage is to look closely at the verbs. The verbs that Abram gets are all action verbs, movement verbs—ran, hastened, took, ran, hastened. The verb that Sarah gets? Ceased. “It had ceased to be with her after the manner of women.”
Twenty-five years after God gave them the promises, Abraham’s hope was still alive and kicking. But Sarah had lost something in the 25 years of waiting. She had watched as her own body seemed to defy, or worse, fail God’s intentions for it. And so when she listens at the door and overhears that promise one more time, she laughs. It is too ridiculous, to imagine herself and her husband as the people God would use.
And so this question that the angelic visitors ask is, for Sarah, a very real question: “Is anything too wonderful for God?”
Well? Is it?
Well, guess what: Sarah gets time to think about it, because this visitation is followed by yet more waiting….until finally, finally, almost a year later, God delivered.
We, too, are living in a time of waiting. God has given us a promise that Christ will come again, and that a day is coming when there will somehow be both perfect justice and perfect mercy, held in balance, enough for all people and all creation. God has promised to make all things new, and we are waiting, waiting for that promise to come true.
We wait for things a little less cosmic, too. We wait to meet our future spouse. We wait for the pregnancy test to come back positive. We wait for the cancer test to come back negative. We wait for that career opportunity to come along. Even this week, we wait with pain and grief for an end to poisoned political discourse that gave rise to a violent shooting. We wait and we weep as we hear of a massive fire in London, of refugees dying in the Mediterranean, of war that shows no sign of ending in Syria, of famine in Sudan. We wait for so many things.
As we wait together, we go through the same cycles of hope and hopelessness that Sarah and Abraham experienced. Sometimes we see a sign of hope, and we rush to greet it, and hasten to see it as a sign of God’s presence, and God’s promise fulfilled. Sometimes we look around at ourselves, at our bodies, at our lives, and grimly acknowledge that we’ve been waiting too long, that we’re too far gone. Sometimes we pointedly ask God, “Are you sure you didn’t mean for it to turn out this way? Are you sure you don’t want to work through the way things already are?
Because it would be easier, wouldn’t it, some days, to settle down in the desert and simply make our peace with what is instead of persisting in hope for is not yet here.
Is anything too wonderful for God?
Thousands of years after this story began to be told, another young girl in a small town in the land that Abraham had been promised was told that she, too, would conceive and bear a son. And when she asked, “How can this be?” knowing of its biological impossibility, she got the answer to the thousands-year old question:
“Nothing is impossible with God.”
Nothing is impossible. Nothing is too wonderful.
And because that is true, God’s own Child slipped into some skin and walked about on earth with us. God Godself set the table for us and invites us to come and eat the bread and wine that he gives. God’s own Son died on the cross so that he could rise again, so that his followers could see and believe that absolutely nothing is too wonderful for God.
Of course, the challenge is that we live lives where we know that not all of the things we hope for might be realized in the way that we want. But the good news that we have in Christ is that our ultimate hope—that our lives have meaning, that we are loved, that we are redeemed and precious in God’s sight—these hopes, founded in Christ, are not too wonderful. They are sure promises.
And no matter how long God keeps us waiting, we know, always, that God keeps God’s word. There is a time coming when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. There is a time when Isaac, laughter, is coming.
Thanks be to God.