Doing the Impossible (September 15, 2019)
Doing the Impossible
So we move forward in our story of the Bible. Here we finally arrive at the birth of Isaac, or really the promise of Isaac. Let’s take a look at what the story is from the beginning. Abraham is an old man, Biblically speaking, already as the story begins; he’s about 60 years old and he is already thinking of retirement. But God has a change of plans for him and says, “you need to take your whole household and go to the land that I’m going to show you.” That’s all. He, his wife, his father, his brother, and his nephew, a man named Lot, head out from Ur, which is over near Baghdad, and they begin to head to the land that God will show them. They head through what was known as the Fertile Crescent up to southern Turkey, and his father dies in southern Turkey. There they bury Abraham‘s father and his brother stays there. And then Abraham and Lot continue on south until they reach the promised land.
Eventually they arrive right here where the story takes place, the oaks of Mamre. And here Abraham receives for the first time the promise. He’s told by God that he will be the father of a multitude of nations, that his descendants will be as numerous as grains of sand on the beach or a stars in the sky, and that all the land he can see will be his. Abraham at this point is 90 years old, Sarah is 80 years old, and God says they will have a child, and that child will have children, and they will be numerous.
And Abraham receives this knowledge and laughs. Just keep that reaction in mind for later. But he laughs and asks “how is that possible? I’m 90 years old, Sarah is 80 years old. How is that possible?” But God says “I will do it.” And then nothing happens for several years.
Nothing happens. Sarah seems to be taking this harder than Abraham, this idea that nothing is happening. Which makes sense, really, because women are defined by their ability to produce children more than men. Yes, in that day, and arguably today. But Sarah is taking this waiting hard. She just can’t take it anymore. She says “I am 84 years old, I’m not going to have this happen to me.” And finally Sarah says, “well you know what? Maybe God wants to give me a child through my servant. So why don’t you take her as a concubine and give me children through her?” Very complicated process, and I’m not going to get into it. But that’s what happens, Abraham takes Hagar as a concubine and they have a child by the name of Ishmael. The biblical narrative, I’ll grant that other narratives don’t get this, but the biblical narrative makes it very clear that wasn’t the plan. God’s plan, and God’s timing, just had not yet happened. They weren’t supposed to do that, but they lose patience. And let’s be honest, they’re 84 years old and 94 years old, I’d be losing patience too.
Finally, we get close to the scene that was read. Abraham is 100 years old now, or at least 99. God appears to Abraham earlier and makes a covenant. He changes Abraham’s name from Abram to Abraham, and he changes Sarah‘s name from Sarai to Sarah. This name change indicate a great deal of what God is promising to do with these people. Abram means “exulted father” or “exulted ancestor.” Abraham means “ancestor of a multitude” or “father of a multitude.” Sarai means “princess,” Sarah means “my princess.” God is claiming that Abraham will become the father of a multitude, will become the father of God‘s chosen people, and it will happen through Sarah.
Shortly after that Abraham is reclining at this place, the oaks of Mamre again, and three men approach him. Abraham does what he supposed to do: he’s engages in hospitably with them. He greets them, he takes care of their needs over his own. This at least 99-year-old man doing that. And through the course of the conversation one of the three men says “when I come back this time next year, your wife Sarah will have born you a son.” And Sarah laughs.
She laughed because she thinks that she’s old, and rightfully thinks that she cannot have children any longer. That’s why she laughs: she thinks this is preposterous. And whenever I come to this story in my reading of the Scriptures, I tend to side with her honestly. However it is worth noting here that God doesn’t actually seem to punish her for laughing. He calls her out; he takes a moment to say that maybe she should have more faith, but God doesn’t punish her for laughing. The question from God seems to be a genuine question of why she is laughing. A question that is meant to invite conversation.
Also, the question is not directed at Sarah, the question is directed at Abraham. If there’s an accusation it would be on Abraham for not relaying the information that God had given to him about the promise, and about how it should come through Sarah. Or perhaps an accusation on Abraham for going along with the concept of the Hagar/Ishmael thing. Sarah is often criticized in this passage by modern readers for her laughter because she gets called out, but let’s not forget that Abraham‘s first response to the promise was to laugh at it as well and no one ever calls him out. I wonder what are the promises of God that we laugh at? Sit on that question for a little bit.
God deals with Sarah as he said he would in spite of her doubts. She did want children, she just thought it was impossible. So God‘s not forcing her to get pregnant. Just thought I would mention that, because it could be problematic if that were to happen. But Sarah wanted to have children so long now. How many times had Sarah prayed for a child? She’s 89 years old. She probably got married at 12 to 16. She probably prayed for a child from before marriage, probably from 10 until menopause. And then 10 years ago Abraham came home with this crazy notion that he was going to have a child, that God promised him a child, and so she gets up your hopes and prays for a child again, only to have them dashed. How many times has this woman prayed and had her prayers unanswered? She has reason to be suspicious of this claim. Especially since Abraham and Sarah do not know what we the reader know: they don’t know that this is God speaking. As far as Sarah is concerned, this is some random man making this claim. She has reason to be suspicious of the claim. So as they laugh, as Sarah laughed, she’s doing it with a man in her mind, not with God.
What if we remember that and frame the question in this mindset, does that change the answer to the question about asking you to think about what promises of God do we laugh at? When we kind of forget that God’s present and we think we’re just talking with people, does that change your answer? Because I suspect the answer is a little bit more than the promises of God that we would laugh in God‘s face for. I think for many people that indeed the case.
Normally speaking, I write my sermons one week ahead, which means the sermon was being written as hurricane Dorian was raining on the state of Florida and the Bahamas, and headed up for Carolina. And as I was beginning to research the sermon I came across a story where Christians were standing on the beaches of Florida praying the storm away; praying in the name of Jesus for the storm to turn around and head back out to sea. And I laughed. And then I went to the sermon and I got spoken to by God. Because what is really the difference, in terms of the prayer, in terms of what we’re asking God to do, between asking God to heal our friend with cancer and make sure that our friend doesn’t die from cancer, or turning away a storm? God can move mountains, and mountains are supposed to move; of course God can move something that’s intended to move like a hurricane. Now, I have issue with if you want to sit here and say that those prayers were answered, I have issue with the theology, and am wondering why the lives of Floridians are more important than the lives of Bahamans or Carolinans. I don’t really believe God necessarily answered that prayer, rather this is what hurricanes do when they come up against land: they’re unpredictable. But could it have happened? If we sit here and we say that God can cure cancer, which I think many of us would agree to that, then we can’t laugh at the idea of God moving a hurricane. That’s a promise; a promise that I laughed at.
And the question becomes what happens when we do? I guess one more lesson to learn here is that when Abraham first receives the promise, he laughs and God says nothing. When Sarah first hears the promise, Sarah laughs and God asks Abraham “so why did she laugh?” As if Abraham should’ve prepared her better for this. And that kind of concept continues on.
We don’t know exactly what date Abrahams lived, but it’s roughly 2000 BC. Which means in about 2000 years later there’s another story that involves laughter from an old man being told his old wife, his postmenopausal wife, was going to have a child. HIs his name is Zachariah. He was a priest. In the story, he’s inside the temple and an angel, Gabriel, comes and stands before him and says, “Zachariah! Good news! Your wife Elizabeth is going to be pregnant, and going to give birth to a baby boy, and you will name him John.” (He goes on to baptize people, you may have heard of that guy). And Zachariah laughs. The exact same response, in the exact same situation. However, unlike Abraham and Sarah, Zachariah gets punished: he’s made mute for nine months.
That does leave you asking why. And I think that the answer is that there’s only one significant difference, but it’s a major difference between these two stories. And that is it Abraham and Sarah do not have the Scriptures to lean back on; Zachariah does. Zachariah is a priest. In order to become a priest he would have had to memorize this story; this time but God said to people who were a full generation older than Zachariah and Elizabeth that they were going to have a child because God wants them to have a child, and God did it. A story that says, literally, that nothing is impossible for God. Zachariah was supposed to have internalized that. Zachariah was supposed to have studied the Scriptures. And thus he is not supposed to laugh at the idea. I think we are expected to study Scripture, to learn from Scripture, which is why churches hold Bible Studies(which were going to begin in a couple weeks).
But there’s something else to remember. And that is that in spite of Sarah‘s lack of faith, in spite of Abraham and Sarah both laughing, God still does what God said God was going to do. Even in spite of Zachariah‘s laughter, God still does what God said God was going to do. And actually, both of those stories have something very key about Jesus. You see last week we looked at Adam and Eve. One of the things that Adam and Eve would immediately do after the story read last week, was to take an Apple they weren’t supposed to take. In terms of the biblical narrative at the very least, creation was damaged.
And this is the beginning of God’s fix to creation: the calling of Abraham and the birth of Isaac. This is the beginning of the nation of Israel, through whom the salvation of the world will come. This is the beginning of the Jesus story right here. And Sarah and Abraham laugh. I like to take solace in remembering that the story of Jesus begins with two people who laughed in God’s face; who received a promise from God and said “that’s impossible,” and had to be reminded that nothing is impossible with God. The story begins with humans. That provides some comfort for us that God can work through us too, even when we doubt.
I came across a quote this week by theologian Daniel B Clendenin, who said “I take genuine comfort in knowing that my own doubts and denials, the lies I tell myself to rationalize my disbelief, and the times that I scoff at the likelihood of divine intervention in my puny affairs, are not only standard fare for normal human nature, but also the raw material of God’s salvation history. They might deserve a divine rebuke like Sarah received, but they don’t constitute an ultimate obstacle to divine action in my own little story.”
Anyone else tell yourself lies to rationalize your disbelief? Anyone else think that your affairs are far too small for God to be interested in? I know I do. I took comfort from that and I hope you do as well. God‘s work does not depend upon how faithful you are or how much you believe God will do it. God’s work does not depend upon how faithful you are. God understands when we laugh because we cannot see how it is possible. We need not feel guilty or ashamed when we realize what we have done, as I did this week. And let us realize that when we pray we are asking for God to do something. We’re not asking for God to take the power we already had and do something; we’re telling God that we don’t have the power to do it, we need you to act. And occasionally God does act. So let us, this week, be a church that believes there is nothing that is impossible for God. Let’s be a church that prays for (and believes in) miracles, even when we’re laughing at ourselves the whole time. Amen.