Too Wonderful

Prepared for First Pres Apopka.  Primary scripture: Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7, but really bits and pieces from Genesis 11 to 21 make up the whole story.

We started last week at the very beginning, which, as we learned from Maria in The Sound of Music is a very good place to start. In the coming weeks, as we head into Advent, we will continue through the Old Testament, getting a better sense of the narrative arc of the story we share with our spiritual ancestors and with God.

We have fast-forward past many generations, past Cain and Abel, past Methusalah, Noah and his ark, the tower of Babel, to the story of Abraham and Sarah. They are first mentioned in chapter 11, where we learn that even when they first married Sarai and Abram were aware that she was barren.

They left Ur with Abram’s father Terah and a nephew – Lot – and settled in Haran. Haran is where Abram first heard from the Lord:

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So at 75, Abram answered God’s call. He and Lot gathered all their possessions their wives and other people, and left for the land of Canaan. On their way to Canaan, stopping at a stand of oaks near Shechan, where God promised the land would one day belong to Abram’s descendants.

They went on to Egypt and then back, making plenty of mistakes along the way, causing and getting mixed up in conflicts. Eventually, they find themselves at another stand of oaks. This time the Oaks of Mamre, where God comes to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  

Abram reminds God that he still has no children. If he were to die that night, a household slave would be his heir. 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.”

God brought Abram outside and said,  “Look toward heaven..”

Now- when we go outside and look up at night, what do we see…  not a lot.  There’s too much light pollution. Not so back in Abraham’s time, imagine the night sky with nothing between you and that blue-black velvety sky…

God brought Abram outside and said,  “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… So shall your descendants be.”  

God seals this promise with a covenant to provide the land where Abram was settled for the nation that was to come. God also describes the oppression those descendants would experience in Egypt before returning to this promised land.

But nothing had changed in that particular moment. Sarai remained barren.

It isn’t clear whether she ever heard the promises God had made to Abram. Nor whether he shared the news with her. But her actions make clear that she wanted Abram to have an heir from his own line. And so she volunteered her servant Hagar who gave birth to Ishmael when Abram was 86.

Eighty. Six.  Let that sink in…

 And now add 13 years.

This is when God speaks to Abram again. He reiterates his promise, but now the Lord requires something of Abram and all the men in his household. Quite literally, they will have skin in the game. 

Abram and the men among his people, as well as any future generations to come, are to be circumcised. This is how they will be set apart – in every generation- from the people of other tribes and nations.  

But there was more:  God said to Abraham,

“As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”  

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, saying… I am almost 100!  Sarah is 90… how???  Seriously God, Couldn’t you just bless Ishmael, my son by Hagar? 

But God’s plan had not changed based on the decisions and actions of Sarah and Abraham. Yes – God would bless Ishmael. But Sarah would indeed bear a son, to be named Isaac, with whom and through whom God would establish an everlasting covenant.

The next time God visits at the Oaks of Mamre, it was Sarah’s turn to laugh. If Abraham was laughing to keep from crying, I suspect Sarah’s laugh was born of having cried for far too many years

To hear that promise, maybe for the first time, having prepared the meal with hands that must have reflected their full 90 years…

To see her husband, who at 100 was still beloved, but perhaps wasn’t offering up much pleasure in their marriage bed any more…

To realize he had clung for the past quarter century to a promise that their descendants would outnumber the stars in the sky…

How many layers of disappointment… of sorrow… of cynicism… must that promise have needed to slice through to reach a heart tender enough to trust the promise being spoken that night

And so Sarah laughed… Yeah, right. As if…

And maybe then those tired hands reached down to caress the belly that had never been swollen with child.  To rest on the belly that in a few months’ time might show God to be faithful and worthy of praise. It was too wonderful to believe that day.  Too wonderful to imagine.

And then it was all too wonderful to take in…on the day that Isaac arrived.
T
he day that laughter arrived in ripples of joy
The day that gratitude and happiness ripped through the waiting and fear

Laughter rang to the heavens when,  as Hagar had in her own time, Sarah finally believed with her whole heart that God knew her, God had seen her and heard her, God cared for her.

It’s a crazy story…pretty hard to fathom. Too wonderful to believe on some levels.

It is so much easier to relate to Sarah and Abraham in the waiting and the longing and in their trying to take control and make things happen. And if I’m really being honest here, I can see myself in the unbelief, the laughter that just barely hides disappointment and slides over to cynicism with very little difficulty.

We know all the right words to say when we must wait like: “God’s timing isn’t our timing, but it’s always perfect timing!” or “Perhaps God is protecting me in the delay making sure I wait for something better!”

But in the wee hours, when we are alone with our thoughts and prayers, we are more likely to cry out…”I believe Lord, help me in my unbelief” or just to cry, uncertain that God can even be bothered to listen any more. After too many of those days and nights, stories of God’s goodness and mercy begin to sound too wonderful.

Having spent too many extra hours together in this sanctuary for funerals the past few months, I suspect I am not alone in hearing comments about how nice it would be to gather for a wedding. Or to see a baby (or anyone really) being baptized. And I doubt I am the only person in this room who would laugh at the notion of being the one to bring a baby into the community.

At the same time, I notice that we have a pretty amazing stand of oaks on this property. And we’ve got plenty of space to welcome new friends and neighbors of all ages

Is it too wonderful… too unbelievable…
that God might have life yet to bring forth here?
that God might still bless us to be a blessing?

Abraham wasn’t a dreamer; he knew what God was asking and promising was beyond human expectation and understanding. That’s why he fell on his face with laughter.

But he trusted God the best he knew how. Abraham exercised every bit of faith he had and probably beyond what he believed.

Leave my father and his family? To go who knows where?    Ok, God.

Submit to circumcision? And commit all the generations to follow to do the same?   Whoooo… um, OK God

Trust you to create a nation from a child that hasn’t even been born yet? While I start racking up triple digits in age? Trust that my wife can endure a pregnancy at her advanced age?  

Abraham must have taken a big deep breath before he could say “Sure God…”  

It seems that is the miracle in this story… the one even greater  than the conception and birth of the long-awaited Isaac… is Abraham’s faith.

Even with the mis-steps along the way, Abraham and Sarah are counted among those who lived by faith and in faith and cheer us from among the great cloud of witnesses… those who bear witness to God’s enduring faithfulness.

As people of faith, as a community of faith, we must guard our hearts against the kind of cynicism that would keep us from hearing God’s call and experiencing the joy of new life.

You see, there is danger in allowing hope to be displaced by despair and frustration in the messiness that is the human heart. We can become bitter and begin to sow seeds of discontent. We seek out power and control for ourselves, rather than trusting the wisdom of God and the discernment of the community.

Langston Hughes famously asked “What happens to a dream deferred?” in his poem entitled Harlem.  While not at all an exploration of faith in the midst of waiting, there are parallels

What happens to a dream deferred?

     Does it dry up
     like a raisin in the sun?

     Or fester like a sore—
     And then run?

     Does it stink like rotten meat?
     Or crust and sugar over—
     like a syrupy sweet?

     Maybe it just sags
     like a heavy load.

     Or does it explode?

When we lose heart, it is easy to lash out because hurt people tend to hurt others. which by the way, is not a great model for loving neighbors

When a dream is deferred, when losses come, when rebirth and renewal are still gestating, we can and should help one another trust that God has a plan for us that is good.

Like Sarah and Abraham, like the people in the crowds who sought out Jesus… we don’t have trouble believing that God is capable. Surely the One who spoke the galaxies into existence, the One who breathed life into humans formed from clay, could make a barren womb fertile again with just a fleeting thought.    

We don’t question God’s ability. We do question whether God will bring healing, reconciliation, renewal to us. Because we question whether we are worthy of God’s attention, worthy of God’s love, worthy of being witness to God’s power.

I think this is why Jesus said on more than one occasion “Your faith” has done the healing. Because we need to grasp that our faith really is part of the equation… because God loves us enough to make us part of the plan.

Nothing is too wonderful to God.

With God nothing is impossible.

May we live, serve and love in this time and place like we really believe it.

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