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Pentecost 6C

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What happens when we try to influence God's promise?

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6th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
As we take this journey through the Season after Pentecost, where the theme of the season is growth, I find today’s lessons more than a little intriguing. Particularly in that there are two different themes that weave through the lessons today. One of those themes is hospitality, and it is an important part of both what happened with Abraham and Sarah in our first reading, but also of what Jesus shared with both Mary and Martha. But this is not the theme I want us to focus on today.
Instead, I want us to dig into the theme of faith in God’s promises, and I want to look at it from the Genesis reading, from the perspective of Abraham and Sarah. By the time we get to today’s reading in Abraham’s story, God has promised to give Abraham and Sarah a son at least 7 times. And several of those instances, when God is telling Abraham of this promise, he says it in a variety of ways, to make sure that Abraham understands - he will have many offspring; he will be the father of a multitude of many nations. He will have a son who will be exceedingly fruitful, and kings will come from you through him. There can be no question that Abraham will have children of his own, with his wife Sarah, and that even if they only have one child, that son will have many, many descendants whose numbers will grow great.
Now in today’s reading, Sarah laughed at this. So how did Abraham react when he heard it? This is the first time Sarah has actually heard the detailed plan (“this time next year, Sarah will bear you a son”). This finite schedule is a recent development in what God has revealed to Abraham, and Sarah didn’t hear it the first time.
If we look back to just the previous chapter, Abraham had pretty much the same reaction Sarah has in today’s reading. “17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” I hope that as I read this to you, you thought to yourself “wait, isn’t Abraham the great example of faith that Jesus and Paul and others in the New Testament lift up for all others to follow?” Because that’s certainly what I thought when I was reading this. Abraham laughed in God’s face. Sarah was at least hiding behind the door of the tent. The great example of faith in God laughed when God told him what He was going to do for Abraham.
When God first made this promise to Abraham - or at the time, “Abram” - the man was 75 years old, and his wife Sarai was 65. Even at that age, bearing a child was at least unusual if not extremely unlikely. But in that first discussion of the promise of offspring, God was quite vague, about how many children, or when they would come…only that there would be offspring. We don’t hear much about Abram’s reaction at that time.
So by the time we get to chapter 17, 25 years have gone by. Abram has heard the promise a few times more. Remember, God is revealing Himself in person to remind him of His promise. It’s not a prophet or a messenger, but God Himself who tells Abram of the promise. At age 99, I have to think that the old man has decided it’s just not going to happen.
And honestly, we have evidence of this. In chapter 16, Abram and Sarai decide that God’s timing just isn’t quite right, so they take action to make it happen sooner, and Abram fathers a child through his wife’s servant Hagar. This is NOT what God promised. Sure, Hagar bore him a son, but it’s not the way that the promise was supposed to work. Abram and Sarai had run out of patience waiting for God to deliver.
And all this time, God had a plan. And the longer God waited, the more miraculous the birth of this promised son. The less likely that people could say “oh, they just got lucky and finally had a baby.” No, this baby would UNQUESTIONABLY be the product of a promise from God.
Brothers and sisters - can you see yourself in either Abraham or Sarai? I certainly can. “Come on, God - when are you going to do something about _______? I don’t know how long I can wait for you!” Oh man, am I guilty of this. I don’t trust God. I feel like I have to do something, because God doesn’t appear to be working. Nothing’s happening. I can’t just sit here and wait and do nothing. *I* have to take action. *I* have to. *I*. See the problem? It starts to become about me instead of about God.
What happens when we think we can hurry God’s plans along? Do we actually think that *we* can make God move faster? That we can make Him do something earlier than He had planned to? This is where we *must* remember: God’s timing is always perfect. Always.
When you look at Genesis 16 and read about the mess created between Abram and Sarai and Hagar - it got really ugly. Yes, the plan looked like it would work, that Hagar would have a baby, but she immediately got angry with Sarai, who then got angry with Abram. All sorts of conflict and brokenness in their relationships. They operated outside of God’s promise. They didn’t trust God’s plan.
Martin Luther writes in his commentary on this passage about what happens when we engage in sex outside of marriage: “Marriage is necessary as a remedy for lust,… And yet the whole world shuns this legitimate, divinely instituted union and prefers to indulge in promiscuous relations, which are harmful in more than one way. Property is squandered, bodies are damaged by serious diseases, God is provoked to inflict horrible punishments, and, worst of all, states and households are destroyed.” [Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 3: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 15-20, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 3 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 48.]
Wow. So going out of God’s boundaries isn’t such a good thing? That there are consequences to going against God’s created order? Yeah, that’s a topic for another Sunday. For now, let’s stick to the faith part.
God has a response to Sarah’s laughter that really stuck with me: “14  Is anything too hard for the LORD?” That’s kind of what it all boils down to, isn’t it? All the miracles that the Bible offers up to us, all the different displays of power that God sends or does, the amazing feats done by God’s prophets, all the signs that Jesus performs, even the miracles we see with the apostles in the New Testament… is anything too hard for the LORD?
We go back and forth in our hearts - telling ourselves that we believe and trust in God, but when He doesn’t answer our prayers in the way or in the time that we want Him to, we try to take action. When that happens, a part of us is saying “yeah, apparently this is too hard for the LORD.”
I’m willing to bet most of us in here have had this inner struggle. So what do we take from this?
I suggest that we take relief from this passage in Genesis. And I say that because Abraham himself - the pinnacle of faith in the God of Israel - if he can question God, try to change God’s plans, laugh in God’s face, and still receive the promise and the covenant, then there’s hope for ALL of us - even ME. And make no mistake - if God knew that Sarah was laughing behind the tent door, He knows when we doubt Him, He knows when we are trying to take over what we have already asked Him to do. I’m reminded of Pr. Hefner’s secret to less stress: “When I give something over to God, I don’t try to take it back from Him.” Leave it with God.
Amid all the talk of Abraham’s faith, it can be tempting for us to think that Abraham generated that faith on his own. The Old Testament often seems to paint the picture that way. But we know that’s not how faith works. Faith is a gift from God - it comes from the Holy Spirit. And God gave Abraham the faith that he needed to receive God’s promise.
Back to that question that God asked: “14 Is anything too hard for the LORD?” Something happens in the Hebrew that we don’t really get in English. This is a question that expects a certain answer. It’s like when your wife says “are you going to wear THAT tie?” So when you hear the question: “is anything too hard for the LORD?” You say “NO!” This would be one of Paul’s infamous “by no means!” kind of negative replies. Is anything too hard for the LORD? NO!
As we look around at the mess our country is in, at the craziness and chaos in our society, the divisiveness among our citizens, the looming disaster that is our economy right now, the conflict between various countries and nations… if you dare watch the news or read a newspaper, it can easily be overwhelming, and it likely seems hopeless. But is it? Is it hopeless? Is anything too hard for the LORD? NO!
We may not understand God’s timing. I know I’m ready for some cheaper gas prices and inflation to go down and for our citizens to stop hating each other and for Russia to back out of Ukraine and for China to stop sending deadly drugs across the US-Mexico border… yeah, I’m ready for God to calm down some of this stuff…or even just one of these things.
But as I read about Abraham and Sarah being reminded over and over again that God has a plan, and He will put it into action in His time, and His timing is always perfect… I get a sense of peace. Because Sarah did have a son, exactly when God said she would, and it was a miracle. And through that son, a great family grew. A family that one day would bring forth another Son, who gave up his life for all of us, and who then conquered death and rose again. We will remember that particular Son when we come forward to receive His body and blood at His Table in just a few moments. That Son is the ultimate answer to God’s promise - the most beautiful and powerful promise that God ever made, and it’s already come true. Let us all remember that when we taste that very promise in the Lord’s Supper this morning.
When we doubt, when we grow impatient, when we laugh at the impossibility that God could do something that just seems beyond our capability to conceive of such a thing, let’s remember Abraham and Sarah. God can give a baby to a 100-year-old man and a 90-year-old woman, but that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to all the incredible things that God can do, and has done.
And let’s remember the best thing God has done: sending us the gift of His Son, to ensure that all of us may have eternal life with Him. Remember that. Believe that. Have faith in that. Take comfort in that.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
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