June 18, 2023
Eavesdropping on the Promises
As we think about Father’s Day and families the Abraham story seems to fit right in. In fact Genesis is filled with family stories and Abraham is recognized as the father of three of the world’s great religions. This morning we had just a piece of the Abraham & Sarah story. Of course, the bible continues to trace the intricacies of this family history through multiple generations. –One of the things that makes it such an engaging story is that it’s not just their faith and goodness that is talked about in the story, it is all the foolishness and foibles of this family as well. The whole story is infused with laughter and invites playfulness.
The Bible pulls no punches. These are not saintly folks in any usual understanding of the word. –These are normal families with all the crazy dysfunctional problems of everyday families, with faith that is quite often lacking strength, and values that get twisted by emotions. It begins with audaciousness of God making seemingly impossible promises. Even Sarah laughs at these promises in today’s passage.
As for faithless foibles: Abraham as a younger man was ready to marry off his wife Sarah, to another man out of fear that the other man, who was a powerful ruler, might kill him to take her because she was so beautiful. –God saves them both from that fiasco!
Sarah, who laughs today, earlier gives up on the idea of having children and suggests a surrogate mother to Abraham. Sarah tells him to have a son with her maid, because she is convinced she is not going to bear children. Her laughter today is only a part of the absurdity she sees in continuing to hope, or expectation that that she can bear children at this point in her life. –Then once she does bear this Son Isaac, (the name by the way means laughter) she wants the elder surrogate son, the one produced by her servant, out of the picture and asks Abraham to send that mother and child both away so that her son can get the full inheritance! In Islamic tradition, Arabic nations come from this eldest son of Abraham, who is Ishmael and therefore are the rightful inheritors of God’s promises.
Certainly, the biblical story today wants to underscore that God continues to be faithful. God’s promises are sure –even when everything logical says God has let us down, or failed to deliver on expected promises. “Is anything impossible for God?” is the penetrating question posed at the end by one these strangers.
–You may note that even though Sarah’s faith is lacking, and her doubts are abundant, –she does in fact have a son. In the final analysis God’s promises really do not depend on her.
In the continuing story, Sarah’s son, Isaac, in turn has two sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau the older is Dad’s favorite & is a real man’s man. Jacob, the younger, is something of a momma’s boy. But Jacob, in a bit of chicanery, manages to get his brother to giving him the eldest birthright, and with a lot of help from mom, manages to dupe the old man, into giving him the family blessing over his older brother. Jacob then has to run away to his mother’s family to escape his brother’s wrath.
–The duplicity doesn’t end there. Jacob in turn, is later tricked by his uncle into marrying a different woman than he wants to. And then he is tricked by 11 of his sons into thinking his favorite child, Joseph, is dead, when in fact the brothers have contrived to sell him into slavery to a caravan going to Egypt.
And imagine, Abraham in our story today, God shows up in the form of three strangers. It is all out of the blue and Abraham responds with the best of Mid-Eastern hospitality, bowing and inviting them to stay. Note that he tells the men he will serve them dinner, then he immediately goes to his wife and says, “ Why don’t you dig out some more flour and bake some more bread (or cakes depending on the translations) I just invited these three guys for dinner.” In the next breath he tells his servant to take care of butchering the calf and preparing the steaks. –It sounds like a classic case of masculine hospitality! – To make matters worse, you may notice that when the meal is talked about later in the story there isn’t even a mention of the bread that Sarah has had to make from scratch on a hot desert afternoon!
-A little Father’s Day tip guys, this is not the way to win points with your wife! -Maybe you want to bear in mind that it took an act of God for Abraham to have a child with his wife! Abraham ate with the three men, Sarah didn’t join them. She stays back in the tent and listens in on their conversation. Laughing at how foolish they are.
-There are a lot more intricacies and subtleties to the story of Abraham and his descendants of course, but that is the brief outline of family history. –Now, tell me if that family isn’t at least as mixed up a family as yours!
The bible includes these stories not to legitimatize family squabbles and misbehavior but to affirm God working, even in the turbulent, mixed up twists and turns of our lives. Even when faith is lacking…even when we are something less than perfect.
–Even Ishmael, the surrogate son of Abraham is blessed by God and returns to join his half-brother in burying Abraham.
—And Jacob & Esau, the two feuding brothers, embrace many years later. And of course Joseph, the one sold into slavery in Egypt, turns out to save his family from famine as he rises to prominence there. And he reminds his brothers “You meant it for evil but God used it for good”
In some sense Sarah’s laughter at the suggestion that she is going to have a son of her own now in her later years might be seen as laughter at the whole absurd story that follows.
Common sense tells her she can’t have a child, after all she has been trying for years and she knows it’s too late now.
And common sense would tell us that a family so wracked by fighting and intrigue couldn’t possibly be used by God for some greater purpose. –But there it is in the story. God always surprising. God always moving through the cracks in our lives and the chaos of our families to let in the light and bring saving hope.
If God can use Abraham and his family God can use anyone’s! I know it may seem laughable, but Genesis would beg to differ.
Maybe we don’t have to be giants of faith, we just have to go forward with a hope for God’s purposes and a willingness to take the next step! -Sometimes even when it still seems laughable!
God still makes promises for the future and invites us to be a part of them. Just remember, the larger promises to Abraham took generations to fulfill, and even that promise to have a son took a lifetime to fulfill.