This sermon is based on a sermon I preached in 2008.
We sometimes forget how our ancient mothers and fathers of our faith struggled to figure out life and faith, too, like we do. How they didn't have it all together, and things did not just fall into place for them. In fact, quite the opposite. More often than not, they felt unsure they were even heading in the right direction and fumbled to find the right steps toward goodness.
Abram and Sarai are a good example of people and couples in the Bible who struggled. In particular, as it is for so many couples, Abram and Sarai struggled with intimacy. Now, we have to be careful here, to not overlay too much of a Western romanticism approach onto our view of their relationship. Certainly, our western notions of romance are not what I mean here by intimacy.
Mainly, Abram and Sarai struggled to communicate with each other or to have each other's best interests in mind when approaching each other. Even if they were not in love the way we understand romantic love today, they also were not making choices to encourage the advancement of their family line. Despite saying that's what they wanted, their actions did not match up with their expressed hopes.
Partly, this was due to Abram's nearly debilitating fear. He feared losing himself, being hurt, or never seeing his dreams fulfilled. He feared these things so much, he regularly sabotaged opportunities for goodness, and his own and his family's well-being, by putting Sarai at risk whenever they entered a new land.
Despite his fears and consistently poor choices, Abram persisted in hoping for an heir. It seemed he hoped the way so many of us hope - that God might simply give him his heart's desire, without him having to be involved in the process. All that business of being a husband and a father, let alone the head of an entire household, really stretched him to his limits. He would prefer to just have the benefits of a great family line.
Have you ever wanted something without actually knowing how to bring it about or having any sense of how you would get there? Practitioners of visualization often teach the importance of believing, of imaging, yourself in the position you desire to be in. For, they say, if you don't believe you can be in that position, if you cannot actually see yourself there, it is far less likely you actually will achieve it.
As much as Abram wants to beget a family as numerous as the stars in heaven, he also cannot struggles to envision the steps to getting there. Particularly, the steps of love, care, and responsibility that tend to be key ingredients in establishing an extensive family line.
Through a series of seven visits, God gently, over time, encourages Abram to gain a sense of awareness of his own presence in building a life with God, family, and neighbors. These visits reach momentum in Genesis 15 when God promises Abraham he not only will have an heir, but he'll have as many descendants as the stars in the heavens.
Then, in Genesis 17, God visits Abraham again and makes the promise even more explicit. Here God pronounces Abram's name shall change to Abraham, and Sarai's name shall change to Sarah. Also, God declares, Sarah will give birth to a son.
What do you usually do when you receive good news? And not just any good news - but the news you've been waiting most of your life for? The best news? Do you call people? Your parents, siblings? Your best friend? Your spouse? Do you ever keep good news to yourself?
In our passage today, we find God coming to visit Abraham and Sarah, along with two attendants. Some time has passed since God and Abraham's last visit, and since then, Abraham and his entire household, including his thirteen year-old son Ishmael, have been circumcised. Upon seeing God approaching, Abraham immediately invites the guests to visit. They accept, and Abraham instructs the household to prepare a feast.
While the party gathers, the LORD repeats his decree – Sarah shall give birth to a son. She is busy in the tent, preparing the meal, but still overhears this absurdity. She cannot help but giggle, or even balk, at the thought. A woman of her age and her life experience, pregnant after all this time.
Then, something curious happens. Rather than addressing Sarah directly, the LORD looks directly at Abraham and asks, "Why is your wife laughing?"
Can you imagine the look on Abraham's face right then? After all the times God and Abraham have shared up until this moment. The question is for Abraham. God is not questioning or admonishing Sarah's faith in this moment. Instead, it seems God is asking: Why, after all our visits, after all I've told you, after all over our covenanting and promising and believing – why, Abraham, is your wife laughing as if she's never heard the good news? Surely, you have not kept her from knowing the dream you share with her is going to come true?
Embarrassed, ashamed, or maybe feeling the tensions rising outside after hearing her husband's silence, Sarah quickly counters, "I didn't laugh."
"Yes, you laughed," God simply says. Though I'm not sure he ever takes his eyes off of Abraham as he speaks.
Here's the thing – God can bring about miracles. God can even harden or loosen hearts. But God does not participate for you. You matter. You showing up matters. Abraham showing up matters. Constantly putting his wife at risk every time they enter a new town - encouraging her to pretend she was his sister instead of his wife in order to save his own skin - mattered. There's only one reason Sarah doesn't already know she's going to have a son. Abraham hasn't bothered to tell her. Why hasn't Abraham bothered to tell her? We may never fully know.
It's good for us to consider the ways we may be getting in our own way, as Abraham kept getting in his own way. The ways we may stop, limit, or obstruct the very dreams God says may be ours from becoming a reality. Sometimes, God steadily makes the way, even as we actively work against ourselves.
In what ways can we better attend to the blessings God invites us to participate in bringing about? In what ways can we better attend to the relationships in our lives – our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors – in building goodness together? How can we better share the good news God grants us with our loved ones?
The founder and director of Fearless Dialogues, Gregory Ellison II, often shares with his audiences a lesson from his grandmother. He calls it the three-foot-challenge. He shares how his grandmother would often point out how he may not be able to change the circumstances he is facing, but he can change the three feet around him. Abraham probably would have benefitted from Dr. Ellison's grandmother's advice. He probably could have changed more of the three feet around him.
Thank goodness, in Abraham's case, God showed up even when Abraham did not. That doesn't always happen. Sometimes, God allows the chips to fall where they may. Just as God invited Abraham to much more - just as God called the disciples out of their fishing boats and onto the shore – God invites us to make a difference. May we all respond.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.