Tuesday, October 24, 2017

"Is Anything Too Wonderful for God?" (Sermon)

“Is Anything Too Wonderful for God?”
Genesis 18:1-15
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         In Genesis 12, God calls Abram and Sarai to be the parents of a new nation. With God’s promise ringing in their ears, they set out in faith. By chapter 18, Abram, which means “Exalted Father,” has been renamed Abraham, “Father of a Multitude.” Sarai is now simply Sarah. Interestingly, these name changes are strong affirmations, yet they come on the heels of acts of faithlessness.
         Abraham and Sarah begin their journey with great confidence and hope. As the journey turns into wandering, that optimism wanes, and the aging couple grows desperate. Without a child, where will the great nation come from? Taking matters into their own hands, Sarah says to her husband, “Here. Have a child with Hagar, my servant girl. The new nation will have to come through your offspring with her.”
The situation is not unlike Eve offering forbidden fruit to Adam. Hopelessness makes Abraham and Sarah try to play God. The results are Ishmael, and a widening rift between Abraham and Sarah and God.
         Thirteen years later, God renews the covenant with a 99-year old Abraham. When he hears that Sarah will conceive and bear a son, Abraham “fell on his face and laughed.” Abraham’s laughter is not the laughter of joy. It’s the kind of laughter reserved for the absurd. It’s the kind of laughter you and I might experience in the grocery store when we learn, from the National Enquirer, that “scientists” have discovered that Stonehenge was built by aliens from the future, who built it as a monument to the earthlings who would invent Twinkies. And even now those aliens are hiding the shadow of Jupiter, teleporting enormous quantities of Twinkies to the mother ship.
Abraham’s laugh was that kind of laugh – even though such a story might explain the continuing demand for something as disgusting as a Twinkie.
         In today’s text, a flummoxed Abraham sits in the door of his tent peering through the blistering heat of the Palestinian sun. I imagine him wondering, “What happened? How did I end up this old and this far from home? Was it God who spoke to me? Or was it my inflated ego?”
         Abraham looks up and sees three men walking toward him in the heat of the day. In Abraham’s culture, the virtue of hospitality shares top honors with traits such as honesty and courage. So, when he sees these men traveling beneath the burning sun, he leaps into action. He runs out to welcome them. He urges them to sit in the shade while he fetches them some water and has food prepared for them. When they accept, Abraham tells Sarah to use the best flour for the cakes. He picks out “a calf, tender and good” for his servant to cook. And while they eat, Abraham, the man called by God to be the Father of a Multitude and a blessing to all nations, stands back and watches. He assumes the posture of a humble servant rather than a man of means and global purpose.
         The travelers, identified by the text as “the Lord,” witness a change in Abraham’s attitude and behavior. ‘In a year,’ says one traveler, reiterating the covenant, ‘I will return, and Sarah will have a son.’
Behind the tent flap, out of sight, Sarah laughs.
         ‘Laugh all you want,’ says the traveler. ‘But in a year, you will have a son.’
While Sarah’s laugh reveals the lingering skepticism in Abraham’s household, their hospitality declares the faith, hope, and love which run deeper than disappointment. Abraham and Sarah are coming of age as servants of God. After all the years and miles, they finally demonstrate true humility, and thus their readiness to be ones through whom God will act on behalf of others.
There’s a notable difference in God’s reactions to all this laughter. When Abraham falls on his face and laughs, God doesn’t bat an eye. But when Sarah chuckles, God takes offense. In both cases, the laughter expresses an understandable lack of faith. Abraham and Sarah are both asking, ‘How can we be parents? We’re so old our AARP memberships have expired!’ And both times God reassures them that the promise is safe. In Genesis 18, God takes a grandma’s paddle to Abraham and Sarah by asking, “Is anything too wonderful for God?”
Maybe God is merciful with Abraham and Sarah because God understands just how difficult the journey is.
         Listen, you are called to and gifted for something only you can do. But how often do you sense that the great promise within you is shriveling beneath the burden of life’s busyness and impermanence? It can often seem that God has all but disappeared. When we feel abandoned, it’s easy to think that the only way forward is to intervene, to force our will, regardless of its effect on others. But that force always distances us from God. The story of Abraham and Sarah illustrates that when we humble ourselves as servants, then do we begin to enter into the strength and freedom of God.
The difficulty is in understanding that God’s strength and freedom differ sharply from human strength and freedom. God’s is a humble strength. Jesus’ word for it is “meekness.” And to live in God’s freedom is to live for-the-sake-of-others. Jesus calls that losing one’s life in order to save it. Living in God’s strength and freedom is to occupy, here and now, the Promised Land.
When we associate weapons and domination with the word strength, and unfettered self-determination with the idea of freedom, the Promised Land becomes less and less promising for all. When sensing a threat to human strength and freedom, it’s easy to sit at the opening of our tents in the heat of our day deciding that if we just force our way back to the way things used to be, all will be well. But sometimes being stuck is exactly where we need to be. Watching. Expecting. Trusting. Ready to leap into servant-hearted action.
         Our present is laden with the searing heat of anxiety, meanness, and with aspersions of blame. There may even be a Friday on our horizon. And if that be so, then Sunday will follow. Because it belongs to God, the future is pregnant with promise. And because this sounds absurd to the Abrams and Sarais within us and around us, they will fall on their faces laughing. They will tell us that there’s a better chance of aliens from the future hiding behind Jupiter and eating Twinkies than there is of a fellow traveler named Jesus empowering us to live faithfully, hopefully, and lovingly. As long as we choose to associate the privileges of race, class, or a particular nationality, and the might of weaponry with God’s presence and favor, we may be proving them right, because ultimately, such things declare our fear and even contempt of the other.
Here is our question: “Is anything too wonderful for God?” We don’t answer that by uttering a “yes” or a “no.” As followers of Jesus, we answer to a new name, Christian – a name we take on in part, interestingly enough, when we acknowledge the faithlessness of our betrayal of Jesus. So, as Christians, we answer that question by committing ourselves to lives of hospitality, lives of justice, mercy, humility, and gratitude.
As followers of Jesus, we don’t just look forward to the Promised Land, we inhabit it here. We reveal it today.