February 25, 2018, Lent 2 – The Logic of Faith in the Impossible – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000066
In the first week of Lent, we read the familiar story of Noah and the Ark. And I talked about the maybe not-so-familiar idea of the Covenant that God made with the whole creation when Noah and his family and all the critters came out of the ark after the Great Flood. Like the vows we make in marriage, God promised at that time that he would be faithful to his creatures for better or for worse, providing for them and being merciful and gracious to them, no matter what, for as long as the creation lasted. That promise was part of God’s whole Covenant relationship to the world he made, and to the creatures he loves, a relationship of unconditional faithfulness and love on God’s part.
But clearly, a relationship has two sides, if it is truly a relationship and not just a kind of controlling ownership. If God is like a husband, as he tells us in Scripture, and not like a corporate CEO or an absolute dictator, or a puppet-master, then the question we ought to ask is, what does our side of the relationship look like? If we are really in a Covenant relationship with God, and if he has vowed to love us unconditionally and to sustain his creation, then what is our part of the “marriage vows”?
I think there is no better place to find the answer to that question than the long relationship between God and Abraham, or Abram as he is first known, that we read about in the book of Genesis. Sarah read today from chapter 17, about how God came to Abram when Abram was 99 years old, and how he made a promise that Abram would surely be the ancestor of a great nation. But it’s important to know that this wasn’t the first time that God had appeared to Abram. And it wasn’t the first time he had made this same promise to Abram.
The first time God came to Abram, Abram was living in the land where he had been born. Abram was 75 years old at that time, and God called him to leave everything behind, his homeland and his heritage, and to come out to a land that God would show him, and he promised then that he would make Abram into a great nation.
About ten years after that, God appeared to Abram again, and he renewed his promise to Abram. He told Abram to look up into the night sky – and you can just imagine how many stars he could see, out in the desert land of that ancient world – and again, God promised Abram that he would be the father of a multitude. That time he even gave Abram a powerful vision as a pledge that he would fulfill his promise to Abram.
Fast-forward, then, almost fifteen more years, to the day we read about today, when God came to Abram a third time, and a third time he promised Abram that he was making him into a great nation, and that his offspring would be kings. Three times, over almost a quarter of a century, God had made this promise to Abram.
But there was one huge problem, and that was that Abram and his wife weren’t able to have children. Abram’s wife, Sarai, was barren, and had been barren throughout the long years of their marriage, and now here they were in their old age. The first time God had come to Abram, Abram pointed out that there was no hope for him to be the father of a nation, because the only heir he had was a slave born in his household. And God had assured him that no, he would have a true heir, a biological son.
Abram and Sarai had waited patiently for a long time after the first promise, and just like the rest of us they weren’t growing any younger year by year, until finally, Sarai, like a good wife, decided that maybe God wanted them to show a little initiative. Sarai had a maidservant, Hagar. It was an acceptable thing at that time and in that culture for husbands to bear children by means of their wife’s maidservant. If Abram slept with Hagar, and if Hagar conceived a son, Sarai reasoned, then God’s promise would be accomplished, because the child would indeed be the biological offspring of Abram. It was logical, and Abram had agreed, and Hagar had borne a son to him, named Ishmael. And Abram loved Ishmael as his own son. Problem solved.
But when Abram was 99 years old, God came to him for the third time, and for the third time he made his promise to Abram that he would be the father of a multitude. That’s when he changed Abram’s name to Abraham, which means “father of a multitude.” Abraham pointed out to God that he and Sarai had this descendant thing all worked out. Ishmael was a strong 13-year-old boy by then, and he was certainly Abraham’s flesh and blood. But God had no intention of changing his original plan, which had always been that the heir of Abraham, the child of the Covenant promise he had made to them, was going to be the child born of the line of Abraham and Sarah.
When God first appeared to him on that day Abraham had fallen on his face before God in worship. And when God told him that he and Sarah would be the parents of the child of the promise, he fell on his face a second time. Only the second time, Abraham fell on his face laughing, because clearly the situation was impossible. Paul put it pretty plainly in Romans, when he wrote, “Abraham saw that his own body was as good as dead.” He knew that his wife’s womb was barren, there was no doubt about that. The thing was impossible. It was laughable.
Abraham tried to bargain with God about his son Ishmael. As his own flesh and blood, couldn’t Ishmael be the fulfillment of the promise? But God wouldn’t budge. God had chosen the lineage of his saving work; he had chosen the ancestry of his own birth into the world, and although it was physically impossible – in fact, I think because it was physically impossible, he had chosen Abraham, and Sarah his wife as the progenitors of that lineage. And the reason I say because, is that it was the very impossibility of this offspring that was a sign, to Abraham, and to Sarah, and to all of their descendants after them. It was a sign that the promise was being fulfilled by God himself, not by any human reason or cleverness or strength, but purely by God’s ability to create life out of virtually nothing.
But again, a relationship goes both ways, and in the book of Genesis we find that even though God didn’t change his plan to give Abraham and Sarah a child of their own, still, he truly listened to Abraham’s plea for his son Ishmael. In fact, the name Ishmael means “God hears.” Out of his love for Abraham, God blessed his son Ishmael, promising that Ishmael would be the father of 12 tribes, just as Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, would be the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. It turns out that Ishmael is the great-great-great-many-times-grandfather of the prophet Muhammed, and for that reason Abraham is the patriarch of Islam as well as of Judaism. And that means that even though the Covenant promises did come through Isaac, Sarah’s son, as God had planned, still, as spiritual children of Abraham we Christians share a common spiritual ancestry with Muslims. That’s just a little side note, but I think it’s a good thing for us to remember, and to think about.
Because Abraham did have a crucial responsibility in the Covenant promise, and it was just this – in the face of the utter impossibility of the promise, to believe the one who promised. “Abraham believed God,” we are told, “and that was reckoned to him as righteousness.” The Covenant relationship between man and God was established, first and foremost, on God’s faithfulness. But our part of the relationship, the human side of the equation, as it were, is faith.
And for the Church, that means faith in God as he has revealed himself fully, in the person of Jesus Christ, the one who says to us, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” It’s a very particular way, not just a matter of trying to be good people in a general way, because we are walking in the very particular footsteps of the one who said, “I didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.” and who told his disciples on his last day with them, “I have given you an example. If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”
On Fridays in Lent we make a practice of imaginatively walking in the footsteps of Jesus as he walked the last steps of his earthly life. We follow the icons around the walls of the sanctuary as we call to mind how he was falsely arrested and condemned to death, how he took up the heavy cross on which die, and how he fell under its weight – not once, but three times. We follow as he humbly accepts the help of Simon of Cyrene, as he offers love to those who wept for him, as he is mocked and abused, as he shows concern for his mother even as he suffers, as he is nailed to the cross and dies at the hands of men, as he is laid in the tomb of a stranger.
Is it any wonder, then, that Peter took Jesus aside and told him that he really needed to come up with a different game plan? People of all religions and no religion find Jesus’ message of peace and love and kindness very appealing, but when it comes to self-denial and service and suffering, those are pretty much non-starters, aren’t they? They just don’t seem to be very effect rallying cries for attracting followers.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “The cross is laid on every Christian… As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Jesus is the one in whom the Covenant promise of God has now finally been fully revealed. And just like Abraham in his old age, we seem to be called to step out into the impossible. Jesus makes the impossible claim to us that the only way to life and joy is the way that leads to suffering and death, and then he bids us to follow him. But what we learn from Abraham is that our faith is not in the possibility of the call, but in the absolute trustworthiness of the one who calls us, and who has walked the way of the Cross every step of the way, in his great love for us.