Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 18, 2017
Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7) Commentary
“The trouble with a lot of religion,” my colleague John Buchanan once said in a sermon on Genesis 18, “is that it is so predictable; there is no room for surprise in it.” He then goes on to quote the theologian Sam Keene as saying that surprise – and wonder – is at the heart of religion.
Verse 14’s question, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” is hardly surprising. Its answer, however, is surprising, if not shocking. It’s in fact so shocking that when God answers it for people better suited for winters in Arizona than building a nursery, they quake with laughter.
Genesis 18’s Sarah would never see ninety again and Abraham had already lived for more than a century. So when the angel told Abraham that the stork was on the way to his tent, Genesis 17:17 reports he fell on his face laughing. On top of that, Genesis 18:12 reports that when the Lord repeats that audacious promise in earshot of Sarah, she stands behind her tent door so that her guests won’t think she’s rude as the tears of laughter stream down her cheeks.
Laughing Abraham is the main actor of the first part of the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. He dominates it with a series of active verbs and commands. The scene’s context of Abraham drowsing in the shade during the heat of the day is almost somnolent. Yet the pace of scene itself, particularly of verses 6-7, is, as Walter Brueggemann, to whose Genesis (John Knox Press, 1982) I’m indebted for large parts of this sermon commentary, points out, almost frantic: “Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. ‘Quick,’ he said, ‘get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread.’ Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant who hurried to prepare it.” [Italics added]
Brueggemann says this breathless pace hints that the narrator has something important and unexpected to tell us.
The visitors who come to visit Abraham and Sarah, as visitors often do, inject chaos into their hosts’ lives. After all, Abraham and Sarah’s mealtime table is small. It has only two place settings, because Abraham and Sarah have no children together.
So when Abraham tells his wife to quickly both put out three more place settings and prepare food to fill them, chaos probably breaks loose in his otherwise probably quiet household. Yet that chaos is nothing compared to the chaos their guests introduce with their shocking news.
In the second scene, the narrator slows the pace, perhaps to emphasize the dramatic importance of what he’s describing. Abraham becomes an observer who “stands” while his guests consume the meal Sarah has provided. Perhaps as they eat, those guests take the lead, giving Abraham their startling news. Without fanfare the Lord simply tells him, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a child.”
The announcement nearly thrums with what Brueggemann calls a dramatic sense of wonder. It’s not, after all, just that Sarah and Abraham are already “old and well advanced in years” (11). It’s also that Sarah is “past the age of childbearing” (11). She even thinks of herself as “worn out” and of her husband as “old” (11). She’s almost certainly already menopausal.
God, however, insists that God is about to turn Abraham and Sarah’s whole world upside down. They’re going to need to add a leaf to the family table, as well as build a nursery and make some trips to Buy Buy Baby. Abraham and Sarah will, after all, have a baby within a year.
Yet as Brueggemann points out, it’s ironic that while Abraham’s story is largely about how Sarah and he accept God’s call, they don’t accept God’s promise to give them a son. Abraham and Sarah, instead, laugh at it, not with joy and happiness, but with skepticism and despair.
That’s why verse 14’s, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” is the central question of not just Genesis 18, but also Abraham’s whole story, as well as, arguably, the entire Scriptural record. After all, God wants to transform not just Abraham and Sarah’s family and attitude, but also the whole world’s.
While it may seem to us like a rhetorical question, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” is a question that always awaits an answer. Certainly we hear echoes of it repeatedly in the Bible. It’s a question people like Joseph, Moses, David and Jesus’ disciples must answer. You and I might even say that “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” is the fundamental question that all of us must answer.
After all, as Brueggemann suggests, how we answer that question in a sense shapes nearly everything else. If, after all, as he notes, you and I believe some things are too hard for the Lord, we’re confessing that God is not really God. After all, we’re limiting God’s power and freedom. If, on the other hand, we accept the fact that nothing is too hard for the Lord, we accept God’s freedom and power to act according to God’s good purposes and plans. You and I accept it so much, in fact, that we’re able to entrust God’s world and ourselves to God alone.
Of course, since we naturally answer “No” to the question of whether anything is too hard for the Lord, as Brueggemann points out, Genesis’ answer to that question stretches beyond typical human experience. It shatters the limits that logic and common sense place on God’s world as well as God’s work in it.
Our text ends with a poignant exchange. Verse 15 says that when God confronts Sarah about her laughing response to God’s question, she “was afraid, so she lied and said, ‘I did not laugh.’ But he said, ‘Yes, you did laugh’.” Sarah isn’t just skeptical; she also can’t even own up to her own skepticism. That, along with Abraham and Sarah’s laughter of disbelief suggests they still believe that some things are too hard for the Lord.
Thank God, then, that God’s gracious resolve to grace them with a future through a son doesn’t depend on Abraham and Sarah’s readiness to accept it. God will carry out God’s own plan, in spite of their skepticism. Abraham and Sarah will have a son, even though he won’t be born in the context of faith.
Yet while God’s Word is convinced that God is able to do what seems impossible, Abraham’s descendants, of whom God has graciously made us a part, aren’t always equally convinced. Is anything too hard for the Lord? Is God’s power finally limited to what we can imagine? Or is there some other power that limits God’s power? Can God’s world finally say “no” to its Creator and Sustainer?
The New Testament raises the question, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” about Elizabeth. Her husband, Zechariah, mourns Luke 1:20, did “not believe” God’s promise his wife and he would have a son. Luke portrays Mary, on the other hand, as one who does not doubt. After all, Luke 1:45 tells us that she believed “that what the Lord had said to her would be accomplished.”
What Jesus later tells Peter and the other disciples in some ways echoes what God said to Abraham and Sarah. After all, in Mark 10:27 he insists, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” The one who knew that God is completely free to be God professes that, in fact, “All things are possible with” God.
In doing so, Jesus invites Genesis 18’s preachers, teachers and those who hear us to embrace that faith with him. After all, as he tells his disciples, in Matthew 17:20, “Nothing will be impossible for you.” We can, in fact, as the apostle Paul later insists, do all things through the Christ who gives us strength.
As Brueggemann goes on to note, however, God doesn’t promise everything, even to people who trust God’s promises. Only what’s consistent with God’s sometimes mysterious but always good purposes is possible for the Lord. So while God promises us a future in God’s new community, God doesn’t promise you and me everything we want.
In Gethsemane, even Jesus faced the issue of whether everything is possible with God. In Mark 14:36 he prayed, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Yet Jesus learns that everything but one thing is possible for God. The one thing God can’t do is one things Jesus wants — remove “the cup.” God can’t take away the reality of Jesus’ suffering and cross.
So our text doesn’t let us assume that all things are naturally possible. Instead, it suggests that because of God’s nature, all things are possible for those who faithfully endure the sometimes-long night of our hopelessness. After all, even Abraham and Sarah will eventually have to be willing to surrender their son.
Faith is, as Brueggemann reminds us, a scandal. Its promises are beyond both our expectation and all evidence. No wonder, then, that Sarah was afraid. God gives the promise, but calls many of us to a long wait.
Is anything too hard for the Lord? Certainly not healing from our broken and painful past. Certainly not healing from our infertility or cancer. Certainly not healing for our broken relationships or faith in our unbelieving sons and daughters. All things are possible with God.
Of course, some things are improper for God. Other things may lie outside of God’s good purposes. Nothing, however, is too hard for the Lord, except to be unfaithful to God’s self, plans and purposes, as well as God’s adopted sons and daughters.
In his remarkable book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, Oliver Sacks writes about Jimmie, who remains forever stuck in 1945. Jimmie is a likeable person with whom you can have a nice chat. But if you leave the room after even a two-hour conversation and then return a little later, he’ll greet you as if he’s never met you. This vacuum locks Jimmie into a fluid but finally meaningless present moment. Without anything to look back on and or look forward to, joy is simply impossible for him.
But Sacks says there is one time when Jimmie shows something like joy, when something that looks like wholeness and calmness replaces the vacant look on his face. That’s when he receives the Eucharist.
When Sacks grieved the toll his disease took Jimmie’s soul, the nuns told him to come for communion. When he returned, he found that Jimmie was able to fully participate in the service, reciting the familiar lines, saying the prayers, and going forward to receive the wafer. And when he did, Jimmie’s face shone with both peace and joy.
My colleague Scott Hoezee writes that God was at work in Jimmie in ways that made him a “living, breathing, walking, talking showcase display window of a very surprising grace.” Sacks knew there was no good neurological explanation for this. “But,” as Hoezee adds, “perhaps grace has its own reason.”
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