Itchen Valley Churches – Sermon for 14 June 2020
Imagine that, having been married for 72 years and now aged 94 and 99, the Queen and Prince Philip had never been able to have children – so there would have been no Princes Charles, Andrew and Edward and no Princess Anne. They would have long since concluded that they would never produce a direct heir to the throne. What if, after decades of longing for a child but at their now great ages, they were told by God that within a year they would produce a son to carry on their line? Would such a promised gift be believable?
When this promise was made first to Abram, as he was then called, in Genesis 17, we are told that he was 100 years old and his wife Sarah was 90.
As our story today begins, what might their state of mind have been? Did they believe that Abraham’s encounter with God had been transformational and all would be well within a year? Or did they perhaps think that the realities of life, of age and stage, could not be overcome and the promise was actually just a day-dream that would fade with time?
We cannot know for sure. However, perhaps because the second conclusion is more likely, during this time of waiting they receive unexpected visitors. We are told in verse 1 that Abraham, a prosperous man with large flocks and herds, is resting in the heat of the day, outside his tent and under the shade of some oaks. With no warning and seemingly out of nowhere three men appear, with one described by the writer as ‘the Lord.’
The identity of this figure is not easy to determine. Scholars and commentaries suggest several possibilities, including that he is Jesus in human form before his incarnation or an angelic ambassador sent by God, with his companions, to convey a significant message. But what matters is that this visitor speaks with complete knowledge of Abraham and Sarah’s circumstances and does so with both authority and sympathy. Whether he is God himself in human form or is only representing him, his purpose in re-stating the promise made first to Abraham is entirely affirming and in keeping with God’s faithful, loving character.
The visitors are treated to special hospitality by Abraham, who has perhaps sensed that there is something distinctive about them. In verse 9, they ask after Sarah (therefore revealing that they know her name) and we learn she is nearby, in the tent and able to listen to the conversation. Astonishingly, one of the visitors then confirms the promise made to Abraham that a son shall arrive in the foreseeable future. Incredulous, Sarah laughs to herself, not in amusement but probably rather in sheer disbelief – just as Abraham had laughed when the promise was first made to him. There is more than a hint of world-weary sarcasm in her practical observation that follows – ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’
Revealing that he knows her inner thoughts, the visitor recognised as the Lord then asks why Sarah laughed and questioned the promise, adding the important coda ‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord (or in other translations ‘too hard for the Lord’)?’ In verse 14 he reaffirms the promise for a third time, but rather than accepting and welcoming it she denies having laughed, acting – according to verse 15 – out of fear. The passage concludes with the Lord’s clear statement, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
It strikes me that Sarah — not Abraham nor even the Lord — is the central character in this short story and I’d like us to focus now on her, her mentality and her reactions.
Do you identify with her at all in a deep disappointment, perhaps one carried for decades without resolution or getting to a place of peace about it? Do you have dreams that have been deferred or even shattered? If you heard God giving you a promise that answered your deepest of longings, would your first reaction be one of disbelief or even cynicism? If God demonstrated by some means that he knew your inner thoughts, would you feel fear at that prospect? Are there even things you want to keep hidden from him?
Speaking personally, I do identify with the deepest of longings. I was a bachelor until I was 36 and yearned for years for a real soulmate, often praying to God to help me find a wife to love and to cherish. At the time I felt those prayers were falling on deaf ears. But, looking back 25 years later, with an exceptional wife and three wonderful children, I can see that God was faithful and did respond to my longings, with some surprises along the way. In my mid-30s living in this country for the long-term wasn’t really on my radar — I would have been surprised that we might be led to a place called Martyr Worthy, but actually I’ve never been happier in life than I am here.
Some of these thoughts of disappointment or longing may also resonate with you. If so, I can assure you there is no weakness nor shame in admitting that they do. Actually being rigorously honest both with ourselves and with God is a critical first step in coming to trust God with everything within us – our thoughts and feelings, our successes and failures, our joys and regrets, our needs in the present and hopes for the future.
I use the strong word ‘trust’ intentionally because, at the end of the day, I think it was a lack of trust in God that led Sarah to react as she did. Did she really have cause not to trust him and, by implication, do we as well? What evidence do we see in this passage of God’s character, both in principle and in action?
First, there is the fact that he comes – he was and is Immanuel, God with us. He came to Abraham and Sarah and met them at their point of need. He came about 2,000 years later in the person of Jesus. He comes to each of us today through the Holy Spirit, just as he did at Pentecost to Jesus’ friends and followers. God is not distant nor far off. Rather he is a God who reveals himself, draws close, wants to be known by us and to speak to us.
Second, he has compassion. He has seen Sarah’s tears over the years as well as heard her laughter now and is moved by them. He knows how broken-hearted she has been by childlessness and, overcoming all human expectations, she receives her heart’s desire (for a son, Isaac, was indeed born to Abraham and Sarah, as Genesis 21 records).
Third, he is consistent. With her doubting, sarcastic response to the first time she hears God’s promise, she is effectively rejecting it and saying it can’t be true. Yet God does not react angrily and withdraw his promise – quite the opposite, he repeats it in her hearing, as if to underline that he means it and will keep it.
Fourth, he can cope with our true selves – just delve into the Psalms if you need any convincing that we can be free to express a full range of emotions to him. The concluding line of this passage – ‘Oh yes, you did laugh’ — also reminds us that actually there is also no real point in trying to hide anything from him.
Finally, God is ultimately in control. I am not suggesting that God operates as a master puppeteer, controlling all human activity and events. Again quite the opposite – we have been given free will by him and the capacity to use it positively or negatively. Much of the evil and suffering in the world has its source in human choices. But still, in ways we cannot now understand, God will eventually draw all things together to fulfil his loving and saving purposes. Might a statement like that make more sense if we imagined ourselves as Abraham, if he were able now to see the hundreds of generations and the billions of people he could count as descendants – what would he say about the reliability and power of the promises of God?
Returning to Sarah, I’d like to suggest that if she knew God’s character better she might have been able to trust his promise to her right away. Turning to the present, do we know him well enough to believe that he is trustworthy? Can we:
- Welcome him as he draws close;
- Receive his compassion;
- Trust that he will keep his promises;
- Be honest with him and dare to show him what is really in our hearts; and, finally
- Believe that he is able to work his purposes out in our lives, despite what today’s circumstances may tell us.
It is easier to trust God when all is going well but much more difficult when life is hard and we see no evidence that our hopes and dreams will be met. At those times we need to exercise our faith muscles, focus on who God is and his character, intentionally spend time with him and listen for his voice. Eventually, like Sarah, the day will come when we can look back and see how God has drawn even the hardest times in our lives into his eternal plan of redemption, salvation and transformation.
Again believing that can sometimes be easier said than done, particularly when we find our most desperate prayers aren’t answered. The toughest times we’ve had to face were after having two very special boys and when we hoped to complete our family with a third child. Nicky had three miscarriages in a row and each time, as they happened, we prayed intensely for those babies to survive and be kept safe. Those prayers weren’t answered as we had hoped. We had to go through a dark valley before God gave us the wonderful gift of our daughter Hannah, now nearly 19, saving and holding on to her after we were told at the baby’s first scan that no heartbeat could be heard.
We now trust that a day will come in Heaven when the eight of us will come to know each other as one family. We will then understand fully how God was faithful to us in ways we could not at the time see. For now, as it was for us 20 years ago, when difficult times come we have to choose to fix our eyes on God and to trust in his good and generous character, rather than let our circumstances dictate how we respond to him.
As we close, let’s pause to respond, handing our anxieties, failures and dreams back to God in our hearts, crying out to him from a place of raw honesty and asking to see his promises to us come to pass in his way and in his time.
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ge 18:1–15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.