Sunday, March 18, 2018

“God Tested…God Provided.

A Sermon Based Upon Genesis 22: 1-14,  NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
5th Sunday in Lent,  March 18th, 2018

If you were watching TV between 1963 and 1997, you may remember your favorite TV show being interrupted with a loud, long, alarming tone.  These words followed:   “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.  For the next sixty (or thirty) seconds, this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.  If this had not been a test, you would have been instructed...”   Now that I think about it, that was a big ‘if’.

 Our final story from the life of Abraham begins: “After these things God tested Abraham” (1).   It is the strangest, most outrageous test anyone could imagine.  No wonder the person writing this story had to clarify this right up front.  Even though God did not allow Abraham to actually carry out the sacrifice of his only son, why would a loving God demand such a thing as a test?

However you interpret this story, it is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful, profound, and disturbing stories in all of the Bible, and in all of literature, for that matter.   It doesn't fit even the lowest form of ethic in most any society, so how could such an outlandish ‘test’ like this point to how our own faith might also be tested?

One thing is clear.  This story will only be understood as it relates to Abraham’s story as a whole. Abraham’s story is about living toward a promise.  The original promise given to Abraham, and to Sarah, a childless couple, is that they would be given a child and that their descendants from this child would be as numerous as the stars.  Included in this promise was also that they would be given a land and the land would be inhabited by their descendants. That land came to be called, as we know, the Promised Land, because it was based on the promise first given to Abraham.

What's more, Abraham and Sarah, throughout their lives, were called to trust that God is able to give what he promises.  So, they were leave behind the life that they have been living, a prosperous life in Ur of Chaldees, and to start a new life as nomads, leaving everything behind, trusting only that God keeps the promise.  Their lives were all about God’s promise.

As children of Abraham, we are people who also are called to live by God’s promise.  We read the story of Abraham and Sarah as an example of our faith-story too.  Why do we do this?   Well, deep down, we know what living by God’s promise means.  Look at little children!   It is just wonderful how they greet each day with expectation.  They journey into this world with great anticipation.  They dream about who they will be, and what their life will be, in the wonderful world that is waiting for them. The world for them holds a great promise.   Can’t we all remember the ‘great expectations’ we have had as children, youth, or young adults?

We know that life gives us a promise of goodness.    Human sin can limit that promise, or as we grow older, we may narrow our expectations, but we still believe and live toward a promise.  We still believe that life is supposed to be good and that even in aging, suffering or death, it will be alright.  So when we read that Abraham received a promise that life would be good, for him, his people and the world, we know what that means.  The story of Abraham and Sarah is the story that mirrors the hopes, dreams, and promise of human life.

Interestingly, Abraham and Sarah went almost all their lives before they received the fulfillment of their promise.    Abraham was 75 years old and Sarah was 65 years old when the angel first visited them and told them they were going to have a baby.  They waited another twenty-five years for the angel to return and tell them, now is the time.  Isaac was finally born to Abraham when he was 100 years old.  Sarah was ninety years old, when she gave birth.   It was a miracle.  They could not possibly, through biological means, produce this child.  It was, beyond doubt, God’s ‘gift of grace’ to them.

Abraham’s story, as unique as it seems, is still our story too.  For, life hold great promise.  But the fulfillment of this promise is never automatic.   Even when ‘God is for us,’ there can still be much against us.   For many people, the promise will not come true without God’s help.  The fulfillment of the promise of our life, ultimately comes from God.   There are no guarantees in life, except that God will fulfill his promise.   Even when it seems that the promise remains unfulfilled, God is working ‘for us’ within and against our situation.  That's the point of this story.   Abraham and Sarah are called to trust their lives and their future to God.

When we have so many options, so many blessings, and much prosperity in our lives, it’s harder for us to see the value of God’s promise.  But when you face insurmountable problems, when you realize your own limits or failures, or if you or a family member in your home is up against something you cannot change, think how your own understanding would change.  What if you had a disease that you had to live with, or that there was little hope for?  Would God’s promise be less or more in your life?  At least for the child I saw on the news the other day, who had a rare skin disease, he seemed have a maturity most children don’t.  He seemed to understand better than most that his life belonged to God.   What could be the ‘test’ in your life that reminds you that the promise comes from God? 

It is wishful thinking that we gain the promise of our life, without the test?   Wouldn’t it be a nice ‘Hollywood Ending’, if the story of Abraham could end with an old childless couple finally having a baby?   Wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring the story to a happy end with the promise fulfilled, and with all the descendants, who are as numerous as the stars, all fulfilling God’s promise ‘in perfect harmony’?   But Abraham’s story doesn't end like that; no story does.   The promise of life that came to Abraham, also comes to us, but it also comes with challenges, detours, and tests of faith.  This is how we must understand what it meant, when God says, "Abraham, take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on a mountain of which I will tell you."  We are not to think of child sacrifice here, because the point here is ‘theological’ not ‘ethical’.    The point here is not God demanding that Abraham prove his devotion by giving God his child child!  No, the point here is that God is reminding Abraham that everything, even this precious child,  the child of promise, always belongs God.  Think of it this way, with this other biblical word: "The Lord has given. The Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord."

The command to sacrifice Isaac is a ‘test’ to whether or not Abraham really understands and trusts that his life is in God's hands, even after Abraham gets what he needs and wants.  God is the Creator and Giver of Life.   We may have children, but we do not ‘create life’.    This is what it means to say, "The Lord gives. The Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."  No matter what we have in life; all life, all gifts, even the most precious gifts of our children, including our life too---it all comes from, belongs to, and returns to God.  God is the source of life and God is our destiny.

This same message is underscored throughout the Bible, most beautifully expressed in the 90th psalm, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting thou art God”  (Psalm 90: 1-2).  Right after this comes more sobering insight: You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. (Ps. 90:5-6 NRS).   The Psalmist is saying that this is what the promise of life is like.  Even a life of promise has limits.  He continues, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  This wisdom always begins with this: "The Lord gives. The Lord takes away."   Life and Life’s promise belongs to God.  Even the gift of life, forever remains a gift.

The New Testament wisdom is not any different.  Jesus called the man a ‘fool’ who built barns and filled them to insure his future.  When he built his last barn, and thought his future was now secure, this is when God said to him, "Fool, Tonight your soul is required of you" (Luk3 12:20).  Or what about those words of First Peter, echoing both Jesus and the Psalmist: “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.  For ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’ That word is the good news that was announced to you (1 Pet. 1:23-25 NRS).    Here, throughout the Bible, the first and last lesson of biblical wisdom remains the same: "The Lord gives. The Lord takes away."  All that we are, all that we have, and all that we ever hope to be, comes from God and returns to God.    
When God tested Abraham, the ‘test’ was about the ultimate ‘ownership’ of the promise.  Like Abraham, we are given God’s promise, but the promise still belongs to God.   This means that even when we receive the promise of life, we still can’t own it.  We are stewards, managers, and custodians of the promise, but the promise still belongs to God.   

Like Abraham, you and I, are also be tested as to whether or not we know this, believe this, trust this, or live this: that all things come from God and ultimately depend on God.  That's the test.  That is the ultimate test for any one of us.  Are you able to let go of everything in the trust that the Lord owns and will continue to deliver on the promise?  That is the meaning of the offering of Isaac.  Do we trust this God who gives us the gift and promise of life?  Will we continue to trust that God gives us the promise, no matter what happens in this life?

Martin Luther rediscovered this radical, biblical understanding of faith, and coined the phrase, "We are saved by our trusting in God's grace alone." He also wrote a hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," where he spoke of complete, radical, unreserved faith in God:  Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also.    This is exactly what Abraham was called to do at the beginning of the story, to "let goods go." He was called to leave Ur of Chaldees, leave all his possessions, and travel the world as a nomad, trusting in God alone, that God would lead him to the fulfillment of the promise.  Now, at the age of 100, at the end of the story, Abraham is now being called to "let kindred go."   And when God asked Abraham to “take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you" (22:2), as any loving parent knows, God was then asking him to let ‘this mortal life’ go, even his own life.   

Of course, none of us would ever want to go there; where our own child is taken from us.  But it does happen in life.  As I said earlier, a child can be born with a terrible, incurable disease.  A child, your child too, can be, God forbid, killed tragically in an accident.   What about all those innocent children senselessly murdered at Sandy Hook, or at First Baptist Sutherland Springs, or those children who die unexpectedly, or suffer physical, emotional, or mental illnesses, and parents have to give them up and release them to God?  

My wife and I adopted a wonderful little girl, who had all sorts of promise in her.  She had such amazing energy and personality.  She traveled, experienced the world, before she could talk.  She spoke two languages, fluently.  She was smart, strong, with all kinds of promise, then, at the age of 11, her brain began to fall apart.  She struggled socially, then academically, and then her life was at risk.  She had to be put in a home for girls, for her own protection.  She spent time in counseling, mental evaluations, and then, there was medicine.  None of it worked.  She wouldn’t take it.  She finally got married.  Lost her three children (our grandchildren), and her husband too.  She doesn’t have contact with them, or with us.  “Mom, Dad, I’m not like you!  I can’t think like you, or be like you, she always said.”  She’s never been rebellious or mean to us.  She’s always polite, but she can’t be who she knows she’s supposed to be.  She’s the kindest, most caring, mixed up minded person.  Now that she’s almost thirty, all we can do, is give her back to the God who gave her to us.   It hurts, but we also find healing and hope, too, when we release her, and give her back to God.  “The Lord gives…The Lord takes away.  Blessed Be the Name of the Lord!  In other words: Thank God anyway.  Trust God anyway.  Hope in God, anyway!

Fortunately, putting our trust in God is intended to ‘give’ not ‘take’.  This is why Abraham’s test ends with life, not death.   As Isaac is laid on the altar, Abraham was fully prepared to carry out the command.  He trusted that he ‘Lord would provide’, but he did not know how.  But then, the voice of God intervenes, saying, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for NOW I KNOW THAT YOU FEAR GOD, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me...And behold, there was a ram standing by. Abraham took the ram, and offered it as a burnt offering instead of his son (12-13)."

The last line in the story is most important.  It shows us what it means that Abraham ‘fears God’.  It does not mean that Abraham is afraid of God, but it means Abraham trusts, respects, and lives to follow and obey God for his life.   So, after Abraham ‘offers the ram’ as his sacrifice instead of his son,  Abraham then named that place, "The Lord will provide” (14).   This line is repeated to reflect the ‘trust’ that God demands and that life demands, if he (or we) would find hope and promise in life.  "The Lord will provide." The God who gives us life in the first place, is able to give it to us again. 

When I preach this story, I don’t preach it with great excitement.   It is not really a hero story.  It is such a difficult story.  It is a story which symbolizes the hard, overwhelming tests of faith that come to our own lives.   And I not only think of those who have been able to pass the tests, like Abraham, or like Jesus, but I also think and pray for those have failed test of faith, and may be going through the test right now, and don’t know whether or not, they can maintain trust and faith in God.  

I think of that young 17 year old girl, who committed suicide in a church on day I had preached my first sermon.  Some in the family came to get me after the service.  It was a painful and hard way to begin my ministry.   Later, learned that she pulled the trigger on her life, because she could not measure up to the successes of her younger sister.    The loss of hope, of faith, and even love was heartbreaking.  Her parents were devastated.    I also think of many others, who have been through the tests of life’s struggles, having bad parents, bad illnesses, or just plain ole bad luck in life.  Some of these get through by the ‘skin of their teeth’, but a lot of them loss faith altogether.   If you listen closely to the stories of people who don’t come to church, you’ll often hear expressions of hurt.   What does this story say to a person struggling with a life or a faith that does not turn out as we want, or even as it should?   Can still believe, no matter what happens, or whose fault it is, or isn’t, that the God who has given us life in the first place, can give it to us again?  If we lose all that we have, all the things which bring us hope or security---all the things that bring us pleasure, meaning, purpose, and beauty in our life, can we let them go?  Can we give them to God?

We constantly see pain and loss in this world.   It could be pain of refugees losing their homes,  the pain of immigrates trying to find a one, people losing their loved ones in wars, violence,  or natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, fires, or hurricanes.  Sometimes I also think of my own grandparents and parents, who also lived through the great depression.  Some of them kept faith, and others of them loss faith altogether.   I also think of some of you, who have been through loss yourself---who have lost those precious to you, or who are right now, dealing with the loss yourself, either loss of physical health, loss of children, spouses, or others who mean so much to you.   I am one of you.  I’m not immune to loss either.  In some ways, we are all facing the same ‘test’ Abraham faced.   And the question that comes to us, is will we be able to say and believe the same thing Abraham believed: “The Lord will provide!”

I have been privileged to know many of those people, those who have lost their future, everything that they worked for. It is just amazing. They say, "The Lord will provide." Have you observed someone like that?  Aren’t you amazed at people who keep faith, no matter what?  Mark Trotter, whom I owe credit for much of this sermon, tells of an article he once read by Paul O'Brien.  O’Brien once wrote an article reflecting about people who had experienced tremendous losses in their life.  He focused particularly on literary personalities, and how they coped with it.  He talked about William Thackery, once wrote a manuscript for a novel, which was accidently destroyed by a servant. Upon hearing the news, Thackery simply sat down and started writing again.  O’Brien also wrote about a Chinese scholar, Zhu Guangquan, who painstakingly translated Hegel's philosophical works into Chinese.  Then, during the "reign of terror", when communism took over China, his home was searched, and the manuscript was confiscated. He announced that he would simply start translating again.

O'Brien marveled at their resolve, concluding that what Thackery and Professor Zhu have in common is a belief, a trust, that their lives are not their own, but that they live for a larger, greater purpose.   And just like these men, while we are all responsible for what we do, we are not responsible for the outcomes of what we do.  We cannot control the future.  We cannot control the outcomes.  We cannot determine what happens.  The future belongs to an outcome that is greater than ‘me’, or ‘you’, and ‘us’.   Isn’t this why Jesus said,  “Whoever comes after me, must deny himself?”   That’s sounds a little like ‘sacrificing Isaac’, doesn’t it?  We give ourselves to God, and we trust that God can give us our lives back again. 

T. S. Eliot, the great poet, once wrote that half the harm in the world is done by people who want to feel important.  That's where the problem comes in.  We all want to feel important.   We want to be somebody.  We want to have something.  There is nothing wrong with that.  We are all born that way.  We want our lives to have meaning, purpose, and significance, but the problem comes in when fail to give ourselves to God’s greater purpose, which can only be given and received by grace.   We go after life.  We try to seize life. We try to control it.  We try to squeeze everything out of it.  We try to gain the lime light.   It becomes hard for us to imagine, especially in a culture with so much, that life is not finally about what we gain, have or want, but that life is about what we give, sacrifice, let go of, and devote to God’s greater purposes.   The models that are often held up to us in our culture, are the models of people with oversized egos who talk about me, me, me all the time, without apology and without embarrassment.  Who could believe that you could really have a life, or that this big world, or even this great universe, could ever have really just been about you?  How dumb is that?

Who doesn’t love the story about Muhammad Ali, who was on airplane. The flight attendant said to him before they took off, "Please fasten your seat belt." He said to the flight attendant, "Superman don't need no seat belt." The flight attendant said, "Superman don't need no airplane either.  Please, fasten your seatbelt."

The greatest disease of this world comes into play, not when we find ourselves up against losses, struggles, and tests of faith.  No, the greatest disease in this world is when we try to reduce life down to just what I have, what I feel, or what I want.   While there is a lot of psychology still be discovered about why a person would enter into a church and gun down innocent people, or why a man would randomly shoot people on a street, or why a person would get so hurt, so sick, or so angry, that they would lash out and take all kinds of people down with them,  what we need to know is that this is the kind of sickness that begins to surface, in a society bows down before the god of ‘me, me, me’!’ 

In a more positive note, think about a basketball game, a baseball game, soccer or football game, where after the game is over, the star player or players are being interviewed about their amazing feats, but he or she is constantly reminding the viewers, that after this win, it was never about just one play, or one or a couple of players,  but that it was always about the team or another player.   It was only when the players thought more about the ‘team’ than about themselves, that they were able to win the game.  Only when they gave up thinking about accolades, records, or self-achievements, were they able to gain what the game was about.  Once when Al McGuire was coach of Marquette University, they won the NCAA championship.    How did it happen?   McGuire said that one day he took their best player, Butch Lee aside.  Butch was an extraordinarily gifted player, who had difficulty sharing anything with anybody else, so Coach McGuire said, "Butch, the game is forty minutes long. If you divide that between two teams, it means that each team has the ball about twenty minutes. There are five players on each team. That means that each player has the ball about four minutes. Now Butch, I know what you can do with that ball for four minutes. But what I don't know is what you are going to do for the other thirty-six minutes.  CAN YOU LET SOMEBODY ELSE HAVE THE BALL?"

Whatever we say about Abraham’s test, or his life, or even his child, it was never about Abraham nor was it really about Isaac (Isaac never amounted to much in the biblical story).  No, this story is not about these people, but it was about faith and trust.  It was about giving everything to God, so that God can give you back what you could never gain for yourself
So, this is my final question for us today:  Can you let your life go? Can you decrease so that somebody else can increase?  Are you mature enough?  Are you trusting enough?  Can you let go, and go where God leads?  This is what the Bible means by faithful.  Are you mature enough realize that when you let your of your life, your ego, your opinion, or your will , you will still shine in God’s future?  If you sacrifice; if you give, do you believe the Lord will still provide?

The most difficult application of this kind of test is when we have to let go of someone we love.  It is no accident that the great task of grief work is called "letting go." It is only by letting go, that you can find life again.   You’ve got to give everything to this God who is the only one who can promise to give what you lose back again.   This is why Abraham called the name of the place of faith, "The Lord Will Provide."  "Not as the world gives do I give to you,” Jesus said.   Jesus assures us again, that in God’s way and in God’s time, “The Lord will provide,” even if it’s not in the way we expect or anticipate.  This is the ‘place’ of faith and trust, that is our only hope. 

James Angell, a Presbyterian minister, was awakened on Saturday night, in the middle of the night, with a phone call.  It was the Saturday before Easter. The phone call was the Highway Patrol telling him that his twenty-one year old daughter, Susan, has been killed in an automobile accident.  Susan was on her way home. She was going to spend Easter Sunday with her mother and father. She was killed on the way home.

With courage and with faith that should make us marvel, Jim Angell, just a few hours after receiving that news, entered his pulpit on that Sunday morning, and preached on the victory that Christ has given us over death through his Resurrection.  Later he wrote a book about those days, a beautiful little book called, O Susan!  In that book, he said there is a long period when the loss seems to be more than you can bear. It is like you are at the end of the rope, and you have to hold on while you tie a knot at the end, for something to keep holding on to.
Then, he said, in that dark moment, something happens.  It happens to people in in different ways and at different times.  But for him it happened this way. A dear and trusted friend came into his study one day, and talked bluntly to him. He said, "Jim, you've got to face this. For the rest of your life this is a fact that you just have to live with. You can do two things about it. You can use it, use your fresh depth of feeling to make life finer, or you can let it crush you, and go through the rest of your life whimpering.

Angell wrote that those words from his friend reminded him of the words of the hymn, "Shun not the struggle, face it. 'Tis God's gift."    This gift is not the accident. It’s not the tragedy and it’s not the sorrow.  These are not God's gift, but God’s gift is the grace, the power to use those events to find hope, and to learn how to trust.  This is what Abraham was doing when he told his servants, as he left the donkeys to go up on the mountain alone with his son.  He told them, in trust and faith: “We will worship, and then we will come back to you” (5).

What did Abraham meant is exactly what Jim Angell realized, when he had to let his daughter go.   When he found the grace and faith to let her go, this is when he found life again.   We know Abraham passed the test, just like we will know it too.  We know it when we walk through both life and death, and can still say, “The Lord gives….The Lords takes away… but whatever happens, "The Lord will provide."  Amen.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

"Chosen But Messy"

A Sermon Based Upon Genesis 21: 8-21 NRSV

By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
March 11, 2018

For the past few weeks, we have been preaching from the life of Abraham, the ancestor of all biblical faith.   Scripture sometimes speaks of Abraham as a ‘friend of God’ (Isa. 41:8; James 2:23).  Jesus called his own disciples, who were descendants of Abraham, his ‘friends’ (Jn. 15:15).    In a way, all people of faith can be named ‘friends of God’.  But what we are going to learn today is that just because we are God’s friends, this does not in any way mean that we are a privileged or superior people to everyone else.   God’s people do not have a monopoly on the goodness and grace of God. 

Besides this, what we will see in today’s text is that God’s people can be perfectly ‘imperfect’ friends of God; people who have faith, but who still have a long ways to go.   One writer explained today’s story of faith this way, saying, “the religious consciousness which was to have noble growth in Israel, had its subsoil in the same life and same ideas (and I might add same failures) as other peoples of ancient times (Bowie, IB).   In other words, Abraham was not perfect, he was a flawed human being.  But even as a flawed human being, Abraham did open his heart to God by faith, warts and all, so that his faith could be perfected by God’s grace.  

One of the most wonderful truths about biblical truth is that it tells us exactly this kind of truth; truth that comes with warts and all.   The Bible does not hide who Abraham was, just as it does not hide how faith was, before it was perfected in God’s love through Jesus Christ.   What we see, particularly in today’s text, is that Abraham was not always a great example of what a person of faith can be, but still, God ‘credited’ Abraham’s with “righteousness” because of his faith (Rom 4:3).   Abraham believed (or trusted) in God (Rom 4:6), as Paul put it, but, as Paul adds: “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about---but not before God” (Rom. 4:2).   As we will see in today’s text, Abraham really had nothing to boast about.  Neither do we.

Paul reminds us, that also in this way, we are children of Abraham.   Yes, we are people of faith; having a faith that will also be ‘credited…as righteousness’, but , as Paul adds, faith is credited to us because ‘our transgressions are forgiven,…(and our) sins are covered’ (Rom. 4:7).  In this same way,  just like Abraham, as like Israel too, we Christians are also a ‘chosen’ (Eph. 1:11, 1 Pet. 2:9) people, who are chosen to be objects of God’s love and recipients of God’s grace.  But this in no way, means that we are any better than anyone else, nor does it mean that we are the only people God loves or saves.

Our text today begins on the ‘happy note’ of the fulfillment of God’s promise.   God had promised Abraham that he would be blessed with a child, and would become a great nation so his faith could bless the whole world (Gen. 12: 1-3).  “All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you”(Gen. 12:3.  It was made very clear from the beginning, that the ‘blessing’ Abraham received was never just about Abraham alone, but this was a blessing that was always intended for ‘all peoples on earth’.   Abraham’s blessing was for everyone.

It is exactly this ‘promise’ or ‘calling’ to ‘bless others’ that makes the second part of today’s story especially hard to think about.  This is one of those places in the Bible where faith gets messy, complicated, and can even appear to be down-right cruel.   It is one of those hard parts of the Bible that some believers quickly pass over, excuse, or explain away.   As one pastor put it, this is ‘one of those things that ought not to happen’ (James Killen).   The truth in this story is told twice in Genesis (see Gen. 16), perhaps just so that we don’t miss just how ‘messy’ and ‘imperfect’ Abraham’s faith was.   This reminds us that, even as ‘friends of God’, we are all on a journey to learn how to love like God loves.

The ‘messiness’ of this story focuses on what to do with Ishamel, Sarah’s other son.  Now that Isaac is born, what does the family and the future look like?   It was not ‘faith’, but Abraham and Sarah’s lack of faith that asked for this.   If you recall, when it didn’t look like she and Abraham could have children on their own,  Sarah decided to allow her Egyptian slave-girl named Hagar, to become Abraham’s surrogate wife  (Gen. 16:1ff).  This was a standard practice in world where family was business, as well as, family.  

Hagar quickly conceived, but this complicated the family arrangements.  Sarah became jealous of Hagar, and even before the child was born, earlier in Genesis 16, we read that with Abraham’s blessing Hagar was sent away, only to be sent back by the angel of the LORD.   Now that the promised child Isaac has been born,, the same jealousy and the same question arises again: “What happens to Hagar and Ishmael?”  Sadly, the problem arises in a most innocent moment when the two children were ‘playing’ together.  Sarah takes the scene as insult; perhaps it might have been a reminder of her own lack of faith.  In the next moment, Sarah demands that Abraham ‘cast out this slave woman with her son.’   Sarah’s reasoning: ‘This slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac’ (10).

It is always ‘sad’ when families, who have grown up together, experienced and shared life together, come to a point where they don’t want to travel through life together any longer.   Often, it happens because of some disagreement about ‘inheritance’, just like Sarah voices it here.  You and I know this happens, sometimes even to the best of families.  People get their feelings hurt, one makes unreasonable demands, the parents failed to make their last wishes clear, and now, after the parents are gone, the family relationship falls apart.  The world and the love they once shared, is gone forever.  Sometimes it can be reduced down to piece of furniture, a tract of land, or an amount of money.

But Sarah’s jealousy over Ishmael is not about monetary inheritance; it is about God’s promise, and it is about her own weakness of faith.   Sarah realizes that she has failed, and now she wants to protect her son.   Perhaps it even has a motherly motivation; maybe she didn’t really wish her servant-girl and child any harm.  However, what she does is wrong, and it proves that she, like Abraham, were not ‘justified by works’.  We also read, that this whole ordeal seemed so unfair and ugly that ‘the matter was very distressing to Abraham’.  Ishmael was Abraham’s  ‘son’ too (11). 

Perhaps this whole story occurs in the Bible’s story about faith, to remind us, that even people of great faith, sometimes ‘get it wrong’.  Sometimes we too have taken matters into our own hands, and have either made matters worse.  Sometimes we too have hurt some really good, innocent people, even by trying to bring God’s blessing into the world.  This whole story, being about the mistreatment of a ‘slave-girl’ should make us all take note of our own failures, flaws, and mistreatments of those around us.   Sometimes we have intentionally or unintentionally hurt others,  either actively by our own power, or because of our own passive participation in a culture, a people, or a nation, that has been less than perfect.

About a year and a half ago, it was announced that the prestigious, Georgetown University, was going to take steps to ‘atone’ for its past of profiting from having slaves and by participating in the slave trade that was once a part their own history, as it has been part of the history of our nation.   More than a dozen prestigious Universities, including Brown, Harvard, and the University of Virginia have publically recognized their own ties to slavery and the slave trade.   What Georgetown University decided to do, was to go beyond admitting their past or apologizing, but they are now planning on making restitution and reparations, by allow descendants of slaves to have preferential treatment and special scholarships, if they desire to study at their school.

When the “Black Lives Matter” movement started, sometimes misguided and othertimes misunderstood,  causing no small amount of controversy, I found it interesting that during the public discussion, that the conservative, evangelical magazine, Christianity Today---a magazine that was endorsed and started by Billy Graham---ran a ‘cover article’ about one how a Lynching Memorial is planned to be erected in Montgomery, Alabama, remembering how 4,000 African American were lynched between 1877 and the early 1950’s.   In the Bible and in American history too, memorials are a way, not just to remember the past, but they can also be a way to remember heal from the ‘sins of our past’, so we can all move to a better future.

What is most important this sordid story, is not just to revisit what was done wrong, but how, even in the midst of human sin and failure,  and just when this child was about to unjustly ‘die’ in the wilderness, God shows up.   God ‘hears the voice (or cry) of the boy’  (17).  God reminds ‘Hagar’ not ‘to be afraid.’  God shows up in the midst the ‘troubles’ of the forsaken and forgotten to make a promise of ‘greatness’ just for them (18).  God ‘provides’ for them in their own wilderness.  God quenches the thirst of this humble child, so that he not only survives, but he thrives in the wilderness he must make his home.

When I read this story, of God’s provision for Ishmael, I wonder how often people of color, who are descendants of slaves, or Indians, or poor forgotten, working-class peoples around the world, might read such a story.   Do they see God, also as their redeemer; even though have been part of a subjugated, persecuted, or enslaved people?   Interestingly, Christian faith is often more alive and vibrant among people who have been abused, mistreated, or maligned, than it is among those who are blessed, advantaged or privileged.   I have a book in my study, strangely entitled, “Reading the Bible with the Dammed”.   This book reminds me, that strangely enough, it is people who have been persecuted, who have suffered, and who started out as forgotten and forsaken by the powers of this world, who often best understand their own spiritual hunger and need of God.   

Through the years, some of the greatest ministry moments, were spent not in churches, but in prisons.  In Greensboro, a deacon there by the name of Sid Wrenn, ran a prison ministry.  When he took me with him one Thursday evening, he prepared me saying, “Pastor, I need to warn you that some of these guys are mixed up.  Some of them are going to say something you might not want to hear, but I also want to tell you, these are some of the most spiritually hungry and open people I’ve ever known.  I mean no offense to you or my church, but if I had to give up one, I give up my regular church over being here with these guys every Thursday night.  Their need and desire for God is the highlight of my week.”

What people like Hagar and Ishmael mean for the story of faith, is that sometimes any of our lives might feel more like them, than like Abraham and Sarah.   Most of us don’t live lives with Hollywood endings, where the hero comes returns, and sweeps us off our feet and rides off into the sunset.  Most people have to learn to live ‘beyond happily ever after’, because somewhere in life, we realize that most heroes, like John Wayne, or Captain America, are just myth. A person of faith learns to live life ‘beyond happily ever after’ because in reality, few lives really turn out like that.    For most of us, our spiritual journey can seem much more like Hagar and Ishmael, than Abraham and Sarah.  Life can seem like the promise has completely skipped over us.  When this happens, we know that if is wasn’t for our faith in God, we know, that in this life, that we wouldn’t have a prayer.

To be true winners in this life, we must learn to ourselves in the shoes of the losers, not just the winners.  This is not easy to do.  Most of our hero stories, in fiction or in history,  try to focus on the successes, not the feelings of failure forsakenness.  Most of us don’t dare try to imagine ourselves as descendants of Hagar and Ishmael.  Even the Bible, which pictures God’s promise coming through Isaac, could lead us to think that nothing good could come from Ishmael, just like Nathaniel once wondered: ‘what good could come from Nazareth’ (Jn. 1:46), especially from a forsaken Jew who was crucified on a cross.    

In our own time, with heightened tensions between Muslims and Jews, and now, also between Christians and the Radical State of Islam, need to consider something else very important from this story about Ishmael.  

Modern day Muslims, are Arabs who consider themselves descendants of Abraham, just as much, or even more so, than many secular Jews do.  If you go to Jerusalem, you will see that the large Dom of the Rock sanctuary, marking the skyline of Jerusalem is a Muslim sanctuary, not a Jewish or Christian one.   And the continued ‘hot’ question of our world is how can both Jews and Muslims co-exist in the Holy Land, and the great city of Jerusalem, which is today anything but its own namesake; a city of peace?

What could be a way forward could begin with an honest interpretation of what is happening at the end of this story.  When God comes to save Ishmael, and his mother Hagar, we are simply told that ‘God was with the boy’ (20).   Think about these words, they almost sound the same as the name found in both the Old and New Testament, child of promise who is ‘Immanuel, God with us’ (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23).  The only difference is that long before God was revealed in the child known in Isaiah’s day, or the even more completely in the child Jesus, of Matthew’s day, God was already there ‘with the boy’ we know as Ishmael.  

What we need to understand that although Ishmael isn’t the child of promise, Ishmael isn’t the child without a promise either.   God had a unique purpose in blessing Abraham’s seed through Isaac, not because they are better than Ishmael’s, but because they were blessed to reveal God’s love to ‘all people’s’ including Ishmael’s people, and the rest of us too.   God loves Arab peoples, just like he loves Jews, and just like God loves Christians, and just like he loves other religious people, and even secular people too.   

There is an interesting little story in Gerald McDermott little book entitled, “Israel Still Matters”.  In that book Dr. McDermott argues that Israel has a right to the promised-land, and that Christians and Arabs should respect that.  I don’t have time to go through all his arguments, nor do I want to, but there is one story he tells that especially caught my attention.   McDermott says that when he lived in Israel, he talked to a lot of people who actually lived there and didn’t care too much about the politics.  He said that there were even many Arabs there, who would rather live under the rule of Israel, than under any government of Palestinian Arabs.   Their reasoning was simple.  They would much rather be ‘Arabs’ under Jews who govern the land with democracy and freedom, than live under Palestinian rule that would rule with the restrictions or forced or extreme Islamic religion.   They wanted to believe in God through the lens of their Muslim culture, but they didn’t want all the negatives that came with it.  They wanted the freedom and democracy only Israel could give.

If we want to be the people who bring God’s peace (Shalom) in the world, we must work to undo sin of Sarah and Abraham, who kicked Hagar out, so that all can rediscover the grace which God revealed that could save Abraham, and us too.   It is not in Jerusalem, but at Golgatha, just outside the walls of the great city, where Jesus died on the cross, that God’s love was fully revealed.  This is not because Jesus was Jewish, nor because Jesus established the Christian Church.  No, the reason God’s love and grace was revealed fully in Jesus, was because “God was in Christ reconciling the whole world unto himself’.   It is in the pain, in the suffering, and in the death this Son of God, Jesus the Christ, that God reveals the only kind of love that will ‘provide’ the ‘saving grace’ God has always intended for the whole world.  Amen.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Love with Questions

A Sermon Based Upon Genesis 18: 16-33, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
March, 4th 2018

Unique to human life is our ability to raise questions.  While Science has been able to determine how certain animals feel, love, think, and have similar human-like behaviors, only humans ask questions.  The ability to ask: Why should I live?  Why should I live rightly?  Why should I love?  These are the most necessary questions to keep us human.  Even though we don’t always agree on the specifics, our ability to ask is part of what makes us human.

We see human questioning arise almost immediately in the Genesis story.   When the Serpent came to Eve in the Garden, it used the human capability to pose questions to lure humanity into to doubt and disobedience:  “Did God really say, when you eat of this fruit, you will die?  Continuing with his twisted logic he suggested the wrong answer: “You won’t surely die, but your eyes will be open, and you will be like God.”  

The lesson Adam and Eve learned the hard way, which is a lesson we all learn, was that the human capability to question anything could lead us to question everything.   This could be a step too far; such as when a teenager while developing their own identity, questions the sincerity of their parent’s love.  Perhaps the most important safeguard we have to keep us from losing our head is our heart.  When we love, questions can remain constructive, healthy, and part of human maturity, rather than turn unhealthy and destructive. 

The personal and loving relationship Abraham and God had with each other should help us understand the strange story before us today.   Here, it seems that Abraham is raising some serious questions about God’s own personal judgment. 

How can we understand a mere mortal questioning the ways of an eternal God?    Well, for one thing, we need to understand just how close God and Abraham were to each other.   A couple of times in the Bible, once in the OT book of Isaiah, and another time in the NT book of James,  Abraham is referred to as ‘a friend of God’.  The whole idea of ‘friendship’ implies intimacy, transparency and relationship. As you study Abraham’s life, you will find some of the most personal and revealing stories in the entire Bible.   So, rather than jump conclusions, we need to consider that in the first place, God was allowing Abraham to enter the most intimate thoughts of God.   God is allowing Abraham deep into God’s own heart.   But why?
Jewish scholar James Kugel observed that the way Abraham, and other patriarchs related to God is very different from how God is viewed later in the Bible.   This “God of Old”, as Kugel described him, is a much more human like.  Abraham’s God is relatable, relational; maybe even touchable.  This God of Abraham thinks out loud, reasons and talks to himself, appears on earth like any other human being, he wrestles with people, becomes disappointed, angry, shows up unannounced, then walks away like any other person.   This God shows up just when you need him, and sometimes even when you don’t.  But before you people can get too close to him to make him a ‘special buddy’, this God is gone, as mysteriously as he came.  

The conversation going on here is perhaps one of the most fascinating of all.  It just doesn’t fit our normal understanding of God.  The text tells us that after Abraham’s three male visitors revealed Sarah’s pregnancy test, Abraham walks with them along the way.  They were looking in the direction ‘toward Sodom’, the home of Abraham’s nephew lot.  As you recall, Abraham had fought a war against 5 kings who had once threatened Sodom.  Abraham won the war and rescued Lot and his family.  In doing so, Abraham became the king of Sodom’s protector.  But now, something has drastically changed.   God reasons within himself: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do” (17)?

We are told that God has heard the ‘outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah (20).’   This ‘outcry’ pointed to the seriousness of ‘their sin.’   God figures he must let Abraham in on his divine intentions.   It’s a good idea to inform Abraham since someday ‘Abraham will become a great nation’‘all the nations will be blessed in him’ (18) and Abraham has been chosen to ‘keep the way of the LORD’ by ‘doing righteousness and justice (19).’ In other words, God wants Abraham to know that righteousness and justice are not happening in Sodom and Gomorrah. 

God’s openness with Abraham is something we just don’t see that often, even in the Bible.   God is treating Abraham like a prophet, though even the great prophet Isaiah described Israel’s God as one whose ‘ways are higher…, and whose thoughts are not our thoughts’ (Isa. 55:9) and also, he declares that He is  ‘the God who hides himself’ (Isa. 45:15).  But contrary to Isaiah’s vision, Abraham is having face to face conversations with ‘the LORD’.   Not much later in the Bible, Moses was told that he can’t see God’s face and live (Exodus 33:20).  Even during the time of King David, God has become even more distant, and  unapproachable, so that when someone accidently touched God’s holy furniture, they are struck dead (2 Sam. 6:7).  Even in New Testament times, it is still said that “It can be a fearful and terrible thing, to fall into the hands of a living God” (Heb 10:31).

So, what changes all this?  Why do we move from a God who appears as a human visitor, having face to face, intimate conversations, to having a more distant vision of an eternal God who seems distant, aloof, far away, and we can’t see or directly talk to, unless we are dead.  You might think it should be the other way around---with God getting easier to relate to than harder. Christians also, only approach Israel’s God through the ‘name’ of Jesus?  Why?

When I was growing up, we had an interim pastor who told us how he used to walk in the woods and having real, verbal, audible, conversations with God, like Abraham did.   He said that God was so real to him, that he could actually hear his voice.   Now, I was a teenager at the time, and this bothered me quite a bit.  I was learning how to pray and talk to God myself, and was trying to take prayer more seriously, but I never had heard God’s voice.   Was there something wrong with me?  Was my faith not strong enough?   Had I not really learned all the right ways to pray?   It seemed that all my conversations with God were one sided.  The preacher went on to say when we got the sin out of our lives, we too could hear God’s voice.

Perhaps the Preacher had good intentions, and was partially right.  But I think his very literal explanation of what it means to relate to God took me down a ‘primrose path’.  Most people who say they actually hear God’s voice today are in mental institutions   I don’t think that that preacher meant that kind of ‘voice’, but perhaps we sell both the Bible and the human mind short, and this story too, if we only look at this as a normal human-like conversation.   The conversation and relationship between God and Abraham just may not be that different from our own capability to relate to God today.   

We don’t have to take this conversation of Abraham in a strictly literal sense, to appreciate it, or take it seriously.  The story is told in a very simple way, with ideas, we all can understand: even children too.   When adults read ‘Bible stories’ to children, they seldom look at them the same way our children do.  Children listen to the story just for the story, but adults listen for the truth in the story.  We don’t get stuck with whether Jonah was swallowed by a whale or big fish---because the story is about prejudice, not fish.  We don’t get stuck on God making a deal with Satan to tempt Job, because the story is about the suffering of the righteous, not God making a deal bet with the devil.  We also don’t get stuck on Adam and Eve talking to a snake or about Balaam’s talking donkey either.  Mature adults don’t get stuck on arguing about where the ark is parked, or where empty tomb was, or whether this or that cave in Bethlehem actually is where Jesus was born.  It’s the truth of the story we are after.  

Whether or not we prove everything in life will never be as important as living the truth we already know.  I once knew a mentally handicapped lady in my home church.  She was a sweet adult lady who had the emotional intelligence, but the rational intelligence of a scientist.  She could figure out anything and everything.  But people often felt uncomfortable around her.  By always analyzing, figuring, and thinking through everything literally, you couldn’t have a normal conversation with her.   You didn’t want to hurt her or her parent’s feelings, but when she came up to you, arguing some point, you wanted to run.   That’s how it is when people always read the Bible with strict literalism, always trying to prove this or that happen, betting their life on proving all the details, rather than trying to live what we know is true.   Reading the Bible should be like fish; we eat the meat and leave the bones for scholars to chew on and pray they don’t choke.     

Still, even if we take this conversation between Abraham and God seriously rather than literally, it raises questions raised all through the Bible, which are never fully answered.  These are the kinds of questions all people of faith still live with, if they take God seriously.  In this story, the truth is that Abraham takes some of his deepest questions about God, to God.  This question is not, does God exist.  No, the even greater question is rather, is God fair?  How is it that this God who has been revealed as compassionate, merciful, redemptive, and righteous, is also a God who judges, condemns, and punishes sin with death?   In the biblical revelation, you can’t have a true God worth anything that really matters, unless God has both angles of divine and human truth.   Biblical revelation declares that God is kind and loving, but it also declares that God is holy and just.  “…I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy…”  The problem with a merciful God, is that because God is God, he reserves the right to choose ‘to whom’ he will be gracious and merciful.   That’s the question. 

The heart of Abraham’s questioning is where most of our great questions arise.   Our problem is seldom ‘what will happen to the unrighteous, the evil or undeserving people’ like Hitler, Stalin, Osama Bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein.  Remember the play about the Baptist president, Harry Truman: “Give’em Hell, Harry!”  We think some deserve it.   But other times we wonder what will happen to the ‘good’, ‘righteous’ and innocent people when God finally brings his justice, judgement and conclusion to life in the world.   What about the good people who’ve never heard the gospel?  What about the good Hindu, the good Buddhist, the good Muslin, or the good Agnostic or Atheists?  When people really don’t understand, grew up differently, or failed to understand what we understand, does this mean they are condemned forever?  This line of questioning was already there in Abraham’s mind way back then.

What I find most interesting about Abraham’s questioning, is that Abraham does not question God because he doesn’t trust God, but Abraham’s appears to be questioning God because he does trust and have faith in God, but still he is worried about people.  Abraham questions, because he is God’s friend.   He questions because he has faith, not because of any lack of faith.   God has called Abraham to ‘be a blessing’ to others, so why would God destroy a city if there are still ‘righteous’ people living there?   Again, Abraham’s question arises out of God’s blessings in the world, not because he is finding fault with God, or not finding fault in Sodom.

The ‘grave’ or serious ‘sin’ of Sodom and Gomorrah is not explained to Abraham, but later in the story (Gen. 19: 1-38), the things that went on at ‘night in the square’ (19:2) is presented in a very sordid event.   The angels wanted to sleep there and see for themselves, but Lot invites them to his house to distract them.   Before going to bed, we are told that the ‘men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man’ (19: 4), surround the house, demanding that Lot ‘bring his visitors out’ so that they can ‘know them’ (rape them).   Lot stands outside the door and ‘begs’ them ‘not to act so wickedly,’ even offering his own two virgin ‘daughters’ to them.   When the wicked men try to force themselves in, the angels grab Lot and strike the intruders with ‘blindness’.   Now the angels reveal to Lot that they are about ‘to destroy this place’ so Lot and his family had better ‘get out’ (14)
Most of us know that popular preaching has tended to focus primarily on the sexual sin that appears in the text, as the ‘men of Sodom’ attempted to ‘gang rape’ the angels while ‘all the people’ watched (19:4).   Interestingly, however, the ‘sexual sin’ was listed last on the list of serious sins the prophet Ezekiel made.  Ezekiel wrote that the ‘guilt’ of Sodom was more about ‘pride’, ‘excess food’, ‘prosperous ease’, and that they did not ‘aid the poor and needy’.  It appears to be the overflow of this kind of ‘materialistic’ lifestyle that Ezekiel says that ‘they were haughty, and did abominable things...’ (Ezek. 16:49-50).   While God didn’t approve of the sexual sins of Sodom, I don’t think any of these sins by themselves, brought judgement and destruction.  It was the combined sins of pride, excess, ease, lack of concern and arrogance that resulted in the abominable ‘crowd’ behaviors which was displayed as an act of sexual violence against the two angels, which was most offensive to God.  Thus, the men of Sodom are on the exact opposite side of God’s dealing with Abraham; displaying violence, aggression, and complete disregard for the ‘strangers’ in their midst, rather than displaying kindness and respect with the intent to bless.    

It was because of the ‘outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah’ that God informed Abraham that he was going to take a look.  But what does Abraham have to do with this?  Is it just because of Abraham’s nephew, or because Abraham had become ‘Sodom’s protector?  We are not sure whether or not Abraham knew anything about what was going on in Sodom, but we do know that Abraham knows God as just and righteous.   So, Abraham asks over and over, starting with a large number, to an ever smaller number, addressing the same concern to God: ‘Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?’    Suppose some ‘righteous’ people are found there, won’t ‘the God of the earth do right’ and spare them, or the city?   Besides Abraham’s own ties to Sodom, was Abraham only trying to ‘pray’ God out of it, so that Abraham look more ‘righteous’ than the God he worships?

But before you get all ‘stressed out’ over Abraham’s questions, we need to see the ‘truth’ in this story.   You can only understand a story like this through the whole story of Israel, through story of the gospel.   This is already hinted at in how God already answered his own decision to inform Abraham about all this in the first place.   Notice how God answers, “Shall I hide this from Abraham….” with “No, for I have chosen him….” (18:19).   God is letting Abraham question him exactly because God ‘chose’ Abraham for the sake of blessing, even eventually blessing ‘all the nations’ which ultimately will be bring salvation to whole human race.  Abraham’s desire for God to find a few ‘righteous’ points us right back to Abraham’s people, which includes Jesus’ people too.  By finding only a few righteous who are ‘the salt of the earth’, the whole outcome can shift.  

Thus, the story here is not really about whether God is righteous, but how God’s faithful, righteous, and caring God’s people can invite God’s redemption, reconciliation, and salvation to come into the world.  The drama going on here is indeed bigger than Abraham and Sodom, because what was happening within both of them, points us to the great saving purposes of God.  It is Abraham’s concern that helps us see, early on, God’s hidden desire to save. 
This whole ‘strange’ story can only be rightly interpreted with an eye on and a heart full of God’s compassion.   This is what the ‘promise’ to Abraham has always been about.  God did not choose Abraham for the sake of only choosing Abraham; but it was about choosing Abraham so that the ‘all the nations’ could be blessed.   In the same way, God did not just choose Israel because Israel was better than anyone, but God choose Israel because God’s wants his grace, mercy and love to spread to everyone.   In the same way,  God did not send Jesus in the world only to save the church, or to save an elite few, but God sent Jesus because “God so love the worldso that whosever believes him will not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).   Even that great text which says that ‘there is salvation in no other name’ or the one which says ‘no comes to the Father except through me’, does not mean that God excludes everybody else, but it means that God sent his son ‘to save’whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord.’ 

To use the Christian faith as a ‘bully stick’ is like thinking that Abraham is questioning a God who doesn’t know what he is doing.  This story is not about questioning God, but it’s about God allowing Abraham to learn about God’s love through his questions.  As strange and unobvious as it might seem, this story, even the one about Sodom’s destruction, is also preparing us to understand God’s love.   As the New Testament letter understood, even in  judgement God ‘is not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance’ (2 Pet. 2:9).   Just like the cross of Jesus was not merely about human sin (which is true), but was mainly to point to God’s compassion and forgiveness, this story about Abraham questions and Sodom’s sin is about to show us God’s desire to save.

“And the LORD went his way….Abraham returned to his place….”
Now that we understand what Abraham’s relationship with God was about, maybe we can learn what our own relationship with is about.   It’s not really just about you.   It’s about God calling us to be His partners to make a difference as ‘salt and light’.    And the surprise of this text is that we begin this ‘difference’ not by changing the world, which we can’t do, but by being in honest prayer and conversation with God. 

There used to preaching professor at Fruitland Bible Institute, who was much beloved among preachers in western North Carolina.  Dr. Kenneth Riddings, taught a couple of my childhood friends, and a couple of Teresa’s uncles.   He didn’t teach me, but I did get to meet with him in several meetings.  To many ‘Brother Kenneth was the ‘prince of preachers’ who taught them not just how to be a good preacher, but also how to take care of themselves.  Once Dr. Riddings told how he used to work so hard trying to save the world, until he finally noticed  that as he tried to save it, it was getting worse, rather than better.  Finally, he told his young preachers that they’d better preach the word, and let God take care of saving the world.

Perhaps that’s what happens at the end of this story, when we read that ‘the Lord went his way’ and ‘Abraham returned to his place’ without all the answers.  What Abraham is being called to do is to trust God keep ‘doing righteousness and justice’, no matter what is happening around him.    Perhaps this is still the sign of true faith; when we can come to God with our questions and remain faithful, when they are, and even when they are not answered, as we wish.  Years ago, a lady came once came to a Baptist professor who was her pastor at the time.   She had questions about God along with some anger, and she felt guilty about it.  “What should I do with all these feelings?” She asked her professor pastor.  He responded “Go ahead and tell God about it, he can take it!” 

Can you understand a God big enough to ‘take it?’  When I used to talk to my Dad about the War, he would tell me how he fought in a special battalion attached to General Patton.  Then he told me that while the troops respected General Patton, but they loved and trusted most in General Bradley.   He was the soldier’s general.   

In his autobiography, General Bradley tells about boarding a commercial plane one day, wearing a business suit.   He began working on some important papers. It so happened that his seat-mate was a private in the U.S. Army, who was rather expressive. This private, who didn’t recognize the General, said, “Sir, we are going to be traveling together for quite a while, so it would be nice if we got to know one another. I’m guessing that you are a banker.” Bradley, not wanting to be rude, but wanting to get some work done, replied, “No, I am not a banker. I am General Bradley, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.” After a slight pause, the young soldier said, “Wow, sir, that is a very important job. I sure hope you don’t blow it.” It is an understatement to say that we Christians have a vital role to play in America’s future and we dare not blow it.  (From James Moore, When All Else Fails…Read the Instructions, (Dimensions for Living: Nashville, 1993, p. 142, as quoted by Bill Bouknight at

Perhaps the greatest thing we can do for the hope of the world is ‘let God be God’ and not try to worry about God ‘blowing it’.   Like Abraham, we need to be praying, caring for each other, and even praying for and caring for strangers too, then we need to leave the rest to God.    Fred Craddock used to end some of his sermons with a line that reflects what Abraham did, after he left all this questions with God:   “Live simply, love generously, speak truthfully, serve faithfully, and leave everything else to God.”   Amen.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Life with Surprises

A Sermon Based Upon Genesis 18: 1-15, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
February 25th, 2018

Dr. Van Murrell, my college New Testament professor, spoke so fast that by trying to record every word ruined my handwriting.   But even as serious as Dr. Murrell was about the New Testament, he had a great sense of humor.   He would often start his class by addressing us as his ‘buddies’ and his ‘scholars’.    Once, on a test about the geography of Israel, Dr. Murrell asked “How many fish are in the Dead Sea?”  He smiled as he handed out test results to those who tried to figure. 

My favorite memory of class was when we begged him to tell his infamous parachute joke.   The joke is about certain fellow who fell off a cliff toward a lake far below.   The poor fellow managed to grab a branch of a tree going down and was now hanging on for dear life.  “Please God, help me!”  He cried.  After a while, someone passing in a motorboat heard his cry.  They pulled near to offer help.  But the fellow declines the help saying  “No thanks.  God will help me!”  Then, a helicopter flies over offering to drop down a ladder.   “No thanks, God will help me!” He persists.  Then, again, someone hears his cry, comes to the edge of the cliff and offers to drop him a parachute.  He declines once more, “No, God will help me!”   In the next moment, the man loses his grip and perishes.  He awakes in heaven and makes a complaint:  “Lord, I’m grateful to be here, but why didn’t you answer my cry for help?”  The Lord answers, “But I did.  I sent you a motorboat, a helicopter and parachute, but you refused each time.”

What made Dr. Murrell’s so funny was that he couldn’t tell a joke.  He was too dry.  His timing was bad.  He would laugh before the punch line.   It was hilarious.  We loved watching him mess up.  We loved the break it gave us from our challenging lessons.   It made us love him, and the New Testament, even more.   Even his poor attempt at humor bonded us together.

Long ago wisdom said, “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones” (Prov. 17:22).   Today science confirms scripture, explaining that laughter releases endorphins into our body to counter stress.  In other words, laughter is as good for you as eating your daily bowl of oatmeal.   Ironically, however, only two times do we encounter open laughter in the gospels.   Once we hear the mocking laughter of disbelief from the crowd.  Jesus showed up to heal a little girl after they had already started the funeral.   When Jesus spoke his healing word anyway, the little girl got up and the joke was on them (Matt 9:24).   The other encounter with gospel laughter comes from the Beatitudes according to Luke.   This is not the laughter of cynicism, but the laughter of reversal.  Jesus says: “Blessed are you who weep now, for (one day) you will for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21).  This is the heart rejoicing when things go better than you had expected.  And isn't this how most jokes work?  You think you’re going down one path and suddenly everything flips unexpectedly.  We laugh.  In the beatitudes Jesus drew special attention to the joy found in the unexpected grace of God.

Our Scripture today is the first mention of laughter in the Bible.  The text ends with 90 year old ‘Sarah’ overhearing an unannounced visitor telling her husband Abraham, “Your wife Sarah shall have a son” (18:10).  Hearing such a hilarious report, we are told that “Sarah laughed to herself” (18: 12 NRSV).   Sarah didn’t think anyone one could hear her in herself, but this visitor did: “Why did Sarah laugh…?” (v. 13).  In this moment of her life, Sarah had a lot more reasons to weep than to laugh.  Now, even when she is ‘as good as dead,’ she is laughing.  But when she is confronted by the visitor, Sarah denies it.  “I did not laugh”.  Then the visitor counters: “Oh yes, you did laugh” (18:15).

To Sarah and to us, this is not really a funny story.  But wouldn’t you laugh if somebody suggested you would have a child at 90 years old?   When we are young, a positive pregnancy report is a reason for rejoicing.  But expecting a baby after child bearing years are long over?   This is definitely not a laughing matter.  Yet, Sarah laughs.   We need to realize that Abraham laughed too.   In a previous announcement, God told Abraham that as a man of almost 100 years he would finally become a father.  Upon hearing this, we are told that Abraham ‘fell on his face and laughed’ (Gen. 17:17). 

So why is everybody laughing when this is not supposed to be funny?  You know it’s not good to play jokes on ‘old folks’.  Several years ago, we had a Senior Adult Day in the church where I was pastor.  I was in approaching age fifty.   I was already learning about aging.  So, during the message that day, I told a lot of funny stories about aging.  I thought we all needed a good laugh together.  Most everybody agreed, and laughed.  But I noticed that one lady wasn’t laughing.  After the service was over, she came up to me and said: “How dare you make fun of old people!”
          “Ma’am, I’m sorry” I answered, “but I wasn’t making fun, I was trying to help us laugh and have fun together.”
          “It wasn’t funny to me!  She said.   I thought you’d know better!” 
By waiting to fulfill the promise so late, it could seem like God was making fun of old people. You could, if you looked at it in a negative light, take this whole late, delayed, long-overdue fulfilment, and declare it to a very cruel joke.  How dare God make fun with this old people?  Why did he make them wait so long to have a child?  How dare God to have played upon their fears and draw out their faith with so much human drama and desperation?   Doesn’t this God of Abraham not know that life is shouldn’t be a joke?   Why would anybody want to anybody want to believe at all, when the difficulties we face, the challenges we have,  the disappointments that come,  can make God seem to be a player of cruel jokes?   Isn’t it this perspective that has Prometheus, Nietzsche, and now, our society too, crying out for the ‘death of God’

But now, let’s get back to the problem Sarah and Abraham had to face.   Among the most difficult things that can happen to us, being childless is definitely not a joke.  My wife and I experienced it firsthand.  We were unable to have a child naturally.   Back in the 1980’s our doctor encouraged us to go through In-Vitro Fertilization, when it was still at an ‘experimental’ stage.  When he told us there was a good chance we could have a child, we smiled through our fears and hesitations. 

At the time, most insurance companies didn’t cover the procedure.  So we saved over 10k and paid in advance.   As we went through the tedious process, the doctor who had promised to be there for on ‘that day’ wasn’t.    It was a weekend, and another doctor, coming in from a party, filled in for him.  After the procedure, he explained that “there were complications.”   When we finally got a negative result, it all seemed like such a cruel joke.  But I wasn’t laughing?    

The lesson I got from everything was this: If you think trusting God with your life can seem like a cruel joke, trust putting your trust in science.   Some think that technology or human advancement has better answers than faith, but does it, really?  No matter how you look at it, when you are a human being living on borrowed time, no matter what you hope for, life can seem like a cruel joke.  So, why should we put our trust in anything, or in any one, or in God?    

Strangely, and I do mean strangely, this story was told, not to focus on Sarah, or Abraham’s laughter, but to describe an unlikely visit.    Abraham and Sarah did not know who these visitors were, but we know.  The text begins: “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre… (18:1).   If you read closely, this story unfolds full of suspense and surprise.   It tells how Abraham ‘sat at the entrance of his tent,’ looked up, and surprise; there stood three men ‘near him.’   Out of nowhere, these visitors came.   Strange, right?  Then, following the rules of mid-eastern hospitality Abraham hurries to get a meal ready, though he only promised ‘a little water’ and ‘some bread’.   That’s kind of weird too, isn’t it?   Finally, as they are all finishing their meal, one of the visitors inquired about Sarah’s whereabouts.   Then, without waiting on her to be summoned, the visitor gave Abraham the results of the pregnancy test. 

The story gets even stranger.  One of the visitors now being called ‘the Lord,’ turned to Abraham and asked “Why did Sarah laugh?”   It is probable that Abraham didn’t answer because he didn’t hear anything.   Without pause the visitor surprises Abraham with his promise: "I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son" (Gen. 18:10 NRS).  Again, without warning, the dialogue switches back to Sarah, as if Abraham is no longer present.   Now the visitor concludes the conversation, just talking to her heart to heart even while she is outside, without physically leaving Abraham’s tent (Gen. 18: 12-15).   

The strangeness of this whole conversation reflects another odd thing I’ve noticed about the life of Abraham up until now.   Abraham’s story has been filled with promises that seem like they will never come true.   On almost every turn, these promises are being pushed forward again and again into the future.  When Abraham is called, he is given a promise to become a great nation (12:2), but even at the close of his life, he’s still just a small tribe (Gen. 25: 1-8).  When Abraham made a covenant with the LORD, he’s given the promise again, but still no nation, not even a single child of his own blood (15:3).   Then, when the promise is renewed at age 99, it is renewed with the sign of circumcision (Gen. 17: 24).   Did you catch this?  Abraham was circumcised at age 99!  No wonder he fell on his face laughing.  It wasn’t just cruel, but it is totally insane (If you thought childbirth at 90 was cruel).  This slow, unfolding, but deliberate disclosure seems to be with purpose and on purpose, but still no true heir.  Finally, we come to the birth announcement.  Yet still here, the answered promise is still at least 9 months away.  A lot can happen to a woman who pregnant and 90 years of age.   My mother had 7 miscarriages and she was in her 20’s and 30’s.

Besides all this waiting, deferment, and delay, Abraham made a lot of missteps too.  Abraham has faith, but he’s certainly not perfect.  Evidently, this Abrahamic faith was not to be defined by absolute perfection.  When Abraham wandered into Egypt during a drought, he fears for his life and lies about his wife, pretending she is his sister (12:9ff).  Later, when things look hopeless again, Sarah offered her handmaid Hagar, to Abraham as a surrogate wife (16:1ff).   After Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, this caused all kinds of complications of rivalry and jealousy (16:4ff).  It appeared that even these people who live by faith and promise don’t look so promising themselves.   Even while being faithful, faithful people struggle with impatience and shortsightedness. These stories, though so far removed from us, start to seem strangely familiar and reflect our own struggles with faith.     And what was the reason all this was happening?   It was this God, who was so deliberately slow to deliver on his own promise that things got terribly messy and complicated.  Why would Abraham keep believing, trusting, and placing all his hopes in a God that treated him like this?

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul picked up on Abraham’s struggle of faith.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, where it says “Abraham believed the LORD, and “faith was reckoned (or credited) to Abraham as righteousness” (Rom. 4:9).  Paul’s point is to avoid saying that Abraham was righteous, but that he was credited ‘righteous’ because, as Paul writes ‘no distrust’ ever ‘made him waver concerning the promise of God.’ (4:20). But how can Paul make this claim?   He makes this claim based upon Abraham’s faith, in spite of God’s all that did or did not happen to him.   Paul says that even when Abraham was ‘weak’, or ‘already as good as dead’ (19, he was ‘fully convinced that God could do what he had promised’ (21).  Abraham, he says ‘grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God’ (20) even as he was ‘hoping against hope’ (18).  Abraham’s faith was no make-believe, fairytale, or imaginary easy-to-believe faith, but Abraham’s faith was like our faith, like true faith, a struggling, but determined faith including warts and all.  Abraham’s faith was an example of what all faith must be: a struggling, enduring, unwavering faith lived against all odds which was ‘credited’ or ‘reckoned’ to him as the right or only way to live.  Abraham lived right, not because he had no slip ups, but he lived right because he stayed the course in the face of all that did happen, and all that didn’t happen, like he had hoped it would. 

Perhaps it is what Paul said last that is most important:  “Now the words ‘it was reckoned to him’ were not written for his (Abraham’s) sake alone, ‘but for ours also’ (23-24).    Did you catch this?   What was happening in Abraham’s experience of God, is what happens in all people with true, enduring, lasting faith.  Having faith, in spite of everything, is what righteousness, and right living means.   The ultimate expression of faith for the Christian, Pauls says,  is that God will also declare us right, when we believe in him (God) who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead…” (24).  

Abraham’s struggle of faith was not Abraham’s alone.  Abraham’s struggle was to trust life and this is the most basic struggle of every human being.   It was his journey and struggle with faith that made Abraham’s story the foundations of three major world religions.  It wasn’t because Abraham lived to be 175 or because he fathered a child at 100 and not even because his 90 year old wife Sarah had a baby.   No, the story of Abraham has remained with us because it is story about having and keeping faith, no matter what.   We all have to believe in something, because unpredictability and insecurity is a given of human existence. 

But isn’t it the loss of ‘having and keeping’ faith that threatens us today?   We see youth losing ‘faith’ in the world around them; challenging everything, but having little faith to be able to rise above their own situations.   We also see extremes in politics and religion, rising up to spread more hate than hope.   What is really going on?   Harvard philosopher Charles Taylor, named our situation ‘Our Secular Age’.   This ‘secular’ view of the world is the belief that this life and this world is all there is.  A secular world is not ‘enchanted’ with mystery or faith; it is not ‘full of surprises’ and does not need a creator, a sustainer, or a redeemer God to infuse this world with possibilities beyond what we can know, feel, or prove.   No, since there is nothing else, we must have it all now.  We are alive and entitled, now.   We can’t wait on God to fulfill his promises.   We don’t want to go this faith journey.  We don’t expect any surprises in this world, except the experiences we manufacture for ourselves.   It is this kind of self-determining belief that dominates today and it’s a very sad belief, isn’t it?  It’s might even prove to be more burdensome that a having a God who commands and judges because secular faithlessness leaves this world and our life and impending death, to be finally about nothing.  Without God there is no problem, no struggle, and no adventure, and that’s the problem.  The struggle does, and so does the meaning of life, because the faithless say life is going nowhere.  Life is only “… a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Shakespeare).

Is this nothingness what we will settle for?  Probably not.   I say this because of what I saw recently on the news as the rare solar eclipse was approaching back in mid-August.   A popular scientist was on CBS news, explaining how remarkable this event is.   The Sun is 400 times further away from us than the moon, and the moon is exactly 400 times smaller than the Sun.  These exact coincidences he said make a great moment for us to go outside, take a look at what is happening, and ‘commune with the cosmos’.  I though it amazing to hear how ‘religious’ this scientist sounded.   Everything we trust God for, he put his trust to find in rare, predictable, and physical cosmic event.   Is this where science is trying to take us?   Is where people find their hopes, dreams and faith, in the years to come?  Will we settle for the way things are, or will we allow this rare visitor to bring faith’s greater surprise?  

Interestingly our text expresses the way to have faith in this visitor, in the form of an unanswered question.   After the visitor heard Sarah laughing, he asked what will forever remains faith’s most important question: “Is there anything to hard (too wonderful) for the LORD?”  The whole point of this Abraham story is not what it seems; that God made Abraham struggle, endure and wait, but that in this very real, dramatic, human struggle and journey we call life, God showed up.  After Abraham’s father left Ur and settled in Haran, God called and showed up.  After Abraham struggle in Egypt felt all alone, God showed up and made his promise again.   Then, after Abraham and Sarah thought they would have to settle for Hagar and Ishmael, God showed up again.   And now, even when they are ‘as good as dead’, God shows up to accomplish what only God can do; bring his own promise to fulfillment. 

So, now this question forever remains with us, because it is still the human choice between faith or faithlessness, between hope and hopelessness, and between love: Do need to trust in a God who brings surprises, revelations, prospects and possibilities beyond what we now know?  Jesus himself answered this question for us, in the affirmative: “This is not possible with mortals, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26, Mark 10:27, Luke 18:27).  Interestingly, Jesus made this statement in response to the question about “Who can be saved?” because, he said, it is ‘hard for rich people to enter the kingdom of God’  (Luk 18:25, Mark 10:25, Matt 19: 24).   Precisely because it is ‘hard’ for people who think they have everything to think they need God, is exactly the ‘impossibility’ that God can overcome.

In commenting on this impossible possibility of faith in God,  Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, ‘the question (of faith) does not linger with babies and birth stories (in the Bible), but it moves also to the impossibility of discipleship, the impossibility of faith, and the impossibility of a new community.  The right answer faith gave in Scripture, is the right answer faith still gives, when we have faith and keep faith, that allows God the freedom to be God and trust God to do what only God can do.   It is only by entertaining this kind of faith;  a faith in a God who still visits us with both promise and surprise, that we can keep faith in a world that has ‘frighteningly’ no future without a future in the possibility of God (See Interpretation Commentary, Genesis, pp 159-162)., 1982).

Speaking of possibilities only in Abraham’s God; as I wrote this message back in August, the world had again be disrupted by another devastating terror attack, now in Barcelona, Spain.  How in the world will a threat like this ever be stopped?   It’s seems impossible.  How will these extremist ever learn a message of love, not hate?   And it isn’t that much different when we see all the division and hate also going on in this country. How can we move beyond it all? But only two week before the attack in Barcelona, there was a surprising CBSN New report, about an 86 year old Texas born, Pentecostal evangelist, Marylyn Hickey, who was traveling and preaching, spreading the message of love in Jesus Christ, even in most Muslim Pakistan.  Pakistan is not only predominately Muslim, but it is also a hotbed of Muslim fundamentalism, where Osama Bin Laden had his final hideout.   But in this most strange report, reporter James Brown, told how this Pentecostal lady message of Christ love was being warmly accepted by a Muslim population, and she was not at all, deem by the masses to be a threat.  I could not believe what I was seeing, it was one of those ‘impossibilities’ becoming possible right before my own eyes that were glued to what I was seeing.   (

Could it be that there are still, among the ‘impossibly’ of this world, possibilities that only the God of Abraham can bring.   “Before Abraham was, I am.” Jesus said.   Are there answers and possibilities that have already revealed to us, but are not yet fully accepted by us, as they have been supremely revealed in the love of God through Jesus Christ?  
Fleming Rutledge tells of an article in The New Yorker about an CEO who boasted that his own multi-national company named Schulmberger was now able to do its employees and its customers ‘what religion had tried to do, but failed to do’.   He said his company is providing for people community, identity, and security just like religion attempted to do, but ‘religion’ he said, could not and cannot deliver on its promises.’  Religion, he said, can’t deliver, because religion is made up of only ‘human projections, wishes, fantasies, fears, and longings.’
You may be surprised to hear that I agree wholeheartedly with this CEO.  Religion can’t deliver anything.  Religion is a human way to approach God, appease God, please God, or even to invent God.   But this God of Abraham and Sarah, was not about ‘religion’ that any human can or would invent.   This is a story about a relationship with the God who is revealed in a relationship of faith, not in a religion.  “Before Abraham was, I Am,” Jesus said  (John 8:58).   My name is “I Am who I Am”, God informed Moses (Ex. 3:14).    This God who is the great “I AM” has been revealed fully in Jesus Christ as “the way and truth and life.”  

And finally, this God of promise and possibility has not been revealed to shrink our human potentials and prospects, but to expand them.   This visitor from beyond who brings us all our possibilities, still comes to through the Spirit of the Christ, who by living, dying, and being raised from the dead, has revealed the unlimited resources of God, through faith, hope, and love.  And the greatest resource for all our possibilities, then and now, and from now on, will forever be God’s love.    It is love that gives us, and restores to us, the joy of the salvation only God can give.  Amen.