Note: this post is directed primarily to Christians and Jews and to those interested in the theology of those faiths. However there are hopefully lessons to be learned that are applicable to those of other faiths and those who are interested in the foundations of Jewish and Christian faith.
Christians and Jews should look to the Bible for the great stories upon which our faith is built. In spite of what our clergy and doctrinal theologians too often teach, our understanding of God is not found only in a few key verses, lines, lists or parables. The stories of the faith are most often where the theology had its genesis, not in lists of rules.
Faith is far more than rules, "dos and don'ts," doctrines and dogma. And faith is demonstrated in stories; those of our ancestors in faith and our personal stories. Stories are at the heart of God's message to us. To the extent that we embrace our faith, ancestral stories within the Bible are our family stories, told to enlighten, inform and form us in our daily living.
To give you an idea of the truth of this, let's look at the story of Abraham and Sarah, the story out of which came the greatest proclamation of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther concluded that our salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone. This is the idea we today call “justification by faith.”
Other conclusions have been derived throughout the centuries from the stories of the faith and are recorded in the Talmud, in the teachings of the early church, both Eastern and Western, and in many of the teachings within Christianity and Judaism today. Much of that theology is derived from the stories of faith found in the Bible.
The story of Abraham and Sarah in the Hebrew Bible runs from the end of Chapter 11 of Genesis into the beginning of Chapter 25. I am going to summarize some of the highlights of that story now. You should, of course, read the story for yourself and see if you get some of the same ideas and come to similar conclusions. Each story informs us differently as individuals.
In Chapter 12 Abram and Sarai, trusting God's promise to them totally, pull up stakes and leave their homeland of Ur, and the life that they knew, not knowing even where they are going, only that God told them to go, promising them a great future.
They end up in Canaan. But Abram is put to the test soon thereafter. There is a famine in Canaan, and Abram loses faith and they abandon the promise and flee to Egypt.
There, fearful for his own skin, Abram has Sarai claim that she is his sister. (She is his half-sister; but she is also his wife.) He does this because she is beautiful and he is afraid the Egyptians will kill him and take Sarai if he admits she is his wife. So she lies to please Abram, who is not killed, but Sarai is taken and becomes one of Pharaoh’s concubines, and a favorite at that. That is pretty impressive since Sarai is pushing 70 years old at the time!
Because Pharaoh is charmed by Sarai, he pours riches on her “brother” Abram. Pharaoh ferrets out Abram's deception, and, acting more honorably that Abram, he has them both kicked out of Egypt! Surprisingly, Pharaoh doesn’t have him killed; and he doesn’t strip him of his possessions. So they are out of Egypt, but they are very rich.
The first thing you notice is that this is a very strange, highly condensed story, full of hyperbole and shrouded in bits of myth. Yet it is very much designed to show clearly the motives and ambitions of Abram and Sarai.
Nothing about Abram's character is glossed over or made to seem better than it is. Abram shows almost no redeeming qualities at all, does not trust God, and uses half-lies to secure his own future. Yet God does not abandon him and continues to protect him.
In Chapter 13 we find Abram back in Canaan, cattle farming with his nephew, Lot. But they have so many cattle that they can’t both graze the same land, and quarrels break out between their herdsmen. So, in stark contrast to the person we came to know, and dislike, in Chapter 12, Abram becomes very generous and lets Lot choose the best land. Abram takes the scrub desert.
In other words, Abram, once again trusts the promise, trusts God to provide. And God does. More importantly, God again appears to Abram and repeats the promise: land, descendants, prosperity, and that a great nation will arise from him, a nation by which all other nations and peoples shall be blessed. Abram again believes God, and both he and Lot prosper.
Chapter 14 is an odd little interlude in which Lot finds himself embroiled in a local war, gets captured, and is rescued by Abram. After that, King Melchizedek, called a “priest of the most high God,” blesses Abram. In the New Testament book of Hebrews, much is made of Melchizedek, but he does not play a large role in the story of Abraham and Sarah.
Chapter 15 is a pivotal chapter. It is the sixth verse of Chapter 15 that St. Paul relies upon to show how we are justified by grace, through faith. This idea was effectively buried until Martin Luther resurrected it over 1400 years later and put his own spin on it. A key verse reads, “And he (Abram) believed God, and the Lord reckoned it to him as ighteousness.”
Right before this verse, Abram’s faith had wavered yet again. And we can easily see why. In spite of the promises of God, Sarai is still childless, and Abram can’t see how she can ever have a child. So he doubts.
And God promises yet again! And yet again, Abram believes, and this time, because of his faith, God treats him AS IF he were righteous. God, “reckons it to him as righteousness.” Now, clearly, he isn’t very righteous. He is not “right with God” which is what being righteous means.
He is righteous neither according to his actions in Egypt, nor according to his constant vacillation in his trust of God. But, just this small amount of faith is enough for God to treat him as if he were righteous.
And that is true with us. Our faith is seldom, if ever, pure. We vacillate, we wander, we have our doubts; we come back to God, only to back away again and try to control our present and invent our own future. But God accepts our small, faltering, halting attempts at faith and justifies us, though we are not actually righteous. Christians, of course, believe that this justification comes to us because of our faith in Christ.
But in this story, there is a price to be paid by Abram for his wavering faith. God tells him that the some of the promise will be delayed, and not just for a couple of weeks. God says that the total fulfillment of the promise will be delayed for 400 years!
Abram will reap some of the rewards of the promise in his lifetime, but it will be future generations who will reap the reward of a land that they can call their own! Abram himself will not see this, but his descendants will. Because Abram vacillates, over and over, between faith and doubtt he full reward of the promise is delayed, but the promise remains!
And so we come to Chapter 16. And Sarai is still barren. Plus she is getting really old. So she and Abram decide, again, to abandon the promise; to try to take life, literally, into their own hands, to circumvent the waiting. Sarai tells Abram to lay with her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, and attempt to conceive offspring through her.
He does; and Hagar becomes pregnant; and then makes the mistake of flaunting that fact in Sarai’s face. Sarai becomes furious and mistreats Hagar, who runs away. But this amazing God cares not only for the chosen, but for others as well, and He sends and angel after Hagar, who tells her to return.
The angel guarantees to Hagar that her son, who will be born Ishmael, will be cared for by God, and will become a great person and nation in his own right. But there is no guarantee that Ishmael will inherit the promised land. Rather, Ishmael will forever remain outside of God’s divine plan for this elected family.
But, and this is vitally important, Ishmael will be greatly blessed. God blesses and cares for so called "outsiders" as well as for we who think of ourselves as "insiders."
By Chapter 17 yet more time has passed. Abram is now 99 and Sarai is 90! And, in spite of their doubting the promise and their aborted intentions to take their future into their own hands, God appears yet again; and again God promises. But with the passing years the promise looks even more impossible and ridiculous to the couple, and also to us.
Yet, God is insistent, and in a symbolic act of great importance, which is often ignored or misunderstood when we read this story, God changes their names. He gives them new identities which signify new life and new possibility.
Abram is named Abraham; Sarai, Sarah. To underscore the truth of the promise, Abram, which means in Hebrew “Exalted Ancestor,” becomes Abraham, which means, “Ancestor of a multitude!” And still Abraham doubts, name change or not. Abraham doubts. We would likely doubt too.
And so God “cuts a covenant” with Abraham, makes him a promise that will be sealed in blood. And the sign of that covenant is circumcision. Circumcision becomes the physical sign of the special and chosen nature of Abraham in God’s eyes. And Abraham trusts God again — a lot, I’d say — because Abraham then circumcises himself! And he circumcises his 13 year old son Ishmael. That is likely more detail than we needed to know. But just imagine the pain!
This little wince filled scene brings us to the climactic Chapter of the promise: Chapter 18. This is not the end of the story by any means, which runs on through Chapter 25, but it is the high point of the story of the promise made and to be kept.
Three men visit Abraham and Sarai. And Abraham extends to them hospitality. In reality, they are God and two angels in disguise! (As a little aside, this is where the saying in Hebrews 13 comes from “Be kind to strangers, for you may be entertaining angels unawares!”)
In the course of the visit the strangers ask after Sarah, who is in the tent preparing food. One, who is God in disguise, says to Abraham that he will return to them and Sarah shall have a son. Sarah, eavesdropping, overhears this, and laughs to herself at the audacity of such a statement.
But God hears her unvoiced laugh and tells 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!” The Lord said, “Oh yes, you did laugh, Sarah!”
Here then, we are at the heart of the matter: how very hard having faith is. Listen to Walter Bruggemann on this key point in Chapter 18:
Abraham and Sarah have by now become accustomed to their barrenness. They are resigned to their closed future. They have accepted that helplessness as normal. The gospel promise does not meet them in receptive hopefulness, but in resistant hopeLESSness....
The total Abraham /Sarah story is about a call embraced. But in this central narrative the call is NOT embraced. It is rejected as nonsensical. And indeed, if no new thing can intrude, if newness must be conjured from present resources, the promise announced here IS truly nonsensical. But we must focus on the question of the Lord in verse 4, “Is anything impossible for the Lord?”
Bruggemann is right. We are at the heart of the matter of this story. This is the conundrum that we always face in our relationship with God. If we say, “No, nothing is impossible for the Lord,” then we embrace the promise, however unsteadily.
If we say, “Yes, some things are impossible, even for God,” then we are not yet ready. We are not yet willing to let the initiative flow from us to God. We aren’t ready to relinquish control. So God can say to Sarah, and to us, “Oh, yes, you DID laugh!”
And that could be the end of the story. God could add, “If you are going to laugh at my promise, you are on your own. I’ll go help someone else!” But, of course, no thanks to Abraham and Sarah, it isn’t the end.
You see God’s plans do not depend on our opinions about how preposterous we think God’s promises are! Even here, toward the very end of the story of the promise, Abraham and Sarah still have serious doubts. But, God will be God and will do what God wants to do.
God will keep Abraham’s and Sarah’s future open, in spite of their doubt. Just so God keeps our future open, in spite of our doubts. We may think that we are in control, but it is not up to us to decide what God will do. God intends to "make all things new", in spite of all resistance from us to the contrary.
The question for us today is the same as it was for Abraham and Sarah then: Will we trust God? Will we embrace the promise, the future, and live the sense of joy and freedom that embrace can bring? Or will we laugh and say, “There are some things that really are impossible, you know.”
This story says that the future is in the hands of God. It always has been. On our own, all we can claim of the future with certainty is the knowledge that we all shall die. That is our future without the promise. With the promise of the promise we are told that we shall live, now and forever.
In this story Abraham and Sarah, ultimately, trust the promise, and God has the last laugh. Sarah has her baby boy, and God names him “Laughter!” Isaac means laughter. Later God will name another baby boy. He will call this one, Emmanuel, “God with us!”
It all comes down to this. Will we believe the promise of faith? That is always the question. God promises us new life. And the story of Abraham and Sarah urges that we see that God will provide it. That is their story. It is also our story, a story told about our ancestors in faith. Are we ready to claim it? Are we willing to receive from God, grace, through faith? The offer still stands. The promise still awaits.