Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Sermon for second mid-week Advent service - Gen 21:1-7

                                                                                                Mid-Advent 2
                                                                                                Gen 21:1-7

            Abraham had not intended to end up in Haran.  When he left Ur in Mesopotamia – modern day Iraq – with his father Terah, the goal was the land of Canaan.  Yet in making the long circular trip to Canaan that avoided the desert, they stopped in Harran – modern day Turkey – and for some reason never continued.  Instead they settled there.
            We learn in Genesis chapter eleven that Abraham made the trip to Harran with his wife Sarah, at that time called Sarai, as Abraham was called Abram.  We are told that “the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai.”  And then the very first thing we learn about her is: “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.” 
            Many of us know women who have struggled with infertility.  Women were created by God to bear children.  They were created to want to bear children – to want to be a mother.  When for some reason this doesn’t happen for a wife, we feel deep empathy for her pain.  In a culture that valued children even more than we do, Sarai’s condition was the greatest of tragedies.
            While in Haran, Yahweh called Abraham.  He said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 
            God promised to make Abraham into a great nation. And he promised that in Abraham all nations would be blessed.  Through his call, God identified Abraham’s offspring as the means by which he would fulfill the first Gospel promise that we heard about last week. This One would be the seed of the woman – he would descend from Eve and would defeat the devil.
            Abraham was seventy five years old when God called him and he went to Canaan, where God promised that his descendants would possess the land. God had promised to make Abraham into a great nation.  Of course, there was a problem with this plan. Sarah was barren and did not seem to be able to have any children.
            Years passed, and during that time God said to Abraham, “I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.”  It sounded great … except Sarah continued to be unable have any children.
            And so it was later that that the word of Yahweh came to Abraham in a vision saying, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  But this time Abraham replied, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”
            Yahweh responded to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir." God brought Abraham outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be.” Then we are told, “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” God makes a promise that is contradicted by past and present experience.  But Abraham believes God’s word – he believes God is able to do it. And God reckons – he counts this faith as righteousness.
            St Paul tells us that Abraham had faith in God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” He had faith in God, “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” and so, “That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’” And the apostle tells us: “But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
            Abraham is held up as a great example of faith.  We know that we are not always able to be so strong. There are times we doubt God and fail to trust in him. We question him because of the way things are going, and wonder whether he really is there; whether he really does care.
            It turns out the Abraham and Sarah were no different.  In the very next chapter we learn that when Abraham was eighty five years old, Sarah was still barren. A decade – ten years – had passed since God first spoke his promise about Abraham being the father of many nations. And in spite of God’s repeated promises affirming this, nothing had happened.
            So Sarah came up with her own plan.  She had a servant named Hagar, and she said to Abraham, “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And we learn that Abraham listened to Sarah. Abraham and Sarah ignored God’s promise and tried to do things their own way. Abraham had sex with Hagar. She became pregnant and gave birth to Ishmael. But by ignoring God’s word and doing things their own way, it actually just made things worse as Hagar and Ishmael became the cause of hurt feelings and anger for Sarah. That’s what usually happens when you ignore God’s instruction and try to do things your own way.
            Then, when Abraham was ninety nine years old – twenty four years after God had first made his promise - Yahweh appeared to him and said about Sarah, “I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”  This was too much for Abraham.  He fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 
Yet Yahweh affirmed, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.”  In fact God added, “I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”
            Finally, Yahweh and two angels came to visit Abraham. God said to Abraham, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Moses tells us that not only was Sarah old but that she was in menopause. And so seemingly with good reason Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?”  However Yahweh said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 
Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”
            Tonight in our text he hear, “The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.”
            Our text says that God “visited Sarah,” which is a term loaded theological meaning in the Old Testament.  It describes God’s saving attention directed toward Israel and her people. This visitation was God enabling Sarah to become pregnant.
            And note how the verse in parallelism says the same thing twice: The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised.  Twenty five years earlier, God had spoken his promise. Year after year passed as Sarah remained barren.  She was at a stage of life when physically it was no longer possible for her to have children.  Yet just as God had promised – and then just at the time God had said – Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac. God kept his promise.  God was true to his word.
             A hundred year old man having a child is unusual. But in our own day it’s not unthinkable.  The oldest recorded age of a man having a child is Ramjit Raghan who did so at ninety six years old in India.  There are at least eight other well known examples of men who have had a child in their eighties or nineties.
            However, elderly women in menopause don’t conceive children.  It never happens.  And yet at the critical juncture when God promised that he was acting to bless all nations; at the time when he began to fulfill the promise of the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head, God used a barren menopausal woman to give birth to Isaac. God acted in an unexpected way.  For as God said to Abraham, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?”
            God’s promise to Abraham took many years to be fulfilled. When it was, God did it in an unexpected way - a way that reveals is creative power. During Advent we are preparing to celebrate that God kept his promise about the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head.  Here too, it was many years before God’s visitation. But God kept his promise.  He was true to his word.
            In Sarah God used the dead womb of an old woman.  In Mary God used the fertile womb of a virgin, who became pregnant without ever having intercourse with man.  Yet after all, nothing is too hard for the Lord.
            Abraham and Sarah had both laughed at the idea of Sarah bearing a child. Yet after she had given birth Sarah said,
“God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” Now they would laugh as an expression of joy over the crazy, amazing thing that God had done for Sarah.
            As we prepare to celebrate Christmas we do not laugh at the idea of virgin giving birth to the sinless Son of God.  We do not laugh at the premise that a single man dying on a Roman cross was God’s powerful visitation bringing us forgiveness and salvation.  We do not laugh at the witness of the apostles that God raised Jesus from the dead.  Instead we laugh for joy that God had has done these amazing things through the seed of the woman to give us redemption.



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