Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
14th of June, 2020
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?’ It is the question that the three visitors ask Abraham after his wife Sarah laughs at the promise that she and Abraham will have a son in their extreme old age. Today’s story tells us that nothing is too wonderful for the Lord, not even the birth of a son to a woman and her husband who have grown old.
‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?’ In nations in which much of the population identifies as ‘Christian,’ including the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia, tens of thousands of people marched last weekend against racism and the State-sanctioned killing of Black people. The protests started with the murder of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis, but the thousands who marched in Australia were remembering the more than 400 Indigenous Australians who have died in custody since the end of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC). Australia is still a land built on genocide, a land without a Treaty, a land in which First Nations men are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than other Australians, and First Nations women are 21 times more likely to be in custody. Australia is a country that has not yet come to terms with its racist past, or indeed its racist present. Will it ever be able to? ‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?’
The story of Abraham is the story of an outstanding man of faith. He and his wife, Sarai, on the command of God, leave their country and their family and their people, and set out for an unknown land, because God has promised that they will become the parents of a great nation (Genesis 12:1-3). Because of their great faith, the Apostle Paul argues, Abraham is the ancestor of all those who believe in the promises of God. Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, Paul tells us (Romans 4:3). But this doesn’t mean that Abraham and Sarah never doubted God, never wondered about whether God’s promises would come true. In today’s reading, we’re shown one of their moments of disbelief.
The story begins with the Lord appearing to Abraham in the heat of the day. Fascinatingly, when Abraham lifts his eyes, he sees three men. Since these three men are somehow the Lord, this story prompted Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity, the image of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit sitting together around the table that Abraham prepares for them. The most famous and beloved image of the Christian Trinity was born from a story in the Hebrew Scriptures.
This story shows us the importance of hospitality. The men appear to Abraham in the heat of the day, yet he runs from his tent to greet them. He begs them, as a favour, to allow him to offer them hospitality. He offers them a little bread, to refresh themselves, but then asks Sarah to make cakes of choice flour, and has his servant prepare a tender and good calf. He himself offers the calf with curds and milk and stands by the men as they eat. All is haste and bustle as Abraham’s family offer hospitality to these three strangers, who are also the Lord. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews later tells Christians, in offering hospitality ‘some have entertained angels without knowing it’ (Hebrews 13:2).
While the food is being prepared, the Lord reiterates to Abraham the promise that has been made several times before: the promise that Abraham and Sarah will have a son. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes that Abraham and Sarah believed in the promise that they would become parents in their old age. According to today’s story, that’s not exactly how it goes. Hospitality is not just about providing refreshment and welcome, it is about making room for the word of God to be spoken and heard – and Sarah and Abraham fail that particular demand of hospitality.
The promise that Sarah and Abraham will have a son together, and through that son become a great nation, has been made several times before this meeting. And yet Abraham and Sarah are old. Abraham has had a son, Ishmael, by Hagar, but the son of Sarah has not appeared. So when the Lord, having first made sure that Sarah is within earshot, promises a son to Abraham, Sarah laughs. Not the laughter of joy, the laughter prompted by faith that the promise will come true. Sarah laughs disbelievingly, derisively: ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ Sexual pleasure? The pleasure of a child of her own? Whatever pleasure Sarah is referring to, she doesn’t believe that it will come to her. And she’s not alone in her disbelief. The last time the Lord made this promise, to Abraham, when instituting the covenant marked by circumcision, Abraham also mocked the idea: ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ (Genesis 17:17) Abraham asked that instead Ishmael might live in the Lord’s sight.
The Lord knows what Sarah is thinking. He asks Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’’ And Sarah, hearing this, does what any of us would do, and denies it, ‘I did not laugh’. But she did. She and Abraham, our ancestors in the faith, our role models of faithful trust in the promises of God – neither of them believes that the Lord will give them a son. And who can blame them? The Lord tells Abraham that he will give Sarah a son ‘in due season’ but surely the due season is long past. Abraham is more than a century old; Sarah is well and truly menopausal. And yet the Lord asks them, ‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?’
Well, Sarah and Abraham do have a son, and he is named Isaac, which means ‘he laughs’. His name will always remind them of their derisive laughter at the promise of God. But ‘Isaac’ also refers to the joy, the wonder, the elation and happy laughter that come with his birth. God is gracious and has kept his promise. In this case, indeed, nothing has been too wonderful for God to do.
Do we believe that nothing is too wonderful for the Lord to do, that there is no deepest desire of our hearts that God cannot fulfil? It’s a question that continues to be asked down the ages. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus himself prayed: ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible,’ but ended his prayer with: ‘Not what I want, but what you want’ (Mark 14:36). Jesus accepted that while all things are possible for God, God doesn’t always respond to our prayers in the way we want. In Gethsemane, Jesus showed the faith in God that accepted ‘no’ as God’s answer to his prayer. But later, on the cross, in the face of that ‘no’, Mark tells us that Jesus cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34). Like Abraham and Sarah, whose faith in God we see in today’s story to be flawed, on the cross Jesus himself, God-with-us, felt abandoned by God. And yet, Isaac is born, and crucifixion is followed by resurrection.
‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?’ Is there hope? Could racism and white supremacy end? Of course! This week George Floyd was buried. Talking about his funeral, philosopher Dr Cornel West told CNN journalist Anderson Cooper:
We’ve got a love that the world can’t take away. White supremacy may make being Black a crime, but we refuse to get in the gutter … We’re doing it for the whole world, because that’s the only hope of the world. And that kind of love is always tragi-comic and cruciform. You got to get ready to get crucified with that kind of love and you have to keep dishing it out generation after generation after generation.
We see that same sort of love here in Australia, as First Nations’ People invite the rest of us, over and over again, to walk with them. In their response to the Apology of the Assembly the UAICC said to us:
We come to this covenanting table with our gifts of Aboriginal spirituality, our culture, our Aboriginal way of loving and caring, our instinctive concern and a willingness to share and teach our history and every good aspect about being Aboriginal and Islander.
And the final line of the Uluru Statement from the Heart is ‘We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future’. Again and again the First Peoples of Australia welcome those of us who are Second Peoples. Again and again they offer us friendship. Is there hope for change, for an end to racism? Of course! There is not merely hope, there is an invitation. And as Christians, those who gather around the Table at which Jesus is the Host, we know what to do when we receive an invitation. We accept it. Amen.