Assurance of the Impossible
Assurance of the Impossible
In Chapter 17 we saw God speak to Abram after thirteen years of silence. And this time, as he came to Abram, he called him into deeper relationship with himself. Up to that point God had made promises of what he would do for and through Abram. In Chapter 17 we saw God reveal Abram’s side of the covenant: Abram was to walk before God and be blameless. And as part of this deeper and fuller revelation, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham (and Sarai’s name to Sarah). He acted as a father, exercising authority over Abram and Sarai and adopting them as his children. Then, having called Abraham into a position of sonship, he gave instructions to him regarding circumcision: Abraham and his descendants were to walk in faith with God and in his covenant, but every one of them was to be brought into that covenant by receiving the sign of circumcision. It was a symbol full of meaning: circumcision was a sign and seal that Abraham was cut off from his old life; it was sign and seal of his adoption by God; it was a sign and seal of God’s power in his life; and ultimately it was a sign and seal of God’s covenant promises and faithfulness. Abraham entered that covenant by faith, but his circumcision reminded him that his faith was not in himself or anything he could accomplish on his own; his faith was to be in God’s power to act and God’s faithfulness to his promises.
But, of course, the real shocker to Abraham came as God revealed that Ishmael, his beloved son, was not the child of promise. God announced that in a year Sarah would conceive and bear the son he had promised. Abraham had laughed, not so much out of disbelief, but simply because what God was now promising was simply so astounding. God took that laughter and turned it into something prophetic as he affirmed that, yes indeed, Sarah would bear Abraham a son and that his name would be Isaac, a name that means “laughter”.
As we now come to Chapter 18 this morning, relatively little time has passed—at most a couple of months. God comes to Abraham again, this time in person. Look at verses 1 and 2:
And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth.
The mid-day sun could be very hot. Once the morning’s work was done, a man like Abraham typically would have taken a siesta, opening the flaps of his tent to let the breezes through, while resting in the shade. Imagine him dozing off as he reclined there. Suddenly he senses that someone is there. Maybe he hears a noise. He opens his eyes and sees three strangers. Abraham’s thinking that as he dozed he must have missed their approach: “What a terrible host I am!” Thanks to the storyteller having tipped us off that this is the Lord, you and I know that it’s not that Abraham missed them because he was napping, but that these men have suddenly and supernaturally appeared at the entrance to his tent.
A man of Abraham’s stature in society would have been expected to receive guests with some formality, maybe sending out servants to meet them on the road while they were still at a distance and here he’s dozed off and no one’s noticed until the men are practically on his doorstep. He jumps up to greet these three men, bowing low as he says:
“O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” (Genesis 18:3-5)
Abraham’s being an impeccable host. These are all the things that a good host would have done: meeting the needs of his guests—tired men who have been travelling through the dust of the heat of the day. But did Abraham know who his guest was? The ESV, reads that Abraham greeted his guest saying, “O Lord”. It would be more accurate to translate the Hebrew as “My Lord”. But did Abraham know this truly was the Lord? There’s some debate over this point. The problem arises from the fact that Hebrew wasn’t originally written with any vowels. “Lord” could be a title for God, but it could also be a title of courtesy. The only difference between the two is a single vowel and the original—the inspired—Hebrew text wasn’t written with any vowels. People knew the proper pronunciations based on context and because a tradition was passed down through the generations. Vowel markings were added to the text in the Middle Ages by Jewish scribes who feared that tradition would be lost. The vowels those scribes put here show that Abraham addressed his guest as the Lord God. But the story makes more sense as it unfolds if Abraham doesn’t know up-front that this is God. This is why I’m inclined to read Abraham’s greeting “My Lord” as a title of courtesy. He doesn’t yet know who his guest is.
Abraham’s guests accept the offer of hospitality in verse 5 and in verses 6-8 we see him taking care of these men.
And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
The custom in those days and in situations like this was for a host to promise small and deliver big. Abraham had offered them a morsel of bread, but now we see him scrambling to prepare a feast. From lazing about in the heat of the day, Abraham now hurries to Sarah to tell her to hurry and then hurries to his young man, giving him instructions to hurry and prepare a calf for roasting. Even Abraham’s instructions show how hurried he was and that he was concerned about the welfare of his guests. He says to Sarah, literally, “three seahs of fine flour”. That’s it, no verb. It’s as if he ran to the tent where she was, popped his head in, and shouted: “Fine flour and lots of it! Now!” knowing that she would understand the need to bake some bread—quality bread—and to bake it quickly.
And as it turns out, Abraham’s little “morsel of bread” turns into a feast: bread made from his finest flour (And lots of it! Three seahs is about eight litres.), yoghurt and goats’ milk, along with one of the choicest of his young bulls. At this point I don’t believe Abraham knows who his guest is, but his offerings point to his guest’s identity and the Israelites who heard this for the first time would have picked up on this immediately. Here, long before God had given his people any instructions about sacrifices or offerings, Abraham offers his divine guest bread made from his finest flour. In the rest of the Pentateuch this sort of flour is only described as that commanded by God to be used by the people in their grain offerings and in baking the bread of the presence offered to the Lord every Sabbath in the tabernacle. And consider Abraham’s choice young bull in light of God’s repeated instructions that only the best of the herd was to be offered on the altar. In his hospitality, Abraham unknowingly makes a fitting and prophetic offering to God. I have to think that the writer of Hebrews had Abraham in mind when he wrote, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).
After their lunch is finished God reveals himself to Abraham by asking a question. Look at verse 9:
They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” (Genesis 18:9a)
And this is the point where Abraham might be taken a little aback, thinking to himself, “How do these men know my wife’s name? Since they arrived she’s been busy preparing the meal and she’s been in the tent the whole time they’ve been eating.” The reality of the situation dawns on him. These aren’t just some travelling strangers; this is his God. And this is the point where you and I realise that God hasn’t come to Abraham this time. No, this time God has come to Sarah and speaks to her through her husband. In Chapter 17 God came to Abraham with the promise of a son. Now he’s come to deliver that same promise to Abraham’s wife—to Sarah. The stranger doesn’t ask the question because he doesn’t know where Sarah is; he asks the question to reveal that he already knows and in doing so he reveals his identity as God. Think of how God came to Adam and Eve as they were hiding in the garden and asked where they were. Think of God coming to Cain and asking him where his brother had got to. When God comes to his people he often asks questions that remind us nothing is hidden from him. And as in those other instances, God uses his question to draw the conversation to the point.
“Where is Sarah your wife?” God asks Abraham.
And [Abraham] said, “She is in the tent.” (Genesis 19:9b)
Why was she in the tent? The most common reason given for Sarah’s being in the tent is that it wasn’t culturally acceptable in that time and place for women to eat with men. That’s one possibility, but there isn’t much evidence to support it. Another possibility is that between the time she prepared the feast and the time when the men sat down to eat God had miraculously returned her fertility to her. Menstruation rendered women unclean in that culture and left them confined indoors and away from everyone else. This would certainly explain why she prepared the meal—something a menstruating woman would never be permitted to do—but then left her husband to serve and attend to his guests as they ate. Whatever the case, it’s Sarah to whom God has come this time and even as God speaks to Abraham, the person to whom he’s really speaking is Sarah. And so, after focusing the conversation on Sarah and after no doubt getting her attention inside the tent, he goes on:
The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” (Genesis 18:10a)
Abraham already knew this. This is what Chapter 17 was all about. We don’t know why God came again to tell Sarah the same thing. Maybe Abraham had been afraid to tell her what God had told him. More likely, Abraham had told Sarah and Sarah hadn’t believed him, so God comes himself to give her assurance that her husband isn’t making all this up. But Sarah still has doubts. Look at her response:
And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” (Genesis 18:10b-12)
Sarah hears God’s promise and she laughs at it. We can certainly understand why she might. The storyteller reminds us again that she was well past her childbearing years. And yet he tells us this in a matter of fact way. Sarah laughs at the promise and the storyteller gives us her inner monologue. She simply knows it’s physically impossible. She’s too old. She even describes herself not simply as being past the possibility of childbearing, but actually as “worn out”. She’s thinking of herself as a decrepit old woman—there’s an element of self-pity in how she describes her situation. Again, we can understand where she’s coming from. She’s old and despite God’s promises to her husband, she has long since lost hope of ever having her own son.
But God speaks again. He asks Abraham another questions, but again he’s really speaking to Sarah, who’s in the tent. She may have laughed to herself, but God heard it anyway. Look at verses 13-15:
The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”
This is such a wonderful scene. Sarah’s in the tent and overhears this stranger telling her husband that in a year she’ll have given birth to a son. She just knows that’s crazy and so she cynically giggles to herself. No one could hear her silent laughter. And then she hears the stranger ask her husband, “Why did Sarah laugh?” Abraham’s completely confused at this point, I expect. “Laugh? I didn’t hear anyone laugh?” But in the tent Sarah’s now realising that this isn’t just some strange traveller who happened down the road. Mortal men can’t hear your silent laughter or your thoughts of doubt. No, this is the God who has been making promises to her husband all these years. Now he’s come to give his promise to her. Now she’s afraid. She doubted God and laughed at his promise. Through the tent-flap she foolishly calls out: “No! I didn’t laugh!” But again making it clear that he is her husband’s God, God stands firm in his accusation: “Don’t try to deny it. I heard you. You laughed!” But in all this God reminds both Abraham and Sarah: “Nothing is too hard for me!” He knew her doubts and so he speaks directly to them: “I know you’re too old. I know you’re ‘worn out’. But I am El-Shaddai. I’m the God who Created all that is and I’m the God who controls my Creation to bring about my gracious purposes, even your infertility.”
In all this I’m reminded of the story of Jesus and the paralytic in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Some men brought their paralysed friend to Jesus and when Jesus saw the man he said to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” That seems like a funny thing to say to a man who came because he was paralysed. But, of course, Jesus didn’t say it so much for his benefit; he said it for the benefit of the religious leaders who were there. And, of course, they were livid. “Only God can forgive sins!” they said to themselves. “This man is claiming divinity; he’s a blasphemer.” And as God heard what Sarah was thinking to herself on that day all those years before, Jesus knew what these scribes were thinking and, turning back to the paralytic, said to them, “What’s easier? Saying, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or saying, ‘Get up and walk’? Let me show you that I am who I claim to be and that I can do what I’ve claimed no matter how impossible you might think it is.” And with that Jesus turned to the paralytic and told him to take up his bed and go home. And that’s exactly what the man did. (Matthew 9:1-8)
The ending of the scene leaves us hanging. Sarah doubted God and laughed, God called her on her doubt, she denied her doubting laughter, and God called her out again, this time on her dishonest denial. That’s the end of the story. But as much as the story leaves us hanging, it doesn’t leave us hanging in doubt; it leaves us hanging in faith. God answered Sarah’s doubt the same way Jesus answered the doubt of the scribes: he did something miraculous and proved that he is God and can and will make good on his promises. As the story later unfolds we see that both Abraham and Sarah believed and that God did what he promised. Both of them, in fact, become models of faith to guide us as we walk with God in faith. St. Paul writes in Romans:
That is why [Abraham’s] faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 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. (Romans 4:22-25)
When God asks us to trust him, he also calls us to believe the impossible. He called Abraham and Sarah to trust that he would give an old “worn out” couple a son who would become a great nation. Impossible? Yes. But not for God. And now he calls us to put our faith in the Son of Abraham’s impossible child; a Son who died for the sake of our sins and was impossibly raised from the dead so that we too, through faith in him, will be raised from the death brought by our sin. But brothers and sisters, walking before God in faithful trust only begins as we put our faith in Jesus and his death and resurrection. God calls us to continue to walk in faith. He calls us to wait on him—on his ways and on his timing—as he leads us, as he cares for us, as he provides. This is why St. Paul tells us, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Faith trusts God—even with the impossible. We fall into sin when we stop trusting in him and when we start trying to meet our wants and needs apart from him, apart from his timing, and apart from his plan.
Remember that with God all things are possible. He is El-Shaddi; he is the God who controls everything he has made and causes it to serve his gracious plan. He caused an old woman to bear a son; he caused a paralysed man to walk; he caused his own Son who died on a cross and was buried in the grave for three days to rise again to life; and he will cause every one of his promises to us to come to pass, no matter how difficult or seemingly impossible. We need only walk in faith, giving up our doubts and letting go of our worldly sources of assurance, so that we trust in him alone.
Let us pray: El Shaddai, Almighty God, our faith is so often weak. Strengthen it we pray. So many times you have given your people assurance of your strength, your power, and your authority; let us look back to those examples that our own faith might be strengthened. And as we trust you—seeking first after your kingdom and your righteousness, as we walk in your presence—open our eyes so that we can see you at work. And yet as we know that we are called to walk not by sight, but by faith in your promises, give us the grace to wait on you, trusting you even when we can’t see and even when we don’t know what will happen. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.