Is Anything Too Wonderful for God?
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25, March 1, 2015
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
This is a question that God asks to Abraham one of the times God tells Abraham that he will have a son with his wife Sarah. At the time, Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was 90, and to put this in Biblical terms, “It had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” [Genesis 18:11] God chose this barren couple to begin great civilizations. One could even say God made a new beginning—and God made all new beginnings possible—through Abraham and Sarah. It’s a good story, one that offers hope to Christians, Jews and Muslims. A story that we can claim during our Lenten journey. Like last week’s Old Testament lesson when God initiated a covenant with Noah, Noah’s descendants and all life on earth, God initiates a covenant with humanity through Abraham and Sarah.
I want to pick up a thread of the story which precedes the passage from Genesis which Bethany read a minute ago. Back in Chapter 15 God told Abram that his reward would be great, but Abram pointed out, “You have given me no offspring…” [15:3] Abram is speaking to God and there’s a genuine conversation going on! Then God told Abram to step outside and look at the sky and count the stars—if he could. Then God said, “So shall your descendants be.” Abram believed God and the Lord gave credit to Abram for being righteous. That part about being righteous is important. Remember that.
A little while later comes the lesson from Chapter 17. Note that Abram doesn’t speak. God speaks to Abram and Abram falls on his face, bowing down, as one traditionally bows down to a king as a sign of respect, worship and humility. And like last week, God made an unconditional covenant with Abram. God set the terms and there was no negotiation. Oh, and God changed Abram’s name. “Abram” means “exalted father,” a pretty good name. But “Abraham” means “father of a multitude.” That’s quite a promotion! Abraham’s identity was changed profoundly with this new name. There was one problem: How can you be a father of a multitude if you’re 99 years old and your wife is 90? God promises to make nations of Abraham’s descendants. God changes Sarai’s name to Sarah—there isn’t a change in identiy here, both names mean “princess.” And God further promises that she will have a son from whom nations would proceed. Abraham hears this and falls on his face a second time, this time because he’s laughing so hard!
The story continues in chapter 18, when three men visit Abraham. He welcomed them. They asked after Sarah, then said, “I Will surely return to you in die season, and Sarah shall have a son.” This time Sarah laughed. The Lord heard her and asked, “Why did Sarah laugh?” …”but Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ and the Lord said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’”
I love this parto f the story. Here’s God making a new beginning for humanity, working a miracle—a 90 year old woman conceiving a child—and God and Sarah are arguing like children on a playground: You laughed. Nuh-uh! Yah –huh!
Finally in chapter 21 Sarah has her baby and names him “Yitzak” in Hebrew, “Isaac” in English, “Laughter.” She says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me!”
Three times God informs this elderly, barren couple will have a child. The first time, Abram believed God and God gave Abram credit for being righteous. The second time Abram laughed so hard he fell down. The third time Sarah laughed at the very idea. But ‘cmon, is anything too wonderful for the lord? Finally, the righteous, laughing couple has their baby—and they name him “Laughter.”
Lent is the season of repentance, the season of turning 180s, when we work to recognize our sin, realize its seriousness and turn away from it. Lent is a season of— and for—reversals. And the ultimate reversal is the one that Christ accomplished in turning death to life. Baptism helps us re-experience that reversal when we’re baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Well, Abram and Sarah’s story is another reversal. An elderly, barren couple was the one God chose to be a new beginning. In the lesson from Romans Paul writes of Abram, “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead,” [4:19] God could have chosen many other ways to found nations. But God chose Abram. Abram was fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised [4:21] and God praised Abram for being righteous.
I’ll answer God’s question: Nothing is too wonderful for the Lord!
Abraham’s righteousness, based in his trust in God when God first announced that he would become a father—and the father of a multitude—is the basis for the point that last week. God made an unconditional covenant with Abram. God set the terms and there was no recognition, no haggling. Oh, and God changed Abe’s name. “Abram” means “exalted father”, a pretty good name. But “Abraham” means “father of a multitude.” This is quite the promotion! Abraham’s identity was changed profoundly with this new name. There was one problem: How can you be the father of a multitude if you’re 99 years old and your wife is 90? God promises to make nations of Abraham’s descendants. God changes Sarai’s name to Sarah—there isn’t really a change in her identity, they’re simply different spellings of the name which means “princes.” And God further promises that she will have a son, from whom nations would proceed. Abraham hears this and falls on his face a second time, this time because he’s laughing so hard!
The story continues in Chapter 18, when three men visit Abraham. He welcomed them. They asked about Sarah, then said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” This time Sarah laughed. The Lord heard her and asked, “why did Sarah laugh?” …”but Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh” and the Lord said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
I love this part of the story. Here’s God making a new beginning for humanity, working a miracle—a 90 year old woman conceiving a child—and God and Sarah are arguing like children on a playground: You laughed—Nuh—uh—Yah-huh!
Finally in Chapter 21 Sarah has her baby and names him Isaac, “Yitzak” “Laughter” because, as Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me!” Paul’s making to the Romans. Paul writes that Abraham’s complete trust in God made him righteous, that is, in a legal sense, innocent of all wrong, and in another sense, in a relationship with God that was right. As the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” goes, “There is no shadow of turning with thee…” Paul makes it sound as though the trust that he found in Abraham was easy—and that very trust is translated to us through the grace of Christ. And I really think Paul misses something really huge here.
Faith wasn’t easy for Abraham, he didn’t have an heir at first he needed to be convinced. So God showed him the stars. God came a second time, with the same news, and Abraham laughed at the very idea! God came a third time and Sarah laughed at the very idea. God delivered, and this time Sarah not only laughed, but said “everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And you all know the difference between being laughed at and being laughed with, right? So the story ends happily—but the road to faith, the road to trust, and the road to righteousness wasn’t as smooth for Abraham as Paul would have us believe.
And our roads to faith, trust, and righteousness aren’t perfectly smooth either. There are trials, tests, hardships, difficulties, moments of wavering and doubt. Anyone who says that faith in Christ is easy simply doesn’t get it. The founders of our faith needed convincing and laughed at what God had planned—twice.
But Paul does get the essential point right, the point that I want to leave you with today. The righteousness that was reckoned to Abraham, the righteousness that Christians hold fast to, is a gracious gift from God through Christ. We didn’t earn this status. We are not in a state of grace and we cannot claim that we are blameless and innocent because of anything we’ve done. Certainly not because we have kept God’s law perfectly. Or attended church faithfully. Or prayed the right words. Grace is nothing that we have done and grace is everything that we can ever receive.
Grace turns the shadow of death into daybreak. And saves a wretch like me…and you…and you. And turns the despair of bareness into laughter.
And the reality of grace frees us to face our worst fears and our deepest shame, and offer them to God because we know—if we can trust the reality of grace—that in Christ we are justified and raised from death. Because nothing is too wonderful for the Lord. Thanks be to God.