January 12, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE BIGGEST LOSERS: ABRAHAM & SARAH
God could have taken an entirely different approach with the Bible. It could have been all about perfect people who lived perfect lives and who would inspire us to take our almost perfect lives up to the next level. But I think God knew it wouldn’t have worked out that way. That would have just discouraged us. It would have made us want to give up. Because we know only too well how far from perfect we are.
So it’s almost as if God went to the opposite extreme. The Bible is filled with stories of losers. People just like us and maybe even worse than us. People we can relate to and identify with. Because I think God wants us to say, “If there is hope for him, if there is hope for her, then maybe there is hope even for me!”
Today we come to the story of Abraham and Sarah. I originally had planned that this was just going to be about Abraham, but then I read the scripture again and saw that his wife, Sarah was definitely complicit. And I can see that my timing is impeccable, reading this particular scripture and talking about this particular story with elementary school children here as our guests. I promise I’ll do my best to make this a PG if not a G-rated sermon.
But I can make no such promises for Richard Pimentel. We are starting each of the sermons in this series with a “biggest loser” story. Last week I shared my story. I told you how I managed to drive a trenching machine up the side of a brand new house. This week Richard has agreed to share a story about a time when he too felt like the world’s “biggest loser”.
(Richard Pimentel story)
We all have a “biggest loser” story. At least Richard and I sure hope so. We’d hate to be the only ones. No, I think it’s safe to say we are all losers. We’ve all done really stupid things. We are all broken and messed up in multiple ways. The question is never: Are you broken? You are! We all are. The question instead is: In what ways does your brokenness affect your life and the lives of those around you? Because it doesn’t have to be negative. It can be positive. God can do amazing things with losers just like us!
Before I get to Abraham and Sarah, we need to talk about an issue they and we all struggle with. Control. There’s a second word that we often connect to the word “control” these days. We speak of “control freaks”. I doubt if we have many control freaks in church today. But I’m sure we all know a few. In fact, let’s try a little experiment. How many of you are control freaks? (a few hands go up) How many of you are married to one? (more hands go up)
I wouldn’t say I’m married to one, and this story, I promise is not about my wife, but it is about a woman whose daughter was getting married. This woman was insisting on micro-managing every last detail of the wedding. Finally her daughter had to speak up. She said, “But Mom, it’s my wedding.” And her mom said, “No dear, it’s your marriage, but the wedding is all mine.” That’s a true story, by the way. I would not want to be that woman’s son-in-law!
But the truth is, we’re all control freaks to some degree or another. And it’s one of our most dangerous sins. It’s dangerous because it’s subtle. It starts so innocently. We just want to make things better. We care about another person whose life is going in a not-so-great direction, so we try to gently nudge them back on track. Parents are always trying to guide the future of their children. How could we not? We are doing all we can to improve our own lives — to take control of our finances, our careers, our health. We talked last week about “fig leaves” and how desperately we try to cover up things we don’t other people to see and thereby to control what they think about us. We even try to control God. We know better, but still we pray those bargaining prayers, “God, if you will just to this for me, I promise I will do that for you.”
It starts innocently enough but it can easily get out of hand. And the reason this can get us in trouble is simply this: The more we insist on trying to control everything that happens, the less we are able to trust God who really is in control. Because “control” is a façade. It’s an illusion. The future ultimately is in God’s hands, not in ours.
And that’s what got Abraham and Sarah in trouble. I’m calling them “Abraham and Sarah”. If you were listening carefully, the names in the scripture we read are “Abram and Sarai”. We read from Genesis 16 and they get their new names in Genesis 17. But still we’ll call them Abraham and Sarah because those are the names we know them by.
Their story begins in a place called Ur. They seemed perfectly content there, but God called them to leave this home they knew and loved and travel to a new home. They trusted God and they went. It was a journey of about 900 miles. It occurs to me that’s almost the exact distance from here to Colorado Springs. Yes, I’m thinking about Clarke and Cheryl.
This new land God promised them came to be known, appropriately enough, as the Promised Land. But land wasn’t the only promise. Or the biggest. God said to Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:2). God said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars — if indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be” (15:5).
The problem was that Abraham was 75 years old at the time. And the bigger problem was that Sarah was 65. They had no children and they had no prospects of having any children. So God’s promise was pretty hard for them to believe. But Abraham and Sarah were people of faith. They took God at his word. They left Ur behind and travelled to this Promised Land. There were plenty of challenges on the way, but they met them and survived them. God was watching over them. God was coming through for them. Except for one small detail. Still no children.
The years passed, one by one. Before they knew it, it had been ten years since God made his promise. Abraham is now 85. Sarah is 75. Still no sign that a baby is on the way. And, realistically, how could there be? Abraham and Sarah are people of great faith, but now they start to have some doubts. This plan of God wasn’t playing out the way it was supposed to. Maybe they misheard God. Maybe God didn’t mean what he said. Maybe God has a strange sense of humor. Or maybe it’s up to them to take matters into their own hands. Maybe it’s time for them to take control of things.
Which is where we pick up the story in Genesis 16. We are introduced to Sarah’s maid, Hagar. Hagar is still in her childbearing years, so maybe she can be the one to help God keep his promise. After all, God isn’t doing a very good job without a little help. So with his wife’s full knowledge and blessing, Abraham fathers a child with Hagar.
If you are picking up on any lust or passion at all in this part of the story, you are picking up on something that isn’t there. This isn’t about going astray due to sexual temptation. It’s about going astray due to disappointment with God. God had not come through for Sarah and Abraham. At least not yet. And they were getting tired of waiting.
We can make some horrible choices when we are going through a season of disappointment in our lives. When God doesn’t seem to be coming through for us in the way we expect. God’s plan is taking too long, or it’s not what we thought it would be, or the pain involved is too great. The temptation can be huge to hurry things along with a shortcut that we know will not honor God.
Another thing happens when we get disappointed with God. We start blaming God for things that are not God’s doing at all. We hear Sarah say, “The Lord has kept me from having children.” The Lord had not kept her from having children! The Lord, as it turns out, was right on schedule in keeping his promise. But it wasn’t Sarah’s schedule. So it felt to her as if God were the problem and not the solution.
That happens all the time. We try to be obedient to God, do things God’s way, put our own hopes and dreams on hold. And we wait for God’s blessing to come our way. God’s reward to us for being so wonderful! And we wait. And we wait. And maybe our lives even seem worse, not better than they were back when we weren’t so serious about doing things God’s way. So we start blaming God. And we decide we must know better than God. We start taking control of our lives in ways that have nothing to do with trusting God and everything to do with our own selfishness.
I want to clear something up that might be confusing here. Saying that we give God control over our lives does not mean we just sit back and do nothing. It does not mean that we passively wait for God to do it all for us. That was not the course of action Abraham and Sarah should have followed instead of the one they did. There were other choices they could have made but didn’t. They could have continued to pray. They could have treated Hagar with respect and dignity instead of using her. They could have made themselves available to provide help where help was needed with children belonging to others. They could have busied themselves in any number of productive endeavors without playing God and in the process creating a huge problem.
The problem Abraham and Sarah set into motion still plays itself out on the world stage today. The problem is simply this: Jews and Christians have always traced their spiritual roots back to Abraham through Isaac. Isaac is the son Abraham would finally have with Sarah. When she was 90 and he was 100. Muslims have always traced their spiritual roots back to Abraham through Ishmael. Ishmael is the son Abraham had with Hagar 14 years earlier. So you might say that thousands of years of conflict that continues with no end in sight even today can be traced back to that one decision.
Seemingly small decisions can have huge consequences. This simple matter of who is in control, God or us, is really a very serious matter.
Abraham and Sarah share the goat horns in this story. They share equally in the well-deserved designation, “biggest losers”. And the innocent victim in this story clearly is Hagar. She is used, then she is abused, and finally her life with Abraham and Sarah becomes more than she can bear. So she runs away. Here she is pregnant, alone in the wilderness, with no food or shelter or hope.
God sees her in her distress. God sends an angel. The angel announces that her son will be named Ishmael and that her descendants through him will be too great to number. She was glad to hear that, I’m sure, but she was less glad to hear the other thing the angel said. “Go back to you mistress and submit to her.” She is running away from Sarah who has made her life so miserable. Now she is told to go back to Sarah.
Again, God has a plan that is not the plan you or I would have chosen. Hagar is running away, and for good reason. We would have told her to keep running. But God tells her to go back.
I just need to say here that this is not about returning to an abusive relationship. Sometimes the only way to end the cycle of abuse is to leave and never go back. Don’t let anyone use this text to say that God wants a battered woman to return to the batterer! That’s not what this is saying.
Here’s what I think it might be saying: Sometimes we run away from difficult situations as our way of controlling our pain. We want to shortcut whatever good there might be for us if we allow God to work with us through the pain.
Sometimes people bounce through life, from one difficult situation to another. From a bad marriage to a worse marriage. From a job you can’t stand to a job that makes you want the first job back. From whatever problems that are plaguing you now to a whole new set of problems. They aren’t smaller problems, just different problems.
God often says to us, “Don’t run away. Go back.” Learn what you need to learn about yourself from that failure. Let God change your heart. Let God shape your character. Let God do the work that takes time, that can only be done in you if you are patient and not in a hurry. Otherwise you just might be in a new place, a new city, a new job, a new relationship, but you’ll be the same lost and broken person you were before.
Hagar has to go back. We have to go back. God still has work to do on us. God cannot erase the past, but God can and will redeem it. God didn’t erase Abraham and Sarah’s colossal mistake. But he did redeem it. Because among their descendants through Isaac, centuries into the future, would be someone named Jesus.
Yitzhak Perlman was in the middle of a concert when one of the strings on his violin broke. It was a loud crack. It echoed through the auditorium. Everyone expected that he would go and repair his instrument. But he didn’t. He kept playing. He had to modulate and improvise. He had to recompose the piece as he went. But he continued. And when he finished he received a huge ovation.
He went to the microphone, waiting for the applause to fade. Then he spoke these words: “It is my gift and my joy to make music with what remains.”
God can make music in that marriage of yours. God can make music in your life as a single person. God can make music in that career of yours. God can make music in that broken heart of yours. The music isn’t inferior because of that broken string. The music is all the better because of the grace and the genius of God that is seen most clearly in brokenness.
Lord God, we want to trust you. That’s our deepest desire. And yet we must confess that we also want to be in control. We want our way. If your way fits in with ours, great. If not, well, then all too often we go our own way. And the more we insist on controlling things, the less room there is for us to trust you. So help us right now, Lord God, to just give over to you those things that we are holding so tightly. Those details, those concerns, those stresses, those fears. We give them over to you, trusting that you will make new and beautiful music with our lives. In Jesus’ name, Amen.