June 28, 2020
4th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 8
Today’s lesson from Genesis is perhaps the most difficult story for us to accept in all of scripture. We work hard to explain it in a way that excuses God’s behavior or else we just label God as “mean” or “angry”.
I think because we look at the entire Abraham saga – it spans a fourth of the book of Genesis – in bits and pieces we lose sight of the true meaning of the story. The Saga of Abraham is a story of God’s faithfulness regardless of our own human failings. It is a story of God’s deepest desire for us to have the best life we are created to live with God.
The text begins, “After these things …” a clue that we have to look at what comes next in light of what has come before. Our holy scriptures weren’t preserved to give us a checklist of right and wrong answers in short snippets but to teach us how to live our life by the lives of those who have walked with God. It is a whole story in which we are still living.
God had entered into a covenantal relationship with Abraham: Earlier in this story, we are told “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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 the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.””
Abraham does as God says, he leaves home to settle an unknown land. Years pass, Abraham and his family survive a famine, cause a ruckus in Egypt as Abraham in order to save his own skin pretends Sarah is his sister and loans her out to Pharaoh, and they return to Canaan and get into a land dispute with his nephew Lot.
And through all of this God tells Abraham, I will make your offspring outnumber the stars and the grains of sand. And Abraham names one of his trusted servants as his heir instead of waiting on God. So God reminds Abraham again of his promise.
Time marches on and Abraham and Sarah still have no children. And so Sarah tells Abraham to have a child with her slave. And still God does not dissolve the Covenant with Abraham.
And When God does fulfill his promise and Isaac is born, Sarah decides that God’s blessing, which was from the beginning intended to be shared with all nations, needs to be contained within her own family and Abraham agrees to cast Hagar and Ismael out.
We talked last week about how God took this terrible situation and redeemed it by giving Hagar and Ishmael their share of the blessing always intended for everyone, despite Abraham and Sarah’s actions.
And, so, after these things, God tests Abraham.
We often paint this statement in a way that makes God look mean or vindictive. We don’t think God ‘should’ test people’s faithfulness. We want to ignore Abraham’s unfaithfulness and put it all on God.
But the point of God’s testing isn’t so God can learn who we are, God knows who we are, knows the very hairs of our head, knows us better than we know ourselves. God tests so we can learn who we are and therefore grow in relationship with God.
God tests so that we will ask ourselves the questions: Where do my loyalties lie? Am I truly following God’s plan or doing things for my own gain? Am I being faithfully obedient to the God who is always faithful?
God’s test of Abraham is a terrifying one, no doubt. But the stakes are high, Abraham has accepted the responsibility of being the patriarch of all of God’s blessings spread throughout the world and history. And Abraham hasn’t shown much faithfulness to God’s plan.
The Hebrew word we translate to “test” means “in order to humble you.”
The most difficult thing for most of us to accept is that God is God, the Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth and of all things seen and unseen. We say these words week in and week out but when it comes to living out the true belief that God’s way is better than our way, we tend to be more like Abraham and Sarah than we care to admit.
When it comes to giving God the authority to test anyone in order to teach that individual something about themselves, we’d rather label that as God being mean instead of seeing it as an instruction to help with spiritual growth and development.
Making the choice to follow Jesus comes with the responsibility to live in God’s plan not just with it in the margins somewhere, but in the center, at the foundation, of our life; to work with God in covenantal relationship, trusting in God’s faithfulness and living in faithful obedience to God’s way of doing things.
God’s way of doing things isn’t complicated – it isn’t always easy, rarely is it easy, but it isn’t complicated. God’s way is the way of Love. Not the sentimental idea of always feeling warm and fuzzy but an active way of living focused on the well-beings of others.
It is a life lived in questions such as “is what I’m doing for my own gain and benefit or for the greater good of others? Am I seeking God’s blessing for my own gain or to share it with others?”
If Abraham had been obediently and humbly walking with God, he wouldn’t have put Sarah in danger with the Pharaoh to save his own skin, he wouldn’t have accepted Sarah’s plan to have a child with Hagar, and he definitely wouldn’t have banished Hagar and Ishmael in order to save his entire inheritance for Isaac.
So after these things God tested Abraham. God needed Abraham to learn that it really was in him to live in faithful obedience to God, with God’s help.
God’s plan would not have allowed Isaac to die, just as God intervened when Abraham and Sarah’s plan very likely could have been the death of Hagar and Ishmael.
God’s plan always leads to life, the eternal life in loving and obedient relationship with our Creator that begins when we make the choice to follow Jesus and welcome the awareness of God’s presence in all that we think, do, and say.
Jesus says that when we welcome him, we welcome God. And with our acceptance of God comes responsibility, and blessing beyond measure so that we can can live our best life possible sharing God’s blessing of Love, more abundant than the stars in the sky, with others. Amen.