Sermon: 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 18 June 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 18th June 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

THE PATIENCE OF FAITH

 (Genesis 18:1-15; Psalm 116; Romans 5:1-11; Matthew 9-35-10:8)

“Are we there yet?” Those of us who have driven young children to a place which is not just around the corner will be familiar with the question.

I remember one time when I told one of our young daughters that it would be another ten minutes before we got there. She immediately started counting: “1, 2, 3,….” I had to explain that a minute was longer than that, and it would be some time before we arrived.

Of course, there are times when we too feel impatient because things are taking time. Those phone calls which are very important to the firm or department, but which keep you waiting and waiting and waiting. That traffic jam which is making you late. Those traffic lights which seem quite uninterested in the fact that a substantial number of cars are coming from your direction, and you would really like a decent turn. How long are we going to have to wait?

Our reading from Genesis 18 tells of a couple of people who certainly experienced long delays in receiving the blessings God had promised.

The story of Abraham begins six chapters back, in Genesis 12. Abraham lived in Ur, to the east of Israel. He was a worshipper of the local gods, but the Lord spoke to Abraham and called on him to go and live in a land which he would show him. And the Lord made him some great promises. Not only would the new land belong to him and his descendants, but his descendants would become a great nation, and through him, all the nations of the world would find blessing.

But there was one major problem right from the start. We are told that Abraham was already 75 when he left Ur to travel to God’s promised land. And that meant that his wife Sarah was already in her mid-60’s. And they had no children. Where would these promised descendants of theirs come from?

Abraham and Sarah obeyed God’s call, and made their home in the land chosen by the Lord. They didn’t settle in a particular city or location. It seems that they moved around with their flocks, living in tents. But there were no children. This was not just disappointing for them: it brought into question the promises God had made about having many descendants, and being the Father of a great nation.

Abraham got so concerned about the situation that eventually, about ten years later, he decided to help God along: he took Sarah’s Egyptian slave-girl and had a son with her. Pretty good for an 86 year old! Surely this son, Ishmael, would provide him with an heir, and ultimately become that great nation promised by God.

But this was not God’s answer. In Chapter 17, the Lord appeared to Abraham and assured him that he would be the father of a multitude of nations. However, this would not come about through Ishmael, but through a son who would be born to him and Sarah….And so we come to today’s reading.

It was a really hot day. The midday sun shone down intensely. Definitely siesta time! But Abraham’s siesta was interrupted when three visitors arrived at his tent. I suspect that he didn’t usually get all that many visitors. As I said, he seems to have lived away from towns and moved about.

Had I been in Abraham’s situation, I might well have been thinking: “Oh no! Not now, when I just want a quiet rest!” Perhaps Abraham did too. But he gave these strangers a warm welcome. Water to wash and cool down. And then quite a feast.

Mind you, he couldn’t just get it all out of the freezer and prepare it in the microwave. The cakes had to be prepared and the calf had to be killed, butchered and prepared. This wasn’t a quick snack. This was generous Middle-Eastern hospitality. Certainly we are told that he organized all this as quickly as he could. But no doubt by the time the visitors had had their meal, the afternoon would have been getting on.

As was the custom, Abraham attended the men as they ate, and Sarah kept out of sight in the tent, no doubt listening for any conversation she could pick up. Perhaps this was as much excitement as they had had for some time. And then after lunch came that question from the leader of the visitors: “Where is your wife Sarah?” Abraham indicated that she was in the tent.

And then came the unexpected message. “I will surely return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah and Abraham have waited for a child for many many years. And when Sarah hears this she laughs to herself with pleasure and excitement: or is there more to it than that? After all, Sarah is now nearly 90: she is well past the age when she might reasonably consider the possibility of having children. And Abraham is just about 100! Perhaps Sarah’s laugh also expresses surprise, and even the sense that the idea is surely ridiculous – even though she must have been aware of God’s promises to Abraham. But then again, has she taken in who Abraham’s visitor actually is?

For as we read the account, we discover that the speaker is the Lord himself. This is one of the times in the Old Testament where the Lord appears in a visible form, in fact in a human form. You may remember that in his sermon on the Trinity last Sunday, Bishop Ross suggested that these occasions may well be times when God the Son, whom we know as Jesus Christ, appeared on earth in advance of his birth in Bethlehem.

And here is the Lord, appearing to Abraham again. He reinforces the promise of a child, and makes clear that this child will be born in a year’s time. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” he asks Sarah. And the answer is clear: if the Lord has in mind to do something, he is certainly able to do it. He is unlimited in his power, and in his wisdom, to achieve what he chooses to achieve. And so one year later, their son Isaac was born.

Abraham and Sarah had a lot of waiting to do before they experienced the fulfilment of God’s promise of a son and a family. Even the land they were promised they only ever owned a small patch of, as a burial plot. It would be 1000 years before King David would have real control over the Promised Land.

It would be 2000 years before the coming of Jesus, to bring God’s promised blessing of forgiveness and life to people of all nations, as Abraham had been promised. But Paul reminds us in our reading from Romans that it was at the right time, the time of God’s choosing, that Christ died for the ungodly.

And we might add that another 2000 years have passed, and Jesus has still not returned in glory to establish his kingdom in all its fullness, and to put away all the evil which does so much harm in our world – which, after all, is God’s world.

Here is a challenge for us as people of faith. God is not at our beck and call. As I’ve said before, prayer is not a celestial vending machine: in goes the prayer, out comes the automatic answer! The Lord encourages us to have faith in him, and to pray for his help. But his answers may not always be what we expect. And sometimes we may have to wait. Certainly Abraham and Sarah discovered that.

Paul points out that even if life is tough, if suffering is a reality for us, God is not giving up on us, and he will bring good out of the hard times. “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” When we have to wait for God’s blessings, God is still there, working his purposes out, helping and strengthening us. Sometimes our faith will be very real to us because we are focused on the good things that God has done for us. Sometimes our faith will be tested, and we will struggle. Perhaps it will be like that father of a sick child who sought Jesus’ help: “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief”.

God seems often to take time to fulfil his purposes. But at the right time he indeed keeps his promises. Christian hope looks to the unseen future knowing that God is at work, and he will in time keep his promises and fulfil his purposes. When faith is a struggle, let’s keep in mind those promises of God which he fulfilled “at the right time”. Let us hang in, and keep trusting and keep following. For indeed nothing is too wonderful for the Lord. Amen.

Paul Weaver