This morning I want us to reflect on the Watchword for the Week. In Genesis 18:14 we read, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” That is the New Revised Standard Version. The Revised Standard Version translates, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” It is, of course, a rhetorical question, asked by the LORD himself. The point of the question is that God can do things that we consider too hard for anyone but God; and when God does those things, it is absolutely wonderful in our eyes.
Now a text without a context is a pretext, so we must begin our reflection with the situation in which this rhetorical question is asked. In Genesis 12 we read that when Abram was 75 years old God called him to leave his country, his kindred and his father’s house, promising him a land, a seed and a blessing. Abram went out in faith—and he had a series of adventures, and misadventures as God tested him, tried and taught him. Then in Genesis 18, we read that when Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless; and I will establish my covenant between me and you, and multiply you greatly.” And Abram did what anyone would do in the presence of the Almighty; he fell on his face. And God said to him, “No longer shall your name be Abram—which means “exalted father,” but your name is going to be Abraham which means, “…the father of a multitude.”
Then God told Abraham that his covenant was an everlasting covenant, and it was with Abraham, and with Abraham’s descendants after him, in all his travels, and in all the land of Canaan, forever. God then explained that the sign of the covenant was male circumcision. All the males of Abraham’s family and extended family, 8 days old and older, whether free or slave, would be circumcised. Any male who was not circumcised would be cut off from his people, and from God, for he had broken the covenant.
Then God said, As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah—which means “princess” or “noble woman.” I am going to bless her, too, and I am going to give you a son by her, and she shall be the mother of many nations and kings shall come from her.”
Then Abraham did what any 99 year old would do when just told that his 90 year old wife is going to give him a baby. He fell on his face and laughed. And when Abraham’s laughter died in his throat, he said to God, “O that Ishmael—my son by my concubine Hagar might live in you sight!”
But God said, “No Abraham. Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac—which means laughter, and I will establish my covenant with him and his descendants after him.” Then God promised to bless Ishmael, too, and multiply him greatly, and give him princes, but God made it clear that his covenant would be with Isaac, whom Sarah would bear to Abraham in this same season next year.
And when God had finished talking with Abraham, God left Then Abraham had the world’s first circumcision party. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised. And Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised. And the same day that Abraham and Ishmael were circumcised, all the men and boys of Abraham’s house, whether slave or free—perhaps several hundred in number, were circumcised also. C.S. Lewis said that God uses pain and suffering as a megaphone to amplify his voice in our hearing. Maybe that is why God made circumcision the sign of the covenant.
Anyway, after he was circumcised, Abraham pitched his tent under the oaks of Mamre; and, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day—recovering, the LORD appeared to Abraham in a most unusual form, perhaps because Abraham’s obedience. Anyway, Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and he bowed down to them, and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.” Then, he urged the mysterious strangers to rest under the tree, while he prepared a meal for them. Abraham had Sarah make up some cakes of bread, and he ran to where his cattle were feeding, and he took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to one of his servants, who worked quickly to prepare it. Then Abraham took curds, and milk, and cakes of bread, and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.”
And the text says, “when they had eaten, they said, ‘Abraham, Where is Sarah your wife?’” And Abraham said, “She is in the tent.” And then, according to the text, the LORD said, “Abraham, I am surely going to return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.”
And Sarah was listening at the at the door of the tent. She knew that her husband was old, and she herself was old, and well past the age of child bearing, so Sarah laughed and said to herself, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”
And the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I have a baby, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.”
But Sarah was afraid, and she denied her laughter, saying, “I did not laugh” And the LORD said, “No, but you did laugh.
So ends our story, or at least this part of it. Several things about it are well worth noting.
1. This text raises several questions that the text itself does not answer. Questions like,“Did Abraham and Sarah reckon the years of their age as we do today?”
And, “Why did God appear as three men who sometimes spoke all three together, and sometimes spoke as one.” There are answers, but not directly from the text.
2. The text also raises third question that it does answer.
According to the story, Abraham was already 75 years old and Sarah 65 or there about, when Abraham left his went out in obedience to God. If God wanted Sarah to bear a child for Abraham—his seed, “Why didn’t God act sooner, rather than later.”
Abraham and Sarah both thought about this question. They even tried to “jury rig” a solution of their own. When no child was born to Sarah after trying for more than a decade, she gave Abraham her handmaid, Hagar, for a concubine, and Hagar bore Abraham a son, Ishmael. Of course, this manipulation on the part of Abraham, and Sarah made things worse not better. Obviously, when God makes a promise God does not want his servants to “jury rig” an answer of their own. God allows us to participate in building his family, his people, and his kingdom; but when God ask us to do a thing, that is the thing that God wants us to do. The end result of any promise, or process or project is always in God’s hands. God asks us only that we follow the process that he has laid down for us. There is a sense in which what accomplish is not nearly as important as how we do what we do. That may not sound like much—but it is the single most important principal that we used to build this church during our last time together.
There is another reason, that God delayed fulfillment of the process. Had God given Isaac Abraham a couple of decades earlier, it would not have revealed God’ s glory nearly so emphatically—nor inspired so many people as it has. It was fifteen hundred years after the birth of Isaac that St. Paul wrote:
In hope Abraham believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations”…no distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.
The question that God put to Abraham, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?”, has inspired people of faith for the better part of 3,500 years. I remember when that text was one of the most important texts in my life. Elayne and I left Camp Lejune in December of 1974 and arrived in or about Lexington, Kentucky for seminary in January of 1975. We drove out to Kentucky having been accepted in seminary; but having no place to live. We went to the seminary housing office three or four times and got leads on housing; but each time we follow up on a lead on a place, it was already leased. At that time, my parents were living in Hope, Indiana. We had not seen them for a year. So, after a week of finding nothing, we decided to take a break, and drive up to Indiana. As were were leaving town, we determined that, since we believed God had led us to seminary, we ought to give finding a place to live one more chance. We turned the car around and drove ten miles to the housing office office. At the same time, a man by the name of David Sly, drove ten miles from the other direction to let the housing office know that half the of the duplex where he lived at 306 Walnut Street in Nicholasville, Kentucky had just become available. We took the note literally out of his hands, and we drove over the check it out. We loved the place and rented into on the spot. Then, while we waited for our furniture to arrive from storage where we had placed it two months before, we painted our new home from top to bottom, three floors, downstairs, upstairs and a basement. The landlord, who owned a paint store—gave us the paint and all the equipment we needed, and he insisted we use oil based paint, and we did.Then the furniture arrived. It all fit perfectly except for one piece, a queen-sized bed that we had purchased just before leaving Jacksonville. We squeezed the four poster bed-stead and the queen-sized mattress up the narrow stairway to the upstairs bedroom, but the box spring would not go, no matter how we turned it. Well, for several days we slept on the mattress—and the box spring remained in the living room. One night, we decided we would buy a smaller bed. Then, the next morning, at breakfast, we read The Daily Text. It was 1975, the Old Testament text was Genesis 18:14 from the RSV, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” I felt like that text was for just for us. So I turned that boxed spring over, removed the bottom cover, and sawed the supports in half. We then squeezed it up the stairs, and I put the supports back together again using hinges I purchased from the hardware store. This may not sound like much to you; but we felt like we had experienced a miracle. “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” Absolutely not!
3. Now, some people will immediately realize that as soon as we answer the question that God put to Abraham by saying, “No! Nothing is too hard for the Lord!,” we open a raft of other questions, like, “If there isn’t anything too hard for the LORD,” given the amount of trouble in the world, why doesn’t God use all the power at his disposal to intervene more often?”
Let me give you an example I recently came across in my reading. In October of 1966, the People of Aberfan, a coal mining town in Whales, heard a terrible rumbling. They looked up to see tens of thousands of tons of mining waste crashing down upon them. The landslide of waste wiped out the local school and surrounding neighborhood. One hundred and sixteen children and twenty-eight adults died in the tragedy. It happened in the morning. Had it happened one half hour earlier, the school would have been empty, and most of the lives of the children spared. Had it happened one day later, the whole school would have been on holiday, and no one would have been hurt. Now one could rightly blame the National Coal Board for this tragedy, for they allowed the waste to build-up. And one can heap additional blame on the National Coal Board because they spent more than 100,000 pounds cleaning up the mess, and then insulted the parents of every child who died by offering them only 500 pounds for their loss.
Still, one thinks about God’s part in the whole affair, too. Scholars say that the Miracle at the Yom Suph (Red Sea/Reed Sea) was a miracle of timing. Israel was in the right place at the right time, when God caused a strong east wind to blow all night, and the waters of the sea stood in a heap and the children of Israel passed over on the dry ground. Does this mean that God was less concerned with the children in the school at Aberfan that with the children of Israel?
When I read about this tragedy in a book by Bill Bryson, I found myself thinking how I would have responded as a pastor in Aberfan. If I had been a minister in that community. I am pretty sure I would have done what I have always done when tragedy of a smaller scale occurs: I would have made bereavement calls. Mostly, I would have sat with those families in silence. When someone tried to place the blame, I would have been filled with righteous anger at the National Coal Board. When someone put some of that blame on God, I would have been more than a little embarrassed because God did not take a hand. Of course, had God acted—we may never have known about it. Indeed, I wonder how many times God has acted without our knowledge for our benefit? Anyway, when I finally did have an opportunity to speak, “I would have said,“Well—this is yet another reason that the only God I can believe in is the God of the cross.” Not only do we sinful human beings need the cross of Christ to justify us before God, but we sinful human beings need the cross of Christ to justify God before our selves. We often ask, “Where is God?” A catholic Priest by the name of Br. Michael has written, “In Jesus, God is always on the side of the suffering. Jesus changes sides in the twinkling of an eye. He is not loyal to the person, or even less to the group, he is always on the side of suffering.” The amazing thing is, that those who have suffered most are all too often the ones who speak most fluently of God and his love. No wonder, when a college professor from Georgia by the name of Rufus Mosley was looking for God—and not finding him, his spiritual advisor said, “Look for God at the bottom of human need and suffering.” Mosley, too the advisor’s advice, and found God when he started visiting prisoners of Georgia’s death row. He saw many of them reach out for forgiveness, and he walked with them to their Appointment with death. If the thought of identifying God with human sin, and suffering and misery makes you laugh, inwardly. Be careful! You know where that landed Abraham and Sarah—right in the middle of one of the most important stories in the Bible.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.