Our lectionary – our Sunday cycle of Scripture readings – sometimes pairs our lessons by theme or topic. Sometimes there will be a thread that connects our Old Testament lesson with the Gospel or Epistle. Not always – sometimes we’re just reading along in each of our Scripture slots. But this is one of those Sundays – and the connection is pretty obvious. Paul, in the letter to the Romans, is talking about Abraham, from the book of Genesis. (By the way, our passage from Genesis is before Abram’s name is changed to Abraham by God. But I’m going to follow Paul in just using the more familiar name Abraham.)
In this section of his letter to the church in Rome, Paul is laying out the case for how there can be righteousness before God outside of the Law. He doesn’t believe, and doesn’t want to say, that the Law – the way of holiness of the Jewish people – was a mistake. But he does want to say that there’s something more fundamental, a deeper faithfulness and holiness of life, that underlies both Jewish law and the Christian way. So he turns to Abraham – the father of Israel’s covenant relationship with God. The one to whom God first says, I will be your God, and you and your family and descendants will be My people.
When God addresses Abraham in today’s text and says, Go! Leave everything familiar! I have something new for you! – this is the first time God has spoken to a human since Noah, ten generations earlier, as far as the Biblical text is concerned. Abraham has never even heard of God – THIS God, the God Israel comes to know by the holy name I AM. And yet, Abraham listens – and obeys. Paul says, Right from the start, Abraham trusted in God – and that trust counted as righteousness, before and therefore outside of the covenant.
So, what Abraham teaches us about faith is, Just trust God.
Well. Paul is oversimplifying Abraham’s story a lot. Here are some things I think Abraham teaches us about faith.
First, God knows our deepest hopes and longings… and may use them to draw us into God’s purposes and projects. When our story begins, Abraham and Sarah are middle-aged and well-off. They are not sitting around thinking, “If only we could leave everything we know, set off on a risky journey to an unknown destination, enter into a perplexing relationship with a mysterious divine being that makes both joyful promises and terrifying demands, and become the parents of a new people and a new faith.”
But there is something they really really want. They want a child. A child they can name as their own. Their longing for parenthood is a theme for their entire story. And, to put it bluntly, it’s what God uses to get them on board with God’s agenda.
When God says, “I will make of you a great nation,” God is promising Abraham that he will have descendants. That promise gets clearer and clearer as it is repeated in chapters 13, 15, 17, 18, and 22.
God is making Abraham and Sarah an offer they can’t refuse. God has a little plan to found a new nation, who will be God’s people and learn God’s ways. And God tells them, Leave everything; change everything; become the people I call you to be; and I will give you a child.
Don’t be surprised if God uses your deepest desires to draw you into a larger purpose. I’ve seen it happen. God can be sneaky like that. Maybe those deep longings get fulfilled in the end – maybe they don’t. Maybe they get healed or transformed; maybe they remain a lifelong ache. But in the meantime you’ve been woven into the fabric of God’s work within and among us, God’s work of reconciling and restoring, connecting and renewing and making whole.
The second thing I think Abraham can teach us about faith is that trusting God is hard. In our passage from the letter to the Romans today, Paul is quoting from Genesis chapter 15. Here’s the passage: “God brought Abraham outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:5-6) A few verses later, Paul says,“Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.”
Paul makes it sound like Abraham’s faith in God’s promises was immediate and complete. And that’s just not true. In Genesis chapters 17 and 18, first Abraham, and then Sarah, literally laugh at the idea that God is going to bring forth a child from their aged bodies.
Abraham has something most of us don’t: God flat-out tells him God’s plans for his life. Most of us don’t get a memo that clear. We look for the places where our deep joy meets the world’s deep need, or where there’s a problem that we’re able to solve, or where we are able to use our gifts and skills to add to the world’s measure of hope, wholeness, and delight… And we try to walk in that direction, as best we can.
But God tells Abraham exactly what God wants Abraham to do, and what Abraham will get out of it; and Abraham STILL struggles to trust God. We see Abraham’s struggle with trust not only in the fact that God has to keep repeating Godself – God repeats God’s promise literally six times in ten chapters – but also in Abraham’s actions.
Right after today’s Genesis passage, there’s a famine in the area where Abraham and his family are staying. So they go into Egypt, where there’s more food. And Abraham has an idea. He tells Sarah, his wife, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” (12:11-13)
The artist James Tissot painted wonderful pictures of some moments in this cycle of stories. Here is Abraham explaining this plan to Sarah.
SOOOO they go into Egypt and everyone admires Sarah and Abraham tells everyone that she’s his sister. And word gets to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, about this beautiful foreign woman, and he takes her into his household. No problem, right? Abraham should be delighted to have his sister become a companion to the King of Egypt!
Except not so much. Fortunately, God is looking out for Sarah, if Abraham isn’t! Mysterious plagues affect the whole palace. One commentator suggests we imagine an awkward bedroom scene – perhaps Pharaoh is examining his sores and lamenting aloud, “Why is this happening?” And Sarah says, “Welllllll….” Pharaoh calls Abraham and says, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’, so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and be gone.” (12:18-19)
Okay, well, Abraham has just met God; maybe it’s understandable that he doesn’t really trust God yet. Except that MUCH later, in chapter 20, the EXACT SAME THING happens again with King Abimelech of Gerar. This time, after it’s revealed that Sarah is his wife, Abraham explains: Well, she IS actually my half-sister so it’s not a lie. And Abraham continues – I quote: “When God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.’” Not only does Abraham not trust God enough to look out for him and Sarah, and undertakes this weird lie that keeps putting his wife into risky situations, he’s now BLAMING GOD for putting him in the situation by sending him out to wander the world – and giving him such a beautiful wife…!
Paul concludes his passage on Abraham with these words: “No distrust made Abraham waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.”
Paul knows his Genesis, I’m sure. He’s brushing aside all the complexity of the story because he’s just using it to make a point. He doesn’t want to rehash the whole Abraham cycle like I do. But I don’t think he’s doing anybody any favors by insisting that it’s a simple, one-time choice to trust God’s goodness and God’s purposes in your life. He knew better. We know better. Trusting God is hard. Which brings me to point number three.
The third thing I think Abraham can teach us about faith is that there’s a really fine line between following God’s call, and taking over from God. God has promised Abraham a child, a child of his own body. But years go by and it doesn’t happen. So Abraham and Sarah decide to take matters into their own hands. Sarah has an Egyptian slave-girl named Hagar. She says to Abraham, “Look, God has prevented me from having children. Why don’t you spend some time with my slave-girl? Maybe I can have children through her.” It’s a strange idea to us but this kind of quasi-surrogacy shows up again in the Jacob stories; it made some kind of sense in context.
So Abraham follows Sarah’s suggestion, and Hagar gets pregnant. But far from being the ideal solution, it tips the household into crisis. Hagar is proud of her pregnancy and feels contempt towards Sarah; Sarah is bitterly jealous. She goes to Abraham in a rage, demanding that he do something. Abraham says, I dunno, she’s your slave, do what you want! And Sarah treats Hagar so harshly that she runs away into the wilderness. (Genesis 16:1-6)
Nobody is admirable in this chapter of the story.
The angel of the LORD finds Hagar in the wilderness, and tells her that she will bear a son, that she will become the mother of a great nation; and… that she must return to her mistress and submit to her. Tissot painted this scene too.
Hagar’s encounter with God in the wilderness is actually pretty remarkable. God is establishing a lineage, a tribe, with Abraham and Sarah – patriarchal and defined by ancestry. But here God acknowledges and includes a woman, an ethnic and racial outsider, as part of God’s story. Hagar is the first person in Scripture to name God: She calls God El-Roi, the One who Sees.
God honors Abraham and Sarah’s mistake in making Hagar a tool, an object, in their quest for a son. But the story is pretty clear that it was a mistake.
The thing is, I have 100% done things like this. Nothing quite this dramatic, mind you, but – I have definitely gotten impatient with God and taken matters into my own hands, making choices that I could see later had not been for the best. I know the feeling of getting a glimpse of God’s intentions and then doubling down on MAKING IT HAPPEN.
It takes ongoing, thoughtful discernment to know the difference between the places where we should take steps towards what we need or want or hope for, and when we should wait and watch and listen for God to take the next step, or show us the path. Maybe that sounds abstract to some of you – but I have versions of this conversation with people ALL THE TIME. About seeking wellness, or clarity in a relationship, or a new career or place to live, or discerning a vocation – so much more. Having the courage to change the things we can, the serenity and trust to wait for God’s action or God’s guidance on the things we can’t, and above all, the wisdom to know the difference, is daily and lifelong spiritual work. Abraham and Sarah got it right sometimes and wrong sometimes. So do most of us.
In the end Abraham and Sarah’s journeys of striving to trust and follow God look a lot like most of ours. Not a simple, total, one-and-done commitment, as Paul suggests. Instead, this is a story of wondering and wandering, struggle and yearning, mistakes and missteps, seeking and only sometimes finding.
But it’s also a story of God’s faithfulness and God’s patience. God doesn’t give up on Abraham and Sarah – even when they stray far from God’s hopes for them, even when they do stupid and hurtful stuff. God bears with them; God keeps working in their hearts and lives – for their sake and for the sake of all those whom God seeks to bless through them.
So it is with us, beloveds. Faith in God – trust in God, a better translation – isn’t like a college degree that you achieve and then just have from then on. It is wondering and wandering, struggle and yearning, seeking and only sometimes finding. What we can trust is that God is patient with us; God persists; and that the good things that God wants to do for us, and through us, are robust and flexible enough to survive our worst choices. With apologies to Paul, that is how I find encouragement in Abraham’s faith.