A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, on the 18th June 2023.

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

Abraham and Sarah go. At God’s bidding. It’s in the story from Genesis a few chapters before the one we heard read this morning. God says to them, “Go, …‘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. …in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

And, so, they go. Abraham and Sarah have no children and they leave all that is familiar to them. At God’s bidding and with only God’s promise to uphold them, they go. What is real and what is promised do not fit together but, leaving everything they know. they go nonetheless.

A few chapters on Abraham and Sarah, the ones who have been promised that a great nation will be made from them, still have no child. Abraham complains to God when he appears to him in a vision. God says “Look toward heaven and count the stars. So shall your descendants be.” Abraham believed the Lord. The text says “The Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” They are old and they have no child but Abraham continues to believe the promise of God.

A few chapters further on, we have the scene that was read to us this morning. The Lord appears to Abraham, who is sitting at the entrance of his tent at the oaks of Mamre, strangely in the form of three men. Abraham responds with urgency. He runs to meet the men eager to offer them some hospitality, begging them not to pass by. Abraham wishes for an encounter with the men. He seems to sense something in their presence. Abraham brings them water to wash their feet, bread, curds, milk and a calf that has been prepared for the strangers to eat. This is all done in haste.

The men ask Abraham, ‘Where is your wife, Sarah?’ And he says, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one says, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’  

There it is again. That promise. That a man and a woman who are well past child bearing years will have a son. God’s promise that the impossible will take place.

This time, it is Sarah’s response we see. She laughs. ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord says to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’

The couple struggle this time. They are too old. Sarah’s laugh is woven with the pain of the loss and shame of her barrenness, and, then, when the Lord challenges her, she is afraid. How can this be? How can she have a child? But the promise rings in the air, oblivious to human doubt. And the words, that return and return through the scriptures… Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

And, in a few more chapters of the story, the child does come. God is not hindered by their doubt. Faith and doubt are woven together in this ancient story, as they are for us.

The scholar Walter Brueggemann reflects on the story of Abraham and Sarah:

“ …this story shows what a scandal and difficulty faith is. Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into the normal scheme of life and perception. The promise of the gospel is not a conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Embrace of this radical gospel requires shattering and discontinuity. Abraham and Sarah have by this time become accustomed to their barrenness. They are resigned to their closed future. They have accepted that hopelessness as “normal.””[1]

What a scandal and difficulty faith is. Have we ever thought about it like that? This couple are too old to have children, even at the beginning of their story. And yet, at the promise of God, they leave everything they know and journey into the unknown. They are promised descendants as many as the stars in the heavens and yet they cannot have one child. Faith was not reasonable and if we are honest, it never is. Whatever our hopelessness, whatever our nagging lack, this looks to be the truth, until God enters in and starts making promises. I will, I will .. God said to Abraham and Sarah. I will, God says to us. And we look about ourselves and cannot see anything that would reassure us, but the promise of God rings on.

Walter Brueggemann reflects further:

“Israel has known ever since the barrenness of Sarah, that there is a deep incongruity between the intention of [God] and the circumstance of lived experience. …Israel could accept the circumstance of its life as the true state of reality [or it can] rely on [God’s] oath to override circumstance, so that the oath and not the circumstances tell the truth about reality”

God’s oath, God’s promise, and not the circumstances tell the truth about reality … Brueggemann goes on to reflect on our time and place:

“the assumptions of our [current] world tilt our inclination towards visible circumstance, …banishing promise from our world. It has become evident that when promise is banished and circumstance governs, we are most likely left with nothing but despair, whether the despair of the self-sufficient or of the disempowered.”[2]

Does that ring true? That we tend to go with what we can see, with the circumstance as Walter Brueggemann puts it. That the hope and the promise of God is just not strong enough for us to give our lives to at times? Does it ring true what a scandal and difficulty faith is?
Jesus said “Go” too. It seems to be a God thing. Telling us to “Go”.

In this morning’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus telling his disciples to go. Go, take his love and healing and freedom for people to the world. Go in faith, at least for a little while, leaving just about everything behind, like Abraham and Sarah.

Jesus had looked at the crowd with compassion, the text says. That word, compassion. I remember reading that it was connected with the word for bowels which were thought to be the place where love and pity dwelt in a person. It’s like what he felt for the crowd was deep within him. He longed that they be healed and free and that they knew the one thing they needed to know – that they were loved by God, the one in whose love he found all his life and meaning. That’s what he wanted for the world and so he sent the disciples out. Go, he said. Yes, it is a God thing.

He is asking faith of them, that scandalous and difficult thing. And what is his promise? As he bids us go, what is God’s promise to us? What shall we allow to ring in all its beauty alongside the circumstances that seem so often to cloud and dominate. What is the promise?

Matthew wrote his gospel with much literary skill and so he surrounded his book in the promise. Like a dustjacket or bookends. At the beginning and at the end. The promise of God. And what is it?

In Chapter 1 of Matthew’s Gospel, the angel tells Joseph in a dream, about the baby Jesus that Mary will bear, about the promise. He quotes the prophet Isaiah saying:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’

God is with us. That’s the bookend at the beginning of the gospel. And at the end? In the final chapter?

Jesus says that God word, to the disciples just as he is about to leave them, that God word, “Go.”

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

And the promise, I am with you always. The whole gospel is enfolded in this promise of God, I am with you.

I wonder where he would have us go. It’s not necessarily a place we are to go from, to. But he does seem to long that we take God’s love with us… to heal and feed and free and home those in need. Those that his compassion cries out for.

Go into the world, embracing in faith – that scandalous and difficult thing – that God’s promise that God is with us is trustworthy. That blessed by God’s compassion we can do our bit. That we too can go, can venture forth as Abraham and Sarah did, taking God’s love to the world.

[1] Walter Brueggemann Genesis p158-9

[2] Walter Brueggemann The Theology of the Old Testament p173