|Tall Timber Ranch|
Tuesday, November 1, 2016
Journey of Faith - Partnership with God
Preached on Sunday, October 30, 2016
Scripture reading: Genesis 18:1-25 ff
There’s a joke that asks the question: “Do you know how to make God laugh?” And the answer is this: “Tell God your plans.”
When we begin to love and trust the Lord, we also begin to have a sense of humor about the difference between our priorities and the Lord’s priorities. We grin and confess that God knows what he’s doing.
But the Bible (in the stories of Abraham and Sarah) shows this joke working the other way. The question is: “Do you know how God makes you laugh?” And the answer is this: “God makes you laugh by telling you his plans.”
God made Sarah laugh by telling her his plan for her to have a baby in her old age. Sarah wasn’t particularly guilty in her laughter. In the chapter before this (Genesis 17:17), Abraham also laughed at the very same promise. He had heard the same, basic promise, in one form or another, so many times, and nothing ever came of it. How could it?
Eventually, the baby would arrive, exactly as promised. Each time Abraham and Sarah laughed at God’s plan for them to have a baby, God told them to name the child “Laughter”. The Lord told them to name the baby “Isaac” which means “laughter.” True to form, when that baby was born, Sarah did laugh. (Genesis 21:6) Or, at least she claimed she did.
Isaac was God’s joke on them. It was a sign that God understood laughter and, for God, even the laughter of disbelief is not a disqualification for true faith. The old couple who laughed at the impossible are the parents of our own faith.
This has a lot to teach us about the journey of faith, which is a kind of partnership with God. And it has a lot to teach us about the journey of prayer, which is also a partnership with God.
Faith and prayer are a way of what we might call “living in the presence of God.” This, in fact, is what human beings were created for. The story of the Garden of Eden teaches us that you and I, along with all human beings, were made to be at home in a place, and in a life, where God comes, and meets with us. The whole world was meant to be in sync with heaven and the kingdom of God.
But Adam and Eve teach also us that we have wanted to get a bit outside of the presence of God. Only the problem is that you can’t get just a little bit outside the presence of God, and his life and glory. The world, as it is, shows us what comes from being a bit outside the presence of God.
This mysterious meeting in which the Lord came to Abraham and Sarah in the form of three men tells us about what it’s like to “live in the presence.” It tells us about faith and prayer.
It shows us that there is a pattern of give and take, in faith and prayer. It really is a relationship, and that relationship is personal. God takes his relationship with us personally. God weighs his part in it. God weighs his input, and pushes us, and pulls at us, and God is not afraid to make us laugh. God is not afraid to make promises that we will doubt and laugh at.
The story’s strange. In a world like ours, and with people such as we are, it should strike us as strange, and a little crazy, seemingly, and a little laughable.
Abraham’s head was probably nodding as he sat in the shade of the flap of his tent, at siesta time, in the heat of the day. Suddenly he saw three men in front of him, standing out in hot the sun. We don’t know how he knew that he was in the presence of the Lord. Abraham speaks to them as if they were one, and they speak to him as one. In the next chapter, the three become two.
Let’s not worry about what this means. Meeting God is strange. Faith is strange. Prayer is strange. Face it!
Abraham ran up to them and bowed with his forehead, touching the dirt. He called them Lord. Why did he offer them water to wash their feet? Were God’s feet dirty?
He begged them to stay for a morsel, and off he went, running all over the place. First he ran into the tent to have Sarah bake three loaves of bread.
Then he ran to the cow herd, and slaughtered a prize calf on the spot, and told a kid to skin it, and clean it, and roast it on a spit over the fire. How long was all this going to take?
When everything was ready, and the places were set, Abraham stood beside the picnic cloth waiting to serve as needed. The good host is there to serve.
This is hospitality, and it runs all the way through this chapter. All the way through, in his actions and words, Abraham showed that he was putting the Lord infinitely higher than himself, and putting himself to the side.
This is part of the strangeness of prayer and faith, because people like us always want life to be about us. We want to come out on top, even with God.
The Abraham sort of hospitality is a lesson for us. We learn to speak with God, and listen to God, while we stand to the side of ourselves. In prayer and faith, we stand to the side of ourselves, and we make room for God to be God.
At the same time, God is also our host, with a hospitality all his own. The Lord treated Abraham like a fellow expert, or even as a critic. The Lord stood to the side of himself in order to show Abraham what he was working on; what he was up to.
The Lord was like an artist standing away from his art to let someone, whom he wants to please, enjoy it. The Lord was like a cook, with something on the counter, or on the stove, standing aside to show the guests the meal the cook is making for them. Although God is God; God sees us as his family, or his friends, and stands aside to make room for us. God came as a human in Jesus to make room for us.
When the Lord said of Abraham, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” And the Lord also said, “For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just…” (Genesis 18:17-19) The “I have chosen him” part is a friend word. It’s a partnership word.
Hebrew is so different from English. This word “chosen” is also a word of recognition. It is like suddenly recognizing that the person in front of you is a friend or a potential partner. It’s like love at first sight.
I knew a widow who remembered the day she first met the man who was going to become her husband. The year would have been about 1920. She was walking, with a friend, down the Main Street of her home town, and she saw two young men leaning against the wall of a store; and she saw one of the young men point at her, and say to his friend: “I’m going to marry that one.”
Chosen means a recognition like that. Sometimes our own recognition of God comes like that. We sense that God experiences the same thing with us all the time: love at first sight, all the time.
The idea is that the Lord has decided that Abraham is more than a creature: and so are we. Abraham is the friend, and even the partner, who needs to be in on the secret. Abraham shares responsibility with the Lord for getting a certain job done. That job is being a blessing to the world. The job includes understanding what is right and just, and living accordingly.
Abraham took the Lord up on this and became the Lord’s partner in the matter of what to do about Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham said: “Far be it from you to do such a thing: to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25)
These strange things, called prayer and faith, make for pretty daring talk. The point is that this is the talk of partners, as unequal as we are to God. We are God’s partners in caring about what is right and just, and doing it, and making sure that we’re on the same page with God.
In some strange, way God agreed with Abraham about what was right. In the same strange way, God agrees with us about the way things should be.
We see what it means to live out our agreement with God, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) Praying “thy will be done” includes the prayer for God to enable us to do his will on earth, just as the angels, and our brothers and sisters, do God’s will in heaven.
We are the children of God’s kingdom who have been placed here to do God’s work. We need to ask God what he wants us to do for his kingdom here, where we live. This is what prayer and faith are all about.
Prayer and faith are also about receiving God’s blessings. Part of this includes receiving God’s blessing of partnership that we’ve been thinking about.
It also includes letting God open our closed doors. Sarah laughed, just as Abraham had done, at the closed door of the blessed baby. The baby was their impossibility. It was the thing they could not do. God’s blessing includes what he may tell you about the closed doors of your life.
They had come to terms with the closed doors of their lives, and they had made other plans. It was their way of giving up. God told them to stop doing this.
I don’t know what to say about this. In “The Singing Nun” Sister Maria says that the Mother Superior had a saying: “Whenever God closes a door, he opens a window.”
It may seem like that. That is part of what you and I need to pray about. We need to take God’s blessing into our hearts, and not laugh at it. At least we need to do more than laughing. We need to find the door of God’s promise that we have closed and that God wants open. It might not be what you think.
God arrives, and we hardly know what’s going on. Prayer with God includes our hospitality, God’s recognition, God’s blessings, our questions, our requests, treating God as God.
Prayer and faith are like that strange discussion between the Lord and Abraham about what the Lord was doing about Sodom, and about what was right and just. Life in God’s presence is just that: it’s a discussion.
Abraham wasn’t haggling with God about numbers. Some people think that, if Abraham had argued God down to saving Sodom even if there were only one righteous person there, that the destruction would never have happened.
The discussion wasn’t haggling. It was an exploration in which Abraham got to understand God better. The point is that God doesn’t count numbers at all. If it’s about numbers at all, the story tells us that God values innocent life even when it is a tiny minority. Goodness counts more than evil. Goodness carries more weight. In fact, goodness carries all the weight, all the way.
God understood what it meant to spare Sodom for the sake of goodness, and God had been sparing Sodom all along. God had used Abraham and his men, in battle, to spare Sodom.
The Hebrew word for “spare” (as in sparing the city) is also a word for forgiveness, and it is also a word for carrying something. The gist of it is that forgiveness carries sin: forgiveness bears sins. In his exploration of God, Abraham got a glimpse of something he had never thought of before: that God’s forgiveness means that God carries our sins. In some way, the burden that God carried in Jesus on the cross must have included Sodom.
Justice, in Hebrew thought, is the process of carrying out decisions that will put an end to evil and making it possible for goodness to live. When God forgives our sins because he carried them, in Christ, on the cross, it means God putting an end to the evil within us, and within all human being, and making it possible for goodness to live in its place, if we will embrace this promise.
That is what it means to die in Christ and rise in Christ. It’s part of what Paul meant, in Galatians, when he wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
Abraham didn’t see all of that. He only saw that God might do such a thing as carry the sins of sinners so that they might live.
If Abraham saw anything in his discussion of what to do about Sodom, he saw that God was good and cared about goodness. Abraham saw that God cared about what was right and just. Abraham saw that God could be trusted, even when things didn’t turn out as he hoped and prayed.
The purpose of prayer is to explore the heart of God. Our exploration is for the purpose of knowing God, and living in his presence by faith and trust. God teaches us, as he taught Abraham, that daring (and almost irreverent) questions are not out of place in a life of prayer and faith. You can discuss daring things with your friend; and here we are taught to be God’s friend, and we are taught that God (as God) wants to be our friend.
This is what our journey in life is about. We live by faith and prayer. We learn to be God’s partners and God’s friends.