Helping the Impossible . . . Happen

a sermon based on Genesis 17: 2-7; 15-16
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 1, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A resident living near Yellowstone had this interesting observation:
Tourists come to Yellowstone National Park armed with a lot of questions [, she wrote]. As someone who works nearby, I don’t always have the answers. Like the time one earnest woman wanted to know, “At what elevation do deer turn into elk?” 1

Today’s story from the Bible sounds to us as impossible as deer turning into elk. Abram is ninety-nine. Sarai is ninety. God’s been promising them offspring for twenty-four years. It wasn’t possible sounding in their late 60s and 70s, and it sure isn’t possible sounding in their nineties! But somehow Abram and Sarai have lived faithful (if flawed) lives ever since the first promise, hoping against hope for a baby. And now when it is so far beyond reason as to be impossible by any human reckoning, God makes a covenant to make this barren couple fruitful. FRUITFUL! They are –the promise goes– to have offspring. Not only that, although they are nomadic people, somehow nations and kings shall come from those offspring.

The reading from the Lectionary cuts out some of the details of the covenant God makes. For example, even though they are aliens in Canaan they can expect to receive perpetual holding rights to that land, and that God will be their God and their family’s God and their people’s God. Aliens, nobody strangers to the rest of the culture, are the beneficiaries of God’s bounty and grace. And for their part of this deal Abram and all the males of his household must be circumcised, as a sign of the covenant.

The gist of the entire covenant, the promise in the story is that God’s gonna do the impossible giving a child to an elderly alien couple to start a royal bloodline, and give land to their small nobody-to-the-world-nomadic- clan-of-aliens, and to then care about them personally in a culture where gods were said to side with the powerful, not the puny.
Abram and Sarai up to this point have trusted God with their heart and were connected to God spiritually. Now bodily Abram the man needs to be circumcised, and Sarai the woman needs to bear the child. They each bodily sacrifice a bit, so that now they can be heard to give of their whole selves – body and spirit– and God rewards them with the impossible! A very elderly couple bears a child and God supports and cares for them even as despised aliens. And God – when gods backed the powerful– makes a remarkable commitment to be their God.

In the age or reason we live in, in modernity, this sounds more than a bit unbelievable. In the age the story was recorded it may have sounded even more unreasonable to have elderly barren nobody aliens claiming divine care and help.

So why does this story exist? I mean, what is it’s meaning? Whether we think the story really occurred or is meant as metaphor we still have to wrestle with that question. What’s it’s purpose, it’s meaning? It’s clearly intended to be about God’s commitment and ability to do the impossible, and how the faithful have faith and trust that the impossible can be done. But why is this story being told, how does that intent have meaning?

Well, see, like some of the other Old Testament stories we have recently considered this one was crafted in the form we have around the time of the Exile, or shortly thereafter. Babylon had conquered the Hebrews and took their leaders into captivity. The story is told from the perspective of that leadership, of complete exhaustion from a half century of being conquered and exiled away from the homeland. Others conduct, their own failures and ordinary life and time should have them defeated, giving up the notion that Jerusalem would ever be seen again, let alone be reborn. Reason, reality evidenced that such was utterly impossible.

That the elderly who would be let go to return to Zion could midwife a new Zion was simply unbelievable. On the cusp of that impossibility we can hear how Abram and Sarai’s story of hope and faith for birthing a child during hopeless barrenness has a deep, deep metaphoric meaning in light of the experience of Exile. The men and women of the Exile can be heard to be symbolized in Abram and Sarai’s situation. They represent the old worn out body of Zion, that has not given up faith in God.

This is just me with a side note musing, but I wonder sometimes if Ishmael, Abram’s son with Hagar, might represent the Jewish Northern Kingdom (called Israel) that fell long before the Jewish Southern Kingdom (called Judah) fell. That Northern Kingdom did not come back it was left to the desert in a sense, it’s people and kingdom no longer Hebrew, though no less loved by God. And Isaac, the son that God gives Abram and Sarai, represents Judah, the Southern Kingdom almost sacrificed (like Ishmael) , but just in time the Exiled return and the Kingdom, the progeny, is birthed by the elders who were Exiled for fifty years or so.

Too old to parent offspring but miraculously–like Sarah and Abraham they do. Imperfect but devoted; fallible but faithful God is with them. In the story, elderly Abraham and Sarah can impossibly give birth to a son. In history, elderly mothers and fathers of the Exile can impossibly give birth to a new Zion. From old bodies the promise of new life is given by God. Everything is being re-envisioned.

In the story it’s such a powerful re-envisioning that all the characters get a new name. For the first time Abram is called Abraham. For the first time Sarai is called Sarah. For the first time God is called Almighty.

From the perspective of the old patriarchy we can even hear it as giving new meaning to God, self and others because finally, at long last Sarah, a woman, is named and honored by God and promised to experience God’s bounty. Women matter very much in this 2500 year old re-envisioning. It is not just Abraham and God who get focus, but Abraham AND Sarah and God as they move forward from the barren-ness to the fruitful. The Exile experience gives women a new and honored place. They suffered through the barren years in Exile. Everybody is being re-defined.
And it takes the heart and soul and body to accomplish the transformation from childlessness to parenthood, from nomads to royalty, from Abram to Abraham, from Sarai to Sarah from the Babylonian Exile to the return to Zion– from one among other Ancient Near East gods to God the Almighty. If we want transformative miracles to happen, we can be flawed and old and tired, but we cannot be without a heart full of faith, connecting our body and spirit to Almighty God. In short, our whole being must be in on the workings of the transformation.

God does not do the miraculous transformations in our lives, the impossible cannot occur, without our total involvement. When we commit wholly inconceivable things can happen– we can be wholly transformed. For Christianity that is what Lent focuses on, it’s what Easter promises.

In fact, lets be honest transformation, positive alteration of the lesser-ness of living into a greater-ness of living is at least one reason most of us are here all year long. We come to pay respect and to be in awe of God the Almighty for sure, but most of us, hopefully all of us, are also here because we want to change negatives into something positive. We want to understand how we can do this to better ourselves and to better our world.

The Lord’s Supper, this table, the Communion we are celebrating today– the Sacrament we partake of– can be understood to reflect the fundamentals of the lesson today. It’s Old Testament meets New Testament which happens quite often and should not surprise us because Jesus and his followers and the early Jesus Movement considered themselves Jewish. And the stories in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, influenced and inspired and guided and helped them experience God. They can still do that for us.

Here’s one way I hear the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament can be understood to meet, to transect:

In the story Abraham and Sarah flawed and tattered are good at heart and have faith and give of body and spirit to God’s calling to have faith to help transform what seems impossible to the possible. At Communion we come in our faith, our trust in the Divine and with all our heart we lift up the body and spirit, the bread and the cup, of Christ– Christ incarnate in the world and Christ incarnate in us, in both our body and our spirit.

We remember that Jesus dedicated both as best as can be to God. And somehow that dedication in Jesus led to an amazing resurrection from the dark ugly events of Holy Week meant to beat him and strip him of dignity, and life, to exile him to the forgotten dreaded corners of executed criminality. The impossible happened. They did all that to Jesus. Yet, Jesus lives. The dance of the Lord goes on and on and on.

God transformed the hate and violence of the passion story into the love and joy and hope of the Easter Story. This was done for you and for me and for all the world’s betterment.

And doing as Jesus did, even just dedicating our body and spirit to try and do it transforms us and by us I mean us individually, and us as church, and us as world.

Think about the remarkable transformation such dedication brings about Poor can be fed. Strangers can be welcomed. The sick and imprisoned can be cared for angry and hurt people can forgive and be healed. Outcasts can be brought into the fold to no longer be shunned, but loved as equals. Injuries can be healed. Alcohol and other chemical dependency can be halted. Lives can be turned around. Why even Agnostic Oregon lawyers can become Ohioan Christian ministers. And best of all a homeless wandering poor rabbi executed as a nobody criminal can impossibly live and help us to live too!

Sarai and Abram are barren deer turned into the fruitful elk Sarah and Abraham. At the elevation of God in their lives they are transformed. As we elevate the bread and the cup at the table this morning let us think about, and aim for, transformation, even impossible transformation, from whatever troubles us as individuals and as a people.

Let us consider how we can elevate God and partake in the betterment of our lives and the world with a heartfelt dedication of our body and our spirit to no less than our God. AMEN. 1
1. This sermon was influenced in good part by the commentaries in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol 1, pages 50-55. I found Barbara Brown Taylor’s essay particularly helpful. I also considered The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on the Genesis text.