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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

God Provides

Gospel according to Genesis, a 3-week sermon series at the end of Summer, preached Sunday September 17, 2023 at the 9:30am worship service


Context

Here’s some good news. No matter how much destruction or death we see, this God creates and recreates. Here’s some more good news. No matter how desperate we are or greedy we are, this God provides more than enough of what really matters. Even more good news. When we hurt one another, ourselves, or creation, this God reconciles all things toward love and justice.


We find this good news about God in Jesus. We also find it in the oldest stories of scripture, in Genesis. Last week, we read Genesis 1 and 2, both creation stories, and heard about the God who creates. This week, we hear about the God who provides.


Let’s pray and listen for the words of the Lord…


Prayer for Illumination


Scripture Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7

18 The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men coming near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may move on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”


6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7 Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set it before them, and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.


9 They said to him, “Where is your wife, Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a child.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him.


11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, then I will be a mother?”


13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a child.”


15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

21:1 The Lord dealt with Sarah as had been said, and the Lord did for Sarah as had been promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore (with) Abraham a son in (their) old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to (their) son whom Sarah bore him. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.


6 And Sarah said, “God has brought Isaac, laughter, rejoicing to me; and everyone who hears will laugh, rejoice with me.” 7 And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne (us) a son in (our) old age.”


This is the words of the Lord… Thanks be to God.


Sermon God Provides

Jill and I are both the youngest of four and were both born as surprises to our older mothers. In Jill’s family, her siblings were 14, 12, and 9 years older, and the story goes that Jill’s mom cried when she found out she was pregnant. In my family, my siblings were 20, 18, and 9 years older, and the story goes that the doctor sternly advised my mom of the risks of having a baby “at her age.”


When Jill and I committed to one another, we both imagined having a family one day. When we were still very young but felt ready enough, Adam came along. A few years later, I switched jobs and Daniel came along. We moved houses and lost one child, fairly early, in a miscarriage. Then a bit later, Michael was born. Raising three children, Jill and I knew then the feelings of our mothers and began making plans so a surprise fourth didn’t come along. Meanwhile, both our mothers encouraged us to keep the possibilities of a fourth open.


I now look back on how easy it was for Jill and me to have children. I’ve known friends who desperately wanted children, and who tried many things but never conceived. I’ve stood by precious people who went to many doctors and did conceive but lost many children before viable. Some try to adopt, but not all, and not all who try to adopt bring home a child.


I’ve also pastored families where young ones suddenly become moms or dads when they aren’t ready and don’t want to. I’ve met with agencies that help raise children left behind by parents, sometimes to irresponsibility or addiction, sometimes to mental health facilities or prison, sometimes to death.


And each church I have served has had a connection with children of the world, maybe indigenous children in the hills of Guatemala who need access to education, or maybe swollen-bellied children of the Congo or Malawi who need nutrition, or maybe some girl children in some cultures in Asia who get abandoned at birth.


Having a child, having children is not as simple as scripture sometimes makes it sound. This story of Abraham and Sarah comes from an ancient culture when fertility was a sign of blessing in a woman. A woman’s worth and communal value was often measured by her ability to conceive and birth children, and it was a mark on the woman if she couldn’t or didn’t have children. Society was taught to look down on them, to wonder what their sin might be. Women without children often felt shame or resentment or desperation inside, and were sometimes publicly shunned in the community, and told to repent and pray God might forgive them and open their womb.


Today’s scripture repeats many of those awful ancient assumptions and pressures on women, on Sarah. It's all horrible talk and we should know better by now. One’s choice or ability to have children or not is not a tag of value on the person, or a condition of sin, or a guarantee of blessing. God does not punish some and reward others with childbirth, yet at the same time, every child conceived and born is a miracle of God.


Sarah had survived much of that pressure and stigma. It does appear that she, at one point, sincerely wanted children. We can’t tell if she wanted to be a mother, or just to give Abraham a child, or if she just wanted the shaming and the judgment to go away. I feel sure she had suffered some very angry, sad nights when year after year passed, and despite carefully obeying the best medical advice of the time, and trying any and every wives’ tales on top of it, she had yet to conceive and birth a child.


Now, here in her later years, surprisingly, Abraham had not dismissed her, so maybe the fear of that common occurrence was subsiding. The gossip and social stigma and some of the inner sense of shame still lingered. She had hoped and prayed to prove them all wrong over the decades, but now, as her cycle became less frequent, more unpredictable, hope was fading. When “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women,” Sarah looked for new coping measures.


This is a common human predicament. When we are in a tough situation, there is a tension between the realities of the present and our hopes of the future. We humans hate that tension and seek comping measures to alleviate it.


One way to alleviate the tension is to lean away from accepting harsh realities and “try to stay positive.” We repeat over and over again reassurances. Under this option, we tend to use phrases like, “Well, at least” so and so… spinning or redirecting any honest but negative observation back to the positive possible.


Or a second way to alleviate the tension is to lean away from the Pollyanna future that doesn’t ever seem to get any closer, and submit to the problems of today. We repeat over and over the harsh realities, and tend to use phrases like, “What’s the use, what’s the point”… deflecting any hopeful vision of future back into the quagmire of the current crises.


Admiral Stockdale noticed this tendency while held captive in a prisoner of war camp with many compatriots. There was a hard, harsh reality of the present. They were all prisoners. There was a long-range hope of the future. One day, we will be free and go home. Stockdale noticed those who gave up hope didn’t make it. They caved under the weight of the harsh realities. Stockdale also noticed those who clung to hope blindly didn’t make it. They caved under the constant disappointment of having their hopes dashed on the rocks of reality.


Those who did “make it” embodied what is now called “the Stockdale paradox,” hold onto both. Don’t ever deny the present reality or assume that tomorrow will be any different. At the same time, hold onto the hope that one day, it will be different, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. Don’t try to alleviate the tension. Live in it.


Sarah hated the tension between the harsh reality versus her hoped-for future. Sarah chose to let go of the hope, and the lean into the reality. She devised a coping mechanism. She would laugh and joke away anyone who dared imagine a better future. She had been hurt too many times hoping, and she wasn’t willing to be hurt like that anymore. She would just stop hoping. The joke, the laugh would be her signal to others and to herself that she was tired of the disappointment that comes from having hope in the midst of present realities that seem so hopeless.


But this is a God who provides. God doesn’t provide children to good people, or people who pray long enough or wait long enough. The story here isn’t about the child as much as it is about the God who lives in the tension between harsh realities of our present and the glorious future of God’s bountiful community.


This God provides pathways from the struggles of today toward promises of tomorrow. There are no guarantees the path stays straight or easy. There isn’t a schedule that suggests we will get there soon. There are no reassurances we won’t go backwards, get lost, or take detours. But this God will always provide pathways toward God’s promise. This God will provide God’s presence along the journey. This God will provide more than enough for us to get through today. This God will provide enough for us to keep going tomorrow. And even when we run out of tomorrows, this God will provide us a pathway, God’s presence, and more than enough again.


Charge


Benediction

Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.

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