Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Covenant Series; Year B; 2018
Mary, the Mother of Jesus declared God to be full of possibility even in seemingly impossible circumstances at the annunciation. The same God shows the full range of his mercy and steadfast love through a series covenants that are the focus of several of our texts this Lent.
Today, in our first reading we read of what is known as the Abrahamic Covenant, which illustrates once again, that God is not only able but is adept at achieving the impossible and it is through seemingly unlikely events that God demonstrates God’s steadfast love and desire for God’s people.
In our reading today, Abram’s first response to God’s news that he will have descendants from his wife is understandable. He is 99 years old and likely sees himself as old, dried up, empty, and incapable of such a thing. Sarai is no spring chick either, about 90 years old, equally dried up, barren, tired.
What God promises is not, by anyone’s estimation or imagination, even possible – that the two of them would become biological parents. Abram immediately falls face down in shock and disbelief at the news. If we were to read on just one more verse, we would see his second reaction – laughter. I can easily get on board with both responses – shock and hysteria. For who wouldn’t be shocked at this preposterous idea?
Then, God goes on to rename the couple - Abram will forever be known as Abraham, and Sarai as Sarah; this is not just whimsy on God’s part. Names are significant. As Christians, while baptism is a physical sign of our true identities, invisible apart from the moment it takes place, the names which are spoken in our baptism, are written down, in the book of eternity, along with another name which we all bear – “Child of God.”
Biblical passages in which God is said to know our names abound, and they tell us that God names us as creatures in whom God delights (62:4), as precious (Isaiah 43:4), and as utterly known and loved (Isaiah 49:1; John 10:14-15). Under God’s command, Abram, whose name means, “My father the God is exalted” is transformed into Abraham - “The father of a multitude”. Sarai, meaning “quarrelsome” becomes Sarah, meaning “Princess” perhaps referring to her role as the progenitor of a line of kings including ultimately, the King of Kings, our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Yet the biblical record reveals that even those two who are known as the father and mother of the faith were far from perfect, both before and after this covenant was struck. Yet God persistently takes imperfect people and uses them in remarkable ways, despite their imperfections, shortcomings, brokenness, dryness, and sin.
We, too, may see ourselves as sinful, broken, dirty, old, empty, or otherwise incapable, but God, who knows us to the depth of our souls, calls us beloved and casts his lot with us. God frees us and calls us to live into the name God has given us. Lent offers us the perfect time to turn, as Sarah and Abraham must do, and to reorient ourselves according to the name God has given us, and know ourselves as capable, by the grace of God, to live into that name.
The thing is, we are not always going to get it right. The covenant God sets before Abraham and Sarah and before us, is to “walk before God and be blameless.” Of course, we hear that word, “blameless,” and we might just as well fall on our faces and join in Abraham’s laughter. Because we perceive “blameless” to mean “perfect” and we know such perfection to be impossible.
But the text tells us that Abraham and Sarah have faith, which is the reason God chooses them in the first place, to be the parents of many nations. However, it doesn’t take long, if we look closely at these two, to see that they are not perfect. They do some awful things to their own family and tell big lies when it suits them. They are indeed faithful, but they are also selfish; at times they despair, just as we do.
But when God is looking to do something new, in this case to birth a people who will bear his mark and through whom all nations will be blessed, perhaps, more than any of Abraham or Sarah’s other characteristics, God is drawn to their barrenness; to their emptiness. An empty pot is an opportunity for God to fill and create vessels of hope and mercy for the world.
There is an old folk story called “Stone Soup,” about a wandering soldier in post-war Eastern Europe, who came upon a village. Now, there was a great famine following the war, and food was so scarce, that people hoarded what they had, refusing to share even with friend or neighbor.
As the soldier approached, the villagers shuttered their windows and closed their doors, telling him, “There’s not a bite to eat in the whole province. Better move on.”
The soldier, however, responded that as a matter of fact, he had everything he needed and was just about to make some stone soup, which he would be happy to share with them if they were hungry.
With great flourish, he produced a large iron pot from his wagon, which he filled with water and placed over a fire he built up, high and hot. With great ceremony he pulled a large but ordinary-looking stone from a velvet bag and dropped it into the pot.
The villagers, curious now, watched from their windows or set themselves up in the town square. As they watched, he sniffed the aroma rising from the pot and licked his lips.
Taking a taste, the soldier declared the soup nearly ready, just perhaps needing a bit of salt and pepper to bring it to perfection. A couple of the villagers scrambled over to him, condiments in hand, which he dramatically tossed into the soup pot, and stirred.
“Ah,” he said to himself rather loudly, “I do love a stone soup. Of course, stone soup with cabbage – that’s hard to beat.” No sooner had the words left his mouth than someone approached hesitantly, proffering a large head of cabbage. Thanking the fellow, the soldier added it to the pot. Hunger overcame skepticism and the villagers began to anticipate a delicious and filling bowl of soup.
“I once had stone soup with cabbage and a bit of salt beef as well, and it was fit for a king!” the soldier mused aloud. Before long, the town butcher found some salt beef and handed it over into the pot.
In like manner, were potatoes, and then onions, then carrots, and finally some mushrooms and a few herbs located and added into an increasingly aromatic and delicious stone soup, which indeed, the soldier shared with the entire village. With the contributions many who saw themselves as poor and barren, the transition from empty pot to soup of stone to delicious, nourishing meal became a feast so that all were fed.
God is known to speak to and use barren vessels and out of them to serve a feast of grace. God uses the most unlikely of people and circumstances, to achieve God’s purposes. God uses imperfect, sometimes wayward thinking people and with them does great things – just look at Peter from the gospel today as another example of the way God creates and demands change – often, when we are completely barren, when we hit rock bottom and become immovable stones.
When we feel we have nothing to offer, when we feel that our pot is bare and dry, God sends the Holy Spirit among us and fills us up. When the pain of our barrenness is so deeply humbling that we feel we feel incapable of rising above it, God raises us up to new life and bring us to new places that we cannot imagine.
Our church has existed 96 years. Like Abraham and Sarah, we might be tempted to look around and to see ourselves as old, dried up, and incapable of life, of change, of producing good food.
But remember, God is about creating change – and God often does this best when with tired, old, and empty vessels. Look what happened with Abraham and Sarah. God commanded them to “walk before me and be blameless” – this is God’s way of telling them to have faith in him, to trust in him, to believe that with God, nothing is impossible. God invites us to do the same – to get out of God’s way, and
1. Trust God that through the Holy Spirit, God will accomplish great things in us;
2. Trust God to do this in spite of those parts of us which seem empty and incapable;
3. Trust that God has a purpose for us, and promises to be with us in our journey;
4. Trust that God always fulfill God’s promises.
Through our baptism and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, God blesses us in the name of Jesus Christ – sent as God’s love incarnate. It may seem preposterous to the world that God would die upon the cross to save us from sin-created emptiness. It may seem impossible that, once placed in a sealed tomb, Jesus would rise again to lead us all to new life. But that is exactly what God has done, and it is good news indeed for all of us who feel the depth of our sin, brokenness, and emptiness.
The appropriate response to this good news may be to fall on our faces, nose to the ground in submission to God’s will, and laugh with joy in God’s impossible life-giving gifts. The covenants of God transform us when in faith and trust in God, we work together to follow God’s commands.
Like Abraham and Sarah, like Mary, and like so many empty vessels whom God turned into prophets and saints, when we trust that God will bless our contributions despite our imperfections, in joy and faith we find that what seem like meager individual gifts, when added to the pot, make a wonderful, nourishing soup of faith and ministry for the collective good.
May it be so for our lives, our community, our church, and our world.