Sunday 18th June 2017 Gen 18:1-15,21:1-7 Rom 5:1-8 Mt 9:35-10:23
Is anything too hard for the Lord?
So Abraham was asked when Sarah doubted her promised son, in that passage we read from Genesis. Not one of the best-known passages in the Bible, but an exceedingly important one, which set the scene for many of the problems we experience today. For here God promises the birth of Isaac, who later supplanted Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn – the father of the Arab Nations, and thus of Islam.
Both Jews and Muslims therefore trace their ancestry back to Abraham, taking his covenant to worship just one God, the Creator of the Universe, the Lord of all, extremely seriously. And it’s in mistaken compliance with that covenant that so many fanatical children of Abraham wreak so much havoc today, against any who worship other Gods, particularly those extreme heretics who claim their God, the God of Abraham, had a son. And so, on this the first Sunday after Trinity we use this story to challenge our understanding of our faith, to ensure we are able to answer this accusation.
We may note first that in this passage three men appeared to Abraham. He didn’t watch their approach, but we’re told they ‘appeared’. Secondly we read that Abraham didn’t address them as ‘My Lords’ in the plural, but as ‘My Lord’, in the singular, either speaking to one, whilst ignoring the others or perceiving them as a single entity. Now it’s by no means certain that this was a manifestation of the Trinity; some suggest they were angels, but clearly Abraham had a triple revelation of God’s word, so this incident may readily be used to assert that a single God can be presented as three separate persons, for after all “is anything too hard for the Lord”.
There are many ways of illustrating the mystery of the Trinity, including the picture I know I’ve mentioned before, that, as promised in Matthew 10 19, came suddenly to me when challenged by armed extremists in Beirut, allowing me to explain that one man may be known separately as a Father, a Son and a Husband; or the fact that a 3-dimensional object can be seen as three entirely different shapes. But these are only illustrations, with all their imperfections, that just show partial truths of the amazing and humanly incomprehensible mystery of a Holy God, for whom nothing is too difficult, being made known to us mere humans, with all our limitations.
But moving on, this incident in Genesis gives us a further insight into the ways of God. For Sarah, hearing the promise of a Son, after so many previous unfulfilled promises, laughed in scorn. Fully understandable; she’d been there before and had her hopes raised, and dashed, and recognising the physical impossibility at her age, said as so many of us would “O yes – here we go again!” Entirely reasonable, but, as no doubt most of us would, forgetting that “nothing is too hard for the Lord”. And again, so utterly human, when challenged, she denied, because, we’re told, she was afraid – just like Adam and Eve in the garden, when they heard the Lord.
Little is said of further discussion other than the bald statement from the Lord “No, but you did laugh!” Yet we know that there must have been further conversation as we’re told in Hebrews 11 “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised.” (NKJV) She had to face her sin of doubt and repent, after which she then received the blessing, because she judged Him faithful. How important that we learn from this. We must face our sin, acknowledge and turn from it if we are to receive the blessings God has in mind for us. There’s a tendency amongst some these days to minimise the evil of sin and our need of forgiveness, but we must acknowledge and confess our sin to Him to receive God’s Blessings.
And that, of course is where Romans comes in. Paul here is emphasising the importance of faith – the quality that allowed Sarah to receive the blessing. Described in Hebrews 11 as being “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (NRSV) It’s all about taking God at his word and not looking for physical or scientific proof. In other words it’s accepting that “nothing is too hard for God.” So if I accept that God is able to do anything, then there’s no space for doubts, such as those that made Sarah laugh. It’s frankly where I find many so-called scientists incredibly dim, daring to look for proof of God. For by definition God must be beyond science, able to do anything, so if His existence could be proved scientifically, then He wouldn’t be God, but at best super-human.
So faith is almost childlike trust. The fact that God says something, is evidence enough. Such trust is necessarily humbling, destroying pride or arrogance – and it is the arrogance of science trying to place itself on equal terms with God, challenging His existence or sense of justice that guarantees science could never discover God. It’s working on an entirely different plain. And it’s this arrogance that caused Sarah to laugh and doubt God’s word, because she judged her understanding of the natural process of childbirth greater than God’s ability to overcome nature.
So Paul asserts I’m justified (or made just as if I’d never sinned) by faith, in believing His promise that “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9 NRSV) Paul then states the obvious that, with sins forgiven, we have peace with God, adding “through our Lord Jesus Christ.” In this phrase he’s explaining that this cleansing is through the blood of Jesus Christ in his death on the cross in our place. There is no other way, and any attempt to claim forgiveness and cleansing from sin other than through Jesus Christ is entirely false. So Paul then continues to assert that the Hope, which faith assures us is real, is that we are going to share with him in the glory of God. And this I find really amazing.
But to fully appreciate this, we need to think a little about that word ‘Hope’ which in modern parlance implies something fairly doubtful, but not here. The Hope of faith is in fact a future certainty – no doubt whatever. So Paul is telling us that God’s unbreakable promise is that our faith will result in the certainty of sharing in Christ’s glory. How this causes all the problems, frustrations and sufferings here on Earth to diminish by comparison. We WILL share in his glory, so that fact must help us cope with any suffering we face, and that certainty must similarly help us to endure, which then becomes a part of our very being, which is characterised by our confidence in sharing in that glory. So Paul concludes with the assurance that we won’t be disappointed, because as this conviction develops, the Holy Spirit will immerse us in His love, filling and overflowing us. Are we ready for this? Are we fully focussed on that Hope? And does that completely overwhelm the various sufferings we endure?
So let’s remember that “nothing is too difficult for God.” Whatever our concerns, whether personal, for others or for this Church, just keep praying to and trusting in our Lord, whilst focussing our minds on the glory we will, in his time, share with Christ, praising him for this concluding and reassuring statement that Christ died at just the right time so that “God commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Halleluiah, what a Saviour indeed.
Duncan Burr at Llanos on Sunday 18th June 2017
The views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the Church of England