Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
As much as we talk about Abraham’s faith, his faith is not the primary theme in the long saga of Abraham recorded in the Book of Genesis. Oh yes, Abraham’s faith is impressive! Leaving his home and his people to go wherever the Lord commanded him to go. Following the Lord’s dreadful command to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham’s faith is both human and super-human at the same time.
Oh, but when Abraham falls, it too is legendary. Passing off his wife, Sarah, as his sister on two different occasions just to save his own skin. That whole fiasco with Sarah’s maid, Hagar, and the birth of Ishmael. When Abraham falls short of faith it is so very noteworthy! Indeed, like the famous little poem, “when [he] was good, [Abraham] was very, very good; but when [he] was bad, [he] was horrid.”
But the Abraham saga is not so much about Abraham’s faith, as it is about the promises of God, the covenant. There would be no faith had it not been for those promises. And the promises of God fill every chapter of this saga. From chapter 12 of Genesis when we first meet Abraham, to chapter 25 when Abraham is laid to rest beside his wife in the cave of Machpelah, near the great oaks of Mamre, it is always the promises of God that inspire his actions of faith, or return to lift up the fallen patriarch when he acts apart from faith.
It was the promise of God to make of Abraham a great nation that moves him to leave his home in Haran and go to the land of Canaan. It was the promise of God to make a multitude of nations by his son Isaac that moved Abraham to go to the mountain of Moriah and risk everything on a stone altar there. The promises of God ushered Abraham onto the stage of history, and in those promises, although largely still unfulfilled at the time, Abraham breathed his last and “was gathered to his fathers.”
Ah…but with the promises of God, so very great in their declarations, comes the possibility of disappointment, so great in its cost. And the greatness of Abraham’s disappointment is always there, because the promises of God are so very great.
To speak of disappointment with God is a difficult thing. Somehow we Christians pick up the idea that it is simply unfaithful to speak of disappointment with God, as if that were the surest sign of a lack of faith. Or if not so much unfaithful, it still feels a little disrespectful. Maybe it’s because we hear only about Abraham’s heroism in faith, and not enough of his dark side.
Now, certainly, in response we could point to any number of Psalms where David and the others speak freely of their complaints and grievances and disappointments with God. As you read the various Psalms of lament you get a clear sense that naming our disappointment with God is an important part of faith. Indeed, it is often the first step toward being renewed in that faith.
You could read the Book of Job…where at the end of chapter after chapter with Job’s complaints to God, disappointed with how the Almighty has dealt with him…getting sharper and sharper as he goes…but by the end Job finally comes to a whole new understanding of faith. Or need I point to St. Mark’s depiction of the crucifixion, where Jesus—borrowing the opening words of the most powerful of the Psalms of lament—pours out His own great despair and disappointment with His Father. “My God, My God!”
Who could imagine that the God of heaven and earth would redeem the world by dying a criminal’s death? Who could predict that God’s strength would be revealed most fully in weakness, that divine judgment would be rendered so completely in undeserved and unexpected mercy? It is, plain and simple, unthinkable. Yet that is what God has promised us!
So now with Abraham, in view of God’s incredible promise to make of him a father of nations, he still has no son. The frustration must be building! It happens with us. We’re not being unfaithful to wonder where God is when our beautiful child turns into someone we don’t recognize anymore, our beloved spouse contracts a deadly sickness, our dream job—and all the personal identity that goes with it—is eliminated, or when any number of other disappointments fall upon us. Our faith in God’s rich promises, our faith that God is good, finds us so very disappointed. Because everything in us teaches us that these things could not be what God wants, or desires, or wills. It’s no surprise that living by faith we are disappointed with God.
Like Abraham, we have more to learn. We learn that God Almighty, El Shaddai, always shows up most clearly in the crushed and broken places of our lives. Jesus’ crucifixion shows us that!
Like Peter in the Gospel Reading today, we can be disappointed because we do not get the God we want, the God we’ve come to believe in, the God we feel we have a right to expect. Yet in our disappointment, like Peter confronted with Jesus’ cross and resurrection, we discover not the God we want, but the God we so desperately need.
He is the God who sheds His glory to join us in our shame; the God who leaves heaven to enter our hells-on-earth; the God who abandons His own strength—at least as we imagine that strength—so that He can join us, embrace us, hold onto us, love, and redeem us in our human weakness and disappointment. He is the God who, in Jesus, comes to those broken in body, crushed in spirit, disappointed in mind and heart, to be one with us, for us.
It is what Jesus is saying in the Gospel Reading. Those who want to save their life—to hold on to all our expectations of what God ought be—we will lose it. It is those who shed those expectations…or more accurately, those who have had their expectations of God disappointed by God’s own actions, whose expectations are shaken; it is they…we…who discover life and faith as it truly is according to God’s promises.
So here in Genesis 17, yes, Abraham and Sarah get their new names from God. Abraham is the intensified form of Abram; not just “father,” but a fruitful father, a multitudinous father. Sarah is an intensified form of Sarai; not just a “princess,” but the princess of a multitude. But it’s been nearly 25 years since God first promised a son. 25 years! How hard, how disappointing it must have been to get only a new name…but not yet that son!
Yet within the year Isaac would be born, and Abraham’s faith in God’s promises would be born anew. And then, as we heard last Sunday, after the terror of Mt. Moriah, Abraham’s faith would be resurrected. It would be like an Easter glory after the gruesome trial of a Good Friday. And Abraham would learn, in faith, how great indeed are God’s promises.
El Shaddai, God Almighty, has made us promises as well. When we were baptized the voice of God said to us, “You are My beloved!” For in Holy Baptism we have been clothed with Christ, and nothing, nothing, nothing shall ever separate us from that love of God toward us in Jesus Christ. Nothing.
It is a very great promise. So great, that we can be disappointed with it. When what we expect does not come to pass, our disappointments with God threatened to crush us as they once did Abraham. It is not, then, a betrayal of faith to be so disappointed. It is, in fact, a sign that faith is groaning toward a new birth!
And the God who could take Abraham’s disappointment, bordering on sheer despair, like Jesus’ own cry from the cross, and turn it into a resurrection to new life, oh, such a God can bear your disappointment with Him. He can stay with you through that disappointment until you come out to the other side in a whole new understanding of faith. It’s a promise.
That’s why the Church isn’t reserved for people who have it all together. No, a congregation is the place for faith when life is falling apart. Because here, in our prayers and through our hymns, we may tell God our disappointments fully and truly! And all the more so, because here, in the Gospel, we hear His reply, “Come,” He says. “Come, you who have lost your life, your faith; come and find it again; for I will lift you up.” It’s a promise!