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February 28, 2021

“Are You Kidding, God?” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, February 28, 2021, Year B / Lent 2 –  Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16  •  Psalm 22:23-31  •  Romans 4:13-25  •  Mark 8:31-38

The big idea:  Abraham and Sarah found God’s covenant laughable at first, but they persevered in trusting God and their faith was rewarded. 

Application:  Trust God’s new covenant in Jesus to bring us to new life.


Have you ever heard a promise of good things so far beyond your wildest hopes that you dared not believe it?

Let me put that another way.  Imagine a parent speaking to a child.  The parent says “My dear, you are going to become great and famous.”

How would a child react? 

What if, instead of a child, that promise was made to you or me, to a grown adult, perhaps even well into middle-age, or beyond? 

Would we believe it?  Or would we fall over laughing? 

That was the nature of the proposition that God put to Abram.  99 years old and childless, Abram was an immigrant, living in a land far from his own. 

His wife, Sarai was no spring chicken either.  She was 90.  One of the great shames of their lives was the absence of children. 

With no one to carry on his name, Abram did what someone in his situation normally did back then.  He looked to his slave girl Hagar to bear him a son.  And she did.  His name was Ishmael.

Abram and Sarai just assumed that was the end of the story.  But God had other ideas.  Surprising ideas.  Shocking ideas!

Up until this point, ever since he called Abram out of his native land, God has been dropping hints right and left that big things are in store for Abram.  God has promised to make of him a great nation.  He’s promised to bless Abram and to make his name great.

Further, through Abram, God has promised to bless all the families of the earth.  He has even shown Abram the land he is to inherit, this new, strange and wonderful land where God has led him.

Along the way, he gives Abram an object lesson to illustrate the magnitude of his promise.  One evening after supper, God brings him out of his tent and tells him to look up at the nighttime sky.  “Just try to count those stars, Abram” God says.  “That is how numerous your descendants will be.”

Now God finally reveals the covenant he will make with Abram.  It’s a two-way contract.  Abram will be faithful in walking before God and obeying God’s will, with circumcision as the sign of his obedience. 

God will make Abram father to a multitude of nations and kings.  God even gives Abram a new name:  Abraham, which means exactly what he promises:  father of multitudes.

Sarai is also part of this covenant. God changes her name to Sarah, meaning “princess”, because she will be mother to kings.  Most astounding of all, God promises that within a year, Sarah will bear a son to Abraham. 

Well, Abraham and Sarah are overwhelmed, to say the least.  Much has changed since their day, but human procreation has not.  Then, as now, fertility was a youthful gift.  90 year-old women did not bear children.  The mere thought of it would have been laughable. 

Naturally, that’s what they did.  Reading in between the lines, can’t you just hear them saying, “Oh, God, that’s a good one.  Hah!  You must be joking!”

But then, they started to think about it.  Once they stopped laughing and picked themselves up off the ground, it probably occurred to them that God does not make idle promises. God is for real.  

So, Abraham and Sarah obeyed God’s command.  Abraham had himself circumcised and all the men in his household along with him.  It was the sign of the covenant in their flesh, a physical reminder of their promise to God, and God’s promise to them.  They became God’s covenant people, as did all the generations of Jews that followed them.

You and I are also God’s covenant people.  Through faith, we are heirs to God’s promise through Jesus Christ, whose blood forms God’s New Covenant.  Jesus is the mediator of this New Covenant.  His death on the cross is the basis of the promise of redemption God makes to us and to all humanity.

Moses himself anticipated that.  Toward the end of his life, he spoke to the nation of Israel of a coming time when the people will be given “a heart to understand.”  So, the sign of this new covenant will not be marked on the people’s flesh, it will be written on their hearts.

Moses tells them, “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.”

In other words, this new covenant rests not on meeting the requirements of the law, but solely on God’s grace and our faith.  It is guaranteed to all Abraham’s spiritual descendants, not only to the Jews, but to anyone who shares Abraham’s faith in God. 

That means you and me, friends.  We, too, are descendants of Abraham.  We become heirs to the promise through our trust in God who raised Jesus from the dead.  Through faith in him, you and I can live in God’s constant presence, now and forever.  That is what we mean by eternal life.  That is God’s promise to us.

In this season of Lent, we could hardly ask ourselves a more important or more fundamental question than this:  Do we trust God to do what he promises?

This is the essence of faith, of course.  If we are being honest with ourselves – and Lent is nothing if not a time to be honest with ourselves – we have to admit that we have trouble with this.  We doubt God, and we doubt God’s promises.  And we are not alone. 

Others did, too – Moses, Gideon, Job, Jonah, Jeremiah – even Jesus himself had his moment of questioning in the Garden of Gethsemane.  

Abraham and Sarah did, too.  That’s why their first reaction was laughter.  “Are you kidding, God?”

But let’s remember that the first time God made the promise of blessing to Abraham, Abraham was 75 years old.  The fulfillment of the promise came when he was 100.  Abraham had to persevere in faith for 25 years before he witnessed the fulfillment of God’s promise. 

That’s how God works.  That’s how he dealt with most of the great figures of faith in scripture. 

As one blogger recently put it,  “The great heroes of the Bible had two things in common: they all wore sandals, and they were all required to persevere in their faith, even though final victory was often years in the future.” 

Friends, that is the measure of our faith, too.  When we think of stepping out in faith, we usually have in mind doing something sensational and vaguely dangerous, like the Christian martyers. 

But the true measure of our faith is not so much in the daring of our action as it is in the duration of our trust.  As I have said more than once, God demands perseverance, not perfection.

What we do between God’s promise and its fulfillment is the same thing Abraham and Sarah did.  After they stopped laughing, they got busy.  They did what God commanded.  They had all the men circumcised, even though it would be months before Sarah gave birth to their son Isaac.  

In his own time, God came through.  God kept his promise.  Abraham and Sarah’s faithful perseverance was rewarded.

That happens in modern times, too.  William Wilberforce is someone who also understood the need to persevere in faith.  In 1780, Wilberforce became a member of the British parliament at the astoundingly young age of 21.  A few years later, he became a committed Christian.  

That’s when he realized God was calling him to use his political influence to fight for the abolition of the slave trade.  Wilberforce said, “I determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition."

But the institution of slavery, much like racism today, was deeply entrenched.  Few thought it could ever be changed.  But, for 20 years, Wilberforce got busy.  He put his faith into action, introducing one resolution after another.  One after another, they failed.

Understandably, he was discouraged.  One night, after yet another defeat, he opened his Bible, looking for inspiration.  A piece of paper fell out.  It was a letter of encouragement from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.

Wesley wrote, “Be not weary of well-doing!  Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might . . .  that he who has guided you from youth onward may continue to strengthen you in this and in all things.”  And, with much prayer and continued trust in God, that is exactly what Wilberforce did.

In 1807, parliament voted to limit slavery.  But it was not until days before his death in 1833, at the age of 74, that William Wilberforce got word that Parliament was set to abolish slavery altogether.  Wilberforce wasn’t there to hear it, but when that happened, Parliament erupted in cheers celebrating his name.

You and I are not members of Parliament.  Most of us do not hold public office.  But all of us have been called by God to trust his promise that, by believing in Jesus Christ and following him as his faithful disciples, we will live in God’s constant presence, now and forever more.  William Wilberforce now knows that life in all its fullness.  And so can we.

Let’s keep on doing what God calls us to do.  Let’s persevere in fighting for justice for all God’s children. 

There are still many folks in this world who are not free, who are enslaved, because of the color of their skin, the language they speak, who they love or simply because they have had the bad fortune to be born into a country where poverty, disease and powerlessness dog their every step.

With prayer and a persevering faith, let’s trust that God will not only keep his promise of new life for us, but will work through us to bring new life to those whom he calls us to serve.

May it be so.

Last Published: March 1, 2021 9:39 AM
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