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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

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

"Abraham: The Good Father"

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Sunday, June 15, 2008 (Father's Day)

This month we're doing a series on Abraham, the founding father of our faith. And the founding father of the Jewish faith. And the founding father of the Muslim faith. All three of the world's great religions claim Abraham as their founding father. Which ought to make Abraham pretty important.

Last Sunday we talked about Abraham's blessing in Genesis 12. God says “Go” and Abraham goes. Abraham goes from his father's house in what's modern-day Iraq into the land of Canaan, which is modern Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan. This is sometime around 2000 B.C. God says, “Go -- and I'll bless you and you'll bless all the people of the world.” Abraham receives God's first covenant, and not because he's such a great guy, as we'll see next Sunday. Abraham receives God's first covenant, the grand blessing, because God chooses Abraham, and because Abraham's faithful enough to choose God back.

This week, we pick up reading about 24 years after God tells Abraham to go. Abraham's now grown up into midlife. He's 99. That's middle age for him. When you're going to live to be 175, at 99 you're still paying full price at Shoney's. Abraham's always been kind of a late bloomer. You think your adult children might be lingering around the hearth a little too long? Remember, Abraham didn't even move out of the house until he was 75. All those years his dad kept saying, “You know, son, your mother and I'd really like to turn the basement into a study. Don't you think your Rita Hayworth posters would look nice in a little apartment somewhere?” Finally, at age 75, God tells Abraham to go from his country and his kindred and leave his father's house. So for those of you still supporting your children, the Bible says there's hope. But you may have to wait a few more years.

A few more years. Twenty four years after God calls Abraham, the story resumes. After running into a little trouble with the law, after family problems with his wayward nephew, Lot, who's in his rebellious 80's, and after sorting through his own marital issues, we return to Abraham in Chapters 17 and 18 of Genesis, when God formalizes the covenant. God changes Abraham's name, from Abram (which means “exalted ancestor”) to what we're more familiar with, Abraham (which means, “ancestor of a multitude”). God changes Abraham's wife's name from Sarai (which means, “MY woman of high rank”) to Sarah (which means, simply, “woman of high rank”). The name changes aren't huge – Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah – but they say something about God's purpose for these two people. As if God is saying, “You're no longer going to belong to one family line, or even to each other. You're going to belong to the multitudes.” Which is exactly what's happened to Abraham, the father of faith for at least three different faith multitudes around the world.

Here on Father's Day we honor our fathers and what better father to honor than the “father of multitudes,” the father claimed by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as our “good father?” What better father to honor than the father of our faith? Abraham was and is a “good father” to more multitudes than we can count. His descendants both physically and spiritually count more than the stars. But it wasn't always that way. And he and Sarah have the child to prove it.

Back in Abraham's time, a man expanded his fortune by expanding his family. So it wasn't uncommon for men who could afford more than one wife to have one “real” wife and then a lot of... rented ones. Back when Abraham was 86, he and Sarah gave up trying to have children of their own, and Sarah gave him one of her Egyptian slave-girls, Hagar, to be wife number two. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael (who is the son of Abraham claimed by Muslims) and it looked as though Ishmael was going to become Abraham's heir. But according to our Bible, God said no. God said, “Abraham, now listen to me. You and Sarah are going to have a son.” When Abraham's 99, God tells him that he and Sarah are going to have a son. You'd think this is going to be the signal for the heavens to part and trumpets to blow, but no. Abraham hears the promise of God, Abraham hears the promise of finally, finally having a son with his wife... does he lift up thanksgiving and praise? Does he burst into a psalm? Abraham hears God tell him that he and Sarah will have a son... and he falls on his face laughing (Chapter 17, verse 17). Abraham laughs at God. “Surely you must be joking, O Creator of the Universe in Seven Days.”

God and Abraham must have gotten along, because God didn't smite him right then and there. Not only does the Almighty restrain his wrath – this is priceless -- God gets the last laugh. God says, “No, really. Your wife Sarah shall bear you a son. And you shall name him... Isaac.” Do you know what “Isaac” means? Exalted Son of the Covenant? Nope. Father of Slightly Fewer Multitudes than His Father? Nope. Isaac literally means, “He laughs.” At 99 Abraham's offspring will be named, “He laughs.” Good one, God.

And then one more time, the boy earns his name, even before he's conceived. When Abraham tells Sarah “Guess what, honey,” (and isn't it usually the wife who says that?), “We're going to have a baby,” Sarah looks at her 99 year-old husband and she laughs, too. And the Lord says to Abraham, “Did Sarah just laugh?” And Sarah (the one in the couple who's smart enough to be afraid of the Lord) says, “No I didn't.” And Abraham says, “Yes you did.”

Abraham, the father of faith, laughs at God's promises. Sarah, the mother of faith, laughs at God's promises. Then, they get into an argument over who laughed and who didn't. (“No I didn't.” “Yes you did.”) God names their child after their laughter. Or maybe God is saying to the child, “Kid, with parents like these, you're going to have to laugh.” We take the Bible so seriously that most of the time we blow right past precious family moments like this one.

Of course we should take the Bible seriously. We should take our faith seriously. We should take our commitments to the church seriously. We should take our obedience to God and to Jesus' commands seriously. But God seriously does not put pickle juice in our communion cups. We serious-minded church people forget, or maybe we never learned, that in Father Abraham's day, the father of our faith (and the mother)... laughed. They laughed so much that God named their child for their laughter. How much healthier would our church, and our Sunday School classes, and our group gatherings... and our homes be... if we laughed? Laughed at each other? Laughed at ourselves? Did you ever think that in the midst of our seriousness and our squabbles, God might be laughing at us? “There they go again. Four thousand years and these people still crack me up.” How would our faith feel if instead of worrying that God's going to smite us, we pictured God laughing at us?

Well, maybe God hasn't noticed, but there's not a lot to laugh at in the world these days. War, recession, global warming, home foreclosures, job cuts. Gas prices going through the roof. Um, excuse us, Heavenly God, I don't know if you've been reading the papers lately, but there's an epidemic of serious problems down here. A lot of people are hurting. A lot of people have been waiting a long time for some relief. A lot of people are crying out for some hope, Lord. Some people feel like giving up. Giving up on you. Did you know that, Lord? Do you see that, Lord?

At a point very much like this, at the point when Abraham was getting ready to give up on God, at the point when generations had come and gone and Abraham was old and tired and his future was drying up, at that point, God whispered, in his ear. God whispered something so outrageous, Abe fell down laughing. “No, no, you're kidding me, Lord. Me, have a son? That's impossible. Me, have hope? That's impossible. Me, believe there's more to life than I can make of it? Me, believe you really care? Me, believe you keep your promises?”

“Come on, God. Get real.”

And God did.

Did the father of faith became the father of multitudes because he held onto his faith? Not really. Abraham became the father of faith because God held onto Abraham. God held onto laughable, laughing Abraham.

You might want to laugh at God. You might want to give up on hope. You might be going through the crummiest time of your long life. If so, you're in pretty good company. You've got Abraham, and you've got Sarah, the most laughable couple that ever were the founders of four thousand years of religious faith.