Generosity, Scarcity, and Fulfillment

Genesis 18 & 21

Pastor Brian MacLaren says that the Bible is a play with six acts in it. The first act is Creator creating creation, a good world made for a good purpose. The second act is Crisis, in which humans begin to distort the goodness of God’s new world. The third act is Calling, in which God begins to work out a plan to restore goodness, to work against the distortion. The beginning of that plan is to call one old and childless couple to be the parents of a nation of people whose job it will be to live out God’s original plan. That couple is Abraham and Sarah and the plan is that they will be the ancestors of a group of people who are blessed to be a blessing. This is a wonderful promise, except for the fact that God makes it when Abraham is 75 and Sarah is 65. And 10 years later they still don’t have any children through whom to start this great nation. So Abraham sleeps with one of their servants, Hagar, and she has a son. Now this seems weird and gross to us, but was a totally legitimate way of having a family in the ancient world. This son Ishmael is born when Abraham is 86 and Sarah is 76 and they think this is how the Lord is going to build their family. But 13 years later, the Lord appears to Abraham again, reaffirms the promise of a huge family, and then says that Sarah herself is going to have a baby. When she’s 90 years old and Abraham is 100 years old. And the text says that Abraham falls on his face and laughs at this. God says that although Ishmael will be blessed, the covenant of blessing will not go through him, but through a son that will be born from Sarah’s own very old body. The fulfillment of God’s calling will happen in a way that nobody expects. Even though Abraham has heard this, it’s important for Sarah to hear it too, and that’s the story that we are going to hear this morning.

“So let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book

Scripture Reading Genesis 18 & 21

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Message — 

This morning I’d like for us to think together about hospitality, and scarcity, and God’s promises. These are all key themes for our consideration as we continue to dream together about what God wants to do here in the next year through our time and our care and our resources. Hospitality, scarcity, and God’s promises.

At the beginning of this story, we read that the Lord appeared to Abraham but it doesn’t say that Abraham recognized the Lord. Definitely later, but not at first. At first, all Abraham sees are three strangers approaching his tent. And even in a world structured along tribal and kinship lines, Abraham’s first response is not to fear these strangers but to welcome them. 

In the ancient world, hospitality was a matter of life and death. As you traveled, you were not able to stop at hotels and restaurants. You carried with you as much as you could and then you were reliant on the kindness of strangers. And because this was the case for everyone, extending hospitality was an enormously important virtue. It was expected that you would welcome a stranger who was traveling, that you would give them, as Abraham offers, a little water and a little bread, and a little place to rest. 

But it was not simply a duty to extend hospitality, it was an honor. Which is why Abraham offers a little but actually gives a lot. He offers a little bread. But what he actually gives is about 30 loaves of the best quality freshly baked bread and a roast of veal. He offers a little water. But what he actually gives is milk and yogurt and cheese. He offers a little but gives a lot, and this is before he knows that the people he is hosting are the Lord. 

As people of faith, as descendants of Abraham and Sarah, we are also called to radical hospitality. Here in this church we say that we hold a value of extravagant welcome, and my prayer is that the welcome we provide as a community is simply the sum of the welcome that we offer as individuals. In the New Testament the book of Hebrews chapter 13 encourages the early church to show hospitality to strangers, because by doing that some people have entertained angels without knowing it. If we truly believe what we heard last week, that all people are created in God’s image, then anytime we offer hospitality to anyone, we are hosting God. If we truly believe that whatever we do to the least of these we do to Jesus, then anytime we offer hospitality to a stranger, we are literally hosting the risen Christ. 

As we think together about stewardship, I very much hope that we are thinking about more than money. Some of us may have more time than money. Some of us may have resources like spare bedrooms but not a lot of spare cash. As we consider what it means to be good stewards, we want to think together about what kind of hospitality we are offering, not just to our friends but to strangers. What are we doing with our extra time and our extra rooms? Are we seeking out those who need love and safety? Are we open to God seeking us out when someone needs love and safety? It is impossible for us to have a generous spirit as a congregation if we do not have generous spirits as individuals. 

Next let’s think a little about scarcity. Because although Abraham and Sarah had plenty of resources to spend on their extravagant hospitality, they were very poor when it came to family. God had promised them a great nation of descendants, but they had no biological children of their own. Abraham thought maybe one of his servants could inherit his possessions but God nixed that idea. So then Abraham and Sarah had conspired for Abraham to have a son through Sarah’s maid Hagar. But although God promised that Ishmael would be blessed, Ishmael would not be the one through whom God’s covenant would be established. And now they are both way beyond childbearing years. In a culture where family and inheritance meant everything, Abraham and Sarah had nothing. They were experiencing ultimate scarcity. They had done everything they knew how to do and still had nothing to show for it.

Some of you in this room know what that feels like. Maybe not in the area of family or kids but in some other area. You’ve done everything you know how to do and there’s still not enough. What I think God wants you to hear this morning is that it’s not up to you. God knows what you have and God knows what can be done with it. God didn’t need what Abraham and Sarah didn’t have. Let me say that again. God didn’t need what Abraham and Sarah didn’t have. God needed what they did have. Whatever you have is enough for God to use. And what’s so beautiful is that even their own fear of scarcity wasn’t enough to stop God working in and through their lives. Sarah says, “We literally have no way to have a child. I’m old. He’s old. We’re done.” And God replies, “Is anything too wonderful or too difficult for the Lord?” No. God is not intimidated by your sense of scarcity. God sees what you do have and what God can do with it if you are willing to be open.

Which leads us finally to think about the fulfillment of God’s promises. One of the most annoying and confusing things to me about the Bible is that God often seems to speak so clearly, so much more clearly than I ever feel like God speaks to me. And yet, even with these apparently clear promises, people in the Bible still doubted, which means that we are in very good company when we wonder if we’ve heard from God. Four different times, God promises Abraham and Sarah a huge line of descendants. And three of those four times, Abraham or Sarah or both laugh at that promise or argue with God about how it’s going to work. And yet do you know what they are remembered for? Their faith. Their trust that God would do what God said God would do. 

Waiting and trusting are some of the hardest, deepest, most important personal growth work that we do as people of faith. Waiting is not fun. It’s not easy. It doesn’t come naturally to us. And when we wait too long, it can be really difficult to maintain our hope and our trust in God. Abraham and Sarah waited for 25 years for what they believed God was going to do for them. So if you feel like you are waiting for God to fulfill a promise, to answer a prayer, or to help you understand something—if you are waiting, you are in good company. This story reminds us that a delay is not the same as a “no.” 

Now when you’re in the middle of the delay, it can be hard to tell the difference. And that’s where the trust comes in. Regardless of what we are experiencing, regardless of how confused we feel, regardless of how long we have been waiting, God is still good and is still working in all things for our good. 

God promised Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would be people who were blessed in order to be a blessing to others. We are their spiritual descendants and that is our calling. We are blessed. We are called to offer hospitality to strangers. We are blessed even when we are afraid that we have nothing left to give. We are called to invite God to use whatever we do have. We are blessed even when we are waiting. And we are called to be people of deep trust. Amen.

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