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Sermons

Is God a Lousy Judge of Character?

June 16, 1996, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7); Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23);

Is God a lousy judge of character? At first blush it would seem so. Take a closer look at the twelve Jesus commissions to represent him. There is Peter -- hardheaded, explosive, and impetuous. In another place Jesus calls him "the rock" but more often than not, Peter behaves more like a "clod."1 James and John, who evidently were so volatile that Jesus gave them the nick-name "Sons of Thunder."2 Matthew, not only a tax collector, but thereby also a collaborator with Rome. Thomas, with his "show me" attitude. And finally, at least one, if not two of the twelve were zealots (today we would call them terrorists in pursuit of their political-religious cause), Simon from Cana, and possibly Judas who, of course, ended up betraying Jesus.3 It's quite a cast of characters; not likely candidates to be Jesus' representatives, not to mention saints. Does Jesus have a flaw of his own, is he a lousy judge of character?

Or consider our first lesson today. After being promised a long sought son, both Abraham and Sarah laugh in God's face, Abraham in the chapter immediately preceeding today's lesson, and Sarah in the one we have heard today. What is going on here? Last week we heard how Abram and Sarah, as models of faith, responded to God's command to go from their home and kindred to a new land. But between that lesson and this one, twenty-five years have passed. Though God continued to repeat the promise that Abraham and Sarah would be the ancestors of a multitude of nations,4 still they were childless. In desperation, Sarah had tried to force God's hand a bit. She gave her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar, to be a surrogate wife, so that at least her husband would have an heir. But the backlash of that lapse of character has continued to reverberate through western religious history. Even today, the ancient prophecy that Ishmael would be contentious and constantly at odds with his kin, emerges in our headlines with disturbing regularity.5 Trying to force God's hand can have lasting and unhappy consequences.

Abraham tries to make the best of it. Thirteen years later, now nearly a hundred years old, with a ninety year old wife, the promise seems absurd. He suggests to God, that Ishmael is good enough6 -- interesting the kinds of settlements we are ready to make, when we start doubting God. But Abraham and Sarah have become so resigned to their situation that the future and promise which had accompanied their going forth from Harah to Canaan has now faded into the background. With the promise unplausible, they are ready to settle for what they already have. Sure it falls short, but they no longer seem to care.

Does that sound all too familiar? Aren't we all a bit like the two of them -- we hear the promises of the gospel, but the challenges of living with them day in and day out make us a bit like Abraham, we want to negotiate for something a little less demanding. Tired of the struggle, we'd like a little more clarity. We have our own notions of what abundant life looks like, and it has more to do with success, comfort, and less stress, than with living out of a daily relationship with God, trusting God in all circumstances. Interesting the kinds of settlements we are ready to make when we begin to doubt God's promise.

But God has other ideas. Abraham and Sarah will have a son. As absurd as it sounds to Abraham at the moment, God tells him to name the child Isaac, meaning, "He laughs." Now, a few month later God has returned in the guise of the three travelers, and announced that the promise is nine-months from fulfillment. Eavesdropping behind the flap of the tent, Sarah does some laughing of her own, but is startled out of it when God asks this question: "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" It is the question which is not only at the center of this lesson. It is the question which reverberates across every other page of scripture as well. Is anything too hard, too wonder-filled, too difficult? Is anything beyond God's power? Is there anything God cannot do?

What do you make of the question? It's the troubling one which lies at the foundation of all faith. Have you ever spent any time contemplating its ramifications? If you say, "Yes, some things are too hard for the Lord," then either you do not believe the Lord witnessed to in the Bible is God, or you have never really understood what lies behind the word "God" in the first place. In the words of English theologian J.B. Phillips, your God is too small.

If, on the other hand, you accept what the question suggests -- that there is nothing beyond God's ability -- then you must begin to wrestle with what it means to live in the world with such a God. What does it mean to entrust ourselves, not just here on Sunday, and not just when some crisis arises in our lives, but each and every day, in good times and in bad? What does it mean to be in relationship with the One who is both the source and the goal of all things with power to do all things? If you think about that long enough it is either the most terrifying thought you've ever had, or, the most thrilling. In truth, it is probably both! Living in relationship with a God for whom nothing is impossible begins to take on awesome implications.

At first, it sounds as though anything -- everything -- can be ours simply by asking. But, as one commentator reminds us, faith does not make everything that might be desirable to us, possible for the asking simply because God does not promise us everything. God has promised us life in abundance and power for living it, not everything we ask. What God does promise, what is possible, is what corresponds to God's purpose for us.7 Faith, is not a cosmic connection which enables us to get our way in all situations. Faith is living with God in such a way that God's desires for us become our own, that God's purposes for us become our own.

One other word about this. For those who say, "but doesn't the Bible promise to give us what we ask in Jesus' name?"8 remember this: if the Father could say "no" to the Son in Gethsemene, do not be surprised at the "no's" which come from God in your own life. God knows what is at stake in our lives, something, by the way, you and I rarely know. God knows what really needs to be done. You and I only know what seems good to us at the time. Put another way, self-interest is a most unreliable standard by which to chart one's life much less make requests of God for whom nothing is impossible. Does that mean we are not to ask God for things? Absolutely not! Are we to pray for healing? For outcomes to particular dilemmas? Absolutely! But in asking, we are to believe even more strongly still, that if God says "no" it is only because the granting of the request would be too soon, not good enough, or somehow limit what God yet has to do in and through our lives. God loves us too much to give us everything we ask of him. God gives us what we need.

Is God a lousy judge of character? Absolutely not! God knew exactly who Abraham and Sarah were -- better than they knew even themselves. Perhaps that is why God took so long to fulfill the promise -- so they wouldn't take credit for Isaac themselves, or come to doubt that it really was the fulfillment of God's promise but only a biological coincidence. For God also knows how ready you and I are to take credit for the good things that happen in our lives. Still, God was working through Abraham and Sarah to bring the covenant people into being.

Jesus knew exactly who the twelve were -- knew Peter's impetuous behavior, Thomas' "show me first" attitude, Simon's propensity for violence, Judas' duplicity -- yet chose them from among all who were following him, and sent them forth with power to do the work he had come to do. You and I would have insisted on looking at a few more dossiers. Jesus was up to something better. Knowing full well their weakness, their character flaws, their shortcomings, he called them, sent them forth and worked through them, transforming them in the process. Knowing full well your weakness, my weakness, our character flaws and shortcomings. Jesus calls us, empowers us, sends us forth, and in the process transforms us.

For finally this is not about our character. If it were, God indeed would be a lousy judge of it. God knows exactly who you and I are -- again, better that we know even ourselves. But this is not about our character. This is about God's character. God's desire to redeem us does not depend upon our character, but upon God's character, God's desire to redeem -- all of us! God's desire to bless us, is not dependent upon our ability to conceive of it, but on God's character, which is to bless. God's desire to heal and make us whole is not dependent upon our faith, but upon God's character -- faithfulness. To paraphrase Paul in today's epistle lesson, "God proves his character in that while we were still weak, still estranged, still divided, still in rebellion, still anything but godly -- while we were yet sinners -- Christ died for us."9

But God's character does not stop there. God continues to prove that love by pouring it into our lives through the Spirit, to empower us for our work, to change us in the process, and to make us into the people God has promised we are destined to be. Like Abraham and Sarah, it may be hard for us to conceive. We may even laugh at the idea. But God, true to God's character, continues to work.

The promise, as outrageous as it sounded, as scandalous as it seemed, was only nine- months from fulfillment. Three chapters later we read, "The Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age. [They] named him Isaac. ... Sarah said, "God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me,"10 Do you think she knew God was laughing as well, and may just still chuckle when thinking about it?

So, where does the promise of new life seem to fall short for you? Where in your life is the promise so obscured by circumstance that it seems laughable? Are you trying to force the promise by taking matters into your own hands? Are you trying to negotiate a settlement which is really second best? Hear this good news: as outrageous as it sounds, as scandalous as it seems, God's promise is unfolding within you. God knows who you are, what it is you most need, and is at work this very moment to give it to you, not so much because you deserve it -- you may or you may not -- but because it is God's desire, God's character to do so. Sound laughable? Is anything too wonderful for God?

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
  1. Matthew 16:17-23
  2. Mark 3:17
  3. Whereas Simon of Cana ("the Cananaean") is identified as a zealot in Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13, some today suggest that Judas himself may have also been a part of the zealot's party, who after the entry into Jerusalem, either became disillusioned with Jesus and simply betrayed him, or more likely, thought that in handing Jesus over to the authorities, Jesus would then be forced to act, drive out Rome, and establish the kingdom.
  4. Genesis 17:4
  5. Genesis 16:12
  6. Genesis 17:15-19
  7. This is the meaning of "asking in Jesus' name."
  8. John 14:13. The essence of praying or asking in Jesus' name, is asking for those things which will align our lives with God's life.
  9. Romans 5:6-8
  10. Genesis 21:1-7, abbreviated.

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