God's Story, Our Story: The Absurdity of Grace

Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7

Part One: Setting the Stage

When she first hears the news, she can’t help but smile.  A smile that quickly grows into a snigger. Then a snort.  She cups her hand over her mouth and holds her breath.  She can feel it rising from within, the like the swell of an ocean tide, and pretty soon her face turns bright red and her eyes start to water and her hunched over body begins to shake.  Until she can’t hold it in any longer and it all comes rolling out.

Laughter.  Wild, uninhibited, uproarious laughter.  She laughs so hard tears are running down her cheeks, and she is rocking back and forth in her chair inside the tent, holding her side because it aches.  She’s laughing because she is pushing ninety-one years old and she’s just heard some strangers tell her ninety-nine-year-old husband that they’re going to have a baby.  A baby!  Can you imagine?  She tries to.  She tries to imagine being the only mother in the hospital who gives birth on the geriatric ward!  And the look on the face of the folks at Medicare when they get the bill!  No, it’s not possible.  A baby![1]

But now I’m getting ahead of myself.  We need to go back.  Back to the Garden of Eden.

We heard the beginning of this story last week...the opening chapters of Genesis where God creates the heavens and the earth.  God forms man and woman in his image, and places them in the Garden to enjoy intimacy with God and with each other, with all of creation.  And God calls them to be sub-creators and stewards of this beautiful world.  It’s a place of shalom...flourishing, wholeness...the way the world is meant to be.

But it doesn’t stay that way.  It isn’t long before tragedy strikes.  Adam and Eve rebel against God and shalom is disrupted.  They are expelled from the Garden, sent east of Eden. There was nothing to laugh about then.  Only tears and broken hearts.  Including God’s heart.  And it would only get worse.

Two brothers—one named Cain and the other Able.  Jealousy and violence. Cain kills Able and cries out, “Am I my brother’s keeper?’ as the blood of his own kin soaks into the ground.  Human civilization spreads and then more violence and darkness.  More breaking of God’s heart.  Then a flood.  A man named Noah and his family, and an ark full of animals bobbing on the surface of the water for forty days and forty nights.

Nothing to laugh about here either.  God starts over.  A world washed clean.  But even after this new beginning, it is only a matter of time before human hearts “prone to wander,” would once again “leave the God they love.” Next comes the building of a tower reaching up to heaven, another futile effort like in the Garden to become gods themselves.

Its one tragedy piled onto another.  This story is not going well.  Is there any hope?  Any hope at all?

But God.... Two words.  Such powerful words.

But God stays in the story.  But God doesn’t abandon his creation, pull out of the story, give up on us and this world all together.  But God acts.  God pursues his creation and is determined to take the whole world back.  But God...

 But God calls a man and his wife, nomads, to be the father and mother of a people who would be a channel of blessing to all the families of the earth; a light to all the nations. Abram is his name...he would become “Abraham.” And Sarai is her name...she would become “Sarah.”

To Abraham and Sarah God comes, places a call on their lives, and makes a promise.  Here is it is in Genesis chapter 12: “Now the LORD said to Abram: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

And Abraham and Sarah went.  They packed up the U-haul, pulled up their stakes, and they went in faith.  They bring along some relatives too—their nephew, Lot, and his family.  And that ends up being a big mistake (which is probably no surprise).  They go to Egypt, which is a whole other story in itself.  And eventually they make it to the land of Canaan. 

After having a family feud over who would get which parts of the Promise Land, Lot and Abraham agree to divide the land between their families.  Abraham made the mistake of letting Lot pick first, and of course Lot chose the half that was fertile and lush around the Jordan River, leaving Abraham with the barren land to the west.  In other words, all of Canaan was the Promise Land, but some parts were more promising than others.  Abraham got stuck with the less promising land.

But the next thing that happened was the worst of all.  Chosen by God to be the father and mother of a great nation, Abraham and Sarah get the heartbreaking news that, after extensive medical tests, Sarah’s womb is as barren as the sorry land Lot had stuck them with.  They try to take matters into their own hands and Sarah insists that Abraham take her servant Hagar to be his wife (polygamy was a common practice in the ancient world) so that she could bear him a son.  And Hagar gave birth to a boy named Ishmael.

But that doesn’t take away the heart ache or the disappointment.  They were in their seventies when God first came to them and made the promise—to bless them with a multitude of offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky.  Now it’s twenty-five years later.  Those hopes have long since died.  At some point you take the cards you’ve been dealt and you try to move on.

But God...and it is here that our story picks up today.  Hear and watch the Word of the Lord from Genesis chapter 19.  Tableaux.

Part 2: The Absurdity of Grace

 They had left Mesopotamia so hopeful.  They had traveled down the interstate hand in hand, hearts full of faith, dreaming about the good life ahead of them.  They were in their seventies, so they were no spring chicks, but I tend to count the years of people in the OT like dog years!  I mean, when you’re living to be three or four hundred years old (or more)—the seventies are the new thirties!  So I imagine them young and naïve back then, dreaming about their whole life ahead of them.  Life had turned out so different from what they had hoped.  Now here they were, old and worn out by the harsh realities of life, living in a barren land.

We know what that’s like, so many of us.  The hopes we had when we were young, that wonderful sense of anticipation for what the future held.  But now here we are---things didn’t work out like we had hoped.  This isn’t how we would have written the script of our lives.  When we dreamed those promise land dreams, it was all supposed to be different than this barren land in which we find ourselves now. 

We weren’t counting on a bad marriage or getting divorced or being single at this point in the game.  We weren’t counting on not being able to have children, or having them but having a strained relationship with them, or having them turn out the way they did.  We weren’t counting on getting cancer, or burying our child, or being jobless for this long, or losing our spouse so soon.

Of course even though we weren’t counting on these disappointments, such tragedy in life isn’t all that unexpected.  Sure, the reality that it’s us to whom it’s happening and not other people--that may initially shock us.  But pain and disappointment in life is not all that surprising.  When we turn on the news at night we expect to hear bad news.  When things go awry in our world, we say, “Well, I guess that’s just life!”

Abraham and Sarah may have been disappointed about how life had turned out for them, but I don’t think they were surprised by it.  At least not in the way that they were about to be surprised when three angels disguised as strangers show up at their door.

The angels make a shattering announcement.  They tell them that when God makes a promise, he sticks to it, and Sarah was going to have a baby boy.  And that’s what evokes Sarah’s laughter.

And it was her laughter that got them all going.  According to the story, God intervened then and asked about Sarah’s laughter, and Sarah got scared and denied the whole thing.  Then God said, “Oh yes you did, Sarah—you laughed.”

And of course God was right.  God is always right.  Sarah did laugh.  I think that maybe the most interesting thing about this story is that God doesn’t seem to get angry with Sarah for laughing, even if much of her laughter was in disbelief.  In fact, God goes on to tell them to name the little boy Isaac, which in Hebrew literally means “laughter.”  So you could say that God not only tolerated her laughter but blessed it and in a sense joined in it himself.  Here they were, God and Abraham and Sarah and the angels, sharing in a glorious joke, laughing together.

And this is really the way God’s grace works—it comes at us like the punch-line of a joke, catching us by surprise and even in disbelief, causing us to laugh out loud until tears run down our cheeks because it is so unexpected.

“Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”  This is the question God asks.  In other words, is anything too hard for God?  And God would answer God’s own question with the coming of Jesus. Jesus himself would say in the gospel of Mark 10:27: “With humans it is impossible, but not with God.  For all things are possible with God.” 

We would see the comedy of God doing the unexpected and the impossible all throughout Jesus’ life and ministry.  And of course the real punch line comes after Good Friday when the women show up to Jesus’ tomb at the crack of dawn and find that God has done the ultimate impossible by raising Jesus from the dead.

The point is that we have a God who does the unexpected, the unimaginable, the impossible.  We have a God who takes our pain and disappointment and turns it into laughter.  God always keeps his promises—always.   It may not be on our timetable and it may not be the way we expect it, but God is faithful.   And more often than not its when we least expect it, when were not looking for it, that grace happens.  God taps our shoulder and says, “It’s time!”  And the utter surprise of it gets us shaking with laughter.

It’s the surprising grace of a young man who was baptized in the church but who, much to his parent’s disappointment, left the faith all together in college and got on a destructive path of one bad decision after another.  For twenty years his parents lived in a barren land as they prayed, “Lord, remember your promise at his baptism, that he belongs to you.”  Then they get a call during supper one night.  It’s their son. He had hit a low point, the lowest point of his life.  Then the unexpected happened and he found himself in church one morning and he decided it was time to come home to Jesus.  So he called them to tell them the news.  And they laugh out loud with tears of joy.

It’s the surprising grace of a young couple who wanted to have children but couldn’t.  So they went the route of adoption, waiting and waiting, at times giving up, but then one day they get the call when they’re least expecting it.  It’s the Adoption Agency: “You’ve been chosen!” They say. “We have a child for you!  Can you come pick him up at the hospital tomorrow?”  And they laugh out loud because they can’t believe it and they have no idea how they’re going get the nursery finished in time! 

It’s the surprising grace of a young woman who lost her mother much too soon.  “It’s in sure and certain hope of the resurrection,” the preacher says at the graveside,” that we commit her to the ground, dust to dust.”  And as the casket is lowered into the ground the preacher makes this crazy promise, which is from God himself: “God give her rest until the day of Christ’s return when she will rise again.”  And that Day eventually comes, when it is least expected, and the impossible happens.  Jesus returns and heaven comes down (Rev. 22).  The dead rise again.  And she sees her mother and they embrace and they laugh together because this is all too good not to be true!

Yes, God’s grace is the punch line that catches us off guard in midst of life’s tragedies.  The greatest joke of all is that God would love us personally, intimately.  That God would save us, even though we’ve done nothing at all to deserve it, and call us his children.   That God would forgive us, no matter what we’ve done or where we’ve been, and heal our wounds and bind up our broken hearts.  That God would promise us, “You are mine, and I will be with you always, no matter what happens.”  That God would use us, just as we are, to be his instruments of blessing in the world.  This is the real comedy. God is the Master of the Impossible.  But God...

And when you really get the marvellous joke of God’s grace, you can’t help but smile, crack up, laugh out loud at the wonderful absurdity of it all.

“With humans it is impossible,” says Jesus.  “But not with God.  For all things are possible with God.” 

            Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we could ask or imagine...

             In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] Thanks to Frederick Buechner for helping me shape these opening paragraphs, and for inspiring the theme of this sermon.  This sermon builds on the middle part of his excellent work in the book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale.

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