Keeping promises is never easy. The best advice regarding promises, including the advice the Bible will give you, is this: you probably shouldn’t make promises, because you really don’t know if you’re going to be able to keep them. Our own health, our financial situations, a change in relationship status to someone – these are all things that can change our ability to keep promises. And some promises just aren’t worth keeping.
When I was a senior in high school, I was comparing my track medals with my friend Josh’s dad, Gregg. Gregg had been a track athlete in high school; he ran the 800 meters, which is the worst race. Anyway, he had all of his medals and ribbons together in this way that made for a nice presentation, when I spied a ribbon cut in half. It had clearly said “Third Place,” but only half of each letter was readable, because it had been cut right down the middle. Being a naturally curious person, I asked, “What on earth is this ribbon for?”
“Promise not to laugh?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“That’s from third grade,” he said. “At my school, we had a field day. I was in the beanbag toss, and I tied for third, and they didn’t have extra ribbons, so they cut one in half, and that’s what it’s from.”
Needless to say, I did not keep my promise. Of course I laughed. It helps that he’s a funny guy, so he delivered the story in a way that would make me laugh. Even today, he likes to go around when I’m in town, introducing me to people, saying, “This is David. He’s a minister, and he can’t even keep a promise. You promised you wouldn’t laugh at me, and then you did!”
The fact of the matter is, though, most of the promises we hear from God are not quite as silly as stories about third grade. In fact, they’re the most important stories we’ll ever hear. They’re the stories that help tell us who we are and help us find our place in the world, so the promises we read about in them matter to us a great deal.
Last week, I let people know that I’m beginning a sermon series that will run us through the month of November. On almost every Sunday I’m here for the next few months, we’re going to be hearing stories from the Old Testament. For some of us, these will be familiar stories from Sunday school when we were kids. For others of us, the Old Testament may be a difficult part of the Bible to understand that we associate with God’s anger. The truth, though, is that, whether it’s familiar or not, the Old Testament is filled with stories of God’s love. It’s probably weird to think about, but these are the stories that Jesus grew up hearing when he went to worship. They are how he located himself in God’s story, and they are helpful for us in that same way. To truly understand our Christian lives, it is important that we know the Christian story.
So today, we jump into the story of Abraham. Abraham, in today’s culture, usually gets himself a few magazine covers a year. This is because in Christianity, in Judaism, and in Islam, all three faiths trace their lineage back to Abraham. All three faiths express their belief in one God, and all three trace themselves back to this one wandered in the ancient world, who was chosen by God to have descendants as numerous as the stars, as we read in our final reading this morning. If we think of the more than 2 billion Christians, more than 1 billion Muslims, and about 15 million Jews alive today as Abraham’s descendants, it’s easy to see God living up to that very promise.
That promise surely would’ve seemed out of place at the beginning of Abraham’s story, though. When the story began, Abraham was already an old man, and his name wasn’t even Abraham; it was Abram.
Abram and his wife Sarai were already old when our passage begins; the primes of their lives had passed them by, and they were childless. They were nomads, meaning that they wandered from place to place. They didn’t really have a “home” to speak of, other than wherever it was they happened to be together. On the one hand that sounds like a cheesy line from a romantic film; in real life, in the desert, it’s a lot harsher.
But God called Abram out of his regular life and asked him to move again. Abram and Sarai took everything they owned and moved into the promised land, because that’s what God said to do. They were 75 years old. And in the midst of their life as 75-year-olds, God was making promises about what was going to happen to their offspring, meaning their children and grandchildren.
Interestingly, at this point in the story, they don’t laugh at the idea outright. (That part actually comes at a later date, so keep it in mind for my sermon in two weeks.) They just pack up and get going. There’s something really admirable in that, isn’t there? To be so sure of what God is doing that you’re willing to just do it, no second thoughts, no regrets. You know that God’s promises are kept, so you get moving.
And then we read, in chapter 15, that the story continued a couple of years later. God speaks to Abram again. Abram had grown very rich, but worked with his father-in-law. They have a falling out, and they separate. Abram’s father-in-law, Lot, took his herds to the east, and Abram took his to the west, and they didn’t speak. Then there were wars, and nations battling. And all the while, Abram did not see the offspring God had promised. Promises, like I said, are hard. But they’re not just hard as the one who makes the promise; they’re hard for the person who is supposed to receive the promise. There’s doubt, there’s unsureness. There’s that feeling that you’re counting on something to happen because of a promise, but it hasn’t come yet.
The thing is, brothers and sisters, I told you the end of the story before the beginning in this sermon this morning. There are three faiths that trace their roots back to this man who wandered the desert with his wife. In their 80s, in their late 90s, and they couldn’t see it. But from where we sit today, it seems to have all worked out just the way it was promised. Often, that tends to be the case for us – time and distance give us perspective.
We live in a culture that tells us that, once we have reached a certain age, we’re done contributing. Yet, at an old age, Abram and Sarai were still to undergo parenthood, still to have their names changed, were still to utterly change the world. We live in a culture that tells us that it’s foolish to trust in something we can’t see, yet today’s story tells us about how God’s faithfulness doesn’t always match up with our timing. We live in a culture that tells us to put ourselves first, yet we read a story about people who are willing to uproot their lives in order to follow after what God wants, and they change the course of history. They find their fulfillment, not through becoming rich, though Abram did; not through finding love, though they had each other; not through having children, though they managed that in miraculous fashion, too. Their fulfillment, their joy, came from finding God in their lives and going where God was leading.
We are told each and every day, both openly and subtly, that each of us needs to look out for the person in the mirror first. The problem is, the world is a lot bigger than just that person you see looking back at you from above the sink each day. Our story this morning is about courage, it’s about self-sacrifice, and it’s about God’s gameplan being a lot bigger than ours.
Over and over again in Scripture, we see God pick the unlikeliest to do a task. Sometimes it’s because they’re too old, as in today’s story, or sometimes it’s because they’re too young. Sometimes, the rich are unlikely, and sometimes the poor. Sometimes it’s the sick, or the children, or the women, or the carpenter’s son.
But what we come to realize when we’ve read the whole story of Scripture is this: everyone who’s served God is unlikely, because there’s no such thing as the “likely” person. No one is perfect in the eyes of the world; certainly not perfect enough to carry God’s message. But God doesn’t allow that to stand in the way of getting things done on earth. God loves us far too much to allow little things like our flaws to stand in the way of the things God wants to accomplish.
Each and every person here today is filled with flaws; yet each and every person here today is called by God to live for a purpose. We are meant to be kind to one another. We are meant to be forgiving, even when we don’t feel forgiven. We are meant to help those who need it. We are, in short, called to live as Jesus lived. We are called to live the life that Abram and Sarai lived, wherein we put our desires in back of God’s desires for us.
In today’s reading, we’re asked to step inside Abram’s and Sarai’s story. We’re not just asked to see what surface similarities we see. In putting ourselves in the story, we can’t just ask if we’re the same age or marital status, or if we live in the desert, too. Rather, ask yourself this: what do I let stand in the way of being who God is calling me to be? When do I listen to what the world says about me, instead of listening to what God says about me? What would I do, who would I be, what would my life look like, if I had the courage that Abram and Sarai showed so long ago when they decided to put God first? I don’t have answers for you today, beloved. Those are between you and God. But I know that, in asking the questions, we sometimes reveal what God is doing, without it even being something that we knew. So may God answer your questions; may you have the courage to walk the desert ways God is leading you through; and may you find the fulfillment of those who seek after God. Amen.