We have been celebrating a lot of special Sundays lately at Paris Presbyterian Church. Since the beginning of May, we’ve celebrated: Youth Sunday, Mother’s Day, Pentecost, Spring Fling, Memorial Day, Trinity Sunday, and Father’s Day. A lot of special Sundays.
While we have been doing that, the Lectionary, in the meantime, the set of recommended Scripture lessons for our consideration in worship, has had as its Old Testament focus some of the stories of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Today we’re going to go back and catch up with a couple of those stories.
Now the Bible does not always proceed in chronological order. You can’t always assume that what is found further to the back of the book happened after what is found closer to the front. But usually it does. Generally it’s a good bet that the events described on page 200, for example, took place some time before the events on page 300. The Bible proceeds roughly in the order of time.
So when we look at where we are in the Bible as we read today’s lessons, in the first 25 pages, we can see that we’re talking about events that took place near the very beginning of God’s relationship with humanity. We’re three quarters of the Bible before Jesus. Half a Bible before the prophet Isaiah. A quarter of the Bible before King David. These are the old stories—way back there. Around the year 1850 B.C., as a matter of fact, in our best estimate.
These are the stories of characters named Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, Joseph. They are important stories in an understanding of the Bible, which goes on to often call God “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” They are sometimes called the stories of the “patriarchs,” to refer back to our ancestors or forebearers of the faith, the first in our family of faith.
As we take in the stories we’re told in our lives, whether we’re reading them or hearing them or watching them unfold on TV or movie screens, one way we often go about trying to make sense of them is to put the characters we hear about into categories: is this character a “good guy,” a hero; or a “bad guy,” a villain? That way we know whether to root for them or not, and whether we have a happy ending or not—how we’re supposed to feel about the story when it’s over.
Our fairy tales tell us right up front whether the character is good or bad: the big bad wolf, the evil stepmother, the good witch of the North against the wicked witch of the West. In our Westerns, we see the good guys in the white hats and the bad buys in the black hats; in our war movies, the Americans on one side and the Nazis or World War II Japanese on the other; on our police shows, the cops and the robbers. Even in our history lessons, at least until recently, we had our characters placed in one category or the other: it was never suggested to us in school that George Washington, for example, or Abraham Lincoln or any other president ever did anything “bad.” In most of our stories, we listen for who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys.”
The same is true of our Bible stories, especially the ones we first heard as children. We try to categorize those characters, too: David . . . and Goliath; Moses . . . and Pharaoh; Jesus . . . and Judas. If kids pick up nothing else from hearing the stories, the one thing they usually can identify is who’s the good guy, and who’s the bad guy.
As we look today at the stories of the first of the “patriarchs,” Sarah and Abraham, I’ll ask you to consider with regard to their stories: who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Do our main characters today fall easily into one category or the other? Are they always faithful to God? Always unfaithful? Which “side” are they on? Listen for that, please. And I’ll begin with a hint: The Hebrew people of old, in their telling and hearing of stories, may not have had our same tendency to place all their characters in the category of “good” or “bad.”
The first story begins abruptly. You heard its beginning in our first lesson. A long long time has passed since the last story in the previous chapter, Genesis 11, the story of the tower of Babel. Many generations have lived and died, people about whom we know nothing, except their names. The first cycle of stories in the Bible has receded into ancient history.
Then very suddenly, a new story begins, a story about a man and a woman named Abram and Sarai. They are a married couple, and we know nothing of who they are or their history, except the name of Abram’s father, and the fact that they have no children. Here is their story:
Once there was a woman named Sarai. She lived in a town called Haran, and was married to a man named Abram. And as Abram was out walking one day, he heard the voice of God saying, “Move away from this country, and your relatives who live here, and go to a new country I will show you. And I will make you and Sarai the parents of a great nation, and I will bless you. I will be with you.”
The voice had come out of the blue. Abram did not seem to have any particular qualifications for such a blessing—or a reputation for hearing voices for that matter. We have no stories of his proving himself to be particularly worthy of deserving a blessing. But then, that’s the way God works sometimes—God chooses people, for reasons known only to God, to start something new.
Abram returned to his tent and told Sarai about the voice, and Abram and Sarai packed up all their possessions, and their nephew, named Lot, and they set off, as the voice had said, to a place called Canaan. Now some have thought that Sarai and Abram must have had very great faith in God to set out just like that to a new land away from their families. Others have said, “When someone who can make earthquakes and hailstorms and leprosy tells you to move, you move.” Whatever their motivation, Sarai and Abram went.
Being nomads, living in a tent, owning lots of animals who need lots of grass to eat, Sarai and Abram moved around a lot for a while, throughout the new land of Canaan, wherever there was good grazing land. Their animals ate well, and had lots of little animals, and Sarai and Abram became quite wealthy by the standards of their day. Nephew Lot’s animals, eating the same healthy grass, thrived too, and finally the day came when the herds were so big that the two families had to go their separate ways. Abram let Lot choose which half of the countryside he would live in , and Lot moved down toward the Jordan River, toward a couple towns called Sodom and Gomorrah, while Sarai and Abram moved up into the hills, Things were going very well.
Then that voice came again. This time God said, “I will give you all the land you can see, all around you. And I will give you so many children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and so on that they will be as many as there are pieces of dust on the earth; as many as there are stars in the sky.” And the voice did not say this time, “You have to move again.” So Sarai and Abram were very pleased.
The stories continue, then, from their new prosperous home:
- In one of them, Lot and his family are taken away as slaves following a war in their area, and Abram goes and rescues them.
- In another, Sarai, due to her advanced age, decides that God’s promise to Abram about children must refer to his having children by another woman; she believes she is too old. So she sends Abram to her slave woman Hagar, and Hagar gives birth to a son named Ishmael, and Sarai and Abram believe Ishmael will begin the large family they were promised.
- In a third, God gives a sign of the promise of many descendants, by changing Abram’s name to “Abraham,” which means “ancestor of a multitude,” and Sarai’s name to “Sarah,” which means “princess;” and from then on Abraham and Sarah go by their new names.
- A fourth story we heard just now: Three strangers come to the tent of Sarah and Abraham; they welcome them and feed them. The men clarify that it is Sarah who will give birth to a son, even at her advanced age; Sarah laughs at this notion, just as Abraham had laughed at it one chapter before. But a year later the promise comes true, and Sarah gives birth to Isaac, and now Sarah and Abraham laugh with joy.
- We come to a story of a famine in the land of Canaan. Abraham and Sarah go to Egypt to find food to survive. Believing that the king of Egypt will find Sarah beautiful, and want her as his own wife, and be willing to kill Abraham to take her as his wife, they come up with a plan in which they will say they are brother and sister, instead of husband and wife. And the king does find Sarah attractive, and takes her to his house, and Abraham keeps his mouth shut in order to save his life. God steps in, however, and sends plagues on the king’s house until he figures out what has happened, says to Abraham, “now what did you do that for?” and sends them away.
- There is a story in which Abraham hears of God’s intent to destroy some very evil cities, and bargains with God to try to make sure that innocent people do not suffer unjustly—even to the point where he is afraid that God will get angry at him over his negotiations.
- There is a story in which Sarah worries that Ishmael, first-born Ishmael, will expect a large share of her and Abraham’s estate when they die—wealth that she wants Isaac to have. So she and Abraham send Ishmael and his mother Hagar off into the wilderness to die. They are saved only when God steps in and leads them to a new place where they can survive and prosper.
- There is a rather troubling story in which God tells Abraham to take his only remaining son, now, Isaac, and kill him as an offering to God. Abraham takes the unsuspecting Isaac up a mountain, ties him up, lays him on an altar, and lifts a knife over his head—it is only at the last second that an angel stops him, and Abraham finds out that it has all been a test of his obedience, an awful test, which he has passed.
- And finally there is the story of Sarah’s death and burial; and after one last task, a search for a wife for his son Isaac, of Abraham’s death and burial by Sarah’s side. Abraham and Sarah, who had followed God to a new land, who would become the parents of the nation of the people of God. Abraham . . . and Sarah.
Now were Sarah and Abraham the “good guys” of our stories, or the “bad guys”? The heroes, or the villains? Did they always do what was right? Were they always faithful? Or were they bad people, always unfaithful, always wrong?
Abraham and Sarah may have done their best, but they didn’t always get it right, did they?
They showed a great deal of trust in God when they followed a call to move to a new unknown land, but not too much trust when they each laughed at God’s promise that they would have a son at their age. They were being faithful to God’s plans if they sincerely believed that God wanted Abraham to have a child with a woman other than his wife, but were showing doubt in God’s promises if they really knew deep down that God meant them to be parents. They trusted in God’s ways even to the point of preparing to kill their only son at God’s command, but didn’t trust God to protect them in Egypt, when they lied, and sent Sarah to another man’s bed. They showed compassion and justice in bargaining with God for the lives of innocent people in evil cities, and then turned around and sent a woman and her child into the desert to die.
They weren’t always trusting, faith-filled, or correct. Sometimes they were in the right, and sometimes in the wrong. In short, they were quite human, these two. They weren’t perfect, they weren’t always heroic, they weren’t always good.
Because the stories of Sarah and Abraham aren’t about perfect people, to be emulated in every way. They don’t fit our categories of always-good or always-bad. The stories of Abraham and Sarah are stories about people who struggle along, trying to do their best, trying to follow God. And sometimes they get it right. And sometimes they get it wrong.
And when they get it wrong, God does not abandon them forever. God does not send down fierce wrath from the clouds. God does not leave them behind and try some different people in the next county instead. God picks them up, dusts them off, and says, “You’ll have another chance; do better next time.” And never ever abandons the promise to take care of them, to make the best come of their situations, whether they’ve screwed it up or not. God is always with them.
We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to earn God’s company. We aren’t always “good guys” or “bad guys.” We do our best to follow God, we mess up sometimes, we try again. And God is always with us.
Let’s pray: God, thank you for your presence with us, even though we, like Sarah and Abraham, are not perfect in our faith and in our following of your will. Help us hear your guidance, that we may do better. Amen.