"The Times When Nothing Makes Sense"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - June 29, 2008
Psalm 40:1-11; Genesis 22:1-14
we grow up in a family that lives and teaches values that serve the
growth of character and integrity, we learn what is expected of us if we
are to be contributors in the world. We are taught that if we work
diligently during our years of formal education and absorb knowledge
like a sponge, we will be well on our way to being equipped for making
our mark in the world.
It does not take long however, before we learn that there are many aspects in our life-experience that simply do not make sense. A number of years ago, Jody Kelley Rudd’s daughter-in-law gave birth to a son. He was a remarkable child with an incredibly happy disposition. All was well until the family learned that he had stage four cancer. The medical community at Children’s Hospital was unable to work miracles and after a valiant struggle, he slipped away from us.
In recent months we watched the unfolding of a story out of Virginia where a gregarious, vivacious young college student, who was president of the student body and who was ready to graduate Magna Cum Laude at the end of May, was senselessly murdered. In her innocence, she asked a man if she could borrow his cell phone to make a quick call. Two men are now in custody.
The other night we were listening to an Iowa farmer who was being interviewed. He said, “This was going to be our banner year. Everything we grow is priced higher than at any time in my lifetime. The rains came and we kept putting off planting. The rains kept coming and then the unthinkable happened – a levy broke. We had to evacuate our home. Now there is very little left of our farm. We have no idea what we are going to do.”
There are many circumstances in our lives that simply do not make sense. We are reminded each day about the price of a barrel of oil and what that translates to at the gasoline pumps. It is slowly dawning on us that as powerful as we are as a nation, we are coming up against a global economic circumstance over which we have very little control. Even if we started drilling for more oil in all the places that are currently legally off-limits, it would take years before we would see any relief in the price of gasoline.
The first three illustrations cause us to empathize with the experiences of others. The price of gasoline is affecting every one of us very personally. In spite of how difficult our future appears to be, our experiences are nothing compared to what happened to Abraham in our lesson today. This morning, we are going to see what he did while in the midst of his experience with Isaac, his only son, and how he responded to God.
Most of us can recall the story of Abraham and Sarah. God told Abraham that Sarah would give birth to a son. Abraham laughed when he heard that. He thought to himself, “Can a man cause a woman to conceive when he is one hundred years old? Is it possible for Sarah to have a child at the age of ninety?” (Gen. 17:17)
At a later time, Sarah heard very similar words spoken by one of the three strangers who approached their tent. When Sarah heard it she laughed and said, “Now that I am old and worn out, how can I possibly get pregnant? I have an old man as a husband.” The visitor heard this and said, “Why did Sarah laugh, is anything impossible for God?” (Gen. 18:11-13)
Nine months later, Isaac was born. Sarah exclaimed, “God has brought me joy and laughter. Everyone who hears about this will laugh with me. Who would have thought that at our ages, I would be nursing a son?” (21:6-7)
What happened next made no sense to Abraham. God requested Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham had to think, “Why would God give us a child in our old age and then turn around and want us to sacrifice him?” Abraham knew the answer, “God would provide.” What he did not know was how God would do that.
At the time, there existed a law that reportedly came from God, “Give me the offerings from your first grain, your wine, and your olive oil when they are due. Give me also your first-born sons.” (Exodus 22:29) Yet, God provided for these first born sons by allowing the Jews to buy them back. (Exodus 13:13-15)
Regardless of what Abraham knew, Isaac was in total ignorance of such a law from God. Abraham had made Isaac carry the wood for the sacrifice, while he carried the knife and the hot coals with which to start the fire. As the two walked along, Isaac said, “Father, I see you have the coals and the wood, but where is the lamb to be sacrificed?” Abraham said, “God will provide one.”
With what happened next, try to imagine what went through Isaac’s mind. He observed his father preparing the altar with the wood and then stood by helplessly as Abraham began to bind him with strong cords. He picked up Isaac and laid him on the wood. No lamb had been provided. Next, Isaac watched with horror as his father pull out the knife and raised it above his head to kill him. Isaac did not understand what was happening. Just as Abraham was ready to plunge the knife into his son, an angel called out, “Abraham, Abraham. Do not hurt the boy. Now I know that you honor and obey God. You have not kept back your only son from him.”
Then Abraham’s eyes focused on a ram caught in the bushes by its horns and Isaac was untied and the ram was sacrificed instead. After this experience, there is some evidence that Isaac and Abraham no longer had the relationship they once did. The storyline becomes very thin after this episode in Isaac’s life. The image of what had happened with his father must have seared itself into his mind. Abraham’s final substantive dealings with his son happened when he sent his trusted servant to find Isaac a wife among his kinsmen. The servant returned from their home country with Rebecca.
Life in every age has been filled with events that have no rhyme or reason. Like the well-known bumper sticker suggests that I will translate differently, “Stuff Happens!” We often pray for deliverance from painful chapters in our lives exactly as Jesus did in the garden. We want our loved ones to be healed from serious illnesses. We pray that a kidnapped child will be found safely.
What is more profound than trusting God to respond favorably to our perceived emergency needs and wants, is to look at how God has hard-wired us. Not only does God provide for us: God provided for us the moment we awakened on this side of the curtain. Often the direction is not instantaneous, nor does it come in a form we readily recognize or expect.
I remember a couple in my past that could finish each other’s sentences. They were so in love. Even after 32 years of marriage, both still held hands when they walked. They were connected as few couples are. George developed cancer that remained undiagnosed by his primary physician and by the time subsequent tests found it, the cancer had spread. George died and Judy was inconsolable. Half her life vaporized in 6 months.
Had someone told her that God provides, she would have slammed the door in that person’s face. Her emotions were raw and volatile. If she had to go on living without George, she preferred death. It was all some of us could do to prevent her from ending her life. She was angry with his doctor. She was angry with God. She screamed at me, “Don’t give me any of your sermons about having faith and trust in God. I had faith and look where it got me. I’ve been robbed. The best part of our lives was ahead of us. Where are all the rewards that come from tithing, from going to church every Sunday and from rearing our children with the values that will serve them in their futures? Dick, look what I have now. Half of me has been torn away! Where is the justice in that?”
She suffered incredibly, but in time she started to heal from the inside out. God has given that quality to each of us. Some of us take a little longer to realize that God provides. Three years later, she was taking scuba diving lessons in Florida. She was doing something she always wanted to do. Her instructor had lost his wife to breast cancer just about the time George died. Something about their chemistry caused an attraction that was instantaneous. I never saw Judy again, but she wrote me one of those, “Guess what has happened to me?” letters. She had gotten married again and her life went in another direction from where it had been tracking with George.
God provided a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. Think of what both Abraham and Isaac had to go through before that alternative was discovered. God provided for Jesus, but think of what he had to go through before finding that life did not end with his crucifixion.
Think of Bob Woodruff, the news anchor, who had half his head blown away and yet look at him today. A spirit is within us that when accessed, will cause many people to overcome every adversity because that is how we were created. Many people give up on life too early.
Think of the many men and women coming back from being in harms way and yet carry a spirit in their damaged bodies that truly wants to return to their units in Iraq or Afghanistan.
What can be comforting to all of us is our knowing that God always provides everything we need to survive anything we experience, even death itself. We may not like the horrors of the moment, but that is not God’s problem. Nine times out of ten, we make our circumstances far more difficult because of the judgments we bring to them. Judy had blamed George’s doctor and God. She had determined that life was not worth living without him. Those were thought patterns she created in response to George’s death.
There are times when life does not make a bit of sense. As someone once said, “Life is an experience where we have to make a series of adjustments.” I have never forgotten that. We are perfectly created to experience everything and anything without overreacting when, like Abraham, we become aware that God always provides.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and always faithful God, we thank you that there are times when we must struggle with alternatives, when decision-making is difficult and when discerning the best path is unclear. We are creatures who need to find reasons for those times when life ceases to be meaningful. There are people who have lost everything in 500-year floods. There are communities that have been torn apart by tornadoes. There are tranquil settings where homes have been ravaged by fire. There are countless lives that will never be the same because of the destruction caused by earthquakes. Such experiences force us to look beyond what our senses tell us. Our identities, our faith and our trust are made visible during moments of uncertainty. Thank you for giving us the potential to live stable lives even during times when our world is not. Thank you for calling us to be a light in darkness. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for sending us new horizons toward which to walk, new problems to solve and new fragile moments that challenge us to find the tools to live creatively. Thank you for the times when the symbols of security dissolve around us; and once again, our thoughts must find peace in the unfolding of the unexpected. If it were not for these times, why would we need faith, trust and enduring qualities of character?
Why is it, O God that we so quickly respond with frustration when other people adversely affect our hopes and dreams? Why is it that we find detours in life so unattractive? Why is it that we conclude that some experiences are unfair and so challenging that we fear we will not succeed in dealing with them? Why is it that when our identity is being perfected by trials, we pray you will remove some pain causing experience? Too many times, O God, we forget who you created us to be and we ignore living our faith when circumstances could not be more perfect to let our lights shine.
As we reflect on our lives, who could have known ahead of time that we would be where we are? It has been interesting for us to realize that each unplanned piece has fit so neatly into all the others. As we anticipate our future, may our faith help us realize that in every moment we have the opportunity to reflect your will to an audience of onlookers whose names we may never know. Bless this day and all who share in it with us. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .