When I was much younger, I would sit in church listening to readings and sermons about Abraham, and to me, he always seemed like this great patriarch, who was somehow magical in his ability to have faith in God. I mean, that’s why the nation of Israel was descended from him, right? Because he was able to have enough faith in God to move to another country, to trust that he and Sarah would have a child even though he was old, to be willing to sacrifice Isaac at God’s will. Abraham was always intimidating, because to me, his faith was something absolutely impossible for me to achieve. Ever.
So while it would be really easy to echo these sermons that I absorbed as a child about Abraham’s great faith and God’s everlasting promises, I think there’s something else here that’s worth exploring.
You see, as a child, I was convinced that to be like Abraham was like having a superpower. “Yes God—I want faith to be MY superpower.” But as an adult, I’m beginning to wonder if Abraham isn’t a little bit more like the rest of us. Maybe Abraham is actually human, like us.
I think the writer of Hebrews is considering this as well, when they write that “they confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland”. Abraham acknowledges that he is a foreigner in the many places in which he camps. He spends a lot of his life moving about as a nomad, which seems a bit strange for the patriarch of a great nation. And Sarah, for all the flack she normally gets for doubting God, is at least very realistic about her humanity when she says that “I am too old to have a child”.
Abraham and Sarah are very human, and they spend a lot of time talking about why they’re not the right people for what God has said he will make happen through them. “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.”
Ronald Dahl once wrote that we should “above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.”
The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Or, as we find in Genesis with Abraham, the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely people. Abraham is a foreigner, a nomad, with a barren wife and a lot of years under his belt. He’s not really the person that you would pick out of a crowd and say “yes, yes, this person will be the father of a nation of people.”
But God does, surprisingly, just that. He picks a person who’s a lot like us. Who’s very human. And says that yes, “I’ve called you to do great things”.
I’m in the middle of rereading The Chronicles of Narnia, which I’ve read a hundred times before, but doesn’t really get old, at least for me. (If you haven’t read it, you should probably put it on your reading list.) One thing that struck me this week is that most of the children who stumble into Narnia from our world don’t really have a lot of confidence in themselves to effect any significant change in Narnia. In a film adaptation of the first book, Peter and Susan protest the idea that they might be fulfilling a Narnian prophesy by saying “but we’re from Finchley!” We’re nothing special. We’re not heroes.
We’re nothing special. We’re not heroes! That sounds like something that Abraham and Sarah would say. We’re foreigners. We’re old. We can’t have a baby now.
And yet they do. You see, God’s response to their excuses is “okay—see these stars? You’ll have so many descendants you won’t be able to count them” “you’re too old to have a son? I’m God, I can do anything”.
The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely people. You and I. Each and every one of you sitting in these pews, is called to faith and to help carry out God’s work. You might be sitting there saying “but I’m not great like Abraham” or “God can’t really mean me”. It’s tempting to think that okay, that’s awesome. But maybe He means Grant more than me… I mean, Grant’s a priest, he wears a collar, he’s been to seminary! Or ______, s/he’s definitely more faithful than I am! God can’t mean me. I’m not the kind of person who can do things like that.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples “don’t be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”. He doesn’t say “little flock over the age of 30” or “little flock with an income of 40k or more” or “little flock with a seminary education”. He simply says “little flock”. You, me, all of us—it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.
So what do we do with all of that? Okay, God… you want to give us the kingdom? We’re called, like Abraham?
You see, the thing about Abraham is that even though he makes all of these excuses, even though he says, I’m nothing special, you can’t mean me? God still calls him. And Abraham ultimately trusts that God will do all the things He has promised to do through Abraham. And because Abraham trusts… has faith… that God has called him, even though he’s not sure why, “the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness”.
God doesn’t choose people to carry out His work who we would think are “qualified”. He chooses us. All of us. And you and I may have our doubts about whether we’re the best person for the job. But faith is being able to say, like Abraham, that we trust God enough to do what He asks of us, despite our doubts.
It is that trust that allows us to actually begin doing God’s work.
What is God’s work, we ask? Why should we keep doing it when the world seems to have gone crazy? We’re not Abraham in Israel, thousands of years ago. It’s the 21st century–when people are killed without reason? When our world seems to exist in a state of constant chaos? When the very communities that we hold dear are disrespected by others?
What can we do? What can we do–we can’t fix all of this? Jesus tells his disciples to “make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys”. He’s not telling us to amass wealth here on earth, to start a nonprofit to fix the world’s problems, to take political power in order to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth… No. Jesus didn’t try to overthrow Roman rule as his disciples thought he would do… he spent a lot of time talking to people no one else would talk to, healing the sick, and caring for people that society didn’t value.
In many ways, when Jesus says that the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour, he’s also talking about the way that He is unexpected. He’s not the Savior who is going to kick out the Romans. Instead, he’s telling his disciples to sell their possessions and give to others. That’s not the Messiah that Jews were expecting.
The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely people. The most unlikely places. The most unlikely actions.
Writer Anne Lamott said in response to the recent wave of violence that “we must respond with a show of force equal to the violence and tragedies, with love force. Mercy force. Un-negotiated compassion force. Crazy care-giving to the poor and suffering, including ourselves. Patience with a deeply irritating provocative mother. Two dollar bills to the extremely annoying guy at the intersection who you think maybe could be working, or is going to spend your money on beer. Jesus didn’t ask the blind man what he was going to look at after He restored the man’s sight. He just gave hope and sight; He just healed.”
Just like Abraham and Sarah, like the children in Narnia, we may not think that we’re capable of doing the work of God. We’re too old, too young, too poor, too rich, too busy, too new to the area, too caught-up-in-our-own-lives, too busy making excuses to realize that we’ve been called to do God’s work in little, unexpected acts of kindness. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
May we have faith in God’s call to us, and may we—unlikely people though we are–carry that out into the world into unlikely places, through small, unexpected acts of love. May we have confidence in our calling through our Savior Jesus Christ, who shows us how we may, with faith, impact the world around us.
(Preached on 8/7/16. Hear a recording here.)