The Story, Week 3
Living Plan B: God Still Provides
Genesis 17:1-8, 15-22, 21:1-7 and Hebrews 11:8-20
I saw a quote on Facebook this week:
”Sometimes, in order to be happy in the present moment, you have to be willing to give up hope for a better past.” – Robert Holden
That seems to be where we are in The Story this week. Where we ended last week: Plan A…the perfect world in which God walked and talked with God’s people…has been destroyed by sin. Now what?
We find ourselves living in Plan B…it seems we have to give up hope for a perfect world, a better past…things will never be quite the same again. Sin is not without consequence.
But – that the story continues at all this week tells us, right off the bat, that sin doesn’t get the last word. God doesn’t give up… God is merciful enough to keep at it, try again with us.
Trying again – God’s Plan B. Like a parent or a teacher who has had a particularly rough time with a child. You step back, take a deep breath, walk off the frustration, or anger, or disappointment – and then try again. You’re not going to give up because of one argument, one rough night. You regroup, and try again. You go for Plan B.
God’s plan B takes shape through one particular family who is “blessed to be a blessing.” In the Bible, blessings are always given in order to be shared. As if God is thinking: if I can get just this one to trust me, then they can carry my words and my blessing to others. It only takes one.
The story that began with a cosmic account of creation…and continued through a flood that destroyed all…Now, the camera zooms in until one man, one family fills the whole screen. The story continues with a man named Abram, his wife Sarai, and in time, their children and grandchildren.
Abram and Sarai are not likely candidates for God to choose. For one thing, they are old. Past their prime. And even once God addresses that problem, and Sarai bears a promised child – there are other problems – little things like lying, and fighting, and stealing, and doubting.
Abram and Sarai certainly do not have a perfect family – not much better than the one we’ve already seen, in fact! Instead of one brother murdering another (Cain & Abel), we have one brother stealing from another (Jacob & Esau)! So how is it that Plan B does not, also, end in disaster?
The basic truth is this: Plan B doesn’t end in disaster because it doesn’t depend on them. It depends on God.
Plan B, for God, comes in the form of a covenant. A covenant is not like a contract. A contract is void if either party fails to fulfill the terms of the contract. If you do A, I’ll do B. But a covenant – a covenant remains in effect no matter what the other party does. If I covenant to do something, I am bound to do it – regardless of what you do.
There are consequences to breaking a covenant, of course. And Abraham will feel those consequences ripple through his family life when he fails to trust God and tries to set off on his own. But the consequences – the curses of the covenant – do not free the other party from upholding their end of the covenant. God will still be faithful.
So God makes a covenant with Abram and Sarai. It’s a covenant that reminds us of the original plan of God. Remember in the Garden of Eden, when God walked and talked with God’s people? The perfect combination of place, presence and people. When that original plan was destroyed by sin, the place was abandoned, God’s presence removed, and the people were scattered – both physically, from the garden, and also emotionally, from each other. Place, presence and people were all broken by sin.
Now, by covenant with Abram and Sarai, God promises place, presence and people again. God promises to give them a land in which to live – a place. To be with them as they go, and bless them when they arrive – God’s presence. And to provide for them a child, who will produce descendants as numerous as the stars – God’s people. God’s Plan B restores place, presence and people
For Abram and Sarai, God’s covenant begins with another p-word: Promise. It begins with a promise to an old man, well past childrearing years, that his wife will bear a son who will become father of many nations. It’s a promise that doesn’t make sense. Isn’t rational. But they believe it, if a little skeptically. They trust that it might come to be, this to-good-to-be-true promise.
But then, time goes by. They begin to wonder if they imagined it all. The promise has to be repeated, over and over again. Abram isn’t sure. Sarai isn’t sure. Doubt creeps in, and then outright disbelief. But even then, in their better moments, they trust enough to act on the promise and see where it will lead.
Where that promise leads, first, is to a foreign land – a land far from home and family. It hardly seems like the place where they will find God. And yet, that land that becomes a place of blessing for them. Abram grows wealthy – so wealthy he has to split the wealth with his nephew Lot and go separate ways so that their wealth can continue to expand. Abram receives much blessing from God. It is a place where Abram and Sarai experience God’s presence.
But they do not receive, yet, the fulfillment of the promise of people. Material wealth isn’t the totality of God’s blessing. God promises Abram – and us – more than that. God promises people with whom we share life, and love.
Abram struggles to sustain belief over the years. Can you blame him? He was something like 75 when he first heard God’s promise that he would be a child. Hebrew numbers aren’t totally clear to us, but it seems as if some decades pass – perhaps 25 years or more – and Abram still doesn’t have the promised heir. Their longing for a child remains, and grows.
Those years aren’t all patience and perfect trust on Abram’s part. There is compromise – I’ll sleep with Hagar. And jealousy – send her away! And lament – plenty of lament.
Lament, Scripture seems to tell us, is how God’s people often respond when God’s promises seem unfulfilled. Lament gives us a way to keep our relationship with God alive in difficult times, when we feel desperate or angry or despairing.
So Abraham laments: “God, where is the son you promised? God, how shall I know that you will do what you say? Why should I believe you now, after so long?”
But even in the midst of lament, the covenant serves as an anchor. God has promised. God continues to reiterate the promise. God gives Abraham reminders along the way – the stars in the sky. A new name. Tangible things that remind Abraham every day of God’s promise yet to be fulfilled.
And in time, the longed for child arrives. Isaac – son of laughter, his name means. A child who brought such joy. The promise that God will restore God’s people just might come true afterall.
Or – will it? Just as we – with Abraham and Sarah – begin to believe that God’s Plan B actually might work out for the best – there comes that troubling story of sacrifice.
I don’t know why God asks Abraham to sacrifice his long-awaited son just as he reaches adulthood. I don’t understand why such a violent act should be lifted up as an act of faith.
I wonder, quite frankly, if Abraham heard right. He already took things into his own hands with Hagar, and that didn’t go so well.
Maybe this is another example of Abraham trying to do it his way. Perhaps his well-meaning desire to please God led him to over-zealous faith. Don’t we see that today? People who believe they are acting in the name of God, when their actions seem so contrary to godliness, to the rest of the world?
Like some of you, I simple don’t know what to do with this story of Abraham and Isaac up on a mountain. It does not make sense to me that a loving, merciful God who knows the number of hairs on our head would ever ask for our intentional violent death.
I don’t get it. But I don’t have to get it. What I do know is this: Abraham did his very best to follow God, even when it didn’t make sense. And God provided a way forward that did make sense.
And that, I think, is the heart of the matter. When we’re living in Plan B – as we all are, this side of the first human sin – then sometimes the way forward won’t be clear. Sometimes the right thing isn’t obvious. Sometimes, even when we want to please God, we just won’t know how.
In those moments, I think, we pray like crazy and then take a step forward. Not because “God helps those who help themselves.” That isn’t in the Bible, despite the frequency with which we quote it. What is in the Bible is this: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28)
Whether Abraham heard God correctly or not, he acted out of faith and trust that God will provide. Sometimes we become paralyzed by our own perfectionism, frightened to do anything for fear of doing the wrong thing.
This story frees us to make the decision we need to make as best we can, and then trust that God will take care of the details. I think the heart of Abraham’s faith, for which he was commended, lies in his willingness to step out when the path ahead wasn’t visible. To trust that God would provide.
And the good news is that God did provide exactly what Abraham and Isaac needed in that moment.
Perhaps Abraham had heard God calling, and because he obeyed, God rewarded him by sparing Isaac’s life. Or perhaps, Abraham hadn’t heard quite right – but God honored his whole-hearted desire to obey by righting the wrong and bringing good out of it anyway.
We’ll never know which it was, of course. Either way, God provided. And I believe he did so not because Abraham had perfect faith, but because he acted, however tentatively, on whatever faith he had.
What we know, and trust, and believe, with Abraham, is this: God is still with us as we live Plan B. And God will provide for our needs. Because God has promised to work for good even through our faltering attempts at faith. Thanks be to God!