I am struck by this now, at how it seems at least at first that the author of Hebrews has so sanitized the story of Abraham and Sarah, for the story line is clean and clear and is helpful in that it points us forward to God’s ultimate intention for us all. Even so, I find myself pausing in the Genesis account, wondering at all their various missteps and what that says to us about the ‘faith’ by which the patriarch and matriarch surely traveled. I wonder at this because it seems to me that theirs so parallels most of our journeys in life and in faith with all of our clarity and cloudiness both. Indeed, for this reason I do find it helpful to lay alongside this portion of the letter to the Hebrews all that we know of Abraham and Sarah.
We first meet up with them, of course, in Genesis 12 where before anything else is spoken, we hear the voice of God urging Abram (and Sarai, and his nephew, Lot) to be on the move. A this point, the Lord is not specific in the promises made — only articulating that Abram and Sarai were but the beginning of ‘a great nation’ and that blessing would follow and that blessing would be extended to ‘all the families of the earth.’ There is no specific mention of an actual heir quite yet, but that is certainly implied, and a few verses later we do actually hear about the promise of offspring. We know also that Abram and Sarai had been living their lives for decades and decades by now, yearning for such blessing, surely, but with no earthly reason to believe it could actually be theirs.
Only now, of course, the promise has been spoken. The journey has begun under a new understanding, even a new relationship of promise which has been clearly spoken at least to Abram…
- So don’t you find it curious that mere verses later (Genesis 12:10-20) we hear that Abram and Sarai have traveled to Egypt and Abram becomes so afraid for his own survival that he passes Sarai off as his sister, convinced that otherwise Pharaoh and his officials would have him murdered in order to gain access to her? (Never mind that a few chapters later we do learn that Abram and Sarai are, in fact, half siblings… the point is that Abram would trade her safety for his own. Indeed, again, we cannot miss the fact that God has just finished promising great things and yet Abram is still already so consumed by fear…)
And oh, how very human of Abram. And how often, I wonder, have I found myself there with him, having just been enveloped by the promises of God and then acting out of fear instead of hope, putting at risk, even, all that I hold dear. Indeed, I wonder how often our congregations do the same, in turn acting out of fear and in so doing turning our backs on all that God intends and in the meantime putting so very much at risk…
And then there is this, the whole wretched triangle between Sarah and Hagar and Abraham and the ways in which their faith seems to have lost its way for a while.
- To be sure, in that time and place, using Hagar (and I mean that literally) to get to where they believe God is leading them, would have been expected. Evidently, this is simply how things were done. Indeed, to be sure, God has to keep bringing clarity to Abram for first he believes another slave born in his house (Eliezer of Damascus) will be his heir. And when he decides Ishmael is the answer, it is much the same. In the meantime, as we well know, jealousy and fear have their way between Sarah and Hagar and in the end, it is only God’s protection which saves Hagar and the child, Ishmael. (Genesis 16 and Genesis 21:8-20)
And again, how very, very human of Sarah to be so fearful that it came out in hateful jealousy. And oh, I cannot help but wonder how quickly I go down this same path, forgetting God’s promises which are meant for me and through me, somehow, for all the world.
- And this, of course, this, the fact that these two became so weary of waiting for the promise to be fulfilled, that their by now skeptical reaction to its repetition was captured in Sarah’s laughter, doubled over behind the tent where she had just finished providing a meal for their guests. Indeed, from the start it had seemed altogether unlikely, this promise of an heir, and one couldn’t really blame her for by now just having given up all hope of God working in the way God said God would. (Genesis 18:1-15)
Once more, I can surely see myself in her. I don’t doubt that our congregations perhaps find themselves in a similar place as well, perhaps especially now given where we find ourselves in an increasingly secular world, a circumstance made even more so as we seek to rebuild in this time when we want to believe we are living post-pandemic, but the residual effects of the last years remain.
There are other places we could land in the story of the faith of these two as we hear it relayed in Genesis, and yet these three instances are enough to remind me that as they made their way, the journey was much more complex and layered than the writer of Hebrews might at first have us believe. At the same time, we are reminded in this telling of the story that for these two heroes of the faith, their entire lives were lived as outsiders — as ‘strangers and foreigners on the earth.’ So surely even though they are portrayed as heroes, the struggle is hinted at even there. And yet, while their faith — ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ may have, in fact, faltered along the way, even so, it never abandoned them for it was always rooted in a relationship with the One who made and kept promises, who kept returning and kept returning to speak much needed words of hope again and again. And who, in the end, was true to what had been promised. Maybe not on their timeline, but on the only timeline that mattered.
I, for one, find this helpful as I consider my own journey and that of those with whom I am called to walk. In fact, I have always found this to be one of the greatest gifts of these stories which have been passed along to us. While the writer of Hebrews may have cleaned up the story line a bit in speaking of the heroes of the faith, when we go back to the original stories, those who were called to capture them for us simply told the truth as they believed it to be so. We receive these two and so many others, faults and failings and gifts and joys and all. And if they were part of the bigger story God has for us all, why not also for us, and why not also for all those with whom we are called to receive and live into the promises of God. Indeed, why not us as well?
- And so it is I wonder now at how the faith of Abraham and Sarah lived out where you are is also marked by clarity and cloudiness, by times of trust and times when trust is hard to find. Can you see how their journey of faith with all of its ups and downs is also shared by all of us? How might this be a word of hope to you? To those among whom you live and serve?
- At least for me, I see some of the times when their faith seemed to falter as instances when fear won out, at least temporarily. When has this been so for you? For your congregation or community? And how was that resolved? How did you hear God speaking again?
- How does the writer of Hebrews’ description of them as ‘strangers and foreigners on earth’ resonate with you and your experience, individually or collectively? Does this seem to be more true now than ever before? Why or why not?
- Do you ever feel as though you, like Abraham and Sarah, are still waiting for the promise to be fulfilled? What is the substance of that promise for you? How do you hear the voice of God still speaking it? Does it help to lay your own experience alongside that of these two as we hear throughout Genesis? If so, how is that so?