Holding onto one’s hope

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-22

Perhaps it was frustration. Perhaps it was more like mild hysteria. Abraham fell on his face and laughed. And who can blame him? All this talk about covenants and kings, offspring and ancestors, was nothing new. Abraham had been travelling with stars in his eyes and his hand in a pocketful of sand for more days than he probably cared to remember, years in fact. Abraham could be forgiven, surely, for feeling that God’s promise, instead of growing closer, seemed as out of reach as the far horizon.

God’s promise was first made to Abraham – or Abram as he was in those days – when he was a mere seventy-five! The story is told in Genesis 12. Abram and Sarai are to journey in stages to the place God will show them. And God, for his part, will make of Abram a great nation. There is no tired laughter this first time. Quite the reverse. Abram, in a remarkable act of trust, gathers people and possession and journeys as far as faith will carry him each day. Little wonder Abraham is regarded by many who travelled faith’s way after him as the father of faith.

Seventy-five! Even by today’s standards of life expectancy and relative energy, even today it’s a little on the old side for Abraham to be told he will be the father of a nation or, as it is written elsewhere, the father of a nation to number in people as many as the stars in the sky or grains of sand on the shore. Couldn’t God, who had, after all, written the job description himself, find someone of a more appropriate age to father his emerging nation?

Seventy-five. I certainly won’t be asking how many of us are seventy-five, less still how many of us would be quite pleased to be seventy-five again! Still, Abram is at this point in the story of his call, what is now fashionably called a third ager: too old to be in the first flushes of youth, too young to have slippers, high back armed chair, and a nursing home! And while it is true that some of us on reaching that stage seem to settle comfortably into the imprint we are fashioning in our favourite chair, there are others of us who live gamely the mantra that we are only as young as we feel and, wear and tear notwithstanding, face each now with all the energy and enthusiasm we can muster. Maybe Abraham fell into the latter category. Or maybe he got a boost at being chosen by God at this time in his life for this most important task. Either way, his footsteps were sure.

But roll the tape on some twenty-four years and the father of faith, new name and all, is floundering. Abraham is now ninety-nine, his wife seventy, and still there is no sign of God’s promise to him being fulfilled. Time to empty his sand-filled pocket. Time to fix his gaze on something real for a change. Time to resign himself to the closed future he had once feared but now knows is his.

Saying Yes to God’s call all those many miles ago can’t have been easy, for Abram’s Yes would propel him on a journey, and leaving whatever your age is never easy. Saying Yes to an unknown land is saying No to the place you know like the back of your hand. Saying Yes to being the father of a nation is saying No to the freedom to do what suits only yourself. Saying Yes to God’s trust in me is saying No to our I can manage by myself attitude.

Of course this saying yes wasn’t just something for Abraham. God challenges us now, in this time and place. As we begin to explore how to make best use of this wonderful location, and how to make best use of our buildings to decrease the burden in the future, I’m sure it will be a long journey with many twists and turns along the way, but God will be challenging us to keep saying yes. It’s just the same for us as individuals, as we journey through life, time and time again, God challenges us to say yes.

For Abraham and Sarah, saying Yes to God can’t have been easy. But keeping on saying Yes must have been harder still. No wonder Abraham fell to the floor in laughter. He’d heard it all before! And although he may have been mocking the Almighty it was only, surely, because he felt utterly mocked himself. There are people for whom hope just seems much too far. Sometimes we, people who have walked with faith-filled steps, are those people. All my hope on God is founded, we sing. And we sing it heart, mind and soul. But sometimes the hope of which we sing and out of which we serve is, for whatever reason, holding by a sliver of a thread.

Perhaps it is the seemingly never-ending search for employment which not only fills the day, but the place where self-esteem used to be. Or the look on the face of the shopkeeper which says, I know who you are, a reminder that even though addiction is long past, still it affects the present. Perhaps it is the increased and increasing medication, the realisation that health will grow only worse and never better. Or not quite being able somehow to get out of the financial rut: after the birthday comes Christmas, after the gas bill, the electricity, after the school shoes, the winter jacket… and so it goes and so it goes and so it goes.

We human beings tend, in the end, to get used to most things. Even, it seems, to hopelessness, even to a closed future. Even Abraham had become accustomed to his and Sarah’s barrenness. It can be difficult sometimes to see the blessings wrapped up in a life of faith… or even just in life. But, as St. Augustine so wonderfully put it, we are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song. There is just something in us which seeks the more that we know life can be. And that something demands that we keep on singing hope, however tenuous it sometimes seems, however far away it sometimes feels.

The late Henri Nouwen, in describing hope, once wrote that,
Hope means to keep living
amid desperation
and to keep humming
in the darkness.

Hoping is knowing that there is love,
it is trust in tomorrow
it is falling asleep
and waking again
when the sun rises.

In the midst of a gale at sea,
it is to discover land.
In the eyes of another
it is to see that you are understood…

As long as there is still hope
there will also be prayer…
And you will be held in God’s hands.

Abraham would once again find himself walking with star-filled eyes and his hand in a pocketful of sand. Abraham – and Sarah – would, despite his desperation-filled laughter that day, know for themselves in time the abundance of God’s blessing and the truth of God’s promise.

Do we look to God’s promises for hope? Hope in our own lives? Hope in our church? Hope in our world? If there’s one thing we really need, surely it’s hope? And through this story of Abraham, we’re reminded that this is what God offers to us, not just any old time, but especially when hope seems most distant, remote, unlikely, this is precisely when God offers us this message of hope.

It is comforting to know that even Abraham, even our father in faith, sometimes faltered and fell as he walked faith’s way. And it is even more comforting to know that God continued to bless Abraham despite his inability to see and to hold on to the more which God had in store for them both. It is true. There is still hope… And we are – all of us – held in God’s hands.

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