Quite regularly – in fact several times a week – I get an email that runs something along these lines: the writer of the email has got their hands on a large sum of money – at minimum, $5 million, usually $20 to $50 million – usually by way of an inheritance from a saintly father which the heir – usually an attractive young woman – is in danger of losing because of an unscrupulous uncle. Of all the people in the world I have been chosen to help spirit the money out of the country because of my kind heart – and for my trouble I stand to receive half the proceeds and probably the undying affection of the orphaned daughter. Sound familiar?
Now I guess there are enough people who actually fall for this to make it worth the scammers' while – apparently if you get sucked in by the promise of ill-gotten millions you soon get asked for your credit card or bank details to pay the transfer fees – really, what's a few hundred dollars when there's millions at stake? And then when you've parted with some of your own hard-earned cash you realise you've been had.
Most of us don't believe it for a moment because – it's crazy for a start – it's over the top – and because – well – we've heard it once too often. It's lost its power to compel our belief. On the other hand – some people do fall for it, to their detriment some people believe it and act on it – because – well, wouldn't it be wonderful if? What couldn't I do with $20 million or so? One very wise person once said to me, 'the best way to be believed is to tell people what they want to hear'. But even then, our credulity only stretches so far.
Well, we've just looked in on the story of Abraham and Sarah, the founding mother and father of Israel, and indeed of our own Christian faith as well as the faith of Islam. The parents of the three great world faiths that represent about two thirds of all people now living so, indeed, the spiritual ancestors of a multitude unthinkable in the context of the nomadic peoples of the ancient Near East. And the bit we just read comes in at an important point of the story, the improbable-sounding promise to the 99 year old Abraham and his 90 year old wife of descendants more numerous than the stars – a rather vital problem standing in the way of God's promise that has been repeated over and over since it was first announced to Abraham back in chapter 15 is that this couple are ancient. As the writer discreetly words it Sarah has long since ceased 'being in the way of women' – and for her own part Sarah wonders how capable her husband might be at his great age.
Abraham – or Abram as he then was – the difference seems to be that God changes his name from 'great father' to 'father of multitudes' – Abram is nothing if not pragmatic from the start. The first time God suggests getting ready for the patter of little feet Abram helpfully suggests he could adopt one of his young slaves, Eliazar of Damascus. That's a practical way we could work it out, surely? You see Abram wants to trust God's outlandish promises that form God's side of the covenant, or treaty. Abram offers God his loyalty in exactly the same way an ancient warlord offers to serve a powerful king as a vassal – promises and dire threats underlie the mysterious night-time ritual in chapter 15. No, says God. Eliazar the slave won't be your heir, your heir will be your own son. And he leads Abram outside and shows him the stars and says, 'that's how numerous your descendants will be!', and God commands Abram to take some animals – the precious goods of a nomad herder – and cut their bodies in two – one pile for Abram and one for God – and as God repeats his promises a flaming torch passes between the divided carcasses. Bible scholars tell us this is exactly the sort of ritual that was used at the time to bind a covenant between rival nations. God and Abram are bound to each other by promises that are absolute and unbreakable – and Abram seriously wants to work with God on this.
Then in chapter 16, Sarai – not getting any younger and getting tired of the long and apparently futile wait – suggests another way to make God's promises come true. This time it is her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar, who Sarai decides can serve as a surrogate mother and give the family the child that God has promised but doesn't seem to be delivering. The result is disaster. Hagar gives birth to a son – to Ishmael – and predictably enough begins to look down on her childless mistress. The furious Sarai – forgetting perhaps that she had got what she actually wanted – demands that Hagar be thrown out into the desert with her son to die of thirst. Abram – also forgetting that he had decided Ishmael was the son of God's promise – callously goes along with the plan. 'Your slave girl is in your power', he tells his wife. 'Do to her as you please'. Not a very flattering picture of the great father and mother of our faith. Fortunately God has other ideas and other plans for Ishmael and Hagar.
And in chapter 17, where we come in today, God is still promising. Abram falls on his face in a way that a vassal warlord would do before his king. Certainly the covenant with God has brought him great power, but maybe he is past believing in the promise of an heir. Neither of Abram's own attempts to make God's promises come true have worked out, and seriously at almost a hundred years old, for God to keep promising what is clearly impossible sounds like a hollow mockery. But God is still going on at great length, changing Abram's name to reinforce the promise of whole nations-full of descendants. Sarai's name is also changed, maybe to imply that all of this is about to happen soon. But in the last verse of our reading Abraham again falls on his face – this time for a different reason because it all seems just too comic. Abraham this time falls over laughing and muttering to himself about how ridiculous it all is. The Hebrew word for this is the key – Abraham yitzhaks to himself, and God says, in the very next verse, 'oh yeah? Well you're going to have a son whether you believe it or not, so you might as well call him that. Call him Yitzhak – Isaac – call him 'laughter'. Which means of course that God gets the joke!
As the writer of Genesis puts in in the next chapter – and as the angel echoes to Mary of Nazareth hundreds of years later – 'nothing is impossible with God'.
But what has this got to do with us – and in Lent? Is it just a test of our ability to actually believe this comic and impossible story at a literal level? Or does it say something about our own willingness to believe in and to work for God's promises - to us?
For a start it reminds us that our own attempts to work out our own course – our attempts to second-guess God's intentions for us – all too often lead to dead ends and various kinds of disaster. We get it wrong about as often as we get it right. And it reminds us – that when we do put our plans ahead of God's there is generally a human cost. Without God's help the children of our best-laid plans get pushed out into the desert. When we think we know best, all too often we end up cynical and distrustful and locked into patterns of opposition. Without God's help, our life as Christians and our life as a parish can become self-serving and inward-looking.
What the story doesn't recommend, however, is a life of faith that is passive and inactive. As people of faith – as children of the promise – Abraham's future unfolds through us and beyond. We inherit God's promise to Abraham of a future that extends through us to generations unborn, we inherit Jesus' promise that wherever we faithfully live and proclaim the gospel that he will be there with us and that men and women will be drawn to hear and experience the good news. We believe the over the top, impossible-sounding promise that the Church is the first instalment on the new creation. And we are called to work faithfully toward that, with integrity and creativity and imagination. We are called to reflect on God's promises and God's intention for us as a Church and a parish, to dream dreams and make plans and commit ourselves to the hard work of building the community of God's people. To imagine what God's promises might look like in the 21st century and how we can best utilise the resources we have been given to make of this place, for example, something life-giving and filled with activity and laughter to which men and women and children will be drawn and where they will see the word of God put into practice.
I don't think the point of the story is that Abram and Sarai shouldn't have tried to imagine and put God's promises into action. Like them, we make some memorable mistakes. Like them, some of our mistakes lead to dissension and conflict and have a human cost. The whole point, it seems to me, is that when we hear God's extravagant, impossible promises, is absolutely not to play it safe and do nothing – but to believe actively in the promises because we trust the One who is promising. Active faith risks something – it risks exposing our own shortcomings, our faults and foibles – we do risk finding ourselves, from time to time, serving not God's ends but our own. Active faith goes hand in hand with repentance, the necessary practise of reflection and acknowledging the truth about ourselves and correcting our course. Active faith – the faith of Abram and Sarai – means to actively discern – to think and pray and reflect together on what we think we hear about what God is promising and where God is leading. And to actively work for the fulfilment of God's promises, trusting not in our own rightness but in the rightness of the One who promises to guide us.
The point, then, is that as individual Christians we need to test our hearing of God's promises against the wisdom of community and the wisdom of the past. Does what we hear God calling us to lead to life for those around us, are the promises we think we hear congruent with how God has acted in the past? As we reflect together, for example, on the challenges and opportunities that the development of our parish property seems to offer, we listen for echoes of the way in which God guided our mothers and fathers in faith, for the unfolding of God's loving guidance in new circumstances. And remember the gift of laughter!