Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday in Lent + February 25, 2018
Readings: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22
I doubt that Sarah had any hope left that she would have her own children when God made this covenant with Abraham, the one we just heard read from Genesis 17. She probably wasn’t even dreaming of children anymore. After all, she was about ninety years old. Her biological clock had stopped ticking a few generations ago. And this was not the first time that God had promised Abraham a child; even last time, Sarah was so certain she would never bear her own children that she suggested Abraham father children with her slave, Hagar (Gen. 15 for the promise; 16:1-4 for Sarah’s idea). Y’know, like in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Sarah and Abraham both seem to have given up totally on having children together. Our reading for today ends with God’s glorious promise: “I will give you a son by [your wife, Sarah]. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” It conveniently cuts out before we can see what Abraham thought of that promise. The very next verse says, “Then Abraham fell on his face laughing, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” And he basically tried to correct God: You must be talking about Ishmael, my son by Hagar. Technically, according to our customs — which will creep out my 21st century descendants — Ishmael is Sarah’s child (Gen. 17:17-18). And later when Sarah overheard the Lord say that she will have a son, she laughed, too (Gen. 18:9-12).
By this point in their lives, Sarah and Abraham had learned to live with the idea of never having children together. Things were the way they were. They had long ago lost all hope for things to be any different.
When do we feel like that? Like there’s no reason left to hope, like things just are the way they are, like we just have to deal with it? There are so many things in our private lives that can wear us down to that level: chronic pain or terrible disease; hurtful patterns in relationships; struggles against our own sin or addictions or bad habits; prayers that seem to go unanswered. There are so many things in our public life together that can wear us down, too: politicians who seem to work for money or power rather than for the people; the age-old struggle to help keep our neighbors from going hungry or homeless; the way prejudices never seem to die, just change forms in each generation; the way our nation spends so much time arguing about what to do about mass shootings, but never seems to actually make any positive changes. It’s no wonder so many people choose to get at least a dose of their news from comedians, who help us to turn our frustrations into laughter, like Abraham and Sarah did.
A few minutes ago we sang David’s words of joy and hope from Psalm 22. But that psalm begins in a dark place of total hopelessness. You might be familiar with its first lines as words Jesus cried out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” David continued in the psalm:
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
And by night but find no rest…
I am a worm, and not human;
Scorned by others, and despised by the people…
I am poured out like water,
And all my bones are out of joint;
My heart is like wax;
It is melted within my breast.
My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
And my tongue sticks to my jaws;
You lay me in the dust of death. (Psalm 22:1-2, 6, 14-15)
So how does David get from those miserable words to a place of hope and joy in the Lord? According to at least some interpreters, it’s not that his suffering comes to a sudden end; but somehow, in the midst of all that’s happening to him, he grabs hold of a renewed trust in the Lord. And what we can see happening throughout the psalm itself is David remembering what the Lord has done for David’s people:
In you our ancestors trusted;
They trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
In you they trusted, and were not put to shame. (Ps. 22:4-5)
And we see David remembering what God has done in his own life:
It was you who took me from the womb;
You kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast since birth,
And since my mother bore me you have been my God. (Ps. 22:9-10).
And we see David remembering qualities that are essential to who God is:
For the Lord does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty;
Neither is the Lord’s face hidden from them;
But when they cry out, the Lord hears them. (Psalm 22:24)
Remembering what God has done in the past helped David to trust God, and to have hope that God would act again. And, we might imagine the specific stories David could have remembered, the great stories of Israel: Abraham and Sarah conceiving the promised child, Isaac, when they were 100 years old; the people of Israel escaping to freedom after 400 years of slavery; even David himself defeating Goliath or surviving repeated attacks on his life. These are all stories of God coming into a situation that seemed totally hopeless and changing it. These stories reminded David, and they remind us, that there is no situation so hopeless that God can’t transform it; there is no cause so lost that God can’t redeem it.
Remembering the stories of how God has saved God’s people has helped generations of believers keep hoping even when their struggle seemed hopeless. For example: the people enslaved here in America — many of whom, but some great miracle, came to really believe in the religion of the people who enslaved them — told and retold the story of the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Their songs are filled with stories of God saving people: Daniel saved from the lion’s den; the three men saved from the fiery furnace; Joshua’s miraculous victory at Jericho. These stories could refuel the enslaved people’s hopes as they dreamed and fought for freedom. As one spiritual sings: “God delivered Daniel from the lion’s den, Jonah from the belly of a whale, and the Hebrew children from the fiery furnace — then why not every man?”
Stories of God’s deliverance are powerful, because the memories of what God has done for hopeless people in the past are tied to God’s promises to always hear the cries of those in need and to act on their behalf. Psalm 34 confesses this faith:
When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears,
and rescues them from all their troubles.
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,
and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:17-18)
Responding to hopeless people, transforming hopeless situations — that is an essential part of who God is.
God came through for Sarah and Abraham, and for so many others who were sunk deep into hopelessness. Over and over again, God has worked through situations that seemed totally hopeless to create something unexpected and good. Even Jesus’s story sinks down into the hopelessness of the crucifixion, but God made that hopelessness into salvation. With all these memories and all these promises, our hopeless situations are no longer hopeless. We can always expect God to bring change, to give new hope and new life and new meaning. Even when things are not going the way we want them to go, even when all seems lost — we can always expect God’s action.
That lesson ought to give us the hope we need to keep working for change ourselves, to keep struggling against the harmful and oppressive patterns of our world; the hope we need to encourage those who are running low; the hope we need to keep looking for the bright corners where God’s new day is dawning.
Let us pray.
God of Sarah and Abraham, long ago you embraced your people in covenant and promised them your blessing. We remember the stories of how you saved your people throughout the centuries. Strengthen us in faith, that, with your disciples of every age, we may proclaim your deliverance in Jesus Christ to generations yet unborn. Amen.
 J. Clinton McCann, Jr., Commentary on Psalm 22, The Access Bible, New Revised Standard Version, ed. Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
 Amended version of scriptural prayer for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B, from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers: Proposed by the Consultation on Common Texts, (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress Press, 2002), via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary resource website: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=72