Genesis 18:1-15; John 8:12-17
St Barbara’s 29.11.2020
Rev Tulo Raistrick
This year, it feels like we have been doing a lot of waiting. Waiting for the first and now the second lockdown to end; waiting to see whether we can go back to work, resume our clubs and activities, meet up with friends and family, waiting to see if we can go away on holiday, maybe waiting to see if we will get our money back from cancelled trips; waiting perhaps for operations and consultations that have been delayed; waiting for a vaccine.
In our current age, it is not something that we are that used to doing. When we order something online we are used to next day delivery, and certainly within the week. At work, we’re expected to respond to emails almost immediately, even when out of hours. Reducing waiting times, whether in the health service, the shopping queue, the parcel delivery, is seen as a universal good.
But today, the first day of Advent, we consciously choose to enter into a time of waiting, a time of waiting that can’t be rushed or foreshortened. Advent is a time of waiting, looking forward to, preparing, of being conscious of waiting, not out of irritation at the delay, but out of pleasure. There is pleasure in the anticipation.
And what is it that we wait for? Something that has already happened 2,000 years ago, and something that may not happen even in our lifetimes. We wait to celebrate Christ coming among us at his birth in Bethlehem, and we wait for Christ coming among us again in power and glory. We look back and we look forward.
In doing so, the church has traditionally found it helpful to focus on four sets of people who cover the breadth of the biblical story up to the ministry of Jesus, four sets of people who learnt to wait. And each year we remember them as we light the Advent candles. And during our four Sundays in Advent this year, they will be the focus of our sermons.
There is Abraham and Sarah, and all the subsequent leaders of God’s people up to King David. These were the men and women responsible for leading God’s people, trying to help them be the people of God, and who were looking forward to a future time with a perfect leader and a perfect people, the time of the Messianic King. Then, next week, we will light a candle to think about the prophets. As the kingdom of Israel collapsed into moral and spiritual decay, the prophets came to the fore calling for repentance and looking forward to the coming of a new King. Our third week’s candle reminds us of John the Baptist, who anticipates and prepares people for the coming of Jesus, who proclaims, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” And then on the Sunday before Christmas, as we light our fourth candle, we remember Mary, who anticipates and prepares for Jesus in the most intimate and personal way of all, through conception, pregnancy and birth.
So to Abraham and Sarah. Our reading picks up on a part of their story where waiting has all but exhausted itself. Decades earlier, God had promised Abraham a family, a people of his own – in fact a family so vast they would outnumber the stars in the sky. Some promise to wait for and work for!
So Abraham and Sarah had upped sticks and become nomads, wandering wherever God led them, travelling hundreds of miles with their flocks trailing behind, and in danger of bandits, disease and starvation. At key points on their journey God kept reminding them of his promise, but no children came. Sarah even arranged for Abraham to make a maidservant pregnant, so desperate were they for a child, but that only increased their unhappiness. By the time of our reading, Abraham was almost 100, and Sarah not much younger, and certainly beyond the age of child-bearing. Waiting had become a bad joke.
Then three visitors arrive, and Abraham pulls out all the stops to offer them hospitality. A fatted calf is slaughtered; bread from the finest flour is made. The visitors seem in no hurry but Abraham seems flustered, hurried, rushed. One pities Sarah and the servants suddenly having to jump to frenzied activity in the heat of the day. Abraham, it appears is losing the art of waiting.
Once the men have eaten, they ascertain that Sarah is within earshot even if not in sight, and deliver the most remarkable message: “This time next year Sarah will have a son”. Sarah’s reaction, if we didn’t know the story’s ending, would move us to tears: she laughs. Not laughter of joy, but the laughter of disbelief, hurt, cynicism. Are they serious? Have they no idea what she has gone through – the leaving of home and family, the humiliation of barrenness, the endless false dawns and broken hopes? And here they are, without even setting eyes on her, telling her she will give birth within a year.
I wonder if any of us can identify with Sarah, whether any of us have been, or are, in situations where we’ve lost hope that things could change, where things we had longed for, because of time or circumstance, now just seem impossible. Or maybe we’ve got fed up with waiting, tired and cynical of those hopes we once held and cherished. Or maybe we have buried our hopes, for the reminder of them still causes pain and loss. Hopes that seemed right, good, part of God’s purposes, that just haven’t happened – maybe to do with friendships and relationships, or with work, or with family, or with growing old.
Well, let’s not bury or deny those feelings. It is as pointless as Sarah trying to deny she laughed. God knows how we feel. Let us be honest in God’s presence.
So how does God respond to Sarah, for the visitor it turns out is God himself, and what does that tell us about how God responds to us? Well, God doesn’t respond with anger. He doesn’t take offence at Sarah’s doubt and revoke his promise. Nor does he silence her for her disbelief, like he does with Zechariah (John the Baptist’s father) in similar circumstances. Instead there is a degree of empathy, but also a confidence of purpose: “Is anything too hard for the Lord? You will have a son.” And true to his word, within a year, Sarah gives birth to a boy whom she calls Isaac, meaning “laughter”. It is a wonderful name. God has transformed her bitter laughter of disbelief into the joyous laughter of delight. She celebrates: “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
Is this a promise then that whatever our hopes God will eventually deliver on them? Perhaps not, but there is something more profound going on here that takes us back to the heart of Advent. Isaac is not just Sarah and Abraham’s miracle son. He is the next step in forming the people of God. From him will come generations upon generations of family who will worship and serve God. Ultimately, from his family, will come Jesus, to save the world. Sarah had to wait a heartbreakingly long time, but God was indeed working his purpose out.
The history of the Old Testament, the history of the New Testament, the history of the church in the two thousand years since, is that time and again God is working his purposes out, in his time, bringing his salvation, his liberation, his redemption – from slavery in Egypt, from exile in Babylon, and ultimately, from sin and death itself through Christ. At Advent we stop to take note of this greatest of all themes – that God’s purposes are being worked out, his promises will be fulfilled, that darkness will give way to light, that hatred will give way to love, that fear will give way to peace, that sadness will give way to joy, that death will give way to life.
Like Sarah, for us there are times when such hope may seem a long way off, and I know for many of us, the events of this year have added to such feelings, and yet we are encouraged to wait with hope. In just a few weeks time we celebrate the sign that proves beyond all doubt that God has not forgotten us or walked away from our world – he sends his own son to be born into our world. And we wait with hope that the God who came among us will one day do so again, bringing in all its unhindered, abundant fulness his kingdom of love and light. At times, that may feel heartbreakingly distant and far off, but like with Abraham and Sarah, that promise is something worth hoping for, and worth waiting for.