“Anxiety and Learning the Way of God”Dr. Gerald L. Borchert Genesis 18:1-15; Exodus 2-8a; Romans 5:1-8. Year A - June 14, 2020—Proper 6 (11) Second Sunday after Pentecost
Whether we like it or not there may come times for any and all humans when we experience points of desperation. They may involve concerns over health, frustrations over unrealized expectations, attacks from unexpected sources, outright threats to what we hold dear, even the potential loss of our very lives.
In such times our hopes for resolving our hurts and pains, for attaining our quests in life or for escaping our immanent dangers can easily fade, dissolve or explode. Indeed, we may find ourselves asking those ultimate questions concerning the meaning of life and whether or not there remains any hope with God for rectifying such situations.
We may trust in God but doubt can easily assail us. Just think for a few moments about Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah in this introduction to our first reading for today. The great eleventh chapter of Hebrews and the fourth chapter of Romans picture Abraham as a model of faith but that does not mean that he had no problems and questions with God or in his life of faith.
He may be a wonderful model for us today in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac but just review his life and you will quickly recognize that he was fallible like any human. He failed to be honest about his marriage to Sarai not just once but twice in order to save his life since both the Egyptian Pharaoh and Abimelech could easily have dispatched him and put the beautiful Sarai in their harems (See Gen 12:13; 20:2). Was God directing him then? And what would you have done if you were Abraham in such a situation? The answer is not easy.
Then, remember that this patriarchal couple attempted to be patient and wait for a son, which God promised. But when they became octogenarian’s timeliness did not seem to be timely anymore. So, Abram agreed with his wife to use an alternative method (16:1-3) and at eighty-six he had a son by Hagar (16:16). But that was not God’s intention for them. Accordingly, Abram and Sarai were faced with entering into yet another waiting game—and this one was for more than another decade.
Finally, at the incredible age of ninety-nine God told him that they were in for name changes. His name would be Abraham (“father of multitude”) and Sarah would bear a son (17:1-5, 15-16). Such a thought at this point was just a little too much for Abraham and he fell on his face laughing. He then pled that God should simply take Ishmael instead.
Now if you were Abraham, what do you think about his solution? Was he unreasonable? Well, I am sure you know that God’s answer was in the negative since God intended to establish a new covenant with Abraham and this son of promise.
But there is more to this story which suggests that God must have a wonderful sense of humor because the name God gave to this son of the covenant was Isaac—which means “he laughs” or just “laughter.” Now we can speculate on why God chose that name for the son but the story also reminds us that God is able to work around human foibles and do not forget that in dealing with Ishmael God was even able to bless him in spite of the fact that he was the result of a misconceived human plan (17:17-21).
Don’t you think it is a fascinating story? How would you evaluate Abraham’s actions? I am sure you know the story, but would you like to be treated in this way by God? And what would be your honest initial evaluation of God’s actions in this story?
But let me remind you that we have just introduced our first text for today. In Genesis 18, the follow-up story which academics define as a theophany—an appearance of God—we find Abraham and Sarah tenting in the region then known as the Oaks of Mamre.
This area later became known as Hebron, the burial site of some of patriarchs and the city where David established his first capital. Today it lies in the Palestinian territories and tourists do not now usually visit this biblical site because it is one of the flash points of violence between the parties in Israel.
The story here recounts the visit of three persons who appear near the tent where Abraham was sitting during the heat of the day. Typical of Middle Eastern hospitality cultural patterns, he welcomed these strange visitors warmly to his camp. Then he summoned his wife and servants to prepare an elaborate dinner for them because they were his official guests. Treating such visitors as official guests was a common and expected practice in dessert areas of ancient times.
This custom of camp patterns is the reason why Hebrews 13:2 mentions the possibility of being unaware of entertaining angels. Later, such camp patterns were merged into more urban experiences but entertainment of guests remains a very serious custom among middle easterners still today. I do not like coffee but in the Middle East I drink it with a great deal of sugar because to refuse it is a serious rejection of custom.
In this early story of Abraham, however, the writer treats these strange visitors as the physical embodiments of God and as is typical of theophanies the visitors had an important message to deliver. It was none other than a confirmation of the coming pregnancy of Sarah.
When Sarah who had been inside the tent heard this message, she—like Abraham—laughed to herself at the thought that such a birth might be possible at her age (18:12). But her laughter was short-lived because the divine visitor confronted her with her laughter and asked her the stunning question: “Is anything too hard for Yahweh?” (18:14).
That question, I suggest to you, is a very crucial one for Christians in our age of narcissism and skepticism. We need to ponder it very carefully. Anxiety and frustration, pain and hurt, doubt and fear are everywhere around us and many of our views of God are so myopic that they are totally incapable of dealing with the bewildering complex of problems that continually assail us.
But I would suggest, as J. B. Phillips queried in the last century: Is our God too small? It is actually the same question that the Lord God asked Sarah in ancient times and it is the question that our text asks us today.
But it is now time to fast forward and deal with our second text which comes from Exodus 19. In this text the Israelites have been released from bondage after God displayed his mighty power to Pharaoh and they have traveled into the Sinai with Moses.
Being led by God’s pillar of light in the day and pillar of fire at night, they have finally arrived and have set up camp before the strategic mountain of God in the Sinai. So, we come to their encounter with God, who called to Moses from the mountain and told him to instruct the people. Now, my friends please pay special attention to the directives of God in this story.
In the familiar pattern of the Old Testament, God detailed how Yahweh, their Lord, had been active among them: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians” and added “how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (19:4). Then notice carefully the words that follow the rehearsal of God’s actions. The writer uses the word “Now” to prepare the people for the divine conditional directive of “if” which you should understand is foundational to all of God’s statements. “If ,“ the people “obey my voice and keep my covenant” then a promise will follow.
So many times, in reading the Bible people fail to read the conditional “if.” Therefore, we fail to understand the nature of God’s promises. For example, I suggest that whenever you discuss matters of prophecy, you should always insert into your conversations the conditional nature of all such prophecy from Jeremiah 18:1-11.
Don’t miss the “ifs” there! In this present text the condition of obedience is basic to the promise of Israel being God’s special “possession among all people” and God’s “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).
What does this text then mean concerning God’s relationship to Israel? Unfortunately, like us, Israel was not very faithful. God expected the Israelites to be obedient and keep the divine patterns for living faithful lives. God tried over and over again to bring them back to the divine way.
God even allowed the Israelites to experience “the Exile” in order to get their attention, but even exile did not seem to be very effective long range for the people. So finally, God sent Jesus as the physical presence of the divine self to help the people understand the divine way.
But humans, including his earlier people who were chosen to be his models as a “holy nation,” rejected God’s divine messenger. And countless others since that time continue reject the divine way—a way that the apostle Paul sought to outline in Romans 5, which is our third text for today.
The goal for Paul in the opening verses of Romans 5 was to set out the way to Christian maturity. He did so by using his well-known triad of: faith, hope and love (5:1, 2 and 5; cf. I Cor 13:13). While Gerald Borchert spelled out this path to maturity in greater detail in his work on Christ and Chaos: Biblical Keys to Ethical Questions (Macon, GA: Nurturing Faith, 2020, 55-58), let me remind you here that this triad is not always used in the same order.
The order depends on what is Paul’s primary focus of his message. That focus is not always the same. Therefore, in other letters the order can be faith, love and hope (see Col 1:4-5 and 1 Thess 1:3). In Romans the emphasis falls on love the way of becoming more holy.
Accordingly, after expounding on the nature of faith and justification in the first four chapters of Romans and having used Abraham as a model of trusting in God, Paul was ready to address the subject of growing up into Christ. With this goal in mind he assumed that they understood that their ultimate hope was to spend eternity with their Lord (Rom 5:2).
So, Paul then turned to outline what it means to grow up and become more like Christ which involved the way they should relate to Christ and others—the focus of chapters five through eight. Was such growth automatic? Absolutely not! It was a process that involved suffering and endurance and it would ultimately result in the firm and steadfast hope that they anticipated (5:3-5). What then was basis or foundation for such growth? It was none other than the gracious love of Christ which is communicated to us through the work of the Holy Spirit (5:5).
To make sure that they recognized what that love of Christ entailed, Paul then detailed what Christ had done for them in their helpless, sinful state. The Lord God has demonstrated this love for humanity that while we remained sinners and were incapable of achieving righteousness on our own, Christ came and died for us so that now that we have been justified, we can truly expect to be saved (5:6:10).
If you have followed me thus far, you should be able to perceive the import of a familiar little story I learned from Scotland. While I would not claim its authenticity, it makes an important point. Two Scottish theologians were walking down the streets of Edinburgh when a street evangelist addressed them with the words “Brothers are you saved?’
One of the theologians kindly replied “Yes! Partly! and No!” When the addresser responded: “What do you mean?” The theologian replied “Yes, I am Justified. Partly, I am sanctified. And No, I am not glorified.” Friends, I believe fully in evangelism, and I would never demean people who seek to win others to Christ.
But this little story points to the stages of salvation. Justification is only the beginning of our salvation. Sanctification is the process we are in as growing and maturing Christians and the end of the process is our Glorification with Christ. The Book of Romans is mainly about the middle stage of becoming holy or growing in Christ.
If you have been justified—if you have said an initial “Yes” to the way of Jesus—don’t stop there! The Lord wants you to grow into way of Jesus. That is the reason why Paul asks many questions in Romans chapters 6 and 7.
Have you have stopped growing? Or, do you think there is nothing more you have to do beyond the initial stage of saying “Yes” to Jesus? We may be able to recite what God has done for us in sending Christ but unless we are seeking to grow up in Christ, we will in fact be vegetating and slipping back into the way of sin. And Paul was fearful that believers might slip and once again “let sin reign in [their] mortal bodies” (6:12).
If you have been slipping, maybe it is time to renew your commitment to Jesus now. Please remember that just as with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai God has conditions to being part of the “kingdom of God and [holy] holy nation.”
Please do not leave this service without honestly asking the Lord to assist you in growing into the likeness of Jesus and to help you to live toward others in his love.
About the writer: Gerald L. Borchert:
Senior Professor at Carson-Newman University (TN); Former Trustee, Emeritus Professor & Thesis Director at the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies (FL) was a Canadian lawyer who holds an honors Ph.D. from Princeton in New Testament and did post-doctoral work in Jerusalem, Cambridge, Hamburg, Duke, Boston and San Francisco.
He has taught at many schools throughout the world and been the dean of two American theological seminaries. A translator for the New Living Translation, he has penned over 200 articles and over 30 books including commentaries on John, Revelation, Galatians and Thessalonians as well as other works on Jesus, Assurance and Warning, Worship, Evangelism, Counseling, etc., and two Guides to visiting the Bible lands.
Among his most recent works are Portraits of Jesus for an Age of Biblical illiteracy (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2016) and Christ and Chaos: Biblical Keys to Ethical Questions (Macon, GA: Nurturing Faith, Inc., 2020).
He is married to Doris Ann Cox, a retired seminary Professor of Christian Education and Ministry Supervision; the father of two sons: Mark and Tim (both of whom are ordained ministers and the focus for his latest book); two professional daughters-in-law; and four grandchildren.
Scripture and Music:
Psalms 116:1-2; 12-19
More Love to Thee, O Christ
O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing
God, Whose Love Is Reigning O er Us
The God of Abraham Praise
O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go
Rescue the Perishing
Standing on the Promises
Blessed Assurance/I Must Tell Jesus — Mary McDonald
Lord, Here Am I — John Ness Beck
Lift High the Cross – Carl Schalk
Here I Am, Lord — Daniel Schutte
Lord, Here Am I — John Ness Beck
My Tribute — Andre Crouch