A sermon preached by The Rev. Robert C. Snyder
February 25, 2018
Last week’s Old Testament lesson focused on God’s covenant with Noah after the flood. This week we turn to the covenant between God and Abraham and Sarah, which provides the initial foundation of the Hebrew people who trace their origin back to Abraham and Sarah and in them, discover the roots of their faith. Our reading is comprised of only two parts: the covenant with Abraham in the first seven verses, and then the covenant with Sarah in the last two verses.
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Abram was ninety years old when the Lord appeared to him to establish a covenant binding them to each other. Covenants in the Bible are made with a sign. Last week it was the rainbow in the sky that would serve to remind the people again and again that God is faithful.
This week God seals the covenant with Abraham by promising the one thing Abraham wanted more than anything else in the world: a true and natural son who would inherit the family possessions and pass on the family tradition of father Abraham. Ishmael, Abraham’s son with Sarah’s maid, Hagar, was a nice boy, and all that, but he wasn’t Sarah’s child, and that made all the difference.
It hadn’t been easy for Sarah and Abraham. “…they had had plenty of hard knocks in their time, and there were plenty more of them still to come, but at that moment when the angel told them they’d better start dipping into their old age pensions for cash to build a nursery, the reason they laughed was that it suddenly dawned on them that the wildest dreams they’d ever had hadn’t been half wild enough.”
How did it happen that Abram and Sarah managed to produce a child so late in their life? Abraham and Sarah believed it was the direct intervention of the God in whom they had so much faith. What do you think?
“In Rabbi Harold Kushner’s phenomenally popular book, WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE, he says that in this life, “God does not will bad things to happen to people” The Douglas High School tragedy was NOT THE WILL OF GOD, in spite of what some well-meaning pious people probably said to those grieving families as they buried their loved ones. When bad things happen to people, it is mostly a result of happenstance.
We keep insisting that our fate is in the hands of a vast roulette wheel. When your number is up, it is up. Nothing is meant by the good or bad things than happen to us. It is all a matter of chance.
“A number of years ago, Christian therapist Wayne Oates wrote a wonderful book entitled: “Luck: A Secular God.” Oates claimed that modern people no longer believe in a purposeful, intervening, directing God. What we believe in is luck. Luck has become our way of explaining ourselves, explaining our world, explaining the good or bad things that come our way.
“How do you explain the popular gambling industry around the world? … a visit to Australia would show that in nearly every Australian city, the largest building project in the city is a massive casino – allegedly being built for Asian tourists to come Australia and gamble.
“Lotteries have been phenomenally successful here in America. Despite the ridiculous odds against anyone winning a lottery, millions play them, all hoping for the chance to get something for nothing.” A Don Esmonde article in an issue of the BUFFALO NEWS several years ago, related the story of a man who invested $30.00 a week in the lottery over a number of years, and his accumulated payout amounts to over $100,000. The article points out that if that $30.00 had been invested in the stock market over the same period of time, he’d be almost a millionaire anyway. He’d rather trust to luck.
Both biblical faith and science question the notion of luck. The French scholar, Blaise Pascal noted that science shows there are certain laws of probability, but never anything in the world that could be called chance. Chance, luck, is only what appears when we observe circumstances at close range.
Over a long enough period of time, when certain processes are repeated, patterns are discerned. Thus, there is probability, but not chance. When we observe the natural world, there does appear to be a sort of randomness; but with sustained observation, we discern patterns, even in the randomness. When you flip a coin a hundred times, it will not be by luck that half the time it will come up ‘heads’ and half ‘tails.’
“The word, luck, never really appears anywhere in the bible. The word ‘chance’ appears only a couple of times in the New Testament. This seems odd, since these were very popular words in the Greco-Roman world.
”The Greeks were always ascribing things to the Fates – those women who sat at their spinning wheels in heaven and, when their thread broke, broke the lives of some poor mortals here on earth. Our lives, said Homer, are mere playthings of the gods. It’s all a matter of luck, of being jerked around by good or bad luck. A lot of this discussion has to do with definitions.
The National Safety Council once urged news organizations to stop speaking of ‘accidents’ on our highways. They believed it is more accurate to speak of these events as ‘crashes.’ If someone is driving 90 miles an hour down Dixie Highway, and has a wreck – is that really an accident?
“The use of the word ‘accident’ implies that the person was proceeding along responsibly and then, zap, from out of nowhere, had an accident. ‘Crash’ is more honest for many things that happen to us, rather than ‘accident’ which implies that we had no responsibility for what happened. Sometimes, when we say, “it was just bad luck”, we’re making an attempt to absolve ourselves of our own culpability for events in our lives.
“The truth of the matter is that our lives are always busy moving somewhere, whether we take responsibility for their direction or not. We are busy opening doors and closing doors – all the time. We have made certain decisions about our past, invested our time and energy and money in ways that make a certain kind of future possible for us, eliminating other possibilities.
“Our current infatuation with luck is of one piece with our contemporary unwillingness to take responsibility. If the world is all a matter of luck, or chance, then what can anyone do about it?” Two philosophical schools of thought apply here.
Fatalism — is by definition, the belief that events just inevitably happen to a person. Fatalism says that all events are predetermined and we have no choice but to submit to what ever happens to us, for good or ill.
Socio-paths, at the same time, are people who are incapable of accepting responsibility for their actions, who have no sense of moral obligation, and whose behavior is antisocial – that is, without regard for the effect of his or her actions on the people nearby.
We have an abundance of both fatalists and socio-paths in our world, and when they work in tandem in one person, they make a behavior cocktail that can be deadly.
“That’s why the biblical view that there is no such thing as luck, chance, or random happenstance is so important to our lives. What there is, is God, moving, caring, hearing, and acting behind the scenes of our lives. What there is is PROVIDENCE, — the quiet conviction that, by God, our world is moving somewhere, toward some good end predetermined by God.
“That was the point of our lesson this morning – this story of God’s promise to Abraham. God came to Abraham to tell him that there are divine plans for his family. Here was a man without a family, old, toward the end of his life, a time of life when most people would be planning for a quiet retirement.
“God has other plans for Abraham, a plan to make out of Abraham and Sarah a great family which would be a blessing to the entire world. When Sarah conceived, we might describe that as incredibly good luck (though in our world, having a baby when we’re ninety, might not be so lucky). Abraham and Sarah spoke of it as providence, as part of the guiding purpose of God for their life and their family.
“In story after biblical story there is this affirmation of providence that flies in the face of our contemporary tendency to describe our lives as the workings of good and bad luck. Providence is that care and guidance of God over creation. I believe that providence can be understood and recognized only in the backward view, never in the forward. That is, it is difficult to speak of God’s guiding in terms of what happens to us at this moment or what will happen to us tomorrow, but we are more able to discern the loving hand of God in that which has already happened in the past.
“As Christians, we ought not to say ‘good luck.’ Rather, affirming providence, we ought to say, ‘God be with you.’ Thus we can say adieu, or adios, the French and Spanish words that mean “God be with you,” but “Good luck” doesn’t fit who we are as children of a loving and benevolent Creator.
“What we call luck is really the absence of any known human reason for why an event should turn out one way or another. Christians believe there is a reason, a rationale behind the movements of the world. That reason is called the love of God. We look for evidence of that love, that holy reasoning in everything that happens to us. We believe that this world is meant to mean something, to add up to more than the mere working of chance. In spite of the way things seem today, the response of the children to the world the last two weeks suggests we are moving inevitably toward God, toward an eternal embrace by the One who created us and means to have us, no matter what happens to us along the way. Amen.