It's Not Too Late
Genesis 18:9–33; 22:1–14
. . . what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Have you ever felt that it was too late? That things were so awful they could never get better, that you had failed so horribly and so often you could never, ever recover, that the situation was too far gone ever to be salvageable?
That was how Abram and Sarai felt at one point in their lives. Like many couples, they had dreamed all their lives of having children. But the years passed and no children came. They had received a promise from God that they would become a great family and that all people everywhere would be blessed through their descendants. But there was one problem: they had no descendants. When they were far too old to have children, you can imagine how they felt: it was just too late. Then they received reassurance from God that they would have a child. No wonder, according to the book of Genesis, that Sarai laughed when she first heard the promise!
However they felt at first, over time Abram and Sarai came to believe that what seemed impossible was possible after all. When that impossible baby was born, guess what they named him? They named him Isaac, which means ‘laughter’. And their names were changed, too, reflecting their new status as parents – from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah.
You might expect a happy ending at this point, but it was not that simple. Even after embarking on the adventure of faith, and even after becoming parents when it seemed too late, Abraham and Sarah faced another huge challenge.
Put yourself in their sandals. Imagine that you and everyone you know believes that God is a severe and demanding deity who can bestow forgiveness and other blessings only after human blood has been shed. Imagine how that belief in human sacrifice will affect the way you live, the way you worship and the way you treat others. Now imagine how hard it would be to be the first person in your society to question such a belief. Imagine how much courage it would take, especially because your blood might be the next to be sacrificed! Questioning widely held assumptions about God can be a dangerous venture indeed.
'Are we allowed to question or point out problems with these images and understandings that are widely held and emotionally comforting for many?'
But if our assumptions aren’t sometimes questioned, belief in God becomes less and less plausible. For example, biblical writers used the imagery of God sitting on a throne to express their belief that God was powerful and glorious, like an ancient king. Even though we may agree that God is powerful and glorious, does that mean we must believe that God’s power and glory are exactly like those of ancient kings – who could often be insecure, capricious, vain or vicious? Does it mean we must conclude that God has a literal gluteus maximus that rests on a really big chair floating up in the sky somewhere? Are we allowed to question or point out problems with these images and understandings that are widely held and emotionally comforting for many?
Perhaps we can agree that whoever and whatever God is, our best imagery can only point towards God like a finger. We can never capture God in our concepts like a fist. In fact, the more we know about God, the more we have to acknowledge we don’t know.
The bigger our understanding about God, the bigger the mystery that we must acknowledge. Our faith must always be open to correction, enhancement and new insight. That’s why humility is so essential for all who speak of God. Science faces a similar problem, by the way. Scientists have names for gravity and light and electricity and magnetism. But even though they have names for these realities, and even though they can create models and formulas to predict how they will work, what these forces really are remains a mystery. It’s pretty humbling when you think about it. That’s why, in the world of science, people are constantly questioning old assumptions and creating new theories or models. Scientists test and argue about those new theories and models until they are either confirmed or replaced with something even better.
The dominant theory of God in Abraham’s and Sarah’s day taught that the gracious God who gives human life would also demand human life as a sacrifice. So when Abraham believed God was commanding him to kill Isaac, he was being faithful to a traditional model of how God and life worked. We might wish that Abraham had argued over this theory, just as he did when he believed God was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. But strangely, what Abraham did for two cities he refrained from doing for his own son.
So, one day Abraham led Isaac up a mountain. He piled stones into an altar, tied up his son and placed him on the stones. He raised the knife, and once again it seemed too late. But at that last possible instant, Abraham saw a ram nearby, its horns stuck in a thicket. Suddenly he realised that God had provided a ram to sacrifice in place of Isaac, his son. What a powerful new insight! Animal blood could please or appease their God as a substitute for human blood!
It was commonplace in the ancient world for a man to lead his son up a mountain to be sacrificed to his deity. It was extraordinary for a man to come down the mountain with his son still alive. Through that ancient story, Abraham’s descendants explained why they had changed their theory or model of God, and why they dared to be different from their neighbours who still practised human sacrifice. It wasn’t too late to challenge widely held assumptions and change their theory of God! But they still weren’t finished. Many generations after ritualised human sacrifice was left behind for ever, prophets and poets arose among Abraham’s descendants who made the shocking claim that God doesn’t need animal sacrifices either.
'...they realised God isn’t the one who is angry and hostile and needs appeasement.'
They realised that God could never need anything from us, since God provides everything for us. Not only that, but they realised God isn’t the one who is angry and hostile and needs appeasement. We humans are the angry ones! Our hostile, bloodthirsty hearts are the ones that need to be changed!
So over many centuries, led along by many teachers and prophets, Abraham’s descendants came to believe that God wanted one thing from humanity . . . not sacrifice, whether human or animal, but this: to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God. The only sacrifice that mattered to God was the holy gift of humble hearts and lives dedicated to his way of love. So with faith, it’s not too late. It’s not too late for a dream to come true, and it’s not too late to learn something new.
That’s true for us today as we follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah, walking this road together. We’re still learning, rethinking, growing, discovering. In spite of long delays and many disappointments, will we dare to keep dreaming impossible dreams?
In spite of the assumptions that everyone around us holds to be true, will we dare to ask new questions and make new discoveries – including lessons about God and what God really desires? It may seem as if it’s too late to keep hoping, to keep trying, to keep learning, to keep growing. But to be alive in the story of creation means daring to believe it’s not too late.
Meditate and Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time when you almost gave up, but are glad you didn’t.
3. What are some critical issues in today’s world – or in our personal lives – where we might say ‘It’s too late’ or ‘It’s impossible’?
4. For children: What makes you laugh? Why do you think Sarah laughed in this story?
5. Activate: This week, try saying ‘It’s not too late’ when you’re tempted to be cynical or give up. Or practise the art of ‘the second laugh’. The first laugh comes as a reflex when we think something is impossible. The second laugh comes as a choice when we laugh at our lack of faith.
6. Meditate: After a few moments of silence, complete this sentence as your prayer: ‘Living God, it’s not too late to change my mind about . . .’