The Absurdity of the Promise

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17

17 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty;[a] walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram,[b] but your name shall be Abraham,[c] for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her and also give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed 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?”

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

One of my favorite rooms in our house is what we call the “reading room.” Long ago, it was a formal dining room, but we changed it into something more useful to us: a room with music, books, good light, and a comfortable place to read. Most of the books on those shelves are our collection of children’s books, or more precisely the collection of children’s books that Caitlin has carefully curated for our family over the years. She has a gift for collecting the best, and there are wonderful stories on those shelves.

One that I often reach for – when the choice of what to read is mine – is a classic called The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. That’s one you may have heard of before.

It’s the story of a mother bunny talking to her baby bunny about how much she loves him. The baby bunny asks a series of absurd questions, suggesting that he might run away. The bunny begins, “I’m running away.” The mother bunny says, “If you run away, I’ll run after you.”

“What if I become a fish in a trout stream and swim away from you?”

“Then I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

“What if I become a rock on a mountain high above you?”

“Then I will become a mountain climber and climb to where you are.”

A crocus in a hidden garden? Then the mother becomes a gardener. A bird who flies away?  The mother becomes a tree for the bird to nest. On and on the story goes, becoming more and more absurd, a sailboat, a flying trapeze artist, a little boy.

Each time, with each change, with each effort to run away, the mother promises to come and find the little bunny, because he is her little bunny.

The magic of the book, at least to me, is that it is fun, outlandish, and absurd. It creates laughter and silliness, children snuggle close, and it communicates the deepest possible truth: the truth of a parent who, out of deep love, promises to always be there. While Margaret Wise Brown was writing about the love between a parent and a child, she could have easily been writing about the love between God and the world.

God relates to the world like a parent, and God makes absurd promises to the world, promises that create laughter and wonder and worship. And promises that communicate the deepest possible truth: that out of great love God promises to always find us and bring us home.

During the Lenten season this year, each week in worship, we are hearing the stories of God’s deep promises. We call them covenants, and when we use the language of covenant in church, we mean a deep and solemn promise. The idea of covenant and covenantal theology lies at the heart of our Reformed and Presbyterian faith. We are a covenantal people.

Our lives, as the people of God, are shaped by God’s deep and solemn promises. We are claimed by God’s promises. We live by God’s promises. We trust that God’s promises are true. We work and hope for a future that is shaped by God’s promises.

When a person is baptized, we baptize trusting in God’s promise. The minister begins by saying, “Obeying the word of our Lord Jesus, and confident of his promises, we baptize those whom God has called.”

On the other side of our lives, when we gather to entrust the one whom we love into the arms of God for the final time, we lean once more on God’s promise. The minister begins the service, saying, “In baptism, this one was clothed with Christ; in the day of Christ’s coming, this one shall be clothed with glory.”

Shall be.” The attorneys among us will remind that “shall” is the strongest form of the verb in English, not may or will but shall -the firm and sure promise of God.

From beginning to end to everything in between, our lives are built on the promises of God. Later in our service, we will sing the hymn, “Leaning on the everlasting arms.” It may feel a little Baptist to sing it, and that’s okay. It gives song to our life as people who lean on the promises of God.

O how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way,
leaning on the everlasting arms;
O how bright the path grows from day to day,
leaning on the everlasting arms.

As God’s people, we do not lean on our own understanding. We lean on God, God’s wisdom, and God’s way. We do not even lean on the promises we make to others or to ourselves, or even the promises we make to God.  We lean on God’s promises to us. We are a covenantal people.

Last week, we heard God’s promise to never again flood the earth, a promise that God made to Noah while the Ark was still wet. This promise to every living thing was the beginning of the story of God’s decision to work creatively to save humanity and to restore God’s good creation from the inside. From that day with Noah, you see, God decided to keep working on us.

Today, we come to the next chapter in that story, God’s promise to Abraham. God promised to bless Abraham with many descendants and through him to bless the world. When God chose to save humankind and restore creation from within, God had to start with someone, somewhere. That someone was a man called Abram, who was living with his wife Sarai, and the somewhere was a little farm in a country called Ur. Abram was seventy-five years old, and he and wife Sarai did not have any children.

Think about that, for a moment. God promised to give a seventy-five-year old man and his seventy-four-year-old wife many descendants. Biology then was not too different from biology today. The arc of human life then was not too different from the arc of human life today. Abram and Sarai had every reason to believe this was not going to be their story. They had every reason to think this was absurd. They had every reason to look at the facts and say this cannot happen. But they misunderstood the promise.

This promise was a God-sized promise from the beginning.

Abram, to his great credit, trusted God’s promise and left his home. But for twenty-five more years, Abram and Sarai waited on God to fulfill the promise. Our reading today from Genesis 17, you see, is the second time Abram receives this promise — twenty-five years after the first time. Now Abram was 100 and Sarai was 99. They still had no child, and for all the reasons that you can well imagine, God’s promise still seemed absurd.

Abram and Sarai were already working on caveats and backup plans and reasonable alternatives. Their back-up plan is about a woman named Haggar and her son Ishmael, but their story is more than I have time to get into this morning. Because, you see, here, in chapter seventeen, God reiterates the original promise again. God is not interested in a backup plan, in alteratives, or work-arounds.

Instead, God makes the promise even stronger and more specific. God says to Abram, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram,[b] but your name shall be Abraham,[c] for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.”

God is doubling down on the promise. Abram’s name is changed to Abraham, a new name that means father to many nations. Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah, a new name that means mother of nations. Even to this couple at one hundred and ninety-nine God was making a God-sized promise, and asking Abraham and Sarah for a whole-hearted faith.

We are a covenant people, and this is how it works. An only-God-can-do-it promise that’s a call for a whole-hearted faith. It’s not just Abraham who was given an absurd and impossible promise. So are we. It’s not just Abraham who is asked to walk by faith, and trust what he cannot see, and believe what he cannot imagine, and stake his life on what seems impossible. So are we.

In this Lenten season, we are moving steadily toward the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, God’s Word made flesh. Jesus made absurd promises to his disciples and to his challengers, promises that they could not imagine. “Destroy this temple,” he said, “and in three days I will raise it up.” They were dumbfounded. They thought he was talking about the literal Temple that took 46 years to build. That was absurd! He couldn’t rebuild it in three days. Later, they realized he was talking about his body and resurrection from the dead. That was even more absurd, and they had no idea.

When Jesus had risen from the tomb, and the disciples went looking for the body, the angel that sitting on the stone said to them, “Why are you looking for him here? He’s going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Don’t you remember, he promised? It was an absurd promise. They didn’t understand. But they remembered. He promised.

We are a covenantal people. Our lives are built on the one, continuing promise of God. We live by, and work for, and hope for a future that shaped by God’s promises. God’s promises that call for a whole-hearted faith.

What are some of the promises God makes to us? We began this season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, with the words of the prophet Isaiah.

“Share your bread with the hungry…

bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly.”

This is the shape of God’s promise. In a world of over-consumption and deep need, where there is enough for but not all have enough, we are called to share what we have. In a world where we draw lines and reinforce borders, we are called to welcome the poor into our home. And trust that God’s light and healing will follow.  We live by a promise.

The words of the Psalm 23, some of the most favorite in scripture,

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

This is the shape of God’s promise. God does not promise that we will never walk through the valley of the shadow, but when we come into that valley, when we must go through the shadow, we walk in darkness, we are promised that God will be with us, that we have nothing, ultimately, to fear. We live by a promise.

This is the shape of God’s promise. Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your clothes, what you will wear… Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.” In a world of anxious striving, in a culture that seeks to quiet the demons of worry through constant accumulation, in a culture that seeks security through self-interest, Jesus calls us to seek the ways and will of God and trust the promise that we will have all we need. Followers of Jesus are called to live by promise.

Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you will be acting as children of your Father in heaven.” In a culture where we shame our enemies with zingers and posts and memes, where we cancel those with whom we disagree, Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for them. We are called to live by the promise of the children of God.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me…” In a culture where we struggle to care for others, much less care for ourselves, that faces burdens that are too heavy to carry… Jesus calls us to come to him and learn his ways and live with a lightness of heart that is a gift of grace. We are called to live by his promise.

When the John the Revelator had a vision of the last days, he saw the living God upon a throne. A voice said from the throne, “Behold! I am making all things new.” Then, to John he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” In a world where so many of us fear for the future, a world that seems so inter-connected and yet so fragile, a world that is so beautiful and yet feels so tenuous, a world where voice of anxiety and fear are amplified, we are called to trust the voice from the throne, the One who is making all things new. We are a people of the promise.

We are a covenantal people. The promises of God are not small promises; they are deep and wide and solemn. They were so absurd, Abraham laughed in God’s face. The Apostle Paul called it foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others.  If the promises of God do not seem absurd or outlandish, or foolish, or impossibly good or unbelievably beautiful, I invite you to get to know them better. Lent is the ideal time, because are on the way to meet a God who crucified, died, and rose again for us and for our salvation.

We have a promise-making and promise-keeping God. God has always made impossible promises, and God has always called for a whole-hearted faith.


Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.

First Presbyterian Church

Asheville, North Carolina



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