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The Struggle with Providence and Patience

It is said that in the days of westward expansion the Oregon Trail was not hard to follow. It was marked by all the household items settlers had abandoned as unnecessary. Once upon a time, china and fine silverware, extra furniture, and even a piano was a necessity. Once upon a time, settlers believed they would always be at their best and live at their best. In time, and under the duress of time and fatigue, people abandoned what their oxen had no strength to pull. All manner of household effects were abandoned once the reality of the trail and survival set in on them.

     Survival is one way we can understand the story of Abram and Sarai abandoning patience and God’s promise. As you know well, God’s appearance to Abram in his old age came with a promise for an heir from his own body. This was no small promise. Neither was it act of faith on Abram’s part. Genesis 15:4-6 reads this way:

“…a son coming from your body will be your heir. He took him outside and said, “Look up to the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then He said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited to him as righteousness.

     There is a child in the story today, but he is not that child. He is Ishmael. He is a child born under the weight of ten years’ time and impatience; he is a child born under the fear that a promise given to Abram might not include Sarai; he is a child born in the pressing limits of ageing bodies; and he is a child born through an opportunity in a young servant girl. He is the child born to Abram and Sarai when the wait for the promised child failed.

     Read Genesis 16:1-4 with me in your outline or Bible:

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar and she conceived.

     It is, as we say, a perfect storm of impatience and opportunity. Sarai’s childlessness was a stigma in the ancient world and one she certainly wanted to undo. As we see later in Genesis (17:16), God’s will is for the child of promise to come through Sarai, but time is making that scenario unlikely to both Abram and Sarai. And so they seize the opportunity and custom of their time: a servant girl will be the surrogate mother for a child. The phrase you find in Genesis 30:3 is “bear upon my knees,” pointing to the practice of a birthing woman sitting on the knees of the wife as symbolic of her bearing the child. Hagar will bear the child, but Sarai will adopt the child and call him her own. To Sarai, it is an obvious opportunity for a child. To Abram, it is an obvious opportunity for an heir. As we read it, it is an obvious failure in their trust in God.

     This is the last moment’s peace in the story. As the chapter goes on, we find that Sarai’s impatience comes back to bite her. There is an immediate conflict between Sarai and a pregnant Hagar, as the young girl looks with derision on the woman who cannot bear a child. Hagar finds no safety from Sarai’s wrath from Abram, fleeing to the desert to escape the mistreatment. When all is said and done, the child comes and the child will one day leave. And for all the hope that Ishmael, the first child, will be the heir through which Abram builds a nation, it is not to be. Isaac is the child of the promise, and Isaac will come through Sarai. In Isaac, God will establish a covenant (Gen. 17:19). It will require more years of waiting, not to mention more years of temptations. Isaac will arrive, but only on God’s terms.

     As ancient as this story sounds, it could not be more modern. The story of Abram and Sarai and the promise of Isaac is the modern struggle with Providence and patience. God makes a promise, and Abram has to wait for the promise to arrive. God speaks of timing and Abram can think of nothing but time. God sees the passing day as one step closer to the fulfillment of the promise and Abram and Sarai see the passing day as the fading of the promise. Two large bodies of water collide in the story of Abram and the promise of Isaac: God’s promise to move and our responsibility to wait.

     So how do we negotiate the wait? How do we live with the tension of providence and patience, God’s timing and the passing of time?

     First, large promises from God require time. The will of God for humans is that they be conformed to the likeness of his Son (Rom. 8:29). More than being saved from hell, it is God’s will that we resemble Jesus in obedience, in faith, in trust, and in compassion. While salvation can happen in a moment, transformation does not. Jesus’ call to serve the least among us is a large work in the human heart and the pocket wallet, and that change does not come overnight. The call to forgive those who wrong us and pray for enemies is not an overnight process. The list goes on. The Great Commission calls us to take the gospel to the nations and make disciples. The Great Commandment calls us to love the Lord with all heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is God’s will for us, and none of these come easy. These are critical expressions of faith in Christ, but you k now as well as I that each of these is a long, long walk of faith and prayer and setbacks.

     Specifically, we are all immersed in works of God in our own hearts. Some of the great works of God in this room this morning are things like a rest from past sins, reconciliation with loved ones, an honest joy in life, a trust for daily provision, and the security of knowing heaven is ahead. We all know that a large work in us is a large work indeed. We don’t measure these works in weeks. We speak of years, sometimes decades. And that doesn’t even take into account all the relationships we bring before God. Do we really think our parents and children and siblings and neighbors are overnight projects? God is far more concerned with permanent work than small gains lost to time and conflict. What if the time God requires in these works of our lives and people take every minute of the time it takes?

     Second, large promises from God require patience. If we can accept that God is working, then we must trust Him as we wait. Hebrews 12:1 reads, Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. The fuller meaning of perseverance here is patient endurance. The word is other places translated as patience or patient waiting. It is an active word, not passive. In the New Testament, patience was usually exercised under persecution and duress. Enduring under those circumstances changes the word. We wait on God for His purposes, but we also wait on God as a part of His purpose.

     There is nothing like waiting to reveal our heart’s direction. It exposed Abram and Sarai and it exposes us. We are tempted to take matters into our own hands. We are tempted by trusted people to abandon God’s will. It’s all in the story. And we know it well. While we are called to large things, we are often tempted to abandon them for small things. In patience we’ll learn that God’s timing can be trusted. More, we’ll learn that God can be trusted.




    Bulletin Insert

    Genesis: The Ancient Modern Story III                                                  Genesis 16

          The Oregon Trail was not hard to follow or understand: survival forces decisions.

     

         Survival is one way we can understand the story of Abram and Sarai abandoning patience and God’s promise. 

         Genesis 15:4-6:

    “…a son coming from your body will be your heir. He took him outside and said, “Look up to the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then He said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited to him as righteousness.

         

         Genesis 16:1-4:

    Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar and she conceived.

         It is, as we say, a perfect storm of impatience and opportunity. Sarai’s childlessness was a stigma in the ancient world and one she certainly wanted to undo. To Abram, it is an obvious opportunity for an heir. As we read it, it is an obvious failure in their trust in God.

              As ancient as this story sounds, it could not be more modern. The story of Abram and Sarai and the promise of Isaac is the modern struggle with

    __________________     and      __________________.

         So how do we negotiate the wait? How do we live with providence and patience? God’s timing and the passing of time?

         First, large promises from God require ____________. 

    And we know in all things that god works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son…         Romans 8:28-29

    While salvation can happen in a moment, deep change does not.

    Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself.      St. Frances de Sales

    God is far more concerned with permanent work than small gains lost to time and conflict. What if the time God requires in these works of our lives and people take every minute of the time it takes?

         Second, large promises from God require _______________. , Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Hebrews 12:1

    We wait on God for His purposes, but we also wait on God as a part of His purposes.

    We must cease striving and trust God to provide what He thinks is best and in whatever time he chooses to make it available. But this kind of trusting doesn’t come naturally. It’s a spiritual crisis of the will in which we must choose to execute faith.




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