What happens when it feels like your world has come unglued and is falling apart?
How do you press onward when your tightly knit plans unravel into a tangle of loose threads?
What do you become when your identity feels threatened with undoing or the path you’re walking comes dangerously undone?
Those questions weigh heavy on many hearts and minds these days in the wake of COVID-19, political upheaval, protests in the streets, and other challenges confronting our world.
So, for the coming weeks, I’ll be preaching a sermon series titled “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart.” The series explores 12 Bible stories of unraveled shame and unraveled identity, unraveled fear and grief, unraveled dreams and expectations.
Twelve stories on the same theme might seem like a lot of unnecessary redundancy. But I think our sense of feeling frayed and unraveled won’t be going away any time soon. And making our way through it all requires re-thinking our understanding of God’s presence in our lives and re-imagining our belief in God’s working together unto good in all things.
To start us off, we turn to one of the many scenes in the Old Testament story of Abraham and Sarah, the elderly couple whose lives, plans, hopes, dreams and expectations were unraveled and re-knit by the grace-filled desires of God.
Sarah carries the pain of infertility and miscarriage into her old age. So, when God appears and announces that she will bear a child, the surprise, disbelief — and perhaps even joy — that come with that notice are likely as deep as the pain of infertility has been.
The Lord doesn’t always answer our prayers as he did for Sarah. But what we can trust is this — sometimes, even after life seems to fall apart, God can surprise us and unravel our plans with unexpected joy — if we are willing to receive the gift.
Listen for the Word of the Lord in the book of Genesis:
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said,
“My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.”
So they said, “Do as you have said.” Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.”
Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk, and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate. They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.”
Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him.
Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”
The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” (Genesis 18:1-15)
The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me. Everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (Genesis 21:1-7)
The goodness of God unravels several things in the hearts and minds of this aging couple through their unexpected bundle of baby joy:
Sarah’s disbelief in God’s promise of turning hopelessness on its head unravels into laughter.
Sarah and Abraham’s perceptions of God and what God can do are undone.
Sarah and Abraham’s tangled resignation to living a sterile life of continued barrenness is untangled.
That shines the spotlight on the bottom-line good news of this story that’s proclaimed in the form of a question: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
Is anything too difficult or impossible for the Lord?
Is anything too astonishingly marvelous or surprisingly extraordinary for the Lord?
In no way should we hear this as permission to forget all we know about science or history, or to claim that absolutely anything will happen when the Lord pitches his tent among us. The perilous disappointment of such belief plays out all around us every day.
Some couples are helped in their desire for a child, and some are not – though each prays fervently to the same God for the gift of new life.
Some people die young, while others live long and happy lives – though each prays passionately to the same God for healing and wholeness.
Some people are blessed with opportunity and advancement, safety and security, and some are not – though each prays unceasingly to the same God for mercy and resurrection.
So, how should we hear “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Is anything too difficult or impossible for the Lord? Is anything too astonishingly marvelous or surprisingly extraordinary for the Lord?
The better way of taking the verse to heart is to understand, first and foremost, that God always matters. God still plays the leading role in the drama of humanity.
It is to understand that we are not on our own as we live our lives.
It is to understand that we do not make decisions alone, in a vacuum, wholly apart from the One who fashioned and made us.
God doesn’t always give us whatever we want, yet God remains at our side within our struggles. God’s presence comes by way of the Holy Spirit who helps us discern and distinguish what God wants from us and from our world. Nothing flies too far off the rails for the God who made it all and loves it all.
Those realities about who God is and what God is up to highlight the scandalous challenge of holding fast to faith.
Faith is not an act of logic and reason that fits into the normal scheme of life and perception. The promise of the Gospel is not a piece of conventional wisdom or common sense that’s easily accommodated to everything else. Embracing this radical Gospel requires shattering and discontinuity.
Abraham and Sarah have by this time become accustomed to their barrenness. They are resigned to sadness of their closed future. They have accepted hopelessness as their “new normal.” God’s promises do not meet them in receptive hopefulness but in resistant hopelessness.
When God’s promises meet her in her resistant hopelessness, Sarah laughs. Beyond doubtful embarrassment, Sarah laughs because “God has made laughter for me.”
By his powerful word, the Lord has broken the death grip of hopelessness and barrenness. Joy and laughter bring a merciful end to sorrow and weeping.
Laughter is a biblical way of receiving a newness that simply cannot be explained. That newness is sheer gift — completely undeserved and fully unearned. Barrenness and hopelessness have now become ludicrously laughable, because now there’s nothing but the fullness of joy in the Lord’s fulfillment of his promises.
A lot happens prior to Sarah’s miraculous pregnancy, but not everything is good. God promises to make Abraham a great nation, but Sarah abuses her servant Hagar and forces her into becoming a surrogate mother. Abraham laughs in disbelief when God tells him he, at age 100, and Sarah, at age 90, will conceive a child.
Despite their faithless actions and attitudes, the Lord nonetheless overlooks the brokenness of their past and sets his sights on a future filled with laughter and joy.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel of Luke.
The One who pours himself out relates directly to the pain that Sarah has endured and the joy she now feels. Jesus gives birth to new life through the unraveled pain of the cross and the unbridled joy of the resurrection.
Blood shed on the cross is the same blood that gives life.
Water flowing from his pierced side is the same water that sustains life.
As any mother of a newborn knows, the emotions experienced by a birther of life run the wide gamut from overwhelming joy, to emotional pain, to previously unmet fear, and to lack of control. The experience is nothing like anything a birther of life has ever felt before or probably will ever feel again.
But it’s only one small sliver of the larger story that begins with feeling unraveled.
Sometimes, we need God to unravel us, for we long to be changed.
Sometimes, unraveling is the answer to prayer, for we need to be re-knit into new, whole cloth.
And in our unraveling, God oftentimes surprises us with unexpected joy, love and hope – and laughter — that arise from new beginnings we couldn’t have imagined in our wildest dreams.
In the unraveling of our plans, in the unraveling of ourselves, in the unraveling of our world, God promises to knit us back together into something new.
And for that grace, let all praise and thanks be to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message from the Genesis story of Abraham and Sarah during worship on Sunday, July 26, 2020. It is the first sermon of his series “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart.” Commentary and reflection by Walter Brueggemann, Lisle Gwynn Garrity, and John C. Holbert inform the message. (Artwork: Hannah Garrity, The Heir, SanctifiedArt.org)