Long-Haul Faith

We’ve been doing a sermon series this summer on Hebrews 11, the great “gallery of faith” that rehearses the exemplary stories of Old Testament heroes and heroines. For the past couple weeks I’ve been parked in verse 11, which sums up Sarah’s story: “By faith even Sarah herself, when she was unable to have children, received power to conceive offspring, even though she was past the age, since she considered that the one who had promised was faithful” (HCSB).

Two things about this verse drew me in for deeper reflection. The first was the very fact of Sarah’s inclusion in this list of faith heroes.[1] It is impressive that this writer was boldly disposed to include women (Rahab, v. 31; a whole collection of unnamed women, v. 35) in a “hero list.” Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a writer so obviously steeped in the Old Testament would include Sarah—after all, she is named more than 40 times in Genesis 12–23, commonly known as “the Abraham narrative.” What an encouraging word that is to women of faith everywhere—and what a challenge to those who would keep those women side-lined and silenced.

The second thing that drew me in was the story that lies behind Sarah’s inclusion in the gallery of faith exemplars. As I spent time reading through those chapters in Genesis, it struck me how real her story is. At every turn, we encounter a woman who is clearly in need of both God’s merciful rescue and God’s redeeming grace—and the God of mercy and grace is persistently present for her and active on her behalf.

Sarah experienced a complex web of challenges. She was childless, a condition that produced deep shame and repeated disappointment in her present and the threat of insecurity in her future, when she might be widowed and left utterly resourceless and without refuge. She was old—post-menopausal old—which put the seemingly irreversible seal on her barrenness. And she was extraordinarily beautiful—even at 90 years old![2] While enduring physical beauty might seem like a gift rather than a challenge, the reality is that it exposed her both to unwanted attention from outsiders and to being a pawn in her husband’s own reprehensible strategies for self-preservation. Twice, when she and Abraham are sojourning in territories outside Canaan (Gen. 12, 20), he tries to pass her off as his sister, to save his own skin from the stratagems of a lecherous king. On the second occasion, the writer explicitly says that it is only the intervention of Yahweh that saves her from sexual exploitation. I can’t imagine the desperation and suffocating helplessness she experienced as she was shut up in those harems. Did she weep as she wondered if it was her barrenness that made her seem so expendable to her husband? Did she question whether he would have treated “the mother of my sons” in such a way?

At every point on her journey, the God of mercy and compassion meets her. He rescues her from indignity and exploitation. He renames her—yes, it’s only a slight change from Sarai to Sarah, like the difference between Jenny and Ginny—but now, every time she hears those two syllables, “Princess,” they are infused with divine love rather than the weight of unmet expectations that she has carried for so long (Gen. 17:15). God assures her that he has heard her years of weeping and disappointment over her barrenness, letting her know that the fulfillment of the divine promise to Abraham will also be a blessing to her (stressed twice in Genesis 17:16). He meets her incredulous laughter (Gen. 18:12) not with a lightning bolt of judgment but with a reiteration of the promise, the fulfillment of which is redeemed laughter (Isaac, the name of her long-awaited son, means “laughter”). What extraordinary and powerful mercy are encompassed in these simple words: “The Lord came to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised” (Gen. 21:1). And what delight in that experience of mercy is heard in Sarah’s response: “God has made me laugh, and everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen. 21:6).

Sarah’s story is so real, so raw—not only in terms of her need for God’s compassionate rescue from her challenging circumstances and from the dreadful decisions of others, but also in terms of her persistent need of God’s redeeming grace. Sarah is no “super saint”—her human failures are on full display in the Genesis narrative. Not only does she laugh at the repetition of the long-delayed divine promise, but, at key points during that quarter century of waiting and beyond, she also schemes and blames and comes off as a pretty unattractive character. And yet—there is God, meeting her failures with grace, drawing her on, challenging her to go higher up and farther in on this path to faith. “Why did Sarah laugh?”, the Lord asks. “Is anything impossible for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:13–14). And then he answers the question with a slow miracle—a nine-month unfolding of faith-building wonders that Sarah experiences daily in her own body. Grace upon grace, mercy extraordinaire!

Sarah’s journey from her polytheistic Mesopotamian beginnings (Gen. 11:27­–32) to full-on, all-in faith in the God whose call has uprooted and unsettled Abraham’s family is long and filled with ups and downs. It’s a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back kind of journey—and yet the writer to the Hebrews doesn’t hesitate to name Sarah’s journey a faith journey. The key was her focus: “she considered that the one who had promised was faithful.” And even after receiving the miraculous child of promise, Sarah—like Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham—learned to keep her eyes fixed forward on an even greater fulfillment of God’s promise: “These all died in faith, although they had not received the things that were promised. But they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). Sarah and company model a faith that fixes its eyes on God’s promises, confident in what is yet to come because of the already-experienced faithfulness of the Promise-keeper.

Sarah’s story—and indeed the whole of Hebrews 11—fills me with hope and encouragement as the writer makes the turn to exhortation in chapter 12. “Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us (witnesses like Sarah, whose faith journey was real and raw and persistent despite the ups and downs), let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us (just as Sarah and Abraham had to lay aside their sinful, selfish tendencies). Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us (even if it is a quarter century of waiting!), keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1–2a). Eyes on the finish line in this marathon of faith!

[1] The NRSV makes Abraham the subject of the verbs in 11:11, relegating Sarah to a footnote, but I think the grammatical-textual evidence supports the HCSB’s rendering, which is consistent with the majority of English versions.

[2] Genesis 17:17; Genesis 20.

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