(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at http://www.cor.org/worship in Sermon Archives)
Facing the Unexpected with Sarah
A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.
Genesis 11:27 – 12:7
The Genesis story mentioned Abram’s wife Sarai prominently right from the first, a rarity in that patriarchal age. God’s solemn covenant pledge immediately introduced a note of tension that involved Abram’s partner. God told Abram, “I give this land to your descendants,” an odd promise given that, so far, “Sarai was unable to have children.”
Abram, a man of his time, saw his own survival as the only essential to carrying out God’s promises. Apparently he saw Sarai as expendable, though only if that were truly necessary. (Genesis 20:1-17 recorded that they—there is no record that Sarai protested this deception—made this error twice.) God’s outlook was bigger than their patriarchal culture. God saw Sarai as just as important to the covenant as Abram, and shielded her from harm.
Sarai must have thought that she’d been plenty patient. It had been over ten years since God promised to make a great nation of the family she and Abram did not yet have! Other well-off women had maidservants bear children for them when they couldn’t. Sarai thought that might help God’s plan happen—but things didn’t work out well. Sarai tried to put Hagar and her son “in their place,” leading Hagar to run away. But God cared about and saved those two lives.
In Hebrew (and most Middle Eastern) culture, names mattered—names carried meaning. So at a pivotal moment, God renamed Abram Abraham (“father of a multitude”—Genesis 17:5), and Sarai Sarah (generally thought to mean “princess”). God repeated the promise that Sarah would have a son herself. With great honesty, Genesis reported that both aged “parents,” perhaps understandably, laughed (cf. Genesis 17:17, 18:12).
Just as God had promised, Sarah did bear Abraham a son in their old age. They named the boy Isaac (Hebrew “laughter” or “he laughs”). Through God’s persistence and faithfulness as much as Abraham’s and Sarah’s, the sweeping story of God’s covenant with his people Israel was underway. In Isaac, Sarah’s story found a truly joyous ending.
In chapter 11, the letter to the Hebrews listed great heroes of faith. As all Hebrews would expect, the list included Abraham, the grand patriarch who was, literally, Israel’s founding father. But, accurately echoing the Genesis story, Sarah was on the list too. She was Abraham’s partner through the long journey from promise to fulfillment; she bore the son God had promised, setting in motion the family line that led to Jesus.
To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from http://www.cor.org/guide.
O Lord, you called an older woman named Sarai who had never had a child, and you promised that, unlikely candidate though she was, she would be the mother of a great nation. Years later, you renamed her Sarah and you kept your promise. Give us the faith and hope to see ourselves as you see us, to trust that you can use even the most unlikely parts of us for your purposes. Amen.
CONNECT (5-10 minute discussion, at most)
In this weekend’s sermon, Pastor Anne Williams said, “We pray and ask God to give us the desires of our hearts, and sometimes they don’t come. Then, spiritually, we have to figure out how to make sense of the disappointment.” What is one way your life has turned out differently than you had dreamed or planned? How disappointing was/is that, and how do you make sense of it?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND STUDY
Read Genesis 11:27 – 12:7. At God’s call, Abram and Sarai, despite their advancing age, moved out of Haran, an established city, and into the less settled region of Palestine, where they lived a nomadic life. In what ways has God called you to move beyond places (internal or external) where you are comfortable on your faith journey? Although it’s pleasant, what spiritual hazards can being too comfortable cause? Can you think of any reason why God would choose an older, childless couple to found a great nation, rather than a young family with six healthy kids? Does God still work through the things that make you “unlikely,” rather than only through your obvious gifts and assets?
Read Genesis 12:10-20. Neither Abram nor Sarai seems to have questioned their world’s assumption that women were essentially the property of men. What does it tell you about God that he worked with them anyway, rather than trying to immediately correct all of their mistaken cultural assumptions? What does it tell you about God that he would not “play along” with the mistaken assumptions that Abram and Pharaoh made, but found a way to keep Sarai from being absorbed into a monarch’s harem? It’s been said that “God loves you just as you are, but loves you too much to leave you just as you are.” How have you experienced that in your life?
Read Genesis 16:1-15. Archeologists have found marriage contracts from ancient Nuzi and Assyria that called for the same kind of child-bearing plan Sarai used in this story. Do you find it surprising, given what you know of human nature, that in a culture that valued a woman’s ability to bear children above all else, Hagar’s pregnancy would have strained her relationship with Sarai? When Hagar ran away, there’s no record that Abram and Sarai sent out a rescue party into the desert—yet God preserved her life, and that of her unborn son. Ishmael could not be the son of the promise, yet God saw his life as worth saving. What lesson could that have taught later generations of Israelites? What can it teach us?
Read Genesis 17:15-22. Middle Eastern families didn’t choose their children’s names for how they sounded, but for what they meant. So God renamed Abram and Sarai to names that better fit God’s purpose for their lives. Share around the circle: What does your name mean (if you know)? Do you know why your parents chose that name for you? Do you like your name? How has your name shaped your view of yourself, positively or negatively? Abraham plaintively said to God, “If only you would accept Ishmael,” but God again made it clear that Sarah was integral to the covenant. God would bless Ishmael with many descendants—but the covenant line would run through Sarah’s boy. What was God saying through this exchange with Abraham about the worth of women and the value of the marriage commitment?
Read Genesis 21:1-7.Pastor Williams said in this weekend’s sermon, “The resolution in Sarah’s life doesn’t come through the fact that she bears a child. The resolution in Sarah’s story comes in the fact that she learns God can be trusted.” In what ways have you learned that God can be trusted? Where are the sore points, the “growing edges,” in which you are still wrestling with the question of God’s trustworthiness?
Read Hebrews 11:8-12. As we have seen this week, Abraham and Sarah had a number of times along their journey in which their confidence in God faltered, in which they tried to substitute their best understanding of a situation for God’s plan, which reached beyond their culture’s knowledge and assumptions. Given that, would you have included them in a list of the “heroes” of faith? How can seeing Abraham and Sarah as people of faith give you strength and confidence at the times when you become aware that you have failed God, that your trust and commitment may have slipped?
From last week: Did you reflect on how well someone like Jesus would fit into your group or your congregation? Would he be welcome? Did you also reflect on how well your group or congregation would fit into a kingdom led by a Lord like Jesus. Share any insights you gained with the group.
FOR ADDITIONAL INSIGHT
From Pastor Anne William’s sermon, July 21, 2013:
In a perfect world, God would be a magician like a character from Harry Potter with a magic wand who would just utter an incantation under his breath and change our situation. With the wave of a wand, we would see things change back to the way we had hoped for.
But the Gospel doesn’t work like we sometimes hear on TV, the way one pastor I read about teaches. He wrote a letter to his congregation. He began his letter by asking “Do you need better transportation? Does your car need total repair or total replacement? Do you have a dream vehicle or luxury automobile you long to purchase? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these please carefully read the rest of this letter.” Later he suggested that donating to the helicopter fund is the “key to releasing a favor on your transportation situation.” If members would offer $52 to the helicopter blade fund, they would experience a “breakthrough favor [for their own transportation need] in 52 days or 52 weeks.” If we put it into an equation, that kind of understanding of faith might look something like this – A Good God + My Faithfulness = I Get What I Desire.
I know there are some people who relate to God in this way and if you find yourself in that place today, I want to encourage your faith and celebrate the ways God is working in your life.
At the same time, many of us haven’t found that to be the way God works. In my personal experiences, and reading the Bible, I have found that the world is much more complicated and unfair than a simple cause and effect equation. The question this simplistic equation raises is, what does this say to those that don’t have the happy ending they hope for? Here we run into a dilemma. We are left to assume that either a) something is wrong with me, or b) God isn’t the good, loving God that we thought.
That’s exactly how Sarah responded to her frustration. First she blames God. She says: “The Lord has kept me from having children” (Genesis 16:2). After all, the promise had been given but it wasn’t happening. The nursery was painted, diapers had been bought, baby name was picked out, and yet nothing. Nothing!
Sarah’s next step is to blame herself. A woman like Sarah’s entire worth would be based upon whether or not she can provide a child for her husband. So she internalizes her infertility as something inherently wrong with herself. Perhaps she second guesses herself, thinking “maybe I heard the promise wrong”, “maybe I haven’t been faithful enough.” Maybe it’s me that is the failing part of this equation. Perhaps if I could eliminate myself…And so, she suggests to Abraham: “Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” (Genesis 16:2) Here she is trying to force the dream to come true. Commentators assure us that this was an acceptable social custom for the time and place, but still, her actions reveal a spirit of untrusting, a sense of desperation.
I wonder, have you ever thought to yourself – it must be my fault? There must be something wrong with me? Has an unexpected turn caused you to doubt yourself?…
Of course we prefer to trust someone who provides our every desire and protects us from all disappointment. But that’s not how life works out. When we only trust God if life goes the way we want it to, that’s what author Phillip Yancey calls a “contract faith.” Thank goodness there is another way! Instead of having a “contract” faith with God, he suggests a “relationship” that transcends any hardship or situation we face. He writes: “If we develop a relationship with God apart from our life circumstances, then we may be able to hang on when the physical reality breaks down. We can learn to trust God despite all the unfairness of life.”
That’s the kind of trust that Hebrews 11:1 describes: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Some would say it is foolish to trust in something that cannot be seen, but in fact it may be the most courageous thing we could do. When all you can see around you is the trials, the little disappointments, the moments in life that haven’t lived up to our expectations, this is when the rubber hits the road in our faith and we get to really decide if we are willing to truly trust that God is God and that’s enough. Let me put it in Church of the Resurrection lingo for you. Being a Deeply Committed Christian means trusting God even when it doesn’t make sense, even when you can’t see the happy ending, even when we don’t understand.
Regarding Sarah and laughter
“Quantitatively speaking, you don’t find all that much laughter in the Bible, but, qualitatively, there’s nothing quite like it to be found anywhere else. There are a couple of chapters in the Book of Genesis that positively shake with it. Sarah was never going to see ninety again, and Abraham had already hit one hundred, and when the angel told them that the stork was on his way at last, they both of them almost collapsed. Abraham laughed ‘till he fell on his face’ (Genesis 17:17), and Sarah stood cackling behind the tent door so the angel wouldn’t think she was being rude as the tears streamed down her cheeks. When the baby finally came, they even called him Laughter—which is what Isaac means in Hebrew—because obviously no other name would do….
Sarah and her husband had plenty of hard knocks in their time, and there were plenty more of them still to come, but at that moment when the angel told them they’d better start dipping into their old age pensions for cash to build a nursery, the reason they laughed was that it suddenly dawned on them that the wildest dreams they’d ever had hadn’t been half wild enough.”
–From Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, pp. 171-173
Make a list of significant unexpected things that have happened in your life over the last year or two. Which ones were unexpectedly good? Which ones were unexpectedly bad? With what attitude have you tended to deal with the unexpected events? Do you want to continue facing the unexpected in the same way, or do you want to make any changes, with God’s help? Share with your group any insights you gain through this process.