By John Newton
Last winter, my wife and I moved to a new out-of-state home for work, ministry and other reasons. As many Christians who have made the same transition know, with the new place comes the search for a new church home. We ended up connecting with a wonderful small church plant, Christ the King Anglican Church. Now, I’ve been an Anglican attendee for several years but my wife has never spent more than an occasional Sunday in a “high church” — that is, a church with a set liturgy containing congregational readings, scripture readings, kneeling and standing, the pastor in a fancy robe, etc.
One of the things I have most enjoyed about attending an Anglican church is the daily lectionary. For those unaware, the “lectionary” is a pre-selected plan of daily readings, usually containing one section of Scripture each from the Old Testament History, Psalms, Gospels and Epistles parts of the Bible. The same Scripture passages are read by millions of people around the world every week. It’s pretty neat. And on Sundays, one passage from that day’s readings is chosen by our pastor, Father Seth, for his sermon.
One summer Sunday this year, the lectionary had the faithful read Genesis 18:1-15 and 21:1-7. It is a story from the life of Abraham, when he was visited by three men as he set up camp beside the oaks of Mamre, somewhere in the Judean desert. I think the story is one of the most fascinating incidents of an incredibly fascinating life. Abe was sitting near the doorway of his tent, under the shade in the heat of the wilderness afternoon. Three men appear suddenly and stand in front of him. Abe runs to greet them, sensing that these men were no ordinary Canaanites. He offers the men the Bedouin hospitality of food, drink and… in a dusty desert… clean feet. They accept and Abe runs to tell Sarah to get the feast ready — they have guests! When the food was ready, Abraham returned and set it before them.
Here is where the bizarre begins. One of the men asks, “Where is Sarah, your wife?” Abraham says she is in the tent. It is here that Moses, the author, tells us that this man is none other than God Himself — God appearing in human form. The Lord promises that He will return in one year’s time and Sarah will have a son. Both potential parents being quite old, Sarah laughs and mumbles her disbelief to herself. The Lord, who sees all and knows all, calls her out on her lack of faith, saying, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
New life came into Sarah’s barrenness. Abe was intimate with his wife and she became pregnant, just as God had said. She had a son, Isaac, in her old age and that son would become the heir of God’s promise to bless the earth through Abraham and his descendants.
Father Seth pulled out this amazing verse from the apostle Paul in Romans to describe how only God could do such a miraculous thing as bring life out of barrenness. Paul wrote that Abraham
“believed in God, who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist. He believed, hoping against hope…”
Looking at the circumstances, a son in old age, with his aging wife, seemed impossible. Abe was a realist, just as you or would be in his shoes. Paul writes that Abaraham “considered his own body to be already dead (since he was about 100 years old) and also considered the deadness of Sarah’s womb.” However, “he did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, because he was fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform.”
I’ve found that barrenness is a close bedfellow of hopelessness. Whether it be the intensely deep longing for a child or a medical illness or a relationship longing, barrenness can sap a soul of joy… of peace… of faith. In the case of Sarah and Abraham, it was the desire for a legitimate son and heir. Sarah was his only wife. Upon death, Abraham’s fortune would go to a chosen servant. Ishmael was already off the scene at this point. The firstborn son of Abraham, he was not from Sarah’s womb but the son of Sarah’s slave. Age was a barrenness to Abraham and Sarah.
But God said to Abraham that all things are possible through the Lord’s will. Indeed, the same God who would arm the womb of a barren, aging woman, gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that… get this… that simply do not exist! God takes the unimaginable — what we cannot even fathom — and makes it a reality! There is nothing beyond the ability of One who brings new life into a world of barrenness.
Just look at today. Our whole world is barren — sin-stained, hopeless, self-seeking, evil — and bombings, shootings, stabbings, apartment fires, cars running to pedestrians — brokenness can sap us of all our hope that ANYTHING good could happen in this world. Anything good! But here is where the Gospel breaks through. Jesus offers a better way. He offers us access to the God who brings life where there is death, rebirth of shattered dreams, broken loves, stolen joy. He offers us (and the whole world) access to the God who is so powerful enough that not even the wildest, craziest, zaniest things we imagine are beyond His creation. The Lord Jesus said that He was the Light of the World. No longer do we have to walk in darkness. No longer do we have to abandon hope that circumstances can change. No longer do we have to wallow in sadness or fear or regret. God can restore these things in your life through faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit!
Where are you experiencing barrenness in your life? Are you losing hope of change or healing or reconciliation? Have you asked God to breathe life into your barrenness? Even farther, have you started, like Abraham, to believe that God’s promises are true and that nothing is beyond His ability to create? Abraham’s faith was credited to him by God as righteousness. Yours will be too!
Barrenness… it is a topic that often describes what we see in the news today. It dovetails with another subject that has taken my writing attention of late — the idea of wilderness. As I’ve studied barrenness, brokenness and wilderness (that’s a lot of “ness”!), and reflected upon it in my life and my world, I’ve often been reminded that even in those times of life when all we see is a desert… God is still there, offering water, shelter and hope. He is continually bringing life into death and light into the darkness through His Son, Jesus Christ.
He did it for Abraham and Sarah. Will you ask Him to do the same in your life?