from Genesis 17 and 18
“The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh?…Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
There is a word in the English language that almost always makes me smile: impossible. I love that word. Beware of using it. “I have learned to use the word ‘impossible’ with great caution,” said Werner von Braun. “Impossible is a word to be used only in a dictionary of fools,” said Napoleon Bonaparte. I agree, for I have learned that with a God like ours never do we know enough to say what is and what is not impossible. That’s what they told the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Louis Pasteur, Magellan, DaVinci, Disney: Impossible. In fact, I have read that the only way Walt Disney would undertake any one of his utterly mind blowing projects was if every person around the table on his Board of Directors would say that what he was proposing was impossible. Then, and only then would he proceed! He said, “If you can dream it you can do it. Remember this whole thing started with a dream and a mouse.”
Lots of people open the Bible and then put it down again, pronouncing the same verdict: impossible. They are right! That’s what the Bible is about: a God who calls us beyond reason, beyond belief, beyond the normal parameters which define reality. From cover to cover it proclaims a God for whom nothing will be impossible, for whom all things are possible. Anne Lamott once wrote, “When God is going to do something wonderful, God always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, God always starts with an impossibility.” I don’t about you, but when I dare to believe that this is really true—it makes me smile.
That’s where this story begins: with the impossible. With Abraham and Sarah who for decades had lived with this hope and promise from God that they would have a place to call their own, a people to call their own, ancestors of a great nation, with offspring that numbered like the stars in the sky. They had gone through their 20’s and 30’s fantasizing about being a mom and a dad, with the biological clock just ticking off the decades, and still no baby. They had gone through their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, with arthritis sinking in their bones, needing glasses, needing dentures, needing hip replacements and bypass surgery, and still no baby. By the time we catch up with them in these chapters, they have gotten used to no baby—the empty extra room, a college fund that would never be used, resigned to the hopelessness, stuck in their helplessness. But it is here, when they are both pushing 100 years old, God tells them at last their waiting is over, the stork is on the way. The first time God tells them this, Abraham “ fell on his face laughing.” The second time God tells them, Sarah laughs. She says, “I did not!” God said, “Oh, but you did!” And when the time finally came for them to choose a name for their baby boy, it was Isaac, the Hebrew word for laughter.
Why did they laugh? Because it was more than the mind could grasp? one day making plans with the funeral home, picking out your gravestone and casket, and the next day picking out pastel wallpaper for a baby’s nursery. Why did they laugh? At the thought of keeping a baby bottle of Isomil on the night stand right next to the Motrin and Ben Gay? Why did they laugh? At the thought of the folks at Medicare opening a bill from the Maternity Ward? Why did they laugh? was it too good to be true? too hard to believe? Is this some kind of cosmic joke? Does God have a sense of humor? Is this really possible? “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” No. When God is getting ready to do something amazing, he always starts with an impossibility.
What about you? Where might God just be getting started in your life? I would guess everyone of us here today is up against something that seems impossible. Think for a minute: at what point in your life now do you feel most hopeless, most helpless, most stuck? What if I were to say to you that this is precisely where God is just getting started. This is precisely where faith begins. Faith is not for those days when everything adds up, makes sense, works right, goes like clockwork. Faith is for those days when you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. On days like that, remember: people of faith are those who “see the invisible, hear the inaudible, believe the incredible, attempt the impossible.”
When God is getting ready to do something amazing…it doesn’t mean that it will be instant. I read somewhere that when God is cooking up a miracle he rarely uses a microwave, he much prefers the crock pot. We may prefer to pop the corn in 60 seconds in the microwave, but God prefers a slow-cooker. That was certainly the case for Abraham and Sarah—100 years! If you know the story, you may remember about how Sarah got tired of waiting on God’s crock pot and took matters into her own hands by arranging for Abraham to have a baby by her servant Hagar, with such disastrous consequences, it divided their household, it turned it into one of the most dysfunctional families in the history of the world, all because she wanted a poptop pregnancy.
But think about it: aren’t the best miracles of all the slow-cooked miracles? The 50 year marriage that has made it through the treacherous ups and downs, the feast and famine, the dark valley of the midlife crisis, and has lived to tell about it. Our 132 year old church that has survived a Civil War, 2 World Wars, a Depression, countless hurricanes, including the infamous Katrina, what we have at Rayne is not something you pop in 60 seconds. It has been said that there are three stages to doing God’s work: 1. impossible 2. Difficult 3. Done. Do you know that we are almost done with our reconstruction? Just a couple of more months. But first we had to get through Stages 1 and 2 and this has taken 3 years. As one of our preschool parents said, “Is this the slowest job ever?” But when a 132 year old church is being born again, you don’t use a microwave. You use a crockpot.
Maybe you wish you had been there to see Jesus turn water into wine, that was surely an amazing microwave miracle, but is it not more amazing that this same miracle is slowly, steadily underway every single day as water is drawn from the soil by the roots of the grapevine and the fruit of the vine grows and ripens, and then after many months is harvested and fermented, and after many years is indeed a glass of Chardonnay? Slow miracles, simmering in God’s crock pot, may be the best miracles.
No, that which is amazing may not be instant. And it may not be easy either. How many times have I counseled with someone who was facing a crisis, up against something impossible. Like the unmarried teenage girl who was having to postpone her college education because she had gotten pregnant. Her mother was beside herself, “Now her college degree will be impossible!” And I said “Hard, yes, but not impossible.” It was hard, but 7 years later her daughter is a nurse, happily married, with a home, husband, a beautiful child–amazing. What was that prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane? “Father, if possible, let this cup pass.” Something truly amazing was about to happen, but the hardest part had yet to come. It would be on the far side of Gethsemane, on the far side of the cross, on the third day, that he rose from the dead, the tomb was empty, the stone rolled back, the impossible possible.
The late Dr. Edwin Friedman, a Jewish rabbi, psychotherapist, and author made a most exciting claim in one of his books, that when you are stuck in a rut, up against that which seems impossible, there is no amount of figuring, thinking, trying, long-range planning, that will get you through. Only one thing can break you out of that rock and a hard place: adventure. Adventure: the willingness of one person courageous enough to break out of the old patterns and paradigms, to step out into the new uncharted territory, TO IMAGINE THE UNIMAGINABLE.
Friedman gave this example: Think of the darkest era in human history: the Dark Ages. The Nuremberg Chronicle of 1492 described Europe in the 15th c. as totally depressed. It tells of all the plagues, disasters, wars, that had befallen the human race, the breakdown of the feudal system, the corruption of the church, even predicts the imminent end of the world. All of Europe in 1492 lay in darkness and despair. But something happened, because The Nuremberg Chronicle of the very next year describes a totally different Europe will all its lights turned on, awake, excited, eager, on tiptoe.
In the years that followed, 16th century Europe was buzzing with new possibilities. Some of the greatest strides in human history were taken in the 16th century: the Renaissance, the Reformation, the 1st newspaper, Shakespeare, the invention of the telescope. Something happened to break out of that hopeless, helpless darkness. What was it? A battered little sailing vessel with tattered sails floated into the harbor of Lisbon. Its captain, not talking about the end of the world, but of a new world. Its captain the discoverer, the adventurer, Christopher Columbus. They called him crazy. His own crew planned mutiny. Everybody knows the earth is flat! they told him. This is impossible! they said. But he dared to imagine the unimaginable, to believe the unbelievable, to attempt the impossible. Friedman calls that adventure, but I call it faith. That’s what faith is. More than creeds. More than doctrine. More than dogma. Faith is seeing the invisible, hearing the inaudible, believing the incredible, attempting the impossible, imagining the unimaginable.
Friedman goes on: 50 years ago an East German citizen standing in the heart of Berlin looking at the Wall, the barbed wire, the armed soldiers, hearing daily of those who were shot in the night while trying to escape. Imagine this: someone saying, “Hey, guess what. 30 years from now communism will collapse, Germany will be one, the wall will come tumbling down, and little pieces of it will be sold as souvenirs in American department stores.” Would you have believed it?
Imagine the unimaginable. It is 1942 and you are a Jew imprisoned in a concentration camp, naked, shaved, stripped, #20 in line for the Auschwitz crematorium. And #19 turns to you and says, “Hey, you are not going to believe this, but 10 years from now these people are going to feel so guilty for what they are doing to us that they are going to turn this place into a memorial and give enough money to the new state of Israel to make the difference in its survival.” Would you have believed it?
Imagine the unimaginable. That there will come a time when obese people will be able to go to a cancer clinic and have cancer injected into them to make them lose weight. Do you know that already the most malignant forms of cancer multiple myeloma cells, are being experimented with to produce life-saving antibiotics? That this most dreaded of all diseases may one day be used for the purposes of health and healing, that out of the clutches of death can come life?
Imagine the unimaginable. That this city, at one time proclaimed to be the dirtiest city in the nation, at top of the list in crime, at the bottom of the list in education, might become one of the cleanest, greenest, safest places to live on the planet. That makes me smile, that makes laugh. That’s impossible. Beware of using that word. For, hey, when God is getting ready to do something amazing he always starts right there. Here. Imagine that.