This morning in our Old Testament lesson is a big day for Abram and Sarai. This aged couple had been through a lot in the past 24 years of their marital bliss. God had called Abram up out of his father’s land, a place he knew as home to go to a place unknown. God promised to make Abram a great nation, to bless him and make his name great so that he would be a blessing. God would bless whoever blessed Abram, and he would curse whoever cursed Abram. Good deal for an older man and woman who happened to have no children.
Ten years passed and still no children had come to this family of Abram and Sarai and they decided to take God’s promise into their own hands. Sarai says to Abram, “Look, the Lord has kept me from having children, why don’t you have one with my servant Hagar.” Seems like a biblical solution, right? Well, it’s a story that’s in the Bible, but it was far from a godly solution. Sarai and Abram took the promises of God into their own hands to make their own future and it didn’t go well. Hagar conceives and with the conception of the boy Ishmael, comes contempt. Sarai couldn’t live with this course of action and with Abram’s blessing, she sent pregnant Hagar away.
God wasn’t having this so he sent Hagar back to Abram and Sarai and Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. Now some fourteen years later, in today’s lesson, we hear of the big day for Abram and Sarai, we hear God still wanted to make good on God’s promise. He didn’t want this part of His promise to be fulfilled through shameful manipulation. God tells Abram, Sarai will give birth because I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. You will be exceedingly fruitful and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you and this covenant between me and you and your offspring after you will be established forever. I will be their God.
To demonstrate this covenant for future generations God instituted the sign of circumcision and God changed Abram’s name to Abraham. Abram would no longer just be an exalted father, but he would now be Abraham, the father of a multitude. The same sort of thing happens for Sarai, no longer would she be just any Sarai, any princess, she would now be the princess Sarah, named so by the Lord.
Our reading for this morning stops but the story goes on, Abraham, with the new covenant of circumcision and the new name is still the same old sinner man laughs out loud and says to God, thanks for the promise, Sarah and I are too old to have any kids, let me tell you how you can fulfill it for me. Listen here God, I hear you saying you want to make me into a great nation, did you know about my son Ishmael through my wife’s servant Hagar? Well, Lord, there you go, we have helped you out in this promise you made some 24 years ago. Make the nations blessing promise come true through Ishmael.
Now God basically says to Abraham, I don’t need your help to keep my end of the covenant. I will give you and Sarah a son and fulfill this covenant promise through this son. And as for the son Ishmael — God doesn’t say this but we know God’s design for marriage to be between one man and one woman, so we can gather that God was implying for Abraham, As for Ishmael, the son that was born in sin and iniquity and weakness of faith in my promises, the son you have every right to be ashamed of, well as fo him, I will bless him and make him into a great nation as well. But the covenant I am making with you will be fulfilled through Isaac who you will meet as a baby about this time next year.
Abraham and Sarah heard God’s promises but thought their ways would be better than God’s yet God’s promises are not dependent upon our doing. God’s promises and their fulfillment for us are true for us today in spite of our doing, in spite of our thinking we need to make them happen. God makes his promises true for us.
God promises to you that you are justified by faith and that you have peace with him through Jesus. Yet you are often like Abraham and Sarah. You are weak in faith and think that this justification must depend on something you bring to the table and so you look to your actions and try to find someway to justify God’s justification of you. You begin to think, well God justifies me because I am really nice to the people around me. You can start to think, well if I go to church enough God will really justify me and bring me peace because I am showing up. You are convinced that you have done more good than bad so that gives you peace with God.
The real problem is here that you are part of this equation and you are not trusting that God simply does what God says he will do, regardless of your poor attempts to help. You have trouble trusting God and his ability to give you the eternal blessing he promises and works in Jesus for you without your help, so you look for a way to work it out for God.
You forget the whiles in which God works to undo your wily ways. Romans 5:6 tells us that while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. Romans 5:8 tells us that while we were still sinners, God shows his love for us in Christ’s death for us sinners. Romans 5:10 tells us that while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son. And in these descriptions of God’s greatest prescription for mankind we see the diagnosis we desperately try to avoid. We see the diagnosis of Abram and Sarai, we see the diagnosis of every person who ever lived save one, who saved all.
All of us are weak, ungodly, sinful enemies of God. We hear God’s promises and we think oh I can help, and like a two year old who wants to help clean the dishes we end up with more broken than we can even begin to repair, let alone clean on our own. We think we can work with God and we end up working against him, taking the greatest gift of his work away from him and try to do it on our own.
Yet God does not leave us alone. He comes to us and takes the shame of our self made plans and our self made messes away from us. He gives us a new identity and with the new name, a new life with Christ who justifies us and gives us peace.
Have you heard of the Mongolian peasant principle? It was developed during the time when Joseph Stalin ruled Russia. Mr Stalin was not a very nice person – he made a habit of sending his opponents off to prison. But before packing them off to the gulag he made them confess to crimes they’d never committed.
It’s rumored that Stalin had a psychologist working for him who could get a person to confess to just about any crime, regardless of whether they’d actually committed it or not. The psychologist said that the secret of his success was the Mongolian peasant principle.
It works like this. Imagine a poor, shabby and “unimportant” man is brought into a large office that obviously belongs to an important person. Everything in the office smacks of authority: the dark mahogany walls; the huge oak desk; the high leather chair; the grey-haired general with rows of medals on his chest sitting there proudly and powerfully.
The general speaks to the shabby, uncomfortable visitor. “I have a million rubles in my desk drawer. Here, take a look, they’re all yours.”
“All mine?” says the shabby, uncomfortable visitor
“Yes, all yours, on one condition.”
“You must press this small red button on my desk” says the general.
“What happens when I press the button?”
“An old man in Mongolia drops dead.”
“Yes. He dies at once, without any pain.”
“But why, what did he do?”
“That’s none of your business. Trust me. It is good for the people. All you need to know is that the moment you press the button, the peasant dies. And you get a million roubles”
The poor, shabby, unimportant, uncomfortable man sits silent for a long moment. Then he slowly reaches forward and pushes the red button. He takes the money and goes home. But for the rest of his life he’s haunted by the memory of what he did. He can’t bring himself to spend a cent his ill gotten gain. He’s tormented day and night, until finally, 5 years later, he commits suicide. The million rubles are found stuffed in a sack under his bed; the State takes them back on the day of his funeral.
“You see” Stalin’s psychologist says explaining his twisted method of tormenting people into confessing things they have never done, “everybody has a Mongolian peasant in his life. Everyone has done something for which they feel deep shame. I hunt around in their memory until I find it. Then once I’ve found the peasant I dangle him in front of their eyes until the person is writhing in shame for being such a wretched human being. He will confess to anything to atone for his shame.” (source)
While this twisted method used by Stalin and his psychologist is awful, it was awfully effective because it hits on the awful truth that all of us share. We are all ashamed of something and we have a hard time letting the things we are ashamed of go.
These things in our past unfortunately become things that define our living. We work really really hard to do the right thing, to be the nice person, to stay in church, to make things right on our own. Yet the thing we find is that no matter how much we do, the shame that haunts us still is there to taunt us. Telling us we haven’t yet made it go away. The shame taunts us telling us we still have more to do if we ever want to make it right.
Abram and Sarai had their shame in the misguided manipulated birth story of Ishmael. You have your shame in all sorts of corners. Yet guess what. We don’t get to save ourselves. On the eternal stage of utmost importance, we don’t get to undo what’s been done to us or what we’ve done. No, this self saving and self guided living is shameful behavior God delivers us from.
Shame is not ours to deal with and we have much to be ashamed of. But God claims our shame as his own so that we will not be put to shame. Through Christ our shame is taken from us. Our shame is taken to the cross where the suffering it deserves is dealt once and for all. It is buried ingloriously and left never to rise again so that Christ’s glorious resurrection becomes ours. And because of this new life we receive with the new name as a child of God we stand Justified by Christ at peace with God standing in the grace no longer cowering and striving in shame.
We stand in Christ as God’s children called so through the waters of baptism where we are daily renamed and renewed. And with this new name we find our new life and we find God’s perfect way of fulfilling all things as we take up his cross and follow him.
This cross taking is at the heart of being a follower of Jesus. We cannot follow Jesus without taking the cross he has went to for us. The cross taking is done when we remember our new name given to us in baptism. The remembering of our new identity is powerful and necessary for us. Abram and Sarai did not remain the old manipulative couple they thought they were. No God changed their names to Abraham and Sarah, and when they heard these new names they were reminded of God’s gift to them. Sure they would slip back into their Abram and Sarai ways but in their new names, God gave them a reminder of their new relationship he was giving them.
They were no longer people marked by shame, but rather they became a people of hope named not ashamed. May God work the same in us as we recall all his promises and hit the streets of this world with a joy that this world needs.
We stand Justified and at peace no longer ashamed. In Jesus name.