Given, Not Deserved

Heritage Presbyterian Church

June 14, 2020
2nd Sunday After Pentecost/11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture reading – Genesis 18:1-5; 21:1-7

Through the wonder of medical science, the Internet, and the US Postal Service, it is now possible for you to purchase a special kit; once in hand, you drag a swab inside your cheek, send it off to a faraway lab that does in-depth DNA analysis, and discover exactly where your ancestors are from.  

These services are advertised on television and the Internet all the time.  Sometimes you can find out a vast amount of information, sometimes you can discover surprising things you never knew, and every once in a while, you get a surprise…such as discovering you are 1% Jewish, or that your great-grandfather was NOT from Scotland but rather was from Ireland, or that unique eye color you have is not the result of a match between a French pirate and an English princess.

Sometimes, many families will have a family expert or two who can tell in great detail various stories about ancestors from long ago that can help to shape the narrative of family history and begin to answer that age-old question, “Who am I?”

In my own family, I know the old, old stories about the various members of my family.  For instance, on my father’s side of the family, there was a man named James L. Plunkett who came to America from Ireland and was a private in George Washington’s Continental Army – and an ancestor who served next to Captain Abraham Lincoln in the Blackhawk Indian War of 1832; from my mother’s side of the family, there was a man named Joseph Junkin who came to America with his wife in the early 1700’s; they settled on a small piece of farmland and had 13 children, 12 of whom survived into adulthood – which jumpstarted my mother’s side of the family.

If I jump to the modern age, or just the last 100 years or so, I have heard first-hand accounts of saints and scoundrels, success and failures, good news and scandals, and all the stuff in-between.  Through it all, lessons can sometimes be gleaned if curious questions are asked at the right time, such as, “Did that REALLY happen?” or “Why do you think they did THAT?” or even “That’s so sad; I’m glad they aren’t around any more.”

In every single story, there is always some aspect of strong family ties in the lesson or the circumstances of the story.  As I heard them or as I tell them today to my own family, I always notice the relationships, the love that family members had for one another.  In those cases in which someone had a major falling out, the lesson that love denied from one’s family is a terrible thing is never lost on me.  I am proud of my family and what we have either accomplished or what we overcame.

Yet, in all of it, the future of each and every family member I know of began with their own family relationships.  Very few of them grew old and died without either a spouse or children – or at least a close extended family of nieces, nephews, and various cousins.  In it all, like just about every family I know, there are ties that began with the children and the work to provide for their future. 

Even the most skeptical of us wants and believes there will be a good future for those who will follow us.  We seldom plan selfishly only for ourselves and nothing for anyone else.  The common practice is to provide for our families and to leave them something of a legacy of opportunities so that the family can continue to grow and thrive.

But any chance that any family receives from the Lord is given… not deserved.

The story of Abraham and Sarah and the late-in-life pregnancy they experienced is an unusual story that illustrates just such a point.  The Bible is full of faithful characters who live to serve the Lord and do so faithfully.  Yet that faith sometimes doesn’t always work out the way that we might want it to. Take the ending of the life of Moses for example; the Bible tells us that there was never a prophet who rose up like Moses.  Yet, Moses was not allowed to enter the long-sought Promised Land.  That has always struck me as unfair, but that blessing was not mine to give.  All the other blessings that Moses received revealed his steadfast faith in the Lord who give those blessings.  But nowhere in Scripture does it say Moses earned any of them.

The same is true of Father Abraham.  This man is so important to the people of God that three major religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – all call Abraham a major patriarch in their holy scriptures.  Abraham was an example of solid and unshakeable faith in the Lord, even to the point of setting aside his own wealth and comfort to follow the Lord’s directions to leave his home and “go to a place I will show you.”  Nothing in Scripture tells us how Abraham was chosen for this task, but nothing in Scripture tells us that Abraham hesitated either.  He did as he was told, and he served the Lord unceasingly for his entire life.  

But you would have to be asleep in church not to wonder about Abraham and Sarah being amazingly blessed with the birth of their son, Isaac, especially in their old ages.  It just seems natural to all of us: Abraham was faithful, therefore the Lord blessed him with a son.  Yet, one action doesn’t necessarily mean the other action was related.  If following the Lord has taught us anything at all, it is that the Lord’s will is often hard to figure out.

It often seems that blessings are given, not deserved.  If we dig any deeper in trying to understand that, we will meet frustration at every turn.

But just as any of us can look back in our own families and see the blessings we received over the years, it is easy for us to look back over the generations of Abraham’s family and see how the Lord blessed the man who started it all, that faithful servant Abraham.

At one point, the Lord told Abraham’s son, Isaac, to look up at the night sky.  The Lord promised that Isaac’s descendants would be more numerous than the stars; this was an significant promise to any Hebrew man at that time because family legacy was important.  Every father wanted to do all he could to make sure his family continued long after he was gone.  The Lord told Isaac that this was done for him because Abraham was faithful and obedient to the Lord’s voice.

That line is what should remind us all of the importance of the work we do today – right now – for our own families.  But we need to make sure we understand that any blessing is given, not deserved.

Three quick details added here might help to solidify this idea in your mind:

  1. At the end of the Book of Job, when the Lord restored all that Job had lost, Scripture tells us that Job lived a good, long life (that only seems fair after all that he went through).  But then we are given one more item to consider: in chapter 42, verse 16, it says, “Job saw his children and their children to the fourth generation.”  That’s his great-great grandchildren…Job was blessed to see his legacy continue.
  • At the end of the first part of today’s Scripture reading, Sarah laughs with disbelief and derision when she hears that she will become a mother in her old age.  At the end of the second part of today’s Scripture reading, Sarah laughs with joy when she has her first child, Isaac…just as the Lord promised.  Sarah didn’t expect anything to happen, it had to be proven to her.  Yet, it happened anyway.
  • The question has been asked repeatedly throughout recorded history, but the answer is always the same: “Nothing is ever too hard or too wonderful for the Lord.”  It is the unexpected blessings – those that are given but not necessarily deserved – that always catch our attention and reveal again the fact that we have no reason to doubt our Lord.

And so, my dear friends, as you look over your own family throughout the years, perhaps it is easier to see when poor decisions lead to disastrous consequences.  Perhaps it is clearer to see good and faithful servants who were blessed with happy and successful lives. 

But any closer look will reveal troubles in the lives of the good servants and successes in the lives of the bad.  Often, it makes no sense at all.  But that is not evidence that the Lord does not love or or that the Lord had forgotten us.

It is our legacy, what follows us, that will reveal our good work if we just keep at it.  

None of us are Abraham or Sarah, but each of us can serve the Lord without expecting anything in return.  Just like Abraham and Sarah, we can serve with love.