Counting On God, II: The Power of Threes
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? —Genesis 18:14
I am excited for this sermon series, which you requested. During our Bible Read Along on Wednesdays, those who attended were astounded at the allegorical meaning of numbers. Both of our Hebrew and Greek texts are written with such an economy of words that each one is layered with meaning. Words often point to far more than just a numerical value. Today is the power of threes.
My dad faithfully attends a Presbyterian church in Florida, whose minister I have come to know and deeply respect for his leadership and the way he cares for my parents. He brings profound theological concepts to life through NASCAR, rock and roll, and street-smarts. He is a self-described redneck; I would say a scholarly redneck.
Most Sundays, my dad is animated from his sermon and the worship experience. On Trinity Sunday this past year, my dad laughed as he said both he and pastor agreed that after 15 minutes of trying, no one really seemed to understand his sermon of God as three-in-one or why it mattered.
Since the early centuries of the church, the primary Christian conception of God is known as the doctrine of the Trinity, God appearing as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Distinguishing Christianity from the other monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Islam, this central mystery of God in three persons is deep truth and theologian Claude Welch claims is “the most difficult to state.”
With this background and knowing how difficult a sermon on monotheism was for Bill, there is no way I am going to drag us through a sermon on the Trinity in August.
Three represents divine presence and transformation in our lives.
One of the earliest stories of God’s presence is from a visit paid to the elderly Abraham and Sarah in the first book of scripture, Genesis. Before I read, please join me in prayer for God to illuminate these words:
O God, the Three in One,
you draw us into your community of love
with people across the ages and around the world.
By the same Spirit that binds us together
speak to us that what we read and ponder
may enliven us and stretch us to trust and follow you;
through Christ our Savior. Amen.
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.
He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’
So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’
And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’
The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. The Lord said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
This is not the first time God has visited Abraham. Earlier in Genesis, God spoke to Abraham, promised him descendants as numerous as the stars shining in the sky or the grains of sand glistening in the desert. Even in advanced age, Abraham received this promise and was told to leave his homeland and set out for a new country. Then, God blessed Abraham and told him he was to live his life as a blessing to others.
At that time, God spoke. Now three men appear as the Lord.
Despite the uncertainty of who three strangers are, Abraham offers the most honored virtue of the time: hospitality. In a nomadic culture, hospitality was more than a gracious welcome. In the harsh conditions that could take human life in the matter of days or even hours, hospitality was life sustaining. This is how to treat strangers.
“A little bread and water” turns into a feast of choice veal, curds and cakes. Abraham brings his very best to God inspiring an ideal celebrated in New Testament writings: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. —Hebrews 13:2
Abraham rises to be the exemplar of faithfulness in all three monotheistic faiths for his unwavering devotion to God. Abraham affirms again and again and again, his willingness to open his life to God, to be transformed, and to be blessed.
Sarah is just the opposite.
The story tells us she is afraid. She hides. Was she angry at being uprooted by Abraham when God promised him a blessing, but not her? God has disrupted her life once already. Did she feel neglected, since she was barren, while at the same time God showered her husband with a legacy?
Sarah heard God promise her a son and she laughs.
Cynical, skeptical, or shame—Sarah is showing just how vulnerable she feels. Her laugh was a release valve for her soul.
When another person’s conversations traipse into our deepest longs or fears, we may laugh as easily as cry. This tender spot is the purview of comedians, naming our embarrassments and fears, as they dive into what we are too polite to admit or think too risky to speak about. Comedians linger there, letting us laugh at ourselves or inviting others to laugh at what we know is true.
God is not looking to mock Sarah.
God steps into that hurting place to let her know—nothing is beyond God. In that place of being vulnerable, God begins the redemptive work.
God challenges her; “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
Years ago as a chaplain, I recall a bedside conversation with a grace-filled man in his mid-90’s who knew he would not live to see another Christmas.
As he described his faith, he loved—loved—the communion table. It was a place to meet Jesus who would take him, just as he was, and bless him. By tasting the cup and eating the bread, he viscerally experienced getting a “restart” from God.
For him, God was a very loving God, evident from such grace to accept him and then to send him out, time and time again, to be what God created, despite his shortcomings. Out of such love, God would also; I quote him, “give me a little swat when I needed it. Sometimes love comes as discipline and calling it exactly as it is.”
I know there are many people whose lives are shadowed, if not destroyed, by believing God is always up there looking down on them—constantly judging, disapproving, doling out punishment. Oh, how we corrupt the goodness of faith.
For these damaged souls, fear and hiding might be for self-protection.
On the other hand, for people used to a benign God-in-the-background whose dominion is outside of the grit of life, the idea of a God who will call us out might actually be a relief. It means God is in the thick and thin of our trials and knows us. This is what my wise friend believed to be true.
God’s presence means a loving creator and sustainer is in your life. God is also the one who judges to redeem what ills you may have done.
That’s the God who appeared to Sarah—God was intimate—literally in her face—and naming her shame and offering her greatest dream.
When Sarah denied her laughter, God would not let it slide; “Oh yes, you did laugh.” Despite her skepticism, God also fulfilled God’s promise by placing the future within Sarah. Isaac was born, just as promised.
We all have lots of judges in our lives, including ourselves, who are rarely vested in our lives’ goodness. Perhaps we should welcome the loving God into our lives as a judge. A loving God may need to set us straight before we can be blessed with a future we could never imagine.
The third and final character in this story is God.
Not evident in the English translations, the Hebrew use of plurals and singulars pronouns and nouns suggests a mystery; three men are seen, but it is God.
Fifteenth century Russian, Andrey Rublev, interpreted the three visitors into what has become an iconic image that now adorns mouse pads and iPhone covers. Today, it is our bulletin cover.
In Genesis and throughout scripture, God visits with human beings in the form of messages or angels or some other mystery, often in threes. Genesis, Exodus, the Prophets and God incarnate in the Gospels.
When Moses asks God at the burning bush for God’s name, Moses is given a threefold response: “I am.” “I am, who I am.” “I am who I will be.”
When God calls the boy Samuel to serve as a prophet, it takes three times before Samuel understands this voice is from God before he responds, “speak, your servant is listening.”
Last year, a very tough movie swept in the awards ceremonies: Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri. Based upon a true story, a woman, played by Frances McDormand, is distraught at the unsolved murder of her daughter. She pays for three billboards on a road outside of town: "Raped While Dying", "Still No Arrests?" and "How Come, Chief Willoughby?"
The billboards upset the entire town because they call out the beloved chief of police and expose the truth: her daughter’s murder has not been found. I mentioned this is a tough movie with fierce rage and violence, but throughout the intense conflict, hope peaks out. The billboards are destroyed by a violent fire and then restored on a day of resurrection. The truth is pursued rather than buried. Archenemies find common ground, and time and again, when the worst is expected, hope turns their lives into a future they never imagined.
“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” is the defining question for Sarah. It is also one of the most vital questions facing us today as we deal with the agonizing problems of life.
In ordinary lives, God appears, transforming us from barren to fertile, from narrow to expansive lives, and on the third day of Jesus’ death, God alters an irreparable darkness to raise new life.
The repetition of the power of threes reminds us God is present in human history, creating new futures.
God is not an abstract quality. An abstract quality does not get involved in our messy lives. Nor can an abstract quality dry our tears or forgive us.
Please pray with me,
God, for your time is eternal.
For us, you have given us a three-fold experience.
We praise your work in the past,
startle us with your presence now,
and assure us that our future is in your hands. Amen.
Claude Welch “Trinity,” ed. Donald Musser and Joseph Price, New & Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), p.526.