Lent this year seems to be a time of waiting.
We’re waiting on vaccines, waiting for the pandemic to be over, waiting to get back to our normal lives, waiting to see one another in person, to go to church, to travel.
Some days it feels like we’ve been waiting forever.
Today’s Old Testament reading is also a story about waiting.
Abraham is 99 years old in this passage. At this advanced age, he and his wife, Sarah, have no children. By the standards of his day he is quite wealthy, with much silver and gold, many slaves, and a multitude of sheep, oxen, donkeys and camels.
But without children, or more specifically, a son, all of his vast wealth means nothing to him.
Childlessness has been a touchy subject for Abraham and Sarah. In those days, a man and woman’s worth was measured, in large part, by the number of offspring they had.
Abraham has long given up any hope of having children, when at age 75, a strange thing happens. God appears to him and tells him to go with his wife away from his father’s land, adding that God will make of him a great nation.
It is a curious promise to make to someone who is old and childless, but Abraham obeys and sets out for Canaan, where God appears again and says, “To your offspring I will give this land.
“I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.”
Despite this divine promise, many years pass with no children. One day God again appears to Abraham. This time, Abraham points out that he is still childless, and his only hope for an heir is to have a child with a slave.
Not so, God says, then adds, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.”
And despite the apparent absurdity of this promise, Abraham believes God.
But once again, years go by. Abraham is now 86; Sarah, well into her late 70s. Sarah finally convinces her husband that if they are to have an heir of Abraham’s own lineage, then he must have a child with a slave woman. With Sarah’s blessing, he does so, and the slave Hagar bears a son, named Ishamael.
Again, years pass. Abraham is now 99; Sarah, 90. Once more, God appears him with the now familiar old promises.
“I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring throughout their generations,” God says.
“As for Sarah, I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her.”
Our reading for today ends there. But the story continues with Abraham’s response to this great promise.
“Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is 100 years old? Can Sarah, who is 90 years old, bear a child?”
And when Sarah hears this outrageous claim, she, too, laughs at its absurdity.
But maybe they also laugh because something in them still believes this seemingly unbelievable promise.
And nine months later, more than a quarter of a century after the first divine promise to Abraham, he and Sarah have a son. They name him Isaac, which means laughter.
Many generations later, Abraham and Sarah’s numerous descendents do become the people of Israel, brought into the land first promised so long ago to a childless old man and woman.
In these first two Sundays of Lent, we have heard the story of two covenants between God and God’s people.
Last Sunday it was the rainbow that appeared to Noah after the great and destructive flood. From that time on, God says, all rainbows will be a reminder of the covenant between God and all creation, a promise that God will never again destroy the whole earth.
God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah is more particular, but those who are the direct inheritors of the promise are to take God’s blessing and also spread it to all the people of the earth.
The season of Lent, a time of wilderness and somberness, of repentance and reminders of our mortality, a time of uncertainty and waiting, begins with stories of God’s faithfulness to God’s people.
These covenants are not flashes in the pan, not here today and gone tomorrow. God’s covenants are eternal, binding us together in partnership for better and for worse, for all time, in this life and the next.
In a covenant, all partners have obligations. God has promised to be faithful, to provide security and blessing, to be with us always. We promise in return to live as faithful witnesses to God, to be partners in creation, to use God’s blessings for good in the world.
Part of a covenant is to have faith in one’s partner. Covenant partners believe that they can trust each other even in times of adversity and apparent betrayal.
Sometimes that trust is taken to the limit. Abraham and Sarah’s faith is pushed to the point of incredulity. They question, they doubt, they laugh at the absurdity of it all, but still they cling to at least a sliver of belief.
And just when it seems most impossible, when it seems that God has surely forgotten them, God comes through and Isaac is born.
Abraham and Sarah’s descendents, the people of Israel, also have long moments of doubt and disbelief, through generations of slavery in Egypt and long years wandering in the wilderness in search of the Promised Land.
But through all that time God does not forget God’s promises. And ultimately, Abraham and Sarah’s descendents do reach that promised land.
Even Jesus has his moments of doubt and despair, of wondering if God will be faithful to the promises God has made. Even Jesus’ faith is pushed to the limit.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries from the cross.
And surely at that time, it does seem that God has abandoned God’s own son, leaving him alone to die a torturous death.
Three days later, an empty tomb reveals God has once again kept the divine promise.
In this season of Lent, we are reminded that we are inheritors of the covenant between God and God’s people. But we are also reminded that even the most faithful of God’s people have moments of doubt and despair.
Can God really be trusted? Is God really faithful? Or is all this talk about covenant and promise, blessing and new life all just hot air and empty words?
During Lent, we acknowledge that our trust can be pushed to the limit – that even faith does not protect us from illness and death, from anxiety and worry, from hard times and despair. We acknowledge that at such times we may call into question God’s goodness or even God’s existence.
The story of Abraham and Sarah, the story of their descendents, the story of Jesus on the cross give us permission to ask our questions, to give voice to our doubts and laments.
But they also remind us of the good news that God does not abandon anyone, that God is faithful, and that ultimately nothing can separate God’s people from God’s love.