Genesis 18:1-15; Matthew 12:46-50

May 14, 2023

  • Grace overcomes our parent’s failings


For those of you who have been following along, you know that last week resembled a Mother’s Day sermon, even though I had not planned for that or intended it.  I realized once I unpacked my road to ministry how much my mother played a role in making the church a place I would call home from an early age.  And as a follow-uo, I found out this week that she has no memory of offering to buy me a car if I went to seminary to become a minister, but I remember the conversation pretty clearly.  I’m still waiting for that car.

To be honest, I never plan on Mother’s Day sermons even though that may seem counterintuitive.  Mother’s Day is a precious day for much of our culture.  I saw that an extra $4 billion was spent on Mother’s Day this year than last year.  It is way bigger than Father’s Day which is not a complaint.  Mothers do much more for our society.  Goodness knows women do the lion’s share of the work in the church.  They are the linchpin in our families and in our communities, across our nation.  You’d think preaching a sermon on the greatness of mothers and motherhood would be obviously easy and useful, and you’d be wrong.

While the idea of motherhood is easy to appreciate and celebrate, our actual experience of mothers and motherhood is not as easy.  It is as if we have sanctified the idea of motherhood but ignored the challenges, the limitations, the weaknesses, and even the downright failures of our mothers.  Most of us probably had pretty good mothers on the whole, but there are always some who did not.  There are some of us here who have a hard time celebrating their mothers as much.  There are also those who themselves have a hard time being celebrated.  What parent does not live in some level of fear that they have let down their children at critical times of their lives?  What parent does not feel at some time that they have not been the parent they should have been?  Thankfully, children tend to turn out better than our fears predict, but there are also children who really, really struggle to be the people we might hope, even if we did a fairly good job raising them.

Don’t let me throw you into the weeds.  I’m basically just saying that while we love the idea of mothers and motherhood, our own experience of motherhood is far more complicated and can even be hurtful.  The tv moms that I grew up with always seemed to make the right decisions or could work through conflicts and mistakes.  Real life is different.  Of course, June Cleaver, Carol Brady, or Claire Huxtable never had to deal with me.

Today, let’s consider the stories of two mothers who loom large in the biblical story, Sarah and Mary, and think about how God’s grace worked through their failures.  We see an honest picture of God’s love coming to us through these essential mothers, how God worked in amazing, world-changing ways, even through failure.  As someone who tends to see far more fault and failures in my life, I have always appreciated stories of redemption.  Maybe if I have messed up, there is still something good to come by the grace of God.  It should not surprise that one of my crucial passages is Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”  When Paul wrote this, I must believe he had his own monstrous failings in his mind and God’s incredible grace.  On to Sarah.

Sarah, the wife of Abraham, was destined for biblical royalty.  Her very name means princess or queen.  She was promised to be mother of a great people, a people more numerous than the stars who would bless the earth.  The only problem was that she could not have children.  Yes, a small problem to this dream of greatness.  After years and years of following God’s leading, she grew cynical and skeptical.  We don’t know what she thought at first when God called her husband Abram to a distant land to begin this people.  We know she got fed up waiting and demanded a son through her handmaid, Hagar.  That worked out pretty poorly in many ways.  We also know that at least 20 years after God’s first promise, when they had become so old that she could not even have children anymore, God’s messengers showed up on their doorstep with the promise, again, “Yes, you and Sarah will have a child.”  Sarah’s response was reasonably perfect.  She laughed.  This was not a laughter of joy or delight but of hearing the funniest, craziest thing she had heard all week, maybe all year.  This was not a snicker but a laugh loud enough to be heard by the visitors who also heard her incredulity, and I would not even use the word incredulity except that it is exactly right.  She believed them NOT A LICK.  Of course, Sarah was embarrassed about having been caught in her disbelief and tried to deny it.  Any of us would have done the same in her situation, but it is striking that the divine messengers, these heavenly beings, called out her denial: Oh yes, Sarah, you did laugh.  That laughter is the key.

Seriously, how much does she show herself as a woman of faith here?  She does not believe in this promise at all.  She had already given up on God’s faithfulness when she ordered her slave to have a child with her husband, and that was at least 13 years prior.  She did not become MORE trusting in God since then.  This grand covenant that God had made with her husband and her family was a dud.  It was not only further from being fulfilled; it was impossible.  That was her laughter.  As far as she was concerned, the angels were idiots.

How often do the people of God laugh at God’s promises?  How often do we give a silent, internal “yeah, yeah, I have heard that one before” when the preacher stands up here to emphasize God’s goodness and God’s faithfulness?  It is not easy to keep following, to keep walking in that confidence that all things will work for good, that they will work for God.  So many of God’s children have seen problem after problem.  So many of God’s children feel like they are spinning wheels or taking two steps back whenever they try to get ahead in the life of faith.  And yet, that is the life of faith.  Life is always a challenge for the faithful.  It probably gets harder as we get older, too.  Sarah was right there with us.  And she found that God was good in the end.

They gave her a year to see them, again.  In that time, she would have a son.  Not only was that true, not only was God’s promise finally true, but her unbelieving laughter was changed into laughter of joy.  That’s why Isaac was named Isaac – the word for laughter.  That mark of unbelief became her proof of faithfulness.  And it was God’s doing.

Mary is also very interesting.  The same Mary who gave birth to Jesus as a teenager and committed to raising the Messiah, God’s Son, also had her struggles.  In John’s Gospel, she even seems to push him into ministry at the wedding at Cana, but here in Matthew (as in the same references in Mark and Luke), Mary and her family have come seeking Jesus.  They need his attention.  He has denied them in his work too long.  This has become too much for his family.  Reading between the lines, they want him to come home.  Jesus is the eldest of the children.  Joseph is gone.  Jesus would have been charged with caring for his mother and providing for this family.  Instead, he was running around the Judean countryside with these friends and lots and lots of people.

Notice that they did not wait until he was free.  They did not catch him between big events.  They did not wait until he had time to speak.  They demanded to have his attention then and there.  This was pressing, most important to them, and not the work of God.  Again, any of us would have done the same thing.  We very easily discourage others, especially those who are important to us, from stepping out of the boat to follow God.  It is one thing to celebrate a young person who wants to head off to Central America or Africa or China or Iraq or the Middle East or Russia to labor as a missionary.  It is ANOTHER thing if it is YOUR young person.  “Can’t you do mission work in the US?”  Even then, there are plenty of places that NEED dedicated mission workers stateside that we feel would be bad ideas for OUR children.  We don’t even want our children living in some areas, let alone living and working in those areas.

Mary and her other children had had enough.  They needed Jesus.  It is fair that they needed him to come home.  They were not asking him for the Wi-Fi password.  They had travelled all that way together through danger to find him and to get his attention.  They needed him to come home.  This was important enough to be recorded in three gospels.

We know what happened.  He did not come home.  He even seems to denounce their claim on his life and the moral responsibility he had to them.  It is a troubling move if you think about it.  Jesus is trying to make a point – that his family are the ones who are with him in ministry, but their concern, their crisis, their fear for him – whatever it was that was driving them to such serious action was brushed aside.  We certainly also may feel brushed aside.  The things that we believe we want or that God should do for us can certainly feel neglected.  I’m still waiting on that car….  We cannot help but feel we have some sense of what God should be doing in the world, and very often, maybe all the time, those things don’t seem to happen.

I truly hope you have had those moments of being surprised by God’s goodness, though.  Even though you might have expectations for God, those are often replaced by something greater and better.  We just might have to get there the hard way, with God’s help and with God’s grace.

We have no evidence that Jesus went home or even spoke to his family, but we know that he went on to be the crucified Messiah, our Lord.  His death and resurrection opened the way not only for us to be family but gave his family new life.  Mary comes out in great devotion and care later in the story, and Jesus’ brothers and sisters also play significant roles in the early church, notably his brother James.

So much of this world is tainted by failure.  This even applies to the closest thing to saints on earth – the mothers.  What amazes me, however, is how God is able to use our failures for something greater.  That grace is amazing because it IS amazing.  That’s the good news, friends.  God has taken the brokenness of the world and has created something beautiful in Jesus, something beautiful that we continue to find today.  To God be the glory.  Amen.