Forty-one years ago my father was given the opportunity to leave behind corporate America in order to start his own Air Conditioning Manufacturer’s Representation business. The incentives included returning to Connecticut from Dallas where we had been living for several years, the allure of being his own boss and, during a time when the economy was still booming from the late sixties, the potential for a great deal of success. Success for my father did not come rapidly. Soon after he started his business, the recession of the seventies hit and hit his business hard. The company whose line he originally represented failed as construction came close to a stand still.
As a young child, I was unaware of how hard times were for my father. On the surface all seemed well, the bills appeared to be paid, and we seemed to want for very little. It was not until adulthood that I learned how rough this time got for him. It was my Grandmother who eventually told me how my father had to ask my grandfather for a loan in order to keep the business afloat. I can only imagine how often he second guessed himself and his decision to start the business. But somehow, during those lean years, dad maintained a certain faith in himself and his business and kept going despite his doubts and fears. Today, the business continues, it has grown from the two person operation it was in the seventies, to a company with over twenty employees and is now able to weather the ebb and flow of the economy. All because my father remained committed and faithful to the vision he started with.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul ends this morning’s passage encouraging the listener to “Stand firm in the Lord.” To stand firm in the Lord was anything but easy during Paul’s time. The early Christian movement was struggling in its identity. Christians were being forced out of the synagogues and out of Judaism, while at the same time, non-Jews were entering the church. To add insult to injury, persecution by the government and others was rampant. At times, those suspected of being associated with Christianity faced execution; in fact, the persecutions became so bad. . . family members would turn loved ones into the government in order to avoid problems for the greater household.
If there ever was a time to doubt the call of God, this was definitely one of the top ten contenders. To this, Paul’s advice is clear, take the long view and not the short one as he reminds the flock, that success with God has nothing to do with earthly measure, but with divine measure. Or, as he tells Timothy in his letter to him, the crown of victory does lie on this side of the grave, but on the other.
This does not mean, however, that doubt has no room with faith. In fact, as we read through the saga of Israel, we find doubt is a healthy part of faithful living.
In this morning’s reading from the Old Testament, we are brought into the beginning of the Saga of Israel. Many years earlier, Abraham is called by God to leave his family and to travel with Sarah to a new land where God has promised he will become the father of a great nation. At the beginning of the saga, the promise may have seemed plausible. After all Sarah. . . was a lot younger, but as time wore on and Sarah journeyed further and further from her child bearing years without having bourn a child, God’s promise was beginning to look far fetched. . . if not impossible. Sarah at one point did try to rectify the situation by inviting her servant Hagar into the bed chamber, and Hagar did produce a son. But that situation did not work out well, as Hagar and her son Ishmael were later banished from the household.
This morning’s passage brings us down the road several years later, Sarah is now well into her seventies if not eighties, and Abraham is doubtful of God’s plan for him. In this morning’s passage, God again meets with Abraham and assures him that he and Sarah will spawn a great nation whose numbers will be greater than the number of stars in the sky. And to assure Abraham of his promise, God seals the deal through the searing of the animals he tells Abraham to slaughter.
Time passes, and finally Sarah’s barren womb does produce a child, a son, Isaac. And it is Isaac who carries on the promise as he in time sires twelve sons and the great nation grew from there.
One of the greatest challenges of the human condition is our need for quick results. In a world where most everything is reported in real time as instant results are demanded, it is hard for us to understand how God’s perspective of time is over a much longer period. In the Book of Psalms we are told, “ a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” And often times, when we are willing to participate in God’s plan, we find how God will fulfill God’s promise is often very different from how we would have.
In the case of Abraham and Sarah, it is clear, Abraham anticipated that he and Sarah would produce many children. Who would have ever thought his generation and the promise of a great nation would depend on one and only one child. And, when St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, most were convinced that the second coming was just a week or two away. No one ever thought persecution and over 2000 years would need to pass before the kingdom that Christ declared as imminent would come to pass. And whoever would have thought following God would lead to ongoing hardships while on this earth.
Certainly those who followed Moses out of Egypt thought that once in the wilderness life would be easier. When in reality, life was different but not easier. Life in the wilderness was hard and one no one was prepared for. No longer was food and housing provided, instead, food had to be foraged and hunted, while shelter needed to be created. As the novelty of being free faded away, the Israelites became frightened. “Should we go back,” they asked, “after all there was food and all we needed in Egypt.” Surely,, we will go hungry and starve in this wilderness.”they thought. But God heard their plea and despite their fear and doubt, God provided manna for them to eat and water rushed forth from the rocks for them to drink.
As we briefly peruse the stories of our ancestors we are constantly being told of how God does provide for the people of God and how we can depend on God to fulfill God’s promises. On the mortal side of the equation we are taught that doubt and faith are not mutually exclusive, and that blind faith is not what God expects from us. Instead, what God asks of us is to heed the words of St. Paul, “to stand firm in the Lord”, and to know, no matter how fearful or uncertain life is, God will provides and keeps God’s promises.
All we need to do. . . is trust in the midst of our doubts and stand firm in the Lord.