Genesis 18:1-15 & Matthew 9:35-10:1 – God draws near and things happen…

A Reflection by Dan Spragg

A number of years ago some friends and I went on a camping trip staying at the Maitai Valley camping ground near Nelson. I think we were away for about a week to celebrate the new year and the end of high school for most of us. The week was pretty messy – it rained just about the entire time – and we were a bunch of teenagers camping for a week… I don’t need to elaborate on that! On the second to last evening, as we were sitting around our campfire in the rain, a sort of hush came over our group. After we had all been sitting in silence for a few minutes one of the girls said to the rest of us, ‘Can you see Jesus? He’s standing over there!’ At this point, I think the rest of us were imagining that she had consumed a little too much of what we were or were not consuming… Anyway, she proceeded to stand up and pull over a log next to the fire and invited Jesus to sit with us. Then she sat down again. And at that point what I can only describe as the presence of God came and joined us in that moment. Around that fire that night, amidst the chaos that this week of partying was, I too saw Jesus. He stayed with us that night. He didn’t say much, but he was there. The next day arrived, and something had changed. The mood around our camp was different, something had shifted within us. Things were a little less chaotic, we were all more content with ourselves I believe. A little less driven by trying to impress one another, or pretend we were people who we weren’t. We moved more calmly, there was less anger and teenage angst. And, the sun came out! Make of that what you will, but it was fairly amazing at the time after a week of nothing but rain and mud…What I’ve come to understand since then and in a lot of looking back in hindsight on many experiences is that when God draws near, there’s usually a shift in the way things are. I believe that night as God drew near we experienced the presence of peace, a deep presence of God that shifted things in us at quite a deep level. God drawing near changes things, even if we can’t really describe what or how, or why just quite yet.

A few thousand years earlier at a different campsite Abraham was sitting in the shade of his tent minding his own business when God drew near. His response was one of hastened hospitality. Like the instincts of my friend, he too invited God to come and stay awhile. He welcomed these three visitors – who we understand to be God. This wasn’t Abraham’s first encounter with Yahweh and it wasn’t to be his last either but, his response in this moment is worth considering. He could have resented the interruption to what was likely an hour or two of rest in the shade in the middle of the hot day. He could have gone on the defensive ordering them to keep moving, to not disturb his camp, for they could have quite easily been hostile visitors. But I wonder if he sensed something else. I wonder if he knew that these three were different. Ultimately Abraham’s response to God drawing near was one of welcome, of making room. A response of openness. He stopped, made room for this event, and welcomed the presence of God into his space. He did this, as my friend did, and things changed.

Sarah’s response however is quite different. Hers is one of disbelief. She laughs, you can hear the mocking tone in her voice. She may as well have blurted out, “Don’t be absurd!” The Lord responds with a question. “Is anything too wonderful for God?” Other translations say, “Is anything impossible for God?” Sarah’s response to this statement from God is actually quite acceptable. It was and is still not normal for a person in their later years to conceive and bear a child. The promise that she would conceive and give birth was outside her field of vision. She and I imagine Abraham too couldn’t see it happening – how could they?

This question: ‘Is anything impossible for God?’ This question is echoed throughout the entire scriptures and it comes to us too. Into all situations where there is a disconnection between what we see in front of us and what we hope might happen, or what we long for. When we long for a better day but it seems impossible from what we see around us, into these moments, this question comes. This question also comes to us on the journey of faith that seems impossible at times. The road of discipleship – being a student of Jesus. The existence of a church community, of broken lives healed, of the world made whole… into these impossibilities, this question comes. The word from God to Abraham and to Sarah, to many others throughout the scriptures, and therefore to us… is that with God anything is possible.

Abraham and Sarah are engaged in quite the dance between openness and disbelief. It is quite a sight to behold, transformational even. There’s a kind of hopeful synergy found when the two of these get together. It’s kind of like realistic optimism, or like a hopeful uncertainty. Disbelief isn’t very pretty on its own. Disbelief without openness I think shows its face to the world as a narrow mindset, a defeatist attitude, and perhaps even a recipe for metaphorical barrenness. But, with openness, disbelief becomes a kind of thorough curiosity, an environment for asking questions and seeking out creative solutions, a mindset for learning… a doorway into a better world. It shows itself in statements like: ‘This can’t be, but…’ ‘I’ve never done this or been here before, but…’ ‘I don’t believe that to be true, but…’ That word, ‘but’, is a powerful word. I wonder, when we live in disbelief without openness, are we short-changing ourselves? Could this new thing, this new and unexpected, this different way things seem to be going that doesn’t feel like the old way, this ‘I don’t think I believe in it, but…’  Without openness are we cutting ourselves off from the wonder of what could be that quite possibly could be better than what is and what has been? The dance of disbelief and openness is a recipe I believe for a life lived with joyful surprises waiting around the corner.

Our gospel text today is one account of Jesus sending out his apprentices to have a go at what he has been doing and teaching them about. They are to go, as he has been, and proclaim the good news of God’s way and they are to demonstrate that reality by healing the sick and casting out demons etc. They are to say, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.’ In their words and in their actions God was drawing near to those they met. It is very much implied that God drew near and transformation happened. Transformation is often quite life-changing. It was for Abraham and Sarah and we can imagine it was for those who met those disciples on their mission from Jesus. My camping trip was transformed. Transformation seems to be a part of what God is about. In this passage, I believe Jesus shows us a powerful factor in transformation. Jesus (God with us) is motivated, or moved by, compassion (Matt 9:36). Compassion makes a difference. Compassion changes us. We might ignore a whole raft of people and situations if it wasn’t for compassion. Here’s my take on what compassion is. Compassion is openness. It is allowing ourselves to be open to being affected by someone else and their situation. Compassion is allowing ourselves to be moved towards someone and allowing ourselves to ‘see’ them and to act towards them in grace, peace, love, and hope – and in this, doing what we can and trusting in God to lead, guide, and do what we cannot. As we allow compassion to change us, we are transformed – to embody God’s love for the ‘other’. And, hopefully, it might be that the other is transformed, that they and their situation are transformed into something better and healthier and more whole. Compassion is a lot like anger. It is energy. It is an invitation to do something, an invitation to change something. Jesus more than once was motivated by compassion and in this we see quite clearly God’s heart for the world. If compassion is such a big part of God, then when we feel compassion and when we act with compassion, this is a fruit of God’s Spirit in us. We are changed by its presence and we are to embody this energy and movement of God in our living as we seek to share the way of Jesus with others.

For Abraham and Sarah and I would say for us far more than we realise, God draws near, and even with disbelief present, things change. This question that comes, ‘Is anything too wonderful for God?’ looks to me like an invitation. It looks like an invitation that comes in the midst of disbelief and openness, to trust. Faith is best understood as trust. This is an invitation of faith, to trust, that what seems to warrant the mustering of all the disbelief they can, is in fact no obstacle as far as God is concerned. It is an invitation that takes the pressure off them to worry about how or when. It takes the pressure off them to have to be responsible for making the impossible happen. Trust is the invitation in the midst of openness and disbelief that reminds us that God is the one who holds us while we wrestle in these spaces of very real tension. Of these very real ‘no, I can’t, but…’ times. An invitation to trust our God in the midst of the dance between disbelief and openness is confidence in the face of risk. It is confidence in the face of failure. It is confidence in the face of impossibility. It is confidence in the face of that which we can’t quite get our heads or our hearts to just yet – like my experience by that campfire that none of us really understood. For God, nothing is impossible. God draws near, and things change.

Jesus sending out his apprentices shows us that we are to be agents of God’s presence drawing near. The statement he makes, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few…” (Matt 9:37)  still rings true in our day and age. Now we might approach being sent as Jesus’ apprentices with quite a bit of disbelief sometimes! Having compassion definitely doesn’t override the presence of disbelief – I can certainly feel compassion while still not believing transformation is possible! But I can also be open to transformation, open to God’s Spirit at work even if I need some help in believing. We are all works in progress needing transformation of our thinking and our various situations and experiences. Can we remember to add a bit of ‘openness’ to our disbelief? Can we trust in the Goodness of God to draw near to us as we respond in compassion and draw near to others?