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When the Divine Watch Has Stopped

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

February 25, 2024

As most of you know, I had to have a number of eye surgeries in the past 4-6 years, beginning with several laser surgeries to correct a retinal tear in my left eye and ending with cataract surgeries in first one eye and later the other. 


While the laser surgeries were all performed locally, the first cataract surgery was done in the University Hospital in Iowa City. I struggled to sleep the night before that surgery, worrying about the procedure. 


After all, a stranger was going to be poking an extremely sharp object into one of the most delicate parts of my body and then rummage around, only to remove my natural lens and replace it with an artificial one. What could go wrong? Plenty!


Fortunately, the surgeon assigned to my case was a respected professor in the ophthalmology department, who had, in fact, taught the three doctors in this area who had already performed my laser surgeries. That fact was comforting, but didn’t help me sleep the night before we when to Iowa City for the cataract procedure. 


That morning, Delight drove us to the hospital, of course, given my vision issues. It was a cold and icy winter day, which would prove to play a significant role in our journey. As Delight approached the on-ramp to Interstate 380 in Cedar Rapids, she put on the brakes, but they didn’t catch due to the icy road. So we slide across all three lanes of on-coming traffic in front of fast-moving vehicles. 


Fortunately, the two semis and one car in those lanes were able to come to a stop just before any of them hit our car — but just barely. The contrast between those two massive semis stopped immediately next to our little Prius was stark, dramatically demonstrating the real danger we had been in. It felt like divine intervention saved us. And in an odd way, once the adrenaline of the accident dissipated, that fact helped calm my nerves about my impending surgery. After all, if God was willing to spare us in that very dangerous moment, why wouldn’t he see me through the surgery as well? 

When you’re waiting for a significant event with an uncertain outcome, it’s easy to let your imagination run wild. And the longer the delay before that event, the more potential outcomes — good and bad — you can conjure up to comfort or torment yourself. 


In my case, the delay between scheduling my cataract surgery and the actual day of the operation was merely a matter of weeks, but I managed to allow myself to come up with all kinds of possible scenarios. Since that was the case in that short amount of time, think about the mental gymnastics Abraham and Sarah must have gone through when the delay between God’s promise of a son and the fulfillment of that promise lasted a full 25 years! 


That’s on top of the fact that Sarah’s biological clock had stopped ticking long before Abraham had ever heard God’s promise. When God first spoke to Abraham, Abe was 75 and Sarah was 65. Their hopes for children had long since dried up and crumbled away. 


The whole idea of an elderly couple giving birth and caring for an infant was preposterous! And the thought of throwing their lives away based on a promise no more substantial than grains of sand slipping through one’s fingers was equally absurd. 


It meant rejecting their guaranteed inheritance to follow a previous-ly unknown God through a trackless desert to an unnamed destination. It meant leaving behind the comforts and security of home to become nomads with nothing to call their own except for that glittering promise. Who in their right minds would do that? 


Yet, that promise was about more than just raising an heir for themselves. God told Abraham, “I will make your name great and […] all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Imagine what that sounded like to a man haunted by his lack of a son who could inherit the fruits of Abraham’s lifetime of labors. 


Hope is a powerful enticement. Could a new life really arise from a wizened and barren couple? The answer to that depends on who the God is who had made the promise. But decades passed, and still the vision hadn’t come any closer to becoming a reality. God returns now and then to reiterate his promise, but as the years fade away, Abraham and Sarah found it harder and harder to believe. 


With our hindsight, we know that Abraham and Sarah will ultimately have a son just as God had promised. But that’s no comfort to them while they go through this interminable period of waiting. They remained childless for 25 years after receiving God’s promise and they remained aliens in a foreign land. 


During all those years, they simply became older and more tired of waiting with each passing year. God’s promise had probably become little more to them than half-remembered fever dream. You may wonder why God made them wait all those years until Abraham passed the century mark and Sarah turned 90. 


It almost seems cruel. But apparently, God wanted anyone who heard their story to be crystal clear that the birth of their son Isaac was biologically impossible, so those onlookers would understand without any doubt that that birth was a gift of God’s grace.


To be honest, it’s difficult for modern people to relate to a story about an elderly couple having a baby. That hasn’t happened to any of us or anyone we know. And I’d guess that most of us would find the thought of breaking out the walker to chase a toddler around the house a less-than-appealing idea. But that’s not really the point of the story. The point is that God always keeps his promises, even if sometimes God has to wait for us to be ready to receive them. 


In one of his books, Thomas Long tells a story in which a woman was reminiscing about her father. When she was young, she was very close to her father. She experienced that closeness the most when they would have big family gatherings with all the aunts and uncles and cousins. Inevitably, someone would pull out an old record player and play polka records, and the family would dance.


Whenever the “Beer Barrel Polka” would begin, her father would come up to her, tap her on the shoulder and say, “I believe this is our dance.” Then they would dance. However, one time when she was a teenager and in one of those teenaged moods, as the “Beer Barrel Polka” began to play, her father said, “I believe this is our dance,” but she snapped, “Don’t touch me! Leave me alone!” So her father turned away and never asked her to dance again. She wrote, “Our relationship was difficult all through my teen years.


“When I would come home late from a date, my father would be sitting there in his chair, half asleep, wearing an old bathrobe, and I would snarl at him, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ He would look at me with sad eyes and say, ‘I was just waiting on you.’ […] When I went away to college, I was so glad to get out of his house and away from him and for years I never communicated with him, but as I grew older, I began to miss him. 


“One day I decided to go to the next family gathering, and somebody put on the ‘Beer Barrel Polka.’ I drew a deep breath, walked over to my father, tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘I believe this is our dance.’ He turned toward me and said, 'I’ve been waiting on you.’” Tom Long adds, “Standing at the center of our life is the God who says to us, ‘Everything I have is yours. All that I am is for you, and I’ve been waiting on you.’” 


It has to be a rare person who hasn’t felt the oppressive silence when God’s watch has seemed to stop and the echoes of God’s voice have faded away into the lengthening shadows. I have heard those times described as being when people felt that their prayers were bouncing back off the ceiling unheard. 


Here’s how Anne Le Bas depicts that situation, “What the Bible describes in these stories is an experience I suspect we have all had at some time, that moment, stuck in the middle of something, when we think, ‘What’s the point?’ Perhaps we have been slogging away at some job which seems to be going nowhere, or fighting some battle which we are beginning to realise we will never win. We question why we ever started, how we were so stupid to ever think it was going to work. Cynicism and despair eat away at our energy, and it is tempting just to throw in the towel. 


“[…But d]on’t read into [the bad things] happening to you a message that you have failed, or that God has […]. God is still with you, just as he was with Abraham, [and] Sarah […].”


Our Old Testament story offers the perfect lesson for the season of Lent. It describes a time when Abraham and Sarah are caught between promise and realization. 

Even though the long-delayed fulfillment of God’s promise is just the turn of a calendar page away, they have no way of knowing that’s true. They’re caught up in believing that their hopes and dreams have amounted to nothing at all. Haven’t you ever felt anything like that? You’ve devoted your blood, sweat and tears into transforming your most cherished dreams into reality, and yet opportunities are missed, events misfire and dreams are dashed. 


Perhaps you feel trapped in a dead-end job or locked into some physical or emotional battle that you’re slowly coming to understand you will never win. Perhaps, like Abraham and Sarah, you may question why you deluded yourself into thinking your dreams could ever materialize. Perhaps you’re even plagued by a nagging suspicion that God is indifferent to your plight. Perhaps you may be tempted to simply give up. 


Isn’t that really the story of Lent, where we’re invited to search our hearts to see where we fall short in our faithfulness to God so that we may drop our sins and doubts and fears at the foot of the cross and then approach the empty tomb with empty arms? 


The moral of Abraham and Sarah’s sojourn through uncertainty and doubt is that, while God’s promises may not be fulfilled in the time frame or even in the way we might want them to be, the fact that they will be fulfilled is utterly dependable. God is just waiting on us to be ready to receive the blessings he has in store for us. 


So in those moments when you find yourselves trapped in the middle of a seemingly endless Lenten moment and the joy of Easter seems impossibly far away, the good news is that whether you eventually see the results of your efforts or they remain simple seeds lurking in the darkness of the soil where you placed them, God will bring them to fruition in his perfect time.


As you face your trials, remember that God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah is your covenant also. God has made you his heir along with them, not because of anything you did or didn’t do, but because love and faithfulness define who God is. God will fulfill his promises because you can completely trust the God who made those promises. Amen. 

by Jim McCrea

Rev. Jim McCrea


Rev. Jim McCrea



    Sundays, 10 a.m.


    Adults: Sundays, 9-9:45 a.m.

First Presbyterian Church

106 N. Bench Street

Galena, Illinois 61036

(815) 777-0229


    Sundays, 10 a.m.


    Adults: Sundays, 9-9:45 a.m.

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