Sunday, June 14, 2020
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
In the 1960s, some psychologists at Stanford did a famous study on how children learn self-control or delayed gratification with marshmallows. Each child in the experiment, who was four or five years old, was given one marshmallow, and was told if he or she waited to eat it until the researcher came back fifteen minutes later, they would get a second marshmallow. If they ate the marshmallow before the researcher came back, they would not get another marshmallow. As researchers tracked these children as they grew up, what they found is that the children who could wait the full fifteen minutes to get the bigger reward had higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, better stress-management skills, better social skills, and were generally more successful in life than those who did not have the ability to delay gratification. The study demonstrated how important it is to teach children self-control, but it also identified what helps us as human beings wait: what helps us to be patient. What psychologists have found is that children (and adults) need to have two things reinforced over and over again to be able to delay gratification consistently: 1) waiting for gratification is worth it and 2) I CAN wait. When children are able to trust that they WILL get that second marshmallow if they wait, and their experience consistently teaches them that there is a greater reward for their patience, they are able to delay gratification up to four times longer than those who do not have their waiting rewarded or reinforced. Isn’t that fascinating?!
Our second reading from Romans talks about the importance of suffering, endurance, character, and hope for the faithful. And we can especially think about how God teaches us that waiting is worth it, that self-control and patience are indeed fruits of the Spirit, in the examples of Abraham and Sarah in our first reading. You can go back and read the entire story of Father Abraham, which starts in Genesis 12 and ends in Genesis 25, which may be helpful as we recall some of his story in the next few weeks in worship. God consistently promises Abram, who is eventually renamed by God “Abraham” two things: land and numerous descendants. In fact, God promises to give Abraham land and descendants three different times, in chapters 12, 15, and 17. Every time Abraham and Sarah start to think this waiting thing is just getting ridiculously long, God speaks again and reminds them he will fulfill his promises. Abraham is 100 years old before Isaac is born to Sarah in our reading for today, but each time God tells Abraham to wait, God gives him a smaller, immediate reward for his waiting – a blessing, a new name, the covenantal sign of circumcision. God tells Abraham that all he has to do is look at the stars in the sky, and that will be a visual daily reminder that God’s promises of numerous descendants WILL happen, and that that is a promise worth waiting for.
Abraham and Sarah are not always good at waiting all of this time. They desperately want children, and there was no invitro option. So Sarah thinks it might be a good idea to try surrogacy, giving Abraham her servant-girl Hagar. But God insists that his promises to Abraham extend to Sarah as well – together, they will have a son, and his name will be Isaac, and they will laugh and have incredible joy they couldn’t have imagined in their old age, because they will see God’s promises to them fulfilled.
Today, we have this awesome reminder that God keeps his promises to us even if it takes awhile. God’s promises are worth waiting for, and we CAN wait. These days, it is questionable how well we are teaching our children delayed gratification. It’s way too easy to look up an answer to a question on Wikipedia or Google, buy anything we can think of on Amazon and have it arrive next-day (well, we have experienced some shipping delays recently), find the type of food we want to eat when we want to eat it on any number of apps, fire off a nasty anonymous comment on social media as soon as we think it, and so on and so on. We are learning with great difficulty that our need for things to be all well and good and right immediately, at our fingertips, is just not possible right now. Our ancestors of the faith knew how to wait a lot better than we do, it seems. God promises that Abraham will be the father of many nations, and he is, but he only has two sons, and the Bible is not clear if he ever gets to see any of his grandchildren before he dies. God promises Abraham the land of Canaan but he and many generations of descendants live as foreigners and outsiders, basically as nomads in tents, until after the exodus 430 years later. If we thought a four-year-old waiting for a second marshmallow for fifteen minutes was impressive, how about the faithfulness and patience to wait lifetimes for God’s promises to be fulfilled?!
God’s promises are worth waiting for, and we CAN wait. I know we are all really tired of waiting right now, and we are losing our patience, but if we look back at these last three months, just marvel at the ability God has given us to wait. Suddenly haircuts and dental appointments weren’t as important as we thought they were – and how nice it is to be able to get on our hairdresser’s schedule again! Conversations with family and friends that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. The sheer gift of time, which some of us complained about never having enough of, to clean our closets, tackle those honey-do projects, get out in our gardens. How precious those first hugs with grandchildren or parents or other family members are after having waited for months. What are those “stars in the sky,” those small signs of reassurance God has given you in this time where we are trying to be patient and have self-control?
Waiting has never been easy. It is hard to blame Sarah and Abraham for laughing at these surprise guests who tell them FINALLY they will have a child. Knowing how much energy it takes to raise children as a 30-something-year-old, I can also imagine the trepidation they must have had in thinking about being parents at their advanced age. What can you do sometimes but laugh at the way God works to fulfill his promises?! In the blessing of a healthy baby boy, Isaac, they see that God’s promises were worth waiting for, and that they could wait. And especially, when we see a cross, or when our hands touch water – any water- we can be reminded of God’s baptismal promise that we have a reward in heaven, a reward worth waiting for. That even if all our hopes and longings are not fulfilled on this side of the grave in this generation, God WILL fulfill his promises to us. “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” our passage from Romans reminds us. We have a hope that will not disappoint us in Christ our Savior. Thanks be to God. Amen.