Patterns of Grace
“And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” Hebrews 11:11-12
‘a cord of three strands is not quickly broken’
In the beginning of all things just after the breaking all things (after the renewed family line of Adam and Eve was re-established through Seth) this one small line had appeared like a thread of gold stitched into a canvas of grey ‘At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord.’ Genesis 4:26
The next time this line resurfaces in the Bible is with Abram (Genesis 12:8, 13:4, 21:33) and it will appear again with his son Isaac (Genesis 26:25).
Abram, like Seth and Noah, is another renewed creation story, the re-establishing of a human family line which calls on the name of the Lord. A family line living in the storyline of grace.
God, through Abram was establishing a new kind of family, a family line with a different heritage than script lines laid out by broken Babel generations. Abram was to be the new father, the new beginning of this new kind of family a new family line calling on the name of the Lord, living in His presence and living out His justice and righteousness on earth.
There was just one problem with all of this.
Abram, his name means ‘exalted father’.
But he wasn’t. A father.
He and his wife Sarai had been unable to conceive. In our day that means sadness, in those days it also meant disgrace and a shaky foundation in a marriage. It also meant a dead end for a family line. How could a blessing to ‘become a great nation’ be fulfilled with no children? No descendants? No bloodline heirs? No hope? But “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed” (Romans 4:18).
“After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”
But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Genesis 15:1-6
It would be 25 years from the time God first promises Abram that he will become ‘a great nation’ to when he will hold the newborn Isaac in his arms. God is speaking to Abram throughout this time but 25 years is a desert plod length of time to wait.
Sarai remained childless for 25 long turns around the sun after God’s first promise to bless them. And she would have felt the absence of a child long before the promise arrived. Barren. Empty. Where a child should have been there was nothing. And barrenness for a woman at that time, well it made you feel like nothing. So Sarai (like Eve) decided to take things into her own hands and led her husband to do likewise. She reached for the right thing in the wrong way, the impatient way. She reached for the very thing God had promised before God’s hand had provided it.
‘Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, ‘The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.’
Abram agreed to what Sarai said.’ Genesis 16:1-2
‘The Lord has kept me from having..’ Sarai’s words hang on the air of history, clanging against the story of all that God eventually did in their lives. She did not yet have the benefit of hindsight, of experience with God, of faith. Sarai thought God had been withholding good from her. She was still learning who this God was. How good this God is. That God withholds no good thing ( Psalm 84:11 ) without good reason.
And this ‘perhaps’ business. There might be a ‘perhaps I can..’ but there isn’t a ‘perhaps God can’. There is no haphazard ‘perhaps’ no make-shift plan of God. There is no perhaps, no maybe-maybe not, no cross-your-fingers hoping, no striving to make it real. If God says it, it is already is real. There is no perhaps in God’s Kingdom. Only confidence in what is hoped for and assurance in what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1). We don’t have to hustle. We just have to trust and wait.
But waiting, well, it can feel like a desert plod and when your yearning-thirst for your childless arms to be filled takes hold… Sarai, like the rest of us, was still learning to trust this God. Sarai saw the absence, the emptiness of her womb, the absence of a child, the absence of a family, the absence of hope. She didn’t wait. She didn’t wait long enough to see that the absence would become the presence, the wonderful presence of God’s hand giving this child against all odds. The miracle.
Silence can feel like an absence of God. But the truth is God is always present and wants us to see clearly that it is not circumstance or our own striving that gives us good gifts, but His hand alone. And His gifts are often seen most clearly after an absence, like an oasis in a desert, like a long cool drink after a dehydrating wait, like a child finally born from an ageing barren womb. Any fit young person can have a baby… but a baby born to remarkably ageing parents? That alone is a gift from God. Remarkable. Marked by a miracle. A clear statement that God is up to something. How would they see God’s hand was with them if it had all been too easy? Normal? Natural? How would it be a sign that they are called, chosen and blessed if it was no different to any other pregnancy on earth? This pregnancy was a supernatural gift, not a natural one. And the pain of patience was going to be rewarded one-day with the joy of laughter.
But then, right then in that moment right there beneath Sarai’s feet in all the absence and the longing and the nothingness and fading hopes… all Sarai could see was the lack, and so she reaches for the right thing (God’s promise) in the wrong way. And it costs. Not just her, but Hagar and Abram and not-yet-born-and-not-his fault Ishmael. It will cost Ishmael his bond with his father and Abram his bond with one son.
Their family becomes broken with bitterness, blaming and eventually the abandonment of one child.
“So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”
“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.” Genesis 16:3-6
And it played out just like Genesis chapter three, the reaching, the taking. Sarai reaches, Abram concedes and takes, everyone suffers. Sarai didn’t know, didn’t yet fully understand. This God. This God who is powerful beyond measure and faithful beyond comprehension. She thought she had to hustle. She thought that nothing in her womb meant she was nothing in God’s plan. Nothing in God’s heart. She couldn’t have been more wrong. She didn’t yet understand who God was. And she didn’t understand who she was. Her husband had lied, asked her to lie and then let her be taken away by other men (Genesis 12:10-20) and he would do the very same thing again (Genesis 20:1-18). It was God who had been faithful to Sarai when Abram wasn’t. It was God who intervened both times on her behalf. Abram was a man who called on the name of the Lord, but he wasn’t perfect. Both he and Sarai were still hustling.
But God. God is merciful. He works with where we are at. He had made clothes for Adam and Eve when they had disobeyed themselves into shame, He marked Cain with grace after he murdered his brother, He picks through the rubble of our hustling brokenness and re-weaves His love into every broken thread, His love binding the broken threads of our stories back together.
And this is what we see repeatedly between the lines in Abram and Sarai’s story again and again and again, weaving up and down and in and out. Abram messes up but God sets things right. Sarai acts in brokenness but God works for redemption.
God sees. God hears. God Himself takes the broken threads of Abram’s and Sarai’s broken choices, the bruised and fraying broken heart of Hagar, and rethreads a new story, taking the cords of brokenness and reweaving them into a new picture, a renewed tapestry woven with threads of broken human choices and God’s own redeeming threads of mercy.
“So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.” Genesis 16:15-16
Ishmael’s name means “God hears”. Because He does. Ishmael is the first child in the Bible to be given his name, not by humans, but by God. God met Hagar on the road when she ran away in pain and He counselled her, saw her, respected her and restored her to her family. God sees and hears our pain.
Before Ishmael was born into the messiness of his family’s brokenness God set out a path before him for restoration and a future. God hears Ishmael’s cries and is with Him as he grows up, rejected and fatherless because of Sarai’s choices (Genesis 21:17-20).
God sees and hears the pain we live in, in the womb of this unravelling world, and He weaves His grace around us to restore us to ourselves. This God sees. This God hears. And this God names us who we truly are long after we have forgotten.
And God, all through the Bible, is renaming people. Reclaiming our true names. Because with Him, we all become more than we believe we are. He takes our one small identity our life has given us and wraps it around His beating heart and says “trust me, this is who you are in Me” even as we are still becoming it.
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.” Genesis 17:1-6
Often the names humans give us don’t capture the great love God has for us, or the greatness He has called us to in Him. God had promised to make Abram’s name great, but He changed Abram’s name in the process.
‘…God also said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.’ Genesis 17:15-16
God didn’t just join His heart with Abram and his family, He joined His name with him. One letter from God’s personal name YHWH (the equivalent of the H, ‘ה’) is added to Abram and Sarai’s names renaming them Abraham and Sarah. And this one small letter renames their lives from emptiness and childlessness to a life of flourishing future family lines. A family line renamed through calling on the name of God.
Hebrew names, like many cultures are intended to capture the destiny, character and calling of a person. Abram’s name was changed from ‘exalted father’ to ‘Father of many nations’, and Sarai became Sarah, meaning queen or princess, a ‘mother of nations’.
God made it personal. He makes a covenant with Abraham He changes their names interweaving them with His, He commits Himself to them, and He asks them to commit themselves to Him also.
“I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” Genesis 17:7-9
All of God’s covenants in the Bible reveal a piece of His heart, a part of who He is. God’s covenant with Abraham was God reaching out to a human being. To be close. Connected. I want to be your God Abraham, and the God of your whole family line. I want to be yours. For you to be mine.
God, this day, He commits Himself to Abraham’s family, this broken breaking family who have already proven their frailty time and time again. The God of all the spinning universe chose to tie Himself to the fate of faulty human beings to bind Himself to the broken beating hearts of humankind with a promise. A promise He will remember even when they don’t.
“He remembers his covenant forever,
the promise he made, for a thousand generations,
the covenant he made with Abraham,
the oath he swore to Isaac.”
God will remember His covenant promise to Abraham and his family long after Abraham’s descendants have discarded it. Repeatedly through scripture God will cite this covenant with Abraham as His reason for faithfulness to unfaithful Israel.
“I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God. Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come.” Genesis 17:7-9
I’m committed to you. Now, will you be committed to me?
This covenant is not one sided like God’s covenant in the time of Noah, this covenant is a mutual commitment. The rainbow was a sign of the covenant God made with Noah and all the earth “I will remember…” (Genesis 9:16). The sign of this covenant God now Makes with Abraham’s family is not distantly draped across the sky like the rainbow. It’s personal. Intimate. Right there in the place where intimacy is experienced, where life begins, a symbol of fertility and fruitfulness and a reminder against infidelity. You can’t get much more personal than this.
‘This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.’ Genesis 17:10-11
This family was to be different. And they were to know they were different. It was to become an everlasting covenant in their flesh (Genesis 17:13). The sign of God’s commitment to them and their commitment to God was in them, on them, always with them.
And one more small sign of God’s promise would soon arrive that would confirm every other part of God’s blessing and covenant promise to them. A miracle was about to arrive. Finally. The evidence of what Abraham had hoped for and the certainty of what he had not yet seen.
“Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, ‘God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me. And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”’ Genesis 21:1-6
Isaac. It means laughter. And how they must have laughed with breathless incredulity and eye shining joy.
When God is fulfilling His large purposes He is also fulfilling our small hopes, answering our silent prayers, weaving all our longings and lack with all His plans and purposes and in the warp and weft of it all, forming a whole new story.
‘Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah….’ ‘the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised…’. For Sarah. For Sarah who had been left barren for so long, who’d made all the mistakes with Hagar and lived with bitter resentment. The Lord was gracious and filled all Sarah’s emptiness with the fullness of a full womb and the fullness of an over brimming heart. A heart now overflowing with joy and love for this one small person who was the fulfilment of all her once tear-filled now thanks-filled prayers. Sarah, she was learning that God is always faithful. Even when we are not. She was learning who God is: Undeserved grace.
God had made it personal with Abraham and his whole family. Because when Abraham chose to obey and follow God, to walk with Him, to live with Him, making his home in God’s reality rather than his own broken and limited view of reality, God became part of Abraham’s family, the third strand in Abraham’s and Sarah’s marriage fighting for their unity when Abraham didn’t (Genesis 12:10-20, 20:1-18), providing a child for Abraham and Sarah when they couldn’t (Genesis 21:1-7), seeing and caring for Hagar when Sarah hadn’t (Genesis 16:1-16), watching over Hagar and Ishmael when Abraham and Sarah didn’t (Genesis 21:8-21).
God had walked with them, partnered with them, blessed them and cared for them, threading together the tapestry of all the thousand ways He’d loved them, providing patterns of redemption woven with strands of light, a tapestry woven in gold and goodness, grace and givenness. All these patterns of grace in a life weaving restoration.
God was the strengthening strand in their family line, weaving their broken threads with His whole ones. The author of Ecclesiastes wrote ‘a cord of three strands is not quickly broken’ (Ecclesiastes 4:12). A cord of three strands of which one is God will never break. It will become a lifeline through many generations.
It is not attentiveness to one another which strengthens a marriage, but attentiveness to God. When we find our strength in the healing, counselling, steadfast love of God we find the grace and strength to truly love each other. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). We love each other well when He first loves us into wholeness. And He is more faithful to the unity and wholeness of our marriages, families, relationships and communities than we are. He is a loving Father. A trustworthy partner in life. A faithful and committed friend.
In this sacred tapestry of life, when the dark threads are woven alongside light ones, when tears and laughter are entwined together in one long breath of being, He is there with us, singing, threading, weaving, not as the great weaver removed from all we are, but right there with us, among the threads, part of our essential human ecosystem, the Breath of life within us, constantly whispering our names, calling us into ourselves, reminding us who we are long after we’ve forgotten.
God longs to walk with us, partner with us, bless us and care for us, threading together the tapestry of all the thousand ways He loves us, providing patterns of redemption woven with strands of light, a tapestry woven in gold and goodness, grace and givenness.
All the patterns of grace in a life.
Where in your life have you seen God weaving redeeming patterns of grace?
Where are the fraying edges in your life that still need His restoration?