We are only two Sundays into Ordinary Time, having concluded our celebration of the great festivals of the faith with Pentecost Sunday. So, it might seem a bit strange to return to Christmas today, but indulge me for a moment. It doesn’t take a brilliant biblical scholar to see parallels between this story of Sarah and that story of Mary. They are about the same thing, the powerful grace of God doing the impossible for the salvation of God’s people.
But they are a mirror image of each other. The one is about a young girl, the other about an old woman. The one isn’t married, has never had sex, is a virgin; the other has been married for years, but in spite of numerous attempts to have a child is still childless, because she is barren. The one receives a terrifying visit from an angel, who promises a child who will be conceived even though no man will provide the seed. The other is visited by three strangers, one of whom is the Lord himself, who promises a child who will be conceived even though she has no eggs to provide for the conception. The first responds to this impossible promise with that lovely line, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.” The other responds to the promise by laughing to herself about how impossible it is.
We love the story of Mary, but the story of Sarah is more like the story of our lives. On this second Sunday of Ordinary Time, as we begin the journey of everyday life with the God who has done great things for us, let’s reflect on this experience so many of us have had—when the promises of God’s salvation are so out of touch with the reality of your life that all you can do is laugh. My sermon on this text would be entitled, “When God Makes You Laugh.”
As I said, we love the story of Mary, this tender young girl living her dream, in love with a decent and gentle Joseph. When her dreamy life is abruptly interrupted by God, she is shocked. “How can this be, since I have no husband?” But she recovers quickly when the angel reassures her and explains that the Holy Spirit will impregnate her. By the end of the story she is compliant and trusting and obedient. When the child is born, she treasures and ponders, as the shepherds return to their flocks glorifying and praising God. “God rest you, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay….” It’s a lovely, joyful story.
Unless you are Sarah, on the opposite end of life’s journey. She has been around the block many times, and she has plenty to be dismayed about. In many ways, life has been a nightmare, at least since that day she was uprooted from her home in Ur of the Chaldees and hauled along on that long trip to an unknown land, all because her husband said God had told him to go. Abraham claimed that God had made wonderful promises about land and children.
But she had lived in a tent for decades now, as they wandered around that land, and she remained childless. And there was that terrible incident down in Egypt, when Abraham talked her into lying about being his sister and she spent time in Pharaoh’s harem. And when Sarah tried to help out with the “child problem” by giving her slave girl Hagar to Abraham, that little snip had scorned Sarah when Abraham got Hagar pregnant.
But at the leaden heart of her life was the disappointment and shame of never having her own child. Yes, Abraham kept assuring her that God had promised a child, a child from her own body. But after 90 years, it hadn’t happened. And it never would, not now, not with her body in its post-menopausal condition.
Then those three strangers suddenly appeared out of the shimmering heat. It was the hottest part of the day. Abraham was just drifting into his siesta as he sat in the entrance of their tent pitched in the shade of the great trees of Mamre. As he nodded, something made him look up, and he saw them. In a marvelous display of ancient Near Eastern hospitality, Abraham treated them like kings, like lords. Which, of course, one of them was.
But Abraham didn’t know that, nor did Sarah. The story teller does and, thus, we do too. “The Lord appeared to Abraham…,” he says. With that the curtain rises on the greatest act in the divine drama—a foretaste of the incarnation, God incognito, God in disguise visiting his desperate and disappointed people, God with us in human form to wake us from the nightmares of our lives. But Abraham and Sarah didn’t know it was God, any more than we do as we nod through our discouraging days.
Sarah plays a bit part in the first scene of this greatest act in the drama, scurrying about with mealtime preparations and then retiring into the tent as the men folk ate their dinner. She is in the background, hiding behind the tent flap, curious about these strangers, listening to the conversation. Suddenly she is thrust into the center of things with one question. “Where is your wife, Sarah?” they asked. You can imagine Sarah’s head jerking up, her pulse quickening. “How do they know my name?” Abraham grunts his monosyllabic response, “There, in the tent.” Then comes the bombshell. “The Lord said, ‘I will return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’”
After all these years of childlessness, all these years of hearing Abraham saying, “God told me, God promised a son,” but hearing nothing herself and seeing no results– after all these years of disappointment, she herself hears God speak the promise. In one year, Sarah will have a son. Oh joy! Oh ecstasy! Oh Lord! Oh brother! Are you kidding me? Are you serious? What a joke! “Sarah laughed to herself….”
It’s not hard to imagine why she laughed. In fact, the text tells us explicitly. It wasn’t just the years of disappointment, though, frankly, that would have been enough. I mean when you wait this long for God to act and he never does, you eventually conclude that he won’t, not for you anyway. Maybe for other people, maybe for Hagar, maybe for Abraham, but not for you. Whatever other people may say about God’s faithfulness in keeping his promises, it hasn’t happened for you. God has been silent and absent in your life. Sarah may have laughed because of her past, her long disappointment with God, but that isn’t what the text says.
It says she laughed because of the present, because of the sheer impossibility of the promise. If God had promised this 60 years ago, even 30 years ago, I might be able to believe it. But now? “Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?’” That tells us that Sarah was simply past the age of childbearing. She was far beyond menopause.
A recent scientific article in the local newspaper said that menopause begins on average at age 51. Sarah was now nearly 40 years beyond that. It had been 4 decades since her body had produced any eggs. Sarah was no modern doctor, but she knew what she knew. She knew reality and she wasn’t afraid to say it. “I am worn out, dried out. It is literally inconceivable that I can have a child. And now this stranger says I will have a son. Get real. It’s impossible. Who does he think he is?” And she laughed to herself.
Well, that is precisely the question, isn’t it? Who is this stranger who makes such impossible promises? We know, because the narrator tells us, but no one tells her. She didn’t know it was the Lord. She might have, could have known, if her disappointment and sense of reality hadn’t gotten in the way. After all, there were these clues.
How had this total stranger known her name? How did he know she laughed when she was hidden in the tent and had only laughed to herself? Further, she had heard this promise before. God had repeated it to Abraham at least 3 times, and he surely had told her. How could she not put two and two together and figure out that she was listening to Yahweh here. And the Stranger said, “Is anything to hard for Yahweh?” Isn’t that a dead giveaway? Of course, he said that after she laughed.
But my point is that she could have known. In fact, I wonder if she didn’t know, and laughed anyway. She knew what she knew. Given her past and her present, she was not going to have a baby, no matter who says she will. Even God. So, she laughed at the promise of God.
Let’s talk about laughing at God. There are two kinds of such laughter. One is the laughter of mockery, of ridicule, of rebellion, of simple outright unbelief in the message of God about Jesus Christ. It is the laughter that is met with the scornful laughter of God, as we hear in Psalm 2. When the nations rebel against God, God laughs in derision at them.
Such was not the laughter of Sarah. She laughed not in God’s face, but to herself. She laughed not out of arrogance, but out of a broken heart, out of a lifelong disappointment that had taught her not to clutch at straws. Hopelessness, not pride underlay her inability to believe God’s impossible promise. It wasn’t that she had no faith, but that her faith was small because of the nightmare of her life. She was not a rebel, but a realist. When she was confronted with her laughter, she doesn’t shake her fist under God’s nose. She cowers, and lies, but she doesn’t keep laughing as a rank unbeliever would.
God knows that. That’s why he responds to her unbelieving laughter not with fire and brimstone, but with truth and grace and with his own little joke. “Yes, you did laugh.” That’s the truth. You can’t fool God. He knows the truth about our secret laughter in response to the promises of his Word. He knows how we lie to him and to ourselves about the strength of our faith. He knows about our secret unbelief, our inability to put the past behind us and believe that he can and will do miracles in our present and future.
And he responds with grace. The next thing we hear about Sarah is in Genesis 21:1, “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 promised him.” God keeps blessing even the little faith of his children. He remembers we are dust and he gives us grace, even when we laugh because of our inability to believe with the kind of surrender Mary showed.
Could it be that God even laughed with Sarah, that his response to her faltering faith was not an angry scowl, but a warm chuckle. I wonder about that because of the name Abraham and Sarah gave to their precious, promised son. They called him Isaac, “laughter,” because that’s what God told them to do. He was God’s wonderful little joke, the punch line of a long story of suspense and confusion. You shall call his name Isaac, because his mother (and father?) laughed when God promised his birth.
“You shall call his name Jesus, because he shall save his people from their sins.” Including the sin of laughing at God’s promises. That’s the Gospel message in this old story. Because of God’s all-powerful grace, those who laugh behind God’s back, even those who laugh in his face, can find God’s blessing. It’s an unspeakable comfort to know that salvation depends not on our unfaltering faith, but on God’s grace in Christ. “God rest you, merry gentlemen and women, let nothing you dismay….”
The picture of God walking up to Abraham’s tent and Sarah hiding behind the flap where she laughed at God’s promise reminded me of these lines from Francis Thompson’s immortal poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”
I fled him, down the nights and down the days,
I fled him, down the arches of the years,
I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the mist of tears
I hid from him, and under running laughter.
Still with unhurrying chase
And unperturbed pace
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet
And a Voice about their beat,
‘Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter me.’
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 14, 2020
Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7) Commentary