“I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 7 And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
We read last week about God’s call and promise to Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Abraham and Sarah have been wandering from place to place waiting to discover ‘the land I will show you.” For twenty five years, they moved from place to place. They built altars, lived as immigrants in foreign lands, used half truths to survive but still no luck. They must have wondered if they’d misheard or misunderstood.
And perhaps more depressing, the promise to Abraham in Genesis 13:16 “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.”—appeared to be a classic bait and switch. It is pretty hard to have descendants if the parents are childless. We read: “Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” Sarah was beyond hoping for a child. Her biological clock had run out a long time ago.
No wonder she laughed.
In spite of all of this, Sarah, indeed, has a child. Without engaging in the obvious biological questions, the thrust of the passage I am most familiar with are the words: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” It fits with Luke 18:27: “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” God keeps his promises no matter how unlikely the possibility in human minds. We mortals should never forget the limitations of our knowledge and imagination. The faithful servant perseveres in the wilderness trusting that God is working his purposes out. We will all have times when we cannot discern the way we should go. Keep seeking to answer his call. We actually do not need to know the details of the future to live in the present.
That said, in real life, such confidence can be hard to muster when the world seems to be going to hell in a hand-basket. We can believe that good will come of the deprivations of Covid, something new can come out of the harshness of our political world, or something new is awaiting us in the ways we worship together, but, at least so far, that feels like expecting a 75 year old woman to bear a child. It is hard to see light in the dark night of the soul—no matter what we ‘should’ believe.
In the actual story, Sarah laughs and is caught laughing. She did not want her true feelings to be known. “Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid.” We spent some time in FIRL discussing why Sarah was afraid to own up to her internal truth. It may be as simple as not wanting to be rude to a guest no matter how crazy they sound and/or as weighty as her fundamental doubt about the reliability of God’s promises. In either case, It suggests, at least in part, that Sarah could not imagine her whole self could be accepted.
But please notice the heavenly visitor does not scold Sarah for her laughter. He simply acknowledges it. The heavenly visitor replies: “Oh yes, you did laugh.” In real life, believing that God loves us is often just as difficult to believe as a post menopausal pregnancy. In FIRL, several people spoke of periods of unemployment and deep personal loss. Years of training and preparation for a career we’re aborted, years of companionship did not lead to security and safety—they led to uncertainty, loneliness, fear and anxiety. If someone sought to assure —’Oh, you’ll get a job’—or, ‘you’ll find someone else’, you might nod your head politely. But, just as likely, you, too would laugh inwardly.
It is easy to make this story about how we should be faithful rather than seeing that it is a story about the nature of God. In such situations, trusting God is measured by our level of optimism in the face of discouraging circumstances. But this story is about a faithful God—not a faithful people. The story illustrates on several levels that ‘God with us’ includes the times when we cannot see the way. It includes the times when God’s promises seem the most preposterous. The important thing is God is working his purposes out whether or not we understand or doubt. Sarah’s laugh did not alter God’s purposes. Sarah’s laughter is transformed into a son. (In the Hebrew, the transformation is literal. Sarah’s son was named Issac—which means ‘he will laugh, he will rejoice’. It is a pun that we miss in the English). God’s love is not dependent upon our belief. Our belief simply allows us to enjoy it.
In our ordinary lives it is surprisingly difficult to rely on a faithful God. One of our fundamental faith claims is that we are loved. We are promised that we are all God’s children. But our behaviors belie those promises. We are more likely to deflect or dismiss love than we are to enjoy it. In real life we are likely to say an internal ‘yes, but…’ We create tests—if you really loved me, you would…In real life, loving is imperfect and hard to trust. We can be (and will be) hurt by people who profess their love. Those are the times we are likely to scoff—’sure you do.’ Relationships are not measured by what someone does for us, they are measured by the regard that is offered and the willingness to be present. That is the faithfulness that God offers. It is our challenge to receive such care and to offer it. And that includes our doubt and despair. Where can our church witness such faith in an angry distrustful world? How can we nurture and sustain each other over Zoom? How can we live the Good News?
Words and understanding are not enough. The word must be made flesh. The mission of the church is to make that love present and alive in the world. But times are changing. Europe is filled with century’s old buildings that used to be churches that are now museums. What worked for years is falling on deaf ears. Are we headed in the same direction? We cannot see the way. The future of the church at large and the future of our particular church is hard to discern. But, I know that it begins with trusting God’s promise that no matter how preposterous, God loves us and will be with us.
I was told years ago that important decisions were discovered not made. I have since found that to be true for myself and for my clients. My habit had been to approach decisions by making lists of pros and cons. I made contingency plans and tried to make a balance sheet to guide me. It was my way to be the master of my own destiny. There is certainly nothing wrong with that approach and it was part of my discernment. Unfortunately, I was just stuck. As uncomfortable as it is, we can’t hurry stuck.
I have now come to believe that my job is to live like I am loved and to live like love matters. This allows me to laugh like Sarah when God’s promises are beyond my vision. That means trusting God with my uncertainty, fear and anxiety. It is a hard place to live. I hate it. But I have found that new life awaits. Only then can I join Sarah in her joy and laughter at the new life she thought impossible. Deep peace and new direction await when we trust God with both. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” God is with us always.
Bring your whole self to God and await God’s grace. Let it be so.