Sunday, June 18, 2023
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “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. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 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.” 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. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 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.”
Laughter is good for the soul. I need it. You need it. The whole world needs it. And a really good laugh - the kind that makes your stomach ache - clears the mind, sends oxygen to your vital organs, and releases those marvelous hormones called endorphins. Maybe that’s why the book of Proverbs says that a cheerful heart is good medicine.
But not all laughs are the same. Sometimes, we laugh with bitterness or regret or embarrassment or incredulity. Sometimes we laugh so that we will not cry or scream or curse.
The words “laughter” or “laugh” occur six times in the Genesis reading today. And each of these relays a different emotional content, from derision to disbelief to unfettered joy.
So, what was all that laughter about? Well, before we get there, we have to set the stage. You might remember that God had spoken to Abraham (then named Abram) when he was already an old man and told him and his wife Sarah (then named Sarai) to go to a land they had never been to before, and there they would found a great nation.
It was a crazy idea. They were already old. Sarah was known to be barren. But this voice was compelling and so they set out, living as nomads in a foreign land. Years passed, but no children were born. And just when Abram was about to give us, God offered this teaser: “Look toward the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them… So shall your descendants be.”
Well, God sounded pretty sure, so they waited some more, and more years passed, but no children came. One day, Sarai decided that enough was enough with this disembodied voice and all these crazy promises. So, she called her husband aside and said: “Look, if you want to have any children, I suggest you have them with my slave, Hagar.” -- Well, let’s just say that Abraham didn’t need a lot of convincing. And Hagar conceived and gave birth to a little boy named Ishmael, whom tradition says is the ancestor of the Arab people. And so, at long last, Abram had a son at the ripe old age of 86. -- But remember that the promise had also been made to Sarai. And that promise had not been fulfilled.
It was at this point that God changed both of their names: Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah, meaning Princess. Sarah’s name change is significant because it is the only instance in the Bible of the renaming of a woman. And renaming in the Bible signifies a divine calling or a new start.
And with that, we arrive at the events of today’s lesson. One day three strangers appear at the entrance of Abraham and Sarah’s nomadic tent. But these were not just any visitors. Instead this was a “theophany,” a fancy word that means an appearance of the deity to humans. And isn’t it interesting for us Christians that the one God appears as three.
So, Abraham offered them the kind of extravagant hospitality that his culture required. He bent low to the ground before these three strangers and then asked them to sit in the shade while he brought them some cold water. He told Sarah to make some fresh bread. And he ordered a servant to slaughter a calf so that a feast could be prepared.
Over the meal, with a mouthful of veal, one of the strangers asked: “Where is Sarah?” “She’s in the tent where women belong.” Abraham replied. “Why do you want to know?” “Because,” the stranger said, “your wife is going to have a son.”
Now Sarah was eavesdropping just inside the entrance to the tent. And when she heard the same tired tale about a long-promised baby, and from this stranger, no less, she laughed. “Oh, that’s rich!” she murmured. “I am old and my husband is older still. And quite frankly, I’m just not that interested anymore!”
Well, it must have been a good laugh, because the men heard her. “Why is she laughing?” the stranger wanted to know. And then he asked this question that all believers are asked: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
Well old Sarah was caught and she was embarrassed and so she did what lots of us do when we get caught. She lied. “I did not laugh,” she said. “Sure, you did,” said the stranger.
Soon thereafter, Sarah became pregnant at the age of 90. And she gave birth to a son and named him Isaac, which in Hebrew means, “he laughs.” This story ends with Sarah’s marvelous words: “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And this woman, who had been the brunt of jokes all her married life, had the last laugh.
Sarah… is all of us. We all get tired and impatient. We look for shortcuts. We all use laughter to mask our pain. And we wait on a God who never seems to be in a hurry.
And still… still, we are haunted by the promises, even when they seem laughable. Week after week after week, we come to worship and bring with us our troubles and the troubles of the world. And week after week after week, we read and proclaim the promises of God for this world. We even have the temerity to pray: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
And we keep doing that despite the never-ending parade of bad news that flies in the face of the promises of God. And when I am having a really bad day (I had one just last week), I think about all of those pesky promises of God, and I snort with derision. It’s a bitter laugh – based squarely in my fear that as a preacher I might be the biggest fool of all.
But then I breathe. I pray. I listen. I take a nap. And once I am re-set, I realize that my cynicism is a defensive move and it’s based on my very short view of history; based on my very short life span compared to the rest of history. But the challenge of our faith is to take a long view of history – far longer than any of us will live. Our challenge is to trust that the God who came to us in Jesus remains intimately involved in the human story.
The other option is to practice a kind of functional deism. “Functional deism never denies the existence of God, but it also never expects God’s decisive action in personal affairs.” Functional deism is safe and it makes logical sense. Except that the faith of Abraham and Sarah is not about making sense. It is about naming human longing and then trusting those longings to God. It’s about long-haul hope.
Does God keep God’s promises? I offer no proof, other than the deep longings of your own heart. I offer no proof, other than the hope that will not let you go. I offer no proof, other than that insistent whisper that nothing shall be impossible for the Lord.
 Daniel Clendenin, journeywithjesus.net, lectionary essay “God Has Brought Me Laughter”. Accessed June 12, 2017