When Sarah Laughed

This is a version of the sermon I preached for worship at BBUMC for Sunday, June 21, 2020, the Third Sunday after Pentecost. This week begins a summer-long series of sermons from the Book of Genesis, often using texts from the Revised Common Lectionary (but likely a week behind the actual lectionary).

This sermon is based on Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7.\

Last week, I began a summer sermon series from the Book of Genesis. You can watch that sermon online at the church’s website or YouTube channel, or read a version on my blog. In reading Genesis 1 last week, I laid some foundations about what the Book of Genesis is, and how we can read it faithfully. At least one of the main things about Genesis is that, as its title suggests, it’s a collection of the origin stories of the people of Israel, and us, as followers of Jesus, who was Jewish. They remind us of who and whose we are, and how we’re called to be. And in order to get a sense of today’s passage, we’ll be covering some peak parts of Genesis 12-21, if you’d like further study. As we consider today’s passage, let’s pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Psalm 19:14

Have you ever burst out laughing at the wrong time, when nobody else was laughing?

Sarah laughed. She didn’t mean to. It just came out.

Sarah and her husband Abraham had spent the last twenty-four years in the wilderness following God: not the god of their ancestors in Haran, but God who said, “I am El Shaddai – God Almighty, God the sufficient one” (Gen 17:1). Their names were Abram and Sarai – meaning respectively, the exalted father and the princess – when El Shaddai first called them. At 75 and 65, they were already old then, and they’d not had any children. But God promised to make them a great nation, through whom God would bless all the world. And so they packed up everything, along with their nephew Lot and his household, and they left.

The years and the journey had been long and hard. They set up camp at the Oaks of Mamre near Hebron, because there, God had promised them that their descendants would be “like the dust of the earth” (Gen 13:16). And, they must have believed God Almighty was able to accomplish God’s promises – perhaps this belief was a gift from God too. God kept repeating the promise, making a covenant, a partnership with Abram and Sarai, but the years kept piling up, weighing ever more heavily upon them.

While their household prospered, they still didn’t have any children. And so they got creative, taking matters into their own hands. Sarai pushed her Egyptian slave, Hagar upon Abram, who bore him a son, whom they named Ishmael. As we can imagine, the joy of this birth did not last long in Abram and Sarai’s household (Gen 16). Still, God kept repeating the covenant promise, even changing Abram to Abrahamfather of nations – and Sarai to Sarah, commander or mother of kings (Gen 17). After hearing this promise so many times, Abraham fell on his face and laughed before God (Gen 17:17). What else could he do but laugh? It was either laugh or rage or cry It seemed so ludicrous at this point: he was ninety-nine, and she ninety, well past childbearing age.

Still, God was persistent. Sitting outside their tent at the Oaks of Mamre, Abraham welcomed three strangers, offering them some snacks, which he instructed Sarah to make. While busying herself inside the tent, she overheard these visitors speak God’s promise again – this time with a time frame: when we visit next year, Sarah will have borne a child. Thinking of her aging body, and Abraham’s, she laughed. Was it with disbelief that she laughed? Was it the kind of laughter that comes out through grief when it’s either laughter or tears that won’t shut off? Was there joy and hope in her laughter? She’d waited for God’s promise for so long.

As we read this story of Abraham and Sarah and their laughter in the face of prolonged waiting, I wonder if we have some God-given hopes and dreams that seem long-deferred. We’ve witnessed two families bring their children to be baptized today as expressions of their faith in God’s promises. In baptism, like Abraham and Sarah, God’s promise to us is that God will bless us to be a blessing for others, for all – to be partners with God. And sometimes we’ve felt quite blessed. And yet, any number of things challenge our experience of this blessedness. Think of the our doubts, long-suffering, and uncertainties.

We hear the psalmist speak of God as a shepherd, but there’ve been times, perhaps many, perhaps today, in which we feel more lost, astray, or abandoned by God than guided to still, refreshing waters. Life feels too hard for this to be the promised still waters (Ps 23). Likewise, we hear Jesus say that all we have to do is seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all the things we worry about and need will be provided for us (Mt 6:33). But do we sometimes laugh like Abraham and Sarah at this news, questioning if it really can be good news, for us, today? Further, with our country experiencing the turmoil of heightened political division and distrust, a pandemic, and protests about systemic racism, have we felt like we don’t know what to say about life, like we’re at a loss for words? I have. And yet, God promised the prophet Isaiah that God would put God’s words in our mouths, in all the mouths of God’s people (Is 59:21). In the face of this and other such promises, it feels sometimes like our only response is to laugh or else we’ll cry in disbelief and longing.

At the Oaks, God Almighty responds to Sarah’s laughter, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too difficult for the LORD?” (v.13-14). Frightened at being caught – perhaps it was doubting laughter – Sarah denies laughing. But God does not rebuke her, except to say that surely she did laugh. Apparently, Sarah’s doubt, Sarah’s wonder, does not phase God, and neither does it deter God. While God has changed their names, God’s name has not changed: God is El Shaddai, God Almighty, God for whom nothing is too difficult.

Perhaps, God too laughs inwardly, for soon, Genesis tells us that God “carried out just what [God] had promised her.” She gave birth to a son and they named him Isaac, meaning laughter, because, she said, “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about [our old-age birth] will laugh about it” (Gen 21:1, 6). God transforms Sarah and Abraham’s grief and doubt into laughter so that they can live as blessings and witnesses for others.

To every promise and hope God has instilled in us, even when we laugh with doubt or fear or to keep from crying in despair, God’s response to Abraham and Sarah proclaims that, indeed, God is able to accomplish God’s will, way, and mission in the world with us. God truly is El Shaddai, God Almighty. In whatever ways we’re experiencing doubt, frustrated patience, and grief, God transforms those things into laughter, so that we can live as God’s blessing for others. 

For us, today, in the face of realities that foster doubt, frustration, and fear, Sarah’s story guides us to two responses. First, can we name our laughter before God? Can we be honest about our griefs, hurts, doubts, and frustrations – with life and God? For in naming our doubt, we make space for God to transform doubt into laughter.

Second, after naming our laughter, can we keep a keen eye out for instances of God-given laughter and joy? This is as simple as pondering at the end of every day, “When did I sense the God-given joy of life, of God’s promises fulfilled?” Sarah said we’d laugh with joy when we think of her. So let’s count our laughter, in great, but especially in small things – at the ways we’ve experienced God’s presence today. When we begin to see, name, and share of God’s presence, our vision for God’s able- and almighty-ness grows – and with it, our hope. God transforms our doubt, grief, and struggle into laugher one laugh at a time. And then, in our laughter, God reveals Godself to others. Sarah laughed with joy of God-fulfilled hope, and we laugh. We laugh at God-fulfilled hope, and others too will see and know the joy of God’s presence and faithfulness. Laughter can be our witness.

The Church Council contacted many people in the church recently asking about our readiness to resume in-person worship, but they also asked about devotional practices. And in many cases, people reported simple ways they were experiencing God’s grace and presence through prayer, scripture, and worship practices. Some shared about experiencing healing through medical treatments. Others shared about how they experienced God through a whispered calling to reach out to another, or through a phone call from a friend. In these and countless other ways, God reveals Godself as God Almighty, God who is able to make God’s presence, and God’s blessings known in our lives. May we be a people who practice pointing out God’s presence and bearing witness. God transforms our grief and doubt into laughter so that we can be God’s blessings for others.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Jewish and Christian readers of the Bible, for nearly as long as the text has existed, have asked these two related questions: 1) Why did Sarah laugh – was it doubt, joy, or something else? 2) What, if anything, is different between Abraham’s laughter in 17:17 and Sarah’s laughter in 18:12? What do you think?
  2. What importance, if any, do you see in God’s response to Sarah’s laughter (or Abraham’s)? Does this show us anything important about God?
  3. Sarah and Abraham’s story is especially challenging for women and couples who have struggled with fertility. And, just because Abraham and Sarah’s waiting eventually is ended with the birth of a child, that isn’t how all our stories work. What in this story can give hope to those who experience long-suffering, waiting, and unfulfilled hopes? In what ways is this story unhelpful or even hurtful? And, how can we embrace this story without harming others whose stories don’t develop like Abraham and Sarah’s?
  4. I sought to draw out the tension between God calling Godself “El Shaddai” – “God Almighty” – and God’s question, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” (Gen 17:1, 18:14). If this is an origin story for the people of Israel (and Christians), why is it important that this story wrestles with the question, “Is God able to accomplish what God wills?” What do you think, “Is there anything too difficult for the Lord?”
  5. Another question this passage seeks to answer, which comes up repeatedly in scripture, is this: “Is God faithful, does God keep God’s promises?” How have you experienced God’s faithfulness, or in what ways has God seemed unfaithful to you? Can you find something in this passage that helps you find yourself in the story of scripture? What does this passage reveal about God’s character that’s helpful, or troubling, to you?

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