I love this piece of art showing Sarah in her advanced years, laughing inside the tent door. Three visitors, though serious in their promise that she will bear a child in her old age, come across more like an ancient form of the 3 Stooges. The Hebrew says that Sarah laughs in her womb—she lets out a belly laugh from deep within her, scoffing at the ridiculous idea that at age 90, she will have both the pleasure of making a baby, and the joy of giving birth after being barren her whole life. It is a moment where comedy and tragedy are so close—if Sarah could not burst out with a belly laugh, she would cry from the emptiness of her womb, from a promise unfulfilled and a dream dried up like a raisin in the sun.
The 3 visitors are new for Abraham and Sarah, but the promise they deliver is not. In fact, this is an old, familiar promise God had been making for 25 years, a promise that had not been fulfilled. It began in Genesis 12 when God called then-named, “Abram and Sarai,” who was barren then, to leave Ur of the Chaldeans with a three-fold promise: 1- that they would be given land, 2- that they would become a great nation and have many descendants, and 3- that they would be “blessed to be a blessing”—that through them all families of the earth would be blessed. At this point, Abram was 75 and Sarai was 10 years his junior, already pretty old to start a family.
But many years go by and there is no child. God reiterates the promise of descendants to Abram in Genesis 15 as he looks at the number of stars in the sky, but still, this promise remains unfulfilled, and Abram and Sarai grow older. By the time Abram is 86 years old, Sarai is tired of waiting on the Lord to fulfill this promise, so she takes matters into her own hands. Sarai offers her slave Hagar as a surrogate to produce an heir for Abram, and Ishmael is born. But the story is not over yet.
God again appears to Abram to repeat the promise yet another time in Genesis 17. This is when God changes Abram's name to Abraham, "for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” And God made it clear that Sarai was part of the covenant, too: "Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her.” This is where laughter first enters the story—Abraham falls on his face laughing.
Both of them laughingly scoff at God—because both of them have given up on God’s promises. It is physically impossible and beyond human nature. They have aged out; too much time has passed and they have given up hope that things can be different than they are. No one would expect the promise of a baby to come true now. Abraham is 99, Sarah is 89, and next year they are going to have a baby? That is laughable and beyond ridiculous.
Perhaps you, too, have given up hope when dreams are physically impossible and seem beyond human nature. When too much time has passed and we stop expecting things to change and good things to become true. Maybe it’s as laughable as an end to racism in our country, where it has still been ok to look the other way while an officer uses enough force to kill a black man in handcuffs. Where we have grown accustomed to white schools always getting what they need and schools of color nowhere near funded at a similar level. Where we are used to the job applicant with the white sounding name being the preferred over the ethnic sounding one. Where we have made no effort to redress the economic and educational gaps between blacks and whites intentionally created by Jim Crow laws which seeded crippling generational poverty.
Like Abraham and Sarah having a baby at ages 100 and 90, imagining these changes to our society may seem physically impossible and beyond human nature. People do not give up power or comfort or their version of the truth that easily. Too much time has passed. This is just the way it is. Like Sarah, we would rather laugh at the ridiculous suggestion than cry from an empty womb that such a dream could come true.
But this is where the story gets really interesting. After Abraham laughs in God’s face, he lets God off the hook and tells God not to keep this particular promise of a baby. His son by Hagar is enough for him: "O that Ishmael might live in your sight" prays Abraham. “I have Ishmael and I am happy with him. Just bless him, and we are all good.”
In other words—"I got what I need, I have what I want—there is nothing and no one else to consider.” That is privilege. Abraham only thinks about himself and his experience. Abraham has completely forgotten about Sarah—not only that she’s his wife with the pain of being barren, but also, that God’s promise was to her as well! What were God’s exact words? Oh yeah, “Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her.” But, Abraham is a man in a patriarchal culture, so who cares about those at the margins. Even if he loves her, she is not that important to him.
This story is about 4,000 years old, yet, it is like it was yesterday. How easy it is to ignore someone else’s pain when our needs and wants are satisfied. How simple it is to forget those at the margins when we think that our story, our culture, our religion are what matter, and are at the center of life. What a miracle that the patriarchal Hebrew story-tellers of 4,000 years ago—in the Bronze Age, no less—felt compelled to include Sarah’s role in the fulfillment of God’s promise to create a nation that would be a blessing to the whole earth.
Sarah’s story mattered and when this history was written down in Genesis, Sarah, is included as a central part of fulfilling God’s promise. From the very beginning of God’s promise to Abraham, God has included those at the margins. God does bless Ishmael, and he becomes the ancestor through whom Muslims trace their lineage to Abraham.
And God also includes Sarah. God includes her so much so, that when the angel visitors arrive at Abraham and Sarah’s tent in our text today, they specifically ask for her again. God includes Sarah, not because she is always righteous—she was not. She was jealous of Hagar and sent her and Ishmael away. God includes Sarah in the promise, because that is who God is—it is the nature of God to include and to bless all peoples of the earth, and calls us to do the same. Everyone’s story matters because God is working through all of us to fulfill God’s will for creation.
God’s inclusion of Sarah in the promise shows a God who turns our laughter of disbelief into the laughter of joy. For God fulfilled his promise to Sarah and she did give birth to a son when she was 90 and Abraham was 100 years old. God waited 25 years so there would be no mistaking whose power was at work in this blessing. They called him Isaac which means “Laughter.” For God can do what is impossible for us, changing our laughter of disbelief into the laughter of joy.
- We can laugh with joy when we hear our youth and their stories and their experience. What wisdom they have to share and to teach us. Their stories matter and when we can gather in person, I hope you will ask them yourselves about their experience.
- We laugh with joy in Spanish class— Rick Rodriguez is giving us a chance to learn a new culture and listen and learn stories from people we were not able to hear before.
- We can laugh with joy as we pray with our community. Our prayer cross is helping us listen to the stories in the community and what people are praying for and how they cry out to God.
Find one new neighbor, one person of color, one person from a different ethnic or cultural background and build a friendship and listen to their stories. Tell them your stories. Your story matters, too. Get to know them well enough to laugh with joy at what God can do.
God worked through Abraham and Sarah together—not one instead of the other, not one over the other, not one while ignoring the other, but side by side. God made sure both of their stories mattered. With Abraham, we can listen to God reminding us to pay attention to the pain of the person beside us or in the next neighborhood, or of a different skin color or culture, who is not be having the same experience we are. With Sarah, we can remember that our story matters, too. And as we share these stories, we laugh we joy as God can do what is impossible for us alone—to build bridges, create bonds, tear down walls, and transform hearts that have already effected some change, like seeing Ferguson, MO police officers kneeling in protest, and the NFL and Nascar changing their policies and practices.
God’s promise for life and life abundant includes everyone—and we are living at a unique moment to see what God can do that’s impossible for us. And everyone’s story matters—Abraham’s, Sarah’s, our story and every person who may be at the margin—God’s great story of salvation is being lived out through all of us, so tell that story, too. From just this one story of Abraham and Sarah, we witness this amazing God who has a vision to bless the whole earth in partnership with us and all of humanity whom God has created. As we listen to each other, our sorrow is turned into hope and we encounter this God who is ready to turn our disbelieving chuckles into the laughter of joy.