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Sermons

God Can Hear You Laugh!

June 13, 1999, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7); Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23);

It was all she could to do contain herself. Why, she almost laughed right out loud. But standing there behind the tent flap, Sarah thought she had concealed her skepticism. Imagine, those three visitors suggesting that she would soon be pregnant? It almost seemed a cruel suggestion to make to a couple who remained childless well beyond the age of bearing children. So Sarah simply shook her head and chuckled to herself. She and her husband Abraham had done everything, tried everything to bring the promise into being. They had even tried to force it into being. Sarah had gone so far as to give Abraham her Egyptian slave-girl Hagar as a surrogate mother. Children born to Hagar would be legally Sarah’s. Blaming God for her difficulties she had said to her husband “You see the Lord has prevented me from having children; go in to my slavegirl; it may be that I shall obtain a child by her.”1 How many sermons could be preached about the way in which we blame God for our difficulties to justify our actions. That too, is a form of laugher -- sardonic laughter. Sarah had waited long enough for the promise to come, and had concluded that God had forgotten. Laughing at the notion of such promise, she decided to force the issue. She led her husband to her slavegirl’s bed. But lest we make Sarah the only culprit here, notice that Abraham joins her in this plan. Neither of them have been paragons of trust. He does as Sarah suggests, and soon Ishamel is born.

Ishmael, that wild, free-roaming man who would live at odds with all of his family, yet himself become the father of twelve princes. Ishmael’s progeny would be forever at odds with the children of God’s covenant with Abraham. Such is the havoc we wreak when we laugh at or try to force the promises of God.2 Such laughter not only mocks God, it sets in motion events that will forever after complicate our lives. That is what comes from laughing at God. The continuing hostility that exists between the children of this child of Abraham and the children of that other so long promised should be warning enough. Do not try to force God’s promise. The results are always much more trouble than they are worth.

Abraham stood by in the heat of that day watching his three guests eat, remembering the animosity that had entered his household because he had tried to force the promise.3 And as he watched his thirteen-year old son Ishamel grow ever more wild, he wondered at what he had done and of what would become of the boy. God had promised that he would also be a great nation, but was not to be bearer of God’s covenant.4 Rather, once again God had promised Abraham that he was to have a son with Sarah. Abraham chuckled to himself, remembering how he had doubled over and actually laughed in God’s face at that promise. Imagine, a man 99, with a wife not much younger, having a son together.5

Now a question from his guests drew him from his thoughts: “Where is your wife Sarah?”

How should these visitors know his wife’s name? Has some of the story been lost in the years of storytelling? Or is it more subtle, the storyteller’s way of letting us know who is among these three nameless visitors. This is more than middle-eastern prescience; the Lord is in Abraham’s midst in these three visitors.

Sarah? In the tent.”

Again, the promise is spoken, but for the first time it is spoken within Sarah’s hearing. Until now Sarah has had to live with only her husband having heard this promise. Until now she was not sure how much of this had actually been God’s promise to them, and how much had simply been her husband’s own yearnings clothed in the language of God’s promise. But now, standing behind the flap of the tent, she overhears for herself, what she must have come to think of as nothing more than the muddled, vainglorious yearnings of an old man, wrapped in the mantle of divine promise to make himself feel important. Now Sarah has heard the promise for herself. But you know what? Hearing firsthand has changed nothing. She too joins her husband’s laughter: “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have [the] pleasure [of a son of my own]?” Sarah is having none of it.

Outside the tent, the conversation continues. But suddenly the storyteller decides to let us know just who it is seated among these three anonymous visitors. It is the Lord, saying: “Why did Sarah laugh and say 'Shall I bear a child, now that I am too old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

The answer, of course, is “No!” But the truth of the matter is, it can be too wonderful for us to comprehend. “My thoughts are not your thoughts,” says the Lord, “nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”6 And therein lies the real problem. We simply cannot comprehend how it is God works among us. Week after week you hear us say “In Jesus Christ your sin, my sin has been forgiven.” Do you ever wonder at what that really means? Paul writes in today’s Epistle Lesson that we are set right with God through faith, not by what we do, and that we are now at peace with God and ourselves through Jesus Christ. We will one day share in God’s glory. Yet, we simply do not understand how that can be. One day you and I will stand in the presence of God – face to face – and find ourselves clothed with God’s glory. That is the promise. But even more, it will be, not because we have understood it, nor because we have believed it, or even because we acted on it, but simply because it has been God’s will from the beginning to make it so through Jesus Christ. And even as I say that, you and I cannot really understand it. We would be much happier to hear that Jesus died for us because we are wonderful, hard-working, well-intentioned folk, who have taught Sunday School, come to Church on hot June Sunday mornings rather than headed for the shore, given systematically of our income to help support the work of the church, given up time in our lives to serve on a Session or be a deacon, and even dared, from time to time, to invite a friend to church, if not speak of what a difference our faith makes to our life. Surely these are the reasons we have some hope of glory. But Paul says “No!” Our hope of glory is nothing except what God has done for us. “God proves his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The text goes on to say that if we have been put right with God through Christ’s death, even more surely we will be saved from God’s wrath because of it.7 It has been promised to us simply because God wants it for us. Sound impossible if not illogical? God can hear you laughing!

Caught, where she thought she had been circumspect, Sarah soberly denies it all: “I did not laugh.”

“Ah, but you did.” says the Lord. “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

And here is the miracle of the story. Here is the gospel written plain and clear in the very first book of the Bible: nine months later it is God who is laughing. In the word of Fred Beechner, Sarah, babe in arms, is wheeled out of the maternity ward by 100-year old Abraham, who pays the delivery bill with his Medicare card.8

Now look who is laughing – everyone! God is laughing. The giggling neighbors simply can’t keep the story quiet. Abraham has laughed so much he looks fifty years younger. Sarah just can’t stop grinning. Even the babe gets in on the act. He is named Isaac, which means “he laughs.”

God not only can hear us laugh, it makes God laugh.

Think of the catalogue of laughter in your own life. Where are those times you have been convinced God’s promises were laughable?

Ten million dollars to renovate these buildings and equip them for ministry in the next century? An “Avenue Church” in New York City worship in its gymnasium? A Day School, which five years ago was in turmoil from which many were predicting it would not recover, now with such a waiting list, that we have had to add an additional classroom this next year in order to accommodate more than our own people and our legacy children? A Session goal of doubling the membership of this congregation in the next eleven years? Can God hear you laughing?

Or is it the promise that God is at work through that conflicted relationship in your life to bring healing and wholeness to both of you. Are you willing to trust him to do it? God is at work through a hardship, an illness, a setback, to bless you and others in ways that are impossible for any of us to understand. The Lord does have something in store for you to do, that only you can do on God’s behalf, and is working that out in and through your life. God does need your gifts on this Session, this Board of Deacons or Trustees. God does want you to begin trusting him more deeply with the business and financial affairs of your life? What would it mean for you to start thinking about tithing? What would it mean for you to think about making a really significant gift to help with the Fund for Renewal? What other kinds of renewal is God promising that you simply cannot yet envision? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

Remember what Jesus promised the twelve: the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. So he sent them out with authority to say what he had been saying – “the kingdom of God has drawn near, turn around and believe the gospel.” And he sent them out to do the very work he himself had been doing: heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons.9 Trusting God’s promise is not about conjuring up the deepest longings of your heart and baptizing them as God’s will for you. This is about trusting God to be true to the promise to never abandon or forsake you, to give you life, to make you a useful, fruitful disciple, to work in and through you to touch others with his power, and in that process bring you to eternal life.

They named the boy Isaac, which means “he laughed.” But one final note: the subject of Isaac’s name is suitably ambiguous. Does “He” here refer to Abraham, to Isaac, or to God? Who always has the last laugh? The Kingdom of God has drawn near. Can you hear God laughing?

  1. Genesis 16:2-3
  2. Genesis 17:20
  3. Genesis 16:4-15
  4. Genesis 17:21
  5. Genesis 17:17
  6. Isaiah 55:8-9
  7. Romans 5:8-9
  8. Frederick Beechner, “Theological A.B.C.’s” (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, c. 1970).
  9. Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina series (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), p. 141.

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