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Caught Laughing?

June 16, 2002, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor Emeritus

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

Do you remember that wonderful Broadway show "Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God?" Today's lessons tell us the same is true about laughing at God. Abraham and Sarah have been caught laughing.

Much has taken place between God's initial promise made in the reading of last Sunday1 and today. Evading a famine Abram and Sarai travel to Egypt, but there conspire to pass off the beautiful Sarai as Abram's sister. Abram fears Pharaoh will take a liking to his wife, putting Abram's life at risk. Pharaoh does attempt to bring Sarai into his harem, loading Abram with flocks, donkeys, camels and male and female slaves as payment for this supposed sister. The promise is at risk. But God intervenes. A chastened and repentant Pharaoh quickly sends Abram and Sarai away taking all the dowry loot with them. The promise is still intact. Yet, still there is no heir.2

Abram and his nephew Lot have both become so wealthy that the land cannot sustain both households, so Lot settles in Jordan. Abram settles in Canaan, as the promise continues to loom on the horizon, God now including the boundaries of the land that will be given to Abram's descendants though this covenant.3 But still, he and Sarai have no heir.

Sarai decides to force God's promise. Taking matters into her own hands, she convinces her husband to have a child with Hagar, one of the slave women they brought out of Egypt as a result of the deception with Pharaoh. But no sooner does Hagar become pregnant than Sarai realizes she now risks being displaced both as wife and participant in the promise, all because of this forthcoming birth she herself has orchestrated. Forcing the promise again, Sarai deals with her pregnant servant so harshly that Hagar runs away. Yet, God intervenes again, sending Hagar back to her mistress. This is, after all, Abram's son Hagar is carrying. He will also be blessed with a dynasty of his own. We will hear more about the painful consequences of Sarai and Abram's complicitous mistrust next week as Sarai's ire again manifests itself, and God once again must come to the rescue. But for now, Hagar's child is born and Abram, at eighty seven, names his son Ishmael.4

Thirteen years pass before God appears again, this time, not only to reaffirm the promise, but also to change their names. Abram is now named Abraham and Sarai, Sarah. And for the first time, the covenant promise is explicitly made to both of them.5 God assures Abraham that the covenant will be maintained through a son born to him through Sarah.6 God, it occurs to Abraham, has a strange sense of timing; Abram is now almost one-hundred years old; Sarah is ninety! The absurdity of what God is suggesting is simply too much for Abraham. Paying for maternity expenses with medicare benefits?7 It is too staggering to comprehend. Abraham doubles over, falling on his face in laughter.8 Lying at God's feet, amid the guffaws, Abraham manages to suggest that the now thirteen year old Ishmael become his heir, snickering still at the notion of a son with Sarah.

But God is not laughing. God has other ideas. Indeed, Ishmael will be blessed; he is, after all, Abraham's son. Ishmael will become a great nation of his own, the father of twelve princes,9 one of the many nations God promises to come from Abraham.10 But Ishmael is not the heir to the covenant promise. A child born to Abraham and Sarah is to be the bearer of God's covenant, a child, says God, to be named Isaac.

Suddenly Abraham's laughter is silenced. Looking up into God's face, his own filled with wonder, Abraham ponders what God has said. The promised child shall be named "Isaac." It means, "He laughed." Laugh at God's promise if you will. But be warned--God has a way, not only of keeping the promise, but in the process, getting in your face so that ever-after you will not forget. Sarah, you see, is not the first to laugh at God, her husband has beaten her to it.

As the story opens today it is one year later. Abraham, the nomadic chieftain has settled his camp back at Mamre, where God first appeared to him in Canaan, and is sitting in the doorway of his tent in the heat of the day. Three men appear on the hot dusty road before him. Though we know it is God accompanied by two angels, Abraham only sees three men. Running to meet them, Abraham becomes the perfect middle eastern host. Bowing low, he invites them to stay awhile, rest, and refresh themselves. It is, after all, the middle of the day and no time to be out in the sun. The three consent, and Abraham hurries to set Sarah about the task of baking bread and then finds a servant to prepare a calf. The meal prepared and set before the guests, Abraham stands in the shade of a tree, prepared to attend to any other needs his guests might have. Sarah, for her part, is judiciously stationed behind the flap of the tent entrance, listening in, as wives consigned to the kitchen are wont to do, curious as to what these three, somewhat strange, visitors might be about.

Surprised to hear her name mentioned, Sarah is astonished when one of the men predicts that upon his return in due season, she will have born Abraham a son. The suggestion is so outrageous that Sarah must struggle to constrain herself. Hand over her mouth, straining to keep her laughter silent, Sarah is startled into sobriety when the guest asks her husband, "Why did Sarah laugh?"

Now, the central question which underlies the whole of scripture is asked: "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Is anything too hard, too marvelous, too extraordinary for the Lord? Is anything beyond the Lord's powers?"11

As the promise is reiterated yet again, Sarah appears in the doorway; anxiously sober. And why not? Think of how a child born now will constrain their lives. Think of how this promise confounds all the plans and schemes they have already cooked up as their means of seeing the promise come true. And think of what it must have meant to have three un-named strangers appear at your door and speak so knowingly about your own life. Who are these men? Who can blame Sarah? Wouldn't you be anxious as well? Who wouldn't be afraid? And so Sarah sticks to her story. "I did not laugh."

Well actually, Sarah is at least half right; she did not laugh out loud. How then, could this stranger know? Her anxious sobriety becomes foreboding fear--warranted fear, as it turns out. For this is no mere stranger seated on the ground before her outside the tent. This is none other than the One who has been making these promises from the beginning, the One who has set them on this nomadic journey called faith in the first place. In silent, wide-eyed wonder, Sarah receives God's rebuke--"Oh yes, you did laugh!"

Nine months later, as we read in the second lesson, Sarah laughs again, and this time their entire entourage with her. God's word to her has come true. She bears Abraham a son who gives the child the name Isaac--he laughs. But now, Sarah's cynicism has turned to the joy of belief. Sitting in a tent, holding your newborn to breast at ninety can do that to you. Both Sarah and Abraham had laughed at God's promise. Thus, their newborn's name would ever-after remind them of their denial. They had been caught laughing.

Where have you been caught laughing? What is it about God's promises to you that seem far too wondrous, far too hard, far too beyond the realm of possibility because of other circumstances in your life? Have you been putting the promise at risk by forcing it? Are you putting it at risk right now because you have conspired at one level or another to insure your future by your own wile and schemes? Have you forgotten that God is very much a part of every step of your life, even though at times the journey appears nomadic if not chaotic? Has what was once faith turned to seasoned, if not pious, cynicism so that like Sarai, you have decided to take matters into your own hands, choosing other tacks, other means to fulfill your visions, hopes and dreams? Remember the chaos that has been unleashed in the world because Abraham and Sarah were unwilling to live by God's promise, unwilling to trust God's timetable, unwilling to live by God's word, unwilling to believe that God was on that journey with them each step of the way. Where have you been caught laughing?

Hear then, this good news: in spite of Abraham and Sarah's machinations, in the face of their vacillating trust and scheming endeavors, and even when their faith was worn down by circumstance into cynicism, God did not abandon them or the promise. As a consequence, the laughter of denial was turned to wonder. For more wonderful even than the birth of Isaac, was the fact that their denial didn't seem to matter--it didn't obliterate God's promise. God did what God had promised to do.

It is still true: God shows up incognito, usually in the heat of the day, accepts whatever hospitality you and I might offer and reiterates the promise. And even when you and I laugh at it, God comes through, leaving us filled with the laughter of wonder and praise. Caught laughing? Never mind. God always has a way of getting the last laugh.

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

  1. Genesis 12:1-9.
  2. Genesis 13:1-18.
  3. Genesis 15:17-21.
  4. The name means "God hears." But was it Hagar's complaint or Abram's longing for a son that is heard? The text seems not to answer the question.
  5. Until the seventeenth chapter of Genesis, all of the covenant promises have been made to Abram, which could imply Sarah. But after the birth of Ishamel, that becomes a question.
  6. Genesis 17, especially vs. 19.
  7. The metaphor comes from a book by Frederick Buechner, entitled A Theological A.B.C., once read but long ago lost in my library.
  8. Genesis 17:15-22.
  9. Genesis 25:12-18; the Ishmaelites, like the Israelistes, were formed of twelve tribes who settled chiefly in Arabia.
  10. Genesis 17:4.
  11. The Hebrew word is pala' which can be translated each of the ways I have translated it here.

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