September 15, 2019

“She Laughs, God Laughs, We Laugh”

Genesis 18:1-15 and 21:1-7

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

September 15, 2019


We laugh for a variety of reasons.  We laugh when we hear or see something funny. We laugh to ease the tension in an uncomfortable situation.  When something funny happens to a friend, we might try to make them feel better by assuring them, “I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you.”  We laugh to be polite even though the joke or story wasn't that funny.  We laugh when something really good happens.


The name Isaac means “he laughs” and there is a lot of laughter in the story of the birth of the son of Sarah and Abraham.  It is instructive to pay attention to the laughter that surrounds the news of Isaac’s coming and his birth.  The couple laughs when they hear the news that they will become parents.  They laugh because they are very old when they receive this news.  They are way, way, way past the age of childbearing.  Their laughter is a reaction to the absurdity of the situation.


Some twenty-four years earlier, in Genesis 12, God had called them to pack up their household and move.  “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).  Yahweh made some amazing promises:  “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3).  


Abraham was 75 years old when this happened.  Sarah was not much younger, and they had no children.  The promise for them to become “a great nation” already seemed out of reach. But they packed up and moved anyway. 


Time passed, and in Genesis chapter 15 Abram reminded Yahweh of this problem:  “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”


Then the word of the Lord came to him:  “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”


Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:2-6).


But Abram and Sarai didn’t really believe Yahweh’s promise.  Or they felt like they had to help Yahweh fulfill the promise. Hagar, Sarai’s slave, was given to Abram to be another wife.  She conceives and gives birth to a son, Ishmael.  But Yahweh’s promise was not going to be fulfilled through Ishmael. That wasn’t the promise.


In Genesis 17 Yahweh made a formal covenant, an agreement with Abram, and reiterated the promise.  In the ceremony marking the covenant, Yahweh changed Abram’s name.  Yahweh said to him, “No longer will you be Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.  (Abraham means "father of many")  I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.  I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you…”(Genesis 17:5-8).


Yahweh also changed Sarai’s name to Sarah and made a promise to her:  “I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her.  I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her”(Genesis 17:16).  Sarai and Sarah have pretty much the same meaning, but the new name highlights her role as mother of nations and kings.


Abraham’s reaction to this news that Sarah will have a baby is to fall flat on his face and laugh.  This laugh was the "you've got to be kidding" kind.  The absurdity of the promise is too much for him.  The promise was made so long ago—too long ago, and the couple’s belief that it would be fulfilled had been stretched to its limit. “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old?  Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”(Genesis 17:17). "Yeah, right, God."  But Yahweh assured him that Sarah would indeed have a son, and said he would be called Isaac, letting Abraham know that the LORD heard his laugh of disbelief.


The narrative does not tell us whether Abraham shared this news with Sarah.  But Yahweh wanted her to know too.  And so three visitors were sent to share the news—again. Abraham did what was expected in those days:  he showed great hospitality to the strangers. He hurried around, telling Sarah to make bread and his servant to kill a calf for the meal for the visitors.


After the meal, the visitors asked about Sarah and told Abraham that in a year, she would have a son.  Sarah, like Abraham, sees the absurdity of the promise.  Maybe there is also a hint of bitterness in her heart too, because all in those years she still had no children.  The promise was just too difficult to believe.  It did not make sense.  It was not humanly possible.  Yahweh must have meant something else when he promised that they would become parents of a great nation.  And so Sarah laughed.  It was an unbelieving laugh, an incredulous laugh, a cynical laugh.  “Yeah, right—I’m all worn out and I’m going to have pleasure and become a mother at age 90!  Ha ha ha.” 


The visitor—now identified in the story as the LORD—Yahweh—asked,“Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is there anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son”(Genesis 18:13-14).  This was a critical moment for Sarah and Abraham’s faith in the LORD.  They were asked to believe that, against all that they knew about human reproduction, at their advanced age they would have a son.  They were asked to believe that the promise that they would be parents of a great nation would actually be fulfilled through a biological son.  It’s no wonder that they laughed.  Wouldn’t you?


“Is anything too hard for the LORD?” Sarah was afraid to admit that she had laughed at the promise of Yahweh, so she lied.  “I did not laugh.”  “Oh yes, you did!” replied the LORD.  I imagine that he said it with a slight chuckle:  Just you wait and see.  


Sure enough, Yahweh fulfilled this incredible promise.  Sarah got pregnant and gave birth to Isaac.  The birth is reported in Genesis 21, the second part of today’s reading.  Sarah laughs again, but this time, she doesn’t deny it and wants everyone to join her in laughing.  This time her laughter was one of deep joy because Yahweh’s promise had been fulfilled. This was a laugh of joy.


Every time she called her son Isaac by name, Sarah would remember the laughter, both before and after his birth, which marked the promise of God.  She would remember that she scoffed at God, and then she would remember how God fulfilled God’s promises and she would laugh again with joy.


The story of Isaac’s birth is an important part of the larger story of God’s relationship with the people of Israel.  It’s not only a story of how God fulfilled the promise of a child to an old couple. It’s a story of the faithfulness of God in the face of what looked like insurmountable obstacles.  It’s a story of how the people of God learned to trust even though the promises of God looked impossible.  Isaac’s name is reminder to all the people of God, even to us today, that God is faithful to fulfill God’s promises.  Even if it takes decades.


If you read through the Bible, you will see that God is often referred to as the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”  Wrapped up in this way of naming God is a reminder of all the stories associated with these patriarchs and their families.  We read the name Isaac and remember the laughter surrounding his birth.  We remember that this God laughed along with Sarah and Abraham when the impossible promise of a child was fulfilled.


When we see Isaac’s name listed among the ancestors of our faith, we remember God’s promise that blessing would come to all people through Abraham and Sarah’s family. And that blessing, in the larger narrative, includes Jesus Christ, who came to save and redeem the world.


We are living in a world where this promise of redemption looks absurd.  How can God possibly be at work, with all the terrible things happening around the world?  So many people living in poverty, under threat of violence, climate change bringing more catastrophic weather…  This is where this story of the promise to Sarah and Abraham can encourage us. When it looked like God couldn’t or wouldn’t give them a son, when Sarah was way past the age of childbearing, God fulfilled God’s promise.  And they laughed.  Sarah laughed and God laughed for joy.


Even as we look at our hurting, fallen world, we too can laugh.  Like Sarah, our laughter may start as a cynical reaction to the impossibility of God’s promise being fulfilled.  However, our laughter of disbelief has no effect on God’s ability to fulfill of God’s promises.  God is not deterred by our disbelief.  Sarah and Abraham laughed at Yahweh’s promise, and yet the promise was fulfilled. This story is not about human belief, but rather it is about God’s faithfulness, God’s fulfillment of promises. We may laugh at the absurdity of it all, but nothing is too hard for Yahweh.


If we have eyes to see, we will catch glimpses of the reign of God.  When we see God’s love being shared with us, or with people in need, we see evidence of God’s love, blessing all people.  As we see the people of God sharing God’s mercy and grace, we see the promise to redeem creation being fulfilled.  When we see Jesus’ life, his ministry to the poor and outcast, to the disenfranchised, to the sick and to the hungry, we catch a glimpse of the reign of God coming to earth.  When we remember Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection, we see God’s ways triumphing over sin and evil.  We see evidence of God’s redemption.  And we see God laughing because God knows how it will all end. God invites us to laugh too, as our faith grows and is strengthened by these glimpses of the reign of God.  


We can laugh because we have the long view and we can see how the story of God and God’s people bends toward the redemption of creation.  The end of the story has been revealed to us, and we can laugh because we know that God is at work to redeem the world.  We can hang in there with God, loving and serving people even when things look hopeless because we know how it will all end.  We can sing for joy even as evil seems to prevail.  Through Jesus Christ, God has turned the narrative arc toward the good, away from evil.  God’s love will prevail in the end.


We read the story of Isaac and we see that it is part of the larger narrative of God’s presence and love poured out on God’s people.  We see that we too are blessed, and called to pass along that blessing to those around us.  We see the end of the narrative, when “…at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”(Philippians 2:10-11).


We see that at the end of time, when a new heaven and a new earth comes down, God will dwell with all God’s people.  “They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away”(Revelation 21:3-4).


We are heirs to the promises made to Sarah and Abraham and to the people of Israel. Yahweh has promised to be with us, to bless us to be a blessing to all nations.  God has sent Jesus and called us to take part in his ministry of reconciliation, of renewal and restoration of creation.  We could laugh because in the face of the world’s needs and great troubles, this promise might seem absurd and impossible to believe.  Or we can laugh for joy because we know that nothing is too difficult for God.  Which kind of laughter will it be?