I don’t know about you, but my memory isn’t as good as it used to be. I go into another room and forget why I’m there. I go to the store and forget half the things I went for.
It’s like the story of three sisters, ages ninety-two, ninety-four, and ninety-six, who lived together. One night the ninety-six year old drew a bath. She put one foot in and then paused. “Was I getting in or out?” she yelled.
The ninety-four year old hollered back, “I don’t know; I‘ll come and see.” She started up the stairs but stopped on the first step, asking, “Was I going up or coming down?”
The ninety-two year old was sitting at the kitchen table having tea, listening to her sisters. She shook her head and said, “I sure hope I never get that forgetful,” and knocked on wood for good measure. Then she yelled, “I’ll come up as soon as I see who’s at the door.”
In our Old Testament lesson Abraham and Sarah are what we would call senior citizens. They have had a long and complicated life. As a young man, God had called Abraham to leave his homeland to go to a yet-to-be revealed place, with the promise that Abraham would be the ancestor of many generations. The plan fell apart when famine drove Abraham and his household to Egypt where he passed Sarah off as his sister and allowed Pharaoh to take her for himself (Genesis 12:10-20). God promised to give Abraham many offspring, but when they failed to produce a child, Sarah suggested a plan to give him her slave Hagar as a potential breeding partner. She came to regret that offer and sent Hagar and her son Ishmael away. The story sounds like a soap opera or a movie script.
So now we come to our Old Testament passage as Abram and Sarah, in their old age, are visited by three angels from God.
Biblical scholar, Frederick Buechner describes the baby-reveal scene. “The place to start is with a woman laughing. She is an old woman, and after a lifetime in the desert, her face is cracked and rutted like a six-month drought. She hunches her shoulders around her ears and starts to shake. She squinnies her eyes shut, and her laughter is all teeth and wheeze and tears running down as she rocks back and forth in her kitchen chair. She is laughing because she is pushing 91 years old and has just been told she is going to have a baby. Even though it was an angel who told her, she can’t control herself, and her husband can’t control himself either. He keeps a straight face a few seconds longer than she does, but he ends up cracking up, too.
Even the angel is not unaffected. He hides his mouth behind his golden scapular, but you can still see his eyes. They are larkspur blue and brimming with laughter. The old woman’s name is Sarah, of course, and the old man’s name is Abraham, and they are laughing at the idea of a baby being born in the geriatric ward and Medicare picking up the tab. They are laughing because the angel not only seems to believe it, but seems to expect them to believe it too. They are laughing because a part of themselves do believe it. They are laughing because with another part of themselves they know it would take a fool to believe it. They are laughing because laughing is better than crying, and maybe not all that different.
They are laughing because if, by some crazy chance it should just happen to come true, then they would really have something to laugh about. They are laughing at God and with God, and they are laughing too, because laughter has that in common with weeping. No matter what the immediate occasion is of either your laughter or your tears, the object of both ends up being yourself and your own life. (Frederick Buechner, Telling Truth, p. 49.)
Faith, like the faith of Abraham and Sarah, always contains within it an element of the unknown, the unexpected, the impossible, the laughable. Otherwise it wouldn’t be faith.
You have already heard about the concept of “barrenness” in the Bible. By the standards of that day, there was nothing worse than the lack of children. No children meant no future, no hope. With no clear concept of heaven or life after death, the only way one’s life was extended beyond the moment was through their progeny, their heirs, their children. Without children, when you died, you were just dead, zip, gone, kaput over and done with. So, the lack of children meant a lack of a future, the lack of hope, the end of the promise.
And I would suggest that today, in our world, there is a lot of barrenness going around, and it is in so many ways other than children. And sometimes, you just gotta laugh.
For us, it’s been an unprecedented tough three months in so many ways, for so many people. We feel empty, broken. And yet a time like this is not the time for us, or for the church, to retreat. It is not the time to say we are too stressed, too old, too busy, or too tired to bring new life into our world. Our hope is rooted in our Savior who walks with us through every dark valley. Like Sarah and Abraham, we begin to believe. . . And sure enough, God intends to keep his promises, God intends for hope to be reborn.
Continuing to describe Abraham and Sarah’s reaction, Frederick Buechner says, “It starts with a catch of the breath because the last thing either of them expected to do was to laugh, and it takes them by surprise as much as it takes us by surprise. It wells up in their throats like sorrow, only it’s not sorrow, and it contorts their faces like tears, only it’s a different kind of tears. Their shoulders shake. Their faces go red. Their shoulders shake. Sara stuffs her apron in her mouth and Abraham gasps for air. (Telling Truth, page52.)
And they laugh the laughter of eternity, the laughter of disbelief turned to faith, the laughter of death overcome by resurrection and new life, the laughter of a promised future and of hope.
Oh, sure enough, the darkness still exists, but it is shot through with light. Sure enough, pain still exists, but in the midst of pain, there is healing. Sure enough, fear still assaults us, but we can confront it with the calm assurance of God’s final victory. Sure enough, death still confronts us, but on the other side there is the promise of resurrection and eternal life with God.
Tears of barrenness can turn to the tears of joyful song. Tears of uncertainty are turned into the laughter of the ages.
Well, the story ends with Sarah’s final word of witness: “God has brought me joy and laughter. Everyone who hears about it laugh with me.” And as a fitting final touch, the writer of Genesis adds that they named their son Isaac, meaning “God laughs.”
I read a story this week that made me laugh, about a pastor who had preached a sermon series about overcoming doubt. To the preacher’s delight, a man came up to him shortly after the last sermon and said he wanted to join the church.
Overjoyed, the pastor asked, “And which one of my sermons was it that converted you?”
“Your sermons?” said the man. “It wasn’t any of your sermons. The thing that set me thinking was that a poor woman came out of the church and stumbled on the steps.” “When I put my hand out to help her she smiled and said, ‘Thank you’ and then added, ‘Do you love Jesus Christ my blessed Savior? He means everything to me.” I thought about it and what she said, and I realized He means everything to me too.”
I think that no matter what our age, God is always inviting us to new life. The question is: Will you accept the invitation? Can you move from fear to growth? Will you learn the lessons life is teaching you? Will you allow yourself to be transformed by your life journey? Will you trust God’s promises?
God has work for you to do. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are. Listen to the good news of the angels. You may not be having a baby, but you will find new life in Christ.
Please pray with me: We thank you for your promises to us. Help us to grow into faithful people seeking ways to find our hope in you. Amen