Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Laughing at God," Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7 (Proper 6, Ordinary 11)
Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7
Laughing at God
I had the opportunity to see again recently a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one of my favorites of his works. Some of you might remember that my brother Todd specializes in classical acting (although he now is a professor of acting and teaches and directs more than he acts) - his focus and love is the work of Shakespeare, and so I’ve seen him in a number of productions over the years, including more than one production of Macbeth. I’ve always loved it. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the plot, but the gist is this (and sorry for the spoiler alert if you haven’t seen or read it yet, but it’s been out for a while now!): Macbeth is a leader who is given more power and authority by his king. His wife, creatively named Lady Macbeth, is eager for him to get even more power and position. Macbeth happens upon some witches who give him a prophecy that Macbeth will in fact become king, though his friend Banquo will be the father of kings. And on receiving this prophecy, rather than waiting to see how things will unfold, Macbeth and his wife scheme to make the part of the prophecy they want to come true come true faster - like right now - and scheme to avoid the parts of the prophecy they don’t like - even if they must murder friends and allies to make it so. They manipulate, they scheme, they plan, in order to claim what was told to them. Of course, Macbeth is a tragedy, so suffice it to say it doesn’t end well for the Macbeths.
Maybe the story of Abraham and Sarah in the Bible isn’t quite the tragedy of Macbeth, but I couldn’t help but have Macbeth on my mind this week as I was reading our text from Genesis. Our reading this week begins with God appearing to Abraham in the form of three visitors who come to the tents of Abraham and his family. In Abraham’s culture, hospitality and God’s presence are closely tied together, and so we see Abraham going out of his way to welcome these unexpected guests. They are given water, bread made with choice flour, a meal of meat and curds and milk, food washing, rest.
After a bit, the visitors ask after Sarah, and one of them says, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Now, Sarah and Abraham are advanced in years by this time, and Sarah being pregnant seems impossible - she’s reached menopause already. Sarah, who is just outside the tent listening when the visitors make their pronouncement, laughs at the ridiculousness of such a claim. “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” God - in the form of one of these visitors - the details get a little blurry here - seems a bit taken aback that Sarah would laugh. “Why would she laugh?” God wonders. “Is anything too wonderful for God? I’ll return at the right time, and Sarah will have a son.” Sarah, now anxious and afraid that she’s offended God, denies laughing, but in a strange back and forth, God insists that she did. The end of our reading skips forward in time. We read that God dealt with Sarah just as God had said. Sarah has a child, named Isaac - meaning, “one of laughs.” And Sarah reflects, “God has brought laughter for me, and everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
Ok, maybe this doesn’t sound a lot like Macbeth. But there’s a connection, I promise. In our passage today, we get plopped into the middle of a larger story. Way back in Chapter 12 of Genesis, God first calls Abraham, then known as Abram. We actually looked at this passage together back in early spring. God says, “Go to this new place I’m leading you to, and I will make you a great nation. I will bless you, and make your name great.” Abraham goes, but the journey is meandering, with years long detours. Along the way, though, God repeats the promise: I will give you this land, you and your offspring, and your offspring will be as numerous as the specks of dust that make up the earth.
Eventually, though, Abraham gets impatient. God says Abraham will have a great reward, but Abraham is skeptical: “God, what will you give me? For I continue childless. I have no heir, no offspring. One of my slaves will inherit all I have.” But God repeats the promises already made: “Look at the stars - your descendents will be just as numerous.” And still more time passes.
Finally, Sarah is out of patience. God’s made a promise, and Sarah is ready to make the promise happen. She does not seem to be getting pregnant, so she will find another way to make sure Abraham has an heir. She gives Abraham her slave, Hagar, an Egyptian woman, and says he should have a child by her. (Hagar, enslaved, has no say here.) Sarah’s plan works, and Hagar becomes pregnant. But Sarah seems to immediately regret her decision, because Hagar is now looking at Sarah with contempt. Sarah complains to Abraham, she treats Hagar badly, Hagar runs away, and in the wilderness Hagar encounters God and is folded into God’s promises. Hagar’s child Ishmael is born.
Again though, God reminds Abraham of God’s promises to him and his family, this time specifically naming Sarah: “Sarah will give rise to nations” God says. Abraham is skeptical, but God says that within a year, Sarah will deliver a son named Issac. It is after all of this that we finally get to chapter 18, where our text from today begins.
So, maybe now you see a bit of the Macbeth connection. No, Sarah and Abraham don’t set out on a murderous rampage to receive what they’ve been promised. But they do engage in attempts to bring about God’s plans and promises in a way and on a schedule that works better for them than it seems to for God. And whenever they try to control the path of God’s promises, things do not go as they’ve anticipated, causing sometimes more harm than good.
It could be easy for us to blame Sarah and Abraham for their lack of trust in God’s promises, for their constant need for reassurance and reiteration, for Sarah’s plans to get Abraham the heirs he needs. But I can’t help but especially feel some pity for Sarah, and the ways in which she’s been kind of a pawn in all the events that unfold. For example, along the way to receiving God’s promises, Abraham twice denies that Sarah is his wife when they’re visiting other communities. Abraham is worried that because of Sarah’s beauty, he’ll be killed by the leaders of the foreign lands he visits, so that they can take his wife. So instead, he just kinds of hands her over, calling her his sister. (She is, in fact, his half sister - an allowable relationship for marriage at the time.) So Sarah has to endure being given over to strange men in strange places, separated from her husband, without any voice in the matter. She also has to bear the burden of her seeming infertility, something that was considered entirely the woman’s fault in ancient culture. She treats Hagar with cruelty - but Sarah has learned that women have few or no choices about their own lives, and so it is perhaps not surprising that she treats Hagar this way - the only person over whom Sarah has any power. No wonder Sarah tries to shape God’s promises into her own timeline, by her own methods! And no wonder she laughs at God’s outrageous plans. Wouldn’t you laugh at the sheer impossibility?
Here’s the thing though - even though God seems confused by Sarah’s laughter, God isn’t angry. Instead, God is just faithful. God deals with Sarah just as God said, just as God promised. That’s what God does. And Sarah is still laughing - but the laughter of skepticism, discomfort, and doubt has turned into the laughter of joy.
Friends, I think we are all like Sarah sometimes. Hopefully not like the Macbeths, but definitely a little like Sarah. Skeptical that the joy God promises could be for us. Impatient with God’s timing. Trying so hard to force outcomes that we’re sure will bring us happiness. Frustrated when things don’t unfold according to our plans yet again. Laughing that God has the audacity to promise us such impossible things.
But here’s the good news. When we doubt, God reminds. From God’s initial call to Abraham, to the time Isaac is born, God repeatedly demonstrates to Abraham and Sarah that the promise still stands, that God remembers, that they are still God’s people, that God still has blessings in store. God is so patient with them. God is so patient with us. And maybe we can learn to be patient with God, letting ourselves laugh in wonder at the amazing ideas God comes up with, and laughing some more when God’s dreams bear fruit.
“God has brought laughter for me,” Sarah says, “and everyone who hears will laugh with me.” May God bring laughter to us, too, as God’s faithfulness fills our hearts with joy. Amen.