The One Who Laughs Last
Text: Genesis 18:1-15
(Gary Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 6/18/17)
The story begins so innocently. Old Abraham is sitting outside in the shade on a blistering hot day while old Sarah is fanning herself inside the tent. Abraham looks up to see three unexpected visitors standing before him. He may be surprised or even leery of these strangers, but you would not know it from his behavior. He does not shout, “Hey, what are you doing on my property?” He does not lunge for his legally registered handgun to defend himself. He does not even ask their names or from where they have come.
No, old Abraham gets up and does what good hospitality requires. He offers these unexpected guests some fresh water and a place to wash up. Then, he leans his head into the tent and tells old Sarah to prepare three more plates for lunch.
When the strangers share the inconceivable news that Abraham’s postmenopausal wife is going to give birth to a son, he is not the only one who hears the news. Like most of the primal stories in Genesis, this one is told with a healthy dose of irony and humor. Supposedly, Sarah is hard at work inside the tent, but she clearly hears every word from the strangers. At the news that she is going to be pregnant in her advanced years, well, she cannot contain her chortle.
Then, the divine guests pose this question to Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh at the news about the birth of a son?” Abraham is strangely silent here. He does not defend Sarah. He does not argue that anyone in her right mind would laugh at such news; he just stands mute, letting Sarah take the divine heat.
As for Sarah, she protests her own innocence, but her laughter is not to be denied. In fact, each time Abraham and Sarah call Isaac to come in for supper they will revisit this bizarre birth announcement, because Isaac is a name that means “son of laughter.”
This story is set in the most barren of physical and personal circumstances, in the wilderness with two people living long beyond their reproductive prime. Like most of the early stories in Genesis, it is a story that addresses a primal question and the question is voiced by a stranger: “Is anything too hard for God?” The obvious answer from Sarah to that question was: “yes.” She laughed at hearing such an absurd promise from God.
Most likely conceived when the people of Israel were being held hostage in Babylon, this story was written for all who wagged their heads in disbelief, doubting that their defeated God could ever rally to deliver them from the Babylonians. As for our own skeptical age, the obvious response to this question, “Is anything too hard for God?” is to dismiss this as a silly, old, children’s story and to dismiss God as a figment of our wishful thinking along with the silly notion that God has any commerce in the human condition.
“Is anything too hard for God?” To that ancient question, the contemporary British novelist, Ian McEwan laughs with Sarah. In McEwan’s novel, Saturday, the entire bizarre, disturbing story happens on one, long Saturday. Throughout the novel, the main character, Perowne, laughs at those who believe in God and pities those who think that there is a God who cares about them and is in any way involved in this tightly closed universe. At the end of a remarkable Saturday in Perowne’s life, a day when a person of faith could well have pondered the hand of God at work, he sees no such hand. He concludes: “There’s always this . . . there’s only this” (p. 289).
If McEwan were to rewrite this Genesis story, Abraham AND Sarah would have laughed in the face of these strangers and then sent them on their way without supper for trying to pull such a cruel con. Best known for his book, Atonement, McEwan gives voice to a growing sentiment that I hear from the young and old. Their answer is not that anything is too hard for God, but that there is no God. The world is what we can observe and experience, see and feel, no more, no less. God is a projection of our feeble minds that we use to try to gain some stability and control when the world is out of control. “There’s only this.”
The story from Genesis could have ended with Abraham and Sarah waving goodbye to the strangers and concluding: “There’s only this.” That, though, is not how this primal story ends. Its focus is not on predicable human experiences, but on the often indiscernible, inscrutable presence and promises of God. Sarah laughs in this story, but the messengers do not. The story does not end with Sarah’s laughter or with frustrated messengers storming away from this seemingly ungrateful couple. It ends with a question for Abraham and Sarah and for any reader of this story: “Is anything too hard for God?”
Some centuries later, Jesus is stopped by someone in the crowd who wants to be a disciple. Jesus does not ask the man what he believes about God or what ten good things he has done in the past week. Jesus looks at the man and invites him to come and see for himself, but first to give all his wealth to the poor. The man cannot bring himself to do this and walks away in sadness. Confounded, the disciples wonder just who can follow this Jesus and enter the Reign of God to which Jesus responds, “By human resources, it is impossible, but not for God; for with God everything is possible” (Mark 10:27).
“Is anything too hard for God?” asks the messenger in Genesis. Is Jesus right when he announces: “With God everything is possible”? If that is the case, then why doesn’t God act more rationally? Why doesn’t God stop Jesus in his tracks and prevent him from being tortured and executed in Jerusalem? Why doesn’t God hand deliver the message to Abraham and Sarah directly and not in the guise of strangers? Is there really a God and does God care one wit about what I pray and what I do or who we execute or who we bomb or who we imprison?
I wish I knew the right words to invite every person I have ever met to at least consider the possibility that God is more than an archaic figment of the imagination or a distant, disinterested deity. I wish I could wipe away all the inane to horrible ways that the church has understood God, from the divine Santa Claus to the divine Terminator.
I would be lying to you if I did not confess that I have stood mute with Father Abraham and have laughed with Mother Sarah and found myself confounded with the disciples at the impossibility of embracing the possibilities of God. And, on some days, I have even stood with Dr. Perowne, looking out over a pre-dawn world, and concluding that “there’s always this . . . there’s only this.”
And then, just when I am ready to dismiss the whole idea of God or limit God to being a nice, fictional traveling companion, I am visited by strangers and surprised by grace. A little over a year ago, I visited with a group of strangers, Will, Renee, Fran, Susan, Beth Neville and I was surprised by grace.
To be honest, there has been some laughter by friends when they heard that Jennell and I were living a settled life in Atlanta to come to Cove. And, truthfully, Jennell and I laughed a few times, asking ourselves, “Surely at our age and time in our lives, God cannot be calling us to a little brick church on the hill?” God paid little attention to the laughter but kept delivering that message through your PNC and into our hearts until we were able to see beyond the sensible and to hear God’s voice above all the orchestrated voices of good sense. Thank God that God would just not take a “no.”
Can I prove it was God’s voice calling me to Cove and not my overactive imagination at work? No, I can’t. And, yet, each day here, I am grateful for God’s call and for the privilege God has given me to be your pastor.
I doubt that Sarah or Abraham or even the first disciples of Jesus were ever adequately able to explain the providence and purposes of God. I know that I cannot. And yet, over time, their incredulity gave way to faith, confident faith. They were able to look out over the streets of every city and every town and every village and see something that Dr. Perowne could never spot through his narrow empirical eyes. They were able to see the One who laughs last, not derisively, but joyfully, the One who is able to make fruitful in us that which is barren and transform the least likely in us into a lifelong celebration of love.
“Beware of strangers,” the old saying goes.
For good reason.