Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"And Sarah laughed"

Message preached May 11, 2003
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Genesis 18:1-15

Order of Worship

            It seems appropriate, on a day such as this, to recall one of the great matriarchs of the Bible. As with all the other folks in these pages, Sarah was quite a character. Iíve known a few Sarahs along the way, though most didnít go by that name. Thereís a phrase in the passage just read that gives us a glimpse into her personality: "...and she laughed." Of course, that phrase, in and of itself, doesnít tell us much. I guess we need to remember the story behind it, donít we?

            Itís in the 11th chapter of Genesis that we first encounter this remarkable lady, a woman of faith no less than her husband, Abraham. Mind you, more is said of him in these pages, than of her, but isnít that how it has often happened? She is introduced to us simply by name, and by one characteristic. Unlike Abraham, Sarahís family is not even mentioned. She seems to pop out of nowhere, but we know (donít we?) that there are unwritten volumes here, which exist between the lines. After all, Sarah was some motherís child.

            The one detail we are given in chapter 11 is this: "she was barren." And to emphasize this point the Bible repeats it, "she had no child." This is the defining image we are given of this woman. However, this description doesnít do justice to her character. Just like one day to honor Motherhood doesnít capture the full breadth and depth of what it means to be a woman. We need to read between the lines for a glimpse of that. Unfortunately, us men arenít all that adept at listening to things not spoken. It drives us nuts, to be honest. You know (donít you?) that we often discover God at work in and around us through hearing that which is not said out loud. Reading between the lines... Listening to the unspoken words.... Donít expect to see this God news/good news emblazoned on the front page of the Baltimore Sun. Godís good work often goes unseen and unheard. With this in mind, listen to the following words, which probably went unreported in the Haran Gazette.

            "Now the LORD said to Abram, ĎGo from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.í"

            Thatís a wonderful promise, one we still live with today. I tell you one thing, though, Sarah certainly had a part to play in it. Thatís not something Abraham could do all by himself. This is another example of the need to read between the lines. If we donít, Sarah becomes merely an ornament, a slight twist in the plot, a detail to recognize Ďin passing.í However, she is much more than that. "I will bless you," God said, "and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Thatís not just a discussion about Abraham making his wife pregnant. Itís about creating character. And Sarah is Godís character no less than Abraham.

            By inference, you are Godís character no less than me. God is filling us, fully filling us, fulfilling his promise in us, even amid the barren and broken places in our lives. Like Sarah, most of our story is told in between the lines, where we canít altogether see this fulfillment happening. But it is!

            Now, I could say quite a bit about this woman. Like how Sarah had great beauty, even though she was supposedly 65 years old when we first meet her in the Bible. Speaking of this, Iíve come to know that there is more to beauty than what meets the eye. I have seen wrinkles that are very attractive - they reveal character. I mourn the present use of Botox. There is loveliness in wrinkles. Unfortunately, this is something I too often donít say to those I love.

            Apparently Abraham had a similar struggle. Not once, but twice (Genesis 12:10-20, 20:1-18) it is recorded that he tried passing himself off as Sarahís brother, instead of her husband, when the two of them journeyed into an unfamiliar place. Now, it could be that Abraham was merely afraid of someone killing him to get his "beautiful" wife. However, I wonder if he found it hard to say, "this beautiful woman is my wife." Us men can do some really dumb things to avoid saying what we mean, canít we? It was a stupid trick for Abraham. God even told him so (through Abimelech). It put the promise in jeopardy. Just like we can jeopardize the promise within our relationships by not saying what needs to be said, regularly. "You are so beautiful to me."

            Anyway, thereís more that could be said of Sarah than her age or beauty. The New Testament lifts her up as a person of faith, like her husband. But just like Abraham, she had her failings. She was not perfect, by any manner of means. Her darkness is revealed to us in her relationship with Hagar, one of her servants. When she couldnít conceive a child, Sarah instructed her husband to take Hagar as another wife. I can imagine those rabbis and monks chuckling down through the centuries as they copied a certain line in the Bible at this point: "And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai" (Genesis 16:2e). As far as I can tell, thatís the first recorded time Abram paid any attention to what his wife said. It figures.

            Hagar then became pregnant and gave birth to a son. This event triggered in Sarah a great jealousy. Here we see the darker side of this woman, for she abused Hagar, chased her off into the desert to die, with her child. The good news is: God protected Hagar and her son, Ishmael (Genesis 16:4-16). It is through Ishmael and his mother that Muslims, today, trace their heritage back to Abraham and the promise of God. However, in spite of or, even, through this dark side of Sarahís character, God fulfilled the promise.

            There is one more characteristic I need to share about this woman, Sarah - her humor. We return to the story Tyler read earlier from Genesis 18. Three strangers from God pay a visit to Abraham and Sarahís tent. Of course, by the end of the episode we discover these are no ordinary folks. It is the Lord in the guise of his messengers. Abraham welcomes them extravagantly. He is a gracious host, who shepherds them into his shade on a hot day, washes their feet, and has a fine meal prepared for their benefit.

            As they eat, these strangers ask, "Where is your wife, Sarah?" to which Abraham replies, "there in the tent." Then one of them says, "I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son." Sarah, who is hiding behind the tent flap, laughs. The Talmud says that "Sarah laughed skeptically and said: ĎAm I to have enjoyment - with my husband so old?í; but God, repeating this to Abraham, reported her as saying: Ď...old as I am.í He did this to safeguard Abrahamís feelings and to preserve domestic peace." (Plaut, The Torah, p.125)

            Did the rabbis who wrote this in the Talmud have it right? Perhaps Sarahís laugh was more over her husband than herself. Does it matter? She had lived so long with Godí promise being just that - a promise (not a reality) - that she couldnít quite imagine it coming true. And even if it did, she couldnít envision her and her husband being an active part of it. Iíll leave it to your imagination how she laughed, whether it was a little sniggle or a loud guffaw. In a way, her laughter is filled with disbelief. But through such disbelief God moves us toward faith.

            Thatís why I think laughter is one of Godís subtle ways of moving us toward the promised land. Call it "character development." Before weíre even aware what has happened, God has us giving birth to something new. Youíve heard the line: "If I didnít laugh, Iíd cry," havenít you? Often, itís precisely at that juncture between a tear and a giggle that God moves mountains. Any woman who has given birth can tell you that.

            Laughter holds a special place in Godís heart. I believe God enjoyed that moment when Sarah laughed. "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?," God replied to her laugh, with a barrel full of holy hilarity bound up in those words. Of course, Sarah tried to deny her laughter. After all, faith is no laughing matter. At least thatís what weíve been taught. Itís a serious affair to encounter the almighty God, isnít it? Or is that always the case? Sarah tried to deny her laughter, for she was afraid. But with a wink of the eye, which is only seen when we read between the lines, God says in reply: "Oh yes, you did laugh."

            Participating in Godspell has been such a blessing to me precisely because in this music the good news of Jesus Christ sneaks in on the wings of laughter. Of course, there are some believers who just donít "get it." They see these fools for Christ on stage as degrading the gospel. The original disciples were, likewise, seen back then as a bunch of buffoons who had no business playing with sacred matters. They were fishermen, for heavenís sake. And women were an important part of it all, especially as the church took root, sprouted, and bloomed.

            Back to laughter - one of the fruits of the Spirit, something which overflows in us as Godís salvation works upon our lives, is "joy." Joy is like a belly laugh in that it shakes us from deep within. Itís source is the Lord. When it surfaces in us, we become radiant. Donít you love to see that in another person? I love seeing the mother of my children laugh. You know the one in our family who can make his mother laugh? Itís Tyler and his wry sense of humor. He can transform a tense supper table into a joyful meal. Who in your family has that gift? Every home needs laughter, doesnít it?

            Amid such laughter, faith is born. I mean, how else can we respond to a God who loves the word "Impossible"? Down through the centuries, women of faith have faced into impossible situations and kept right on going. When all else fails ... laugh! By the way, do you know what Sarah named the child she and Abraham did conceive and to which give birth? "Isaac," which means, "he laughs." May your homes this day - and every day - be flavored with such humor.

            After our final hymn, Iíve asked the cast of Godspell to come forward and lead us in our closing song. All you women are invited to join in on the "long live God," and the men in the "prepare ye the way of the Lord" of this Easter melody. We will be taking this Godspell, this gospel to Dundalk next weekend, and by singing this with us, you are sending us forth. Furthermore, by ending worship in this way, we are all being sent forth to let God live in our homes, our families, our friendships, our work and school and play relationships - to prepare the Lordís way. Would you now stand and sing a hymn of blessing from God, #433, "Go, my children."

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Genesis.

©2003 Peter L. Haynes

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