Ever tell a joke which you thought was great one and all you got in response was crickets? Seems to happen to me all the time … unless I’m telling a joke to one of my kids. They seem to be about the only ones who laugh with me … at least most of the time. Everyone else, Faith more so than Heath, of those who don’t laugh, they either let out this deep sigh of disbelief or they give me this extremely obvious eye roll. I experienced this a lot at the National Gathering this past week. But despite those kind of reactions, I continue to tell my jokes and make myself laugh. But I’ve got a joke for you. It’s an oldie, but a goodie.
A new pastor was visiting the homes of his parishioners.
At one house, it seemed very obvious that someone was home, but no answer came to his repeated knocks at the door. So he took out his business card and simply wrote “Revelation 3:20” on the back of it and stuck it in the door.
When the offering was processed that following Sunday, he found that his card had been returned. Added to it was this cryptic message: “Genesis 3:10.”
Reaching for his Bible to check out the citation, he broke down in laughter.
Revelation 3:20 begins, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”
Genesis 3:10 says, “I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid, for I was naked.”
As we look at our Old Testament lesson this morning from Genesis 18, how in the world can Sarah not laugh at the news she hears?
Let me set it up for us again.
It’s the middle of the afternoon, the sun is shining, the heat is just pouring it on. Abraham is sitting in the shade of the entrance of his tent taking it easy, probably trying to cool off or stay cool. Up on the hill, under the trees, Abraham notices three men standing nearby. Abraham doesn’t think, “Man, I wonder who these crazy travelers are out in the heat of the day?” No, Abraham immediately springs up from his feet and runs to meet these men. He greets them by bowing down and asking them to stay there in the shade a while so that he can run back and get some water for them to wash their feet. He also says to for them to wait while he goes and prepares some food for them to eat. These mysterious visitors agree to hanging around.
Abraham, in the heat of the day, gets the water for his visitors, runs back to the tent and tells Sarah to bake a lot of bread, he runs out into the field and picks out a tender calf from within the herd, gives it to his servants and tells them to quickly prepare it. When everything is all said and done, Abraham brings the hot bread, the veal, the curds, cottage cheese essentially, and some milk to these visitors, lays it before them so that they can feast. Abraham then leaves them alone so that they may eat their gourmet meal in peace.
What Abraham did was awesome, it was amazing, especially considering the time of day this all went down and also in that Abraham had absolutely no clue who these people were. And as great as all this is, even though a good number of sermons have been preached on Abraham’s hospitality and how it is that we too should show hospitality and care to strangers in our midst because in doing so we are also serving God … there is so much more here. What Abraham is doing for these guests is exactly what the culture of that time expects of him. Abraham didn’t do it because he thought he might be serving God, he simply did it because that is just what you are supposed to do.
So up to this point, the focus has been on the visitors and what Abraham is doing, but then in verse 9 there is this moment of dramatic irony. These guests open their mouths to speak. They don’t tell Abraham thank you for his awesome hospitality was but instead they ask, “Where is your wife Sarah?” Now notice, never once in our text did Abraham tell these visitors what his wife’s name was. The whole time Abraham has been running around getting the meal ready, Sarah has been in the background working behind the scenes. But now she becomes the main focus of our reading and we realize that there is something special about these visitors.
After telling them she is in the tent behind them, one of these strangers says to Abraham, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son” (Genesis 18:10). Overhearing this back in the tent, Sarah can’t believe her ears. She’s going to have son? Really?? She might be thinking, “Man, this guy has no idea who old I am. He doesn’t realize that I’m barren, that I can’t have kids. And now he’s saying I’m going to have a son!?! This has to be a joke, right?” Hearing this and thinking this, “Sarah laughed to herself” (18:12) or a more literal translation would be, “Sarah laughed in her middle, in her belly.”
And even though Sarah is behind these visitors, even though she is inside of the tent at the bottom of the hill, even though she is alone and thinking to herself, “how am I going to have a baby at such an old age,” the stranger knows, the stranger knows that she laughed, he knows what it is that she is thinking.
Then notice what our reading says … “Then the LORD”. Uh oh. This visitor walking through the countryside asking where Abraham’s wife Sarah is at is not just another random guy walking through the countryside. No, this is the LORD, the Creator of heaven and earth. This is the One who took Abraham a few chapters earlier and told him to leave his home, his family, his riches and set out for an unknown land, this is the One who took Abraham outside to look at the stars and tell him that his descendants would be as numerous as them, this is the Almighty LORD.
“Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is 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). Sarah’s laugh … it’s not one of joy or happiness, it’s not a “Haha, that’s a funny joke!”, no … it’s a laugh of astonishment, a laugh of disbelief. “This can’t truly be happening to me?”
How often have you and I asked that question? How often in the midst of asking that question do we laugh? This section of Genesis 18 is a powerful example of where humanity often finds itself when it sits in the presence of God. We are in a place of laughter. Like Sarah, in the midst of disbelief and astonishment, sometimes there is nothing else we can do but laugh. “Why did Sarah laugh?” Because that is what you and I do when faced with the possibility of more than what our limited, finite minds can grasp. We often know no other way to be in those kind of circumstances. We laugh as we are unwilling or simply unable to accept the idea that God might actually accomplish what God has promised.
And I believe God respects that. God doesn’t chastise Sarah for her laughter, but instead He acknowledges her disbelief while at the same time proclaiming the promise and the hope of her having a son. Sarah tried denying that she laughed, but God doesn’t let her. God doesn’t chastise her about it, He acknowledges it. It’s almost like God is saying to her, “I know it’s hard to believe what I’ve promised. Everything seems to be all topsy-turvy to the ways of the world. You laughed, and that’s okay. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last to laugh at what seems impossible. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.”
What kind of things do we find ourselves laughing at? What promises of God do we find ourselves skeptical about possibly being true? A man being born of a virgin? A man living a perfect life? A man willing to being crucified for people who can’t stand Him and want Him gone, for people who don’t believe in Him? A man rising from the dead? The gift of forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life to people who are rebellious, broken, and underserving?
These things may all seem to come out of a children’s fairy tale book read at bedtime, but the thing is … they’re real! And better than that … they are for you! Sarah, a year later, at the ripe young age of 90, gave birth to Isaac and through Isaac, the descendants of Abraham grew to be as numerous as the stars. A young virgin woman named Mary gives birth to the Jesus, the Son of God, who lived a perfect life, who died on the cross for your sins and who rose from the grave so that you may eternal life in the world to come!
You are chosen! You are forgiven! You are a blessed child of God! And that, that is no joke, that is nothing to laugh at but rejoice in. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever. Amen.