We live in a world that orders itself around contracts. We enter into contracts with real estate agents to sell our homes and buy new ones. We enter into contracts with banks so we can live in these houses. We enter into contracts with our spouses as we decide to marry and define the bounds of our relationships. We enter into contracts with employers about the specific arrangements of our work duties. Our whole lives revolve around contracts, and we expect them to be broken. That’s why our contracts are so detailed, so specific, and define the terms of what is to happen about any given situation that should arise. We ultimately see contracts as business transactions, promises we make to another party, promises we will keep until we see the need that they should be broken. God does not enter into contract with the people of Israel. God makes a covenant with Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of our faith. God’s covenant is one that makes outlandish promises, promises that challenge our view of reality, promises that put the agreements we make in contracts to shame. They are the kind of promises that result in uncontrollable laughter for they are the kind of promises that no one in their right mind would make.
In Genesis 12, God initiates this covenant with Abraham by promising that God will make of Abraham a great nation, that God will bless him, and make his name great. A long time has passed between Genesis 12 and Genesis 18 and still a huge problem remains. This man whom God has promised to make a great nation of still has no children. Of course, Abraham and Sarah have tried to take matters into their own hands by having Abraham’s slave, Hagar, bear a son for Abraham, but this was not God’s plan. It is the son of Sarah with whom God will be in covenant. As God reiterated this plan in Genesis 17, Abraham fell on his face and laughed at this promise from God, saying, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”
The promise has still not been fulfilled, and in our text for today, we find Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looks up and sees three men standing near him. The narrator tells us that this visit is nothing less than an appearance of the Lord. Abraham runs to them, declares himself to be their servant, and asks if he can offer them bread and water. When they accept his offer, he hurries off to make good on his word. He enlists Sarah to make cakes for the strangers and his servant to prepare a calf for them. He sets before them curds, milk, and the calf and stands beside them under the oaks of Mamre as they eat. Sarah is off in the background, overhearing their conversation but not an active participant. The visitors ask Abraham where Sarah is. One of them tells him that the next time they return, in due season, about nine months from now, Sarah will have a son. As Sarah is listening in, she overhears this ridiculous statement and can’t help but laugh to herself. Both Sarah and Abraham are old and Sarah doesn’t even have menstrual cycles any longer! This outrageous pronouncement recalls the outrageous promise of God, but yet it still seems impossibly ridiculous.
The Lord asks Abraham why Sarah laughed, and then directs a piercing question at them, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” It’s not so much a rebuke as it is a question to initiate further conversation around their relationship, a relationship that is marked by covenant. As if they can stand to hear this outrageous promise again, the Lord says it one more time: “At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” At this point, Sarah becomes afraid. She denies her laughter. They are entering into the thick of their relationship, and she feels embarrassed that she can’t put aside her own conceptions of reality long enough to trust in God’s promises.
It’s still three more chapters before we learn that God makes good on God’s promises. Genesis 21 opens with these words: “The Lord dealt with Sarah as the Lord had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as the Lord had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him.” It’s been twenty-five long years since God declared that God would make a great nation out of Abraham, and here, finally, God has come through! Abraham and Sarah follow through with their end of the bargain, too. When Isaac is eight days old, Abraham circumcises him, ushering him into the people of God, making him a child of the covenant. They name him Isaac, a play on the Hebrew word for laughter, so they can never forget the outlandish promises God made that came true, filling their lives with joy and laughter. His name will be a reminder that everyone who hears of this story will laugh alongside them about the crazy claims God made on their lives.
Walter Brueggemann says that this text gives us insight into “what a scandal and difficulty faith is. Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into the normal scheme of life and perception. The promise of the gospel is not a conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Embrace of this radical gospel requires shattering and discontinuity. Abraham and Sarah have by this time become accustomed to their barrenness. They are resigned to their closed future. They have accepted that hopelessness as ‘normal.’ The gospel promise does not meet them in a receptive hopefulness but in resistant hopelessness.”[i] God’s promises do not make sense inside the normal view of the world. God’s promises intrude on reality. God’s promises shatter what currently exists and move us into a new realm of life. God’s promises break all our rules of reason and common sense. When Abraham and Sarah are asked the question – “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” – they must also answer the question of whether they fully entrust their lives to God or not? Do they think that the world is just simply the way that it is, hopeless and static, or do they believe that God can break into their reality? Brueggeman goes on to say that “not everything depends on their answer. The resolve of God to open a future by a new heir does not depend on the readiness of Abraham and Sarah to accept it. God keeps God’s own counsel and will work God’s own will. It will happen, if not in a context of ready faith, then in a context of fearful, resistant laughter.”[ii] I think that’s the good news here! Thanks be to God that God’s promises do not depend on our readiness to accept them! God will work in and through us even if we are fearful, even if we resist God, even if we laugh in God’s face!
This text is not a promise that God will give all barren people biological children if they pray hard enough or wait long enough. This specific promise God made to the patriarch and matriarch of our faith was contextual, and it wasn’t about this individual family and their biological children. It was about making of them a great nation whom God would work through to bless all the people of the earth. God’s impossible promises to us extend beyond barrenness. God promises to make us into faithful, disciples who live together in community with one another and who give the world a glimpse of God’s kingdom here on earth. Now, that is a promise worth laughing about! Even when we try our best to be faithful, our faith often comes up short. Even when we desire to walk in the way of Jesus, we get seriously sidetracked. Even when we work hard to build up our community of faith, sometimes it all just falls apart. Our world certainly does not always look like the kingdom of heaven on earth! It seems as though it would be easier to just enter into contracts with one another – at least we’d be able to point to what went wrong, which party is responsible, and have justification for ending it all and moving on. But when we get enamored by the things of the world and act unfaithfully, God makes promises worth laughing at. When we’ve done all we can and used up all of our resources and are at our wit’s end, God makes promises worth laughing at. When we get distracted and lead lives that look nothing like God’s kingdom, God makes promises worth laughing at. And even when we aren’t ready to receive those promises, God keeps them. God keeps breathing life in us through the breath of the Holy Spirit. God keeps using us even when we resist God. God remains steadfast even when we are fearful. God brings laughter and joy into our hopelessness. God’s relationship with us is not a contract. We never made a deal; God owes us nothing; even if we don’t hold up our side of the bargain, God won’t abandon us. God has entered into a covenant with us, a covenant where God will proclaim goodness and joy over our lives, claims that the world, and even we, will laugh at.
Desmond Tutu, a South African activist and a retired Anglican bishop who was instrumental in helping to bring apartheid to an end, is also well-known for his gregarious laugh. In the middle of tense conversations about racism throughout his working years, you could often find him making a joke to ease the tension and also make the truth that people needed to confront a little more palpable. Through his humor he helped people “learn to laugh at the idiocy they supported with their votes, because learning to laugh at it was the first step to changing attitudes.”[iii] Though Tutu knew much pain and despair and hopelessness, he could laugh because he knew that God’s goodness would always prevail. In an interview with Time Magazine in 2010, he said, “The texture of our universe is one where there is no question at all but that good and laughter and justice will prevail. In the end, the perpetrators of injustice or oppression, the ones who strut the stage of the world often seemingly unbeatable — there is no doubt at all that they will bite the dust." As he spoke these words, he delighted in them. He roared out in deep laughter, “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!”[iv] Tutu can laugh because he knows the joy of God. Tutu can laugh because he believes God will make good on God’s promise to bring the kingdom of heaven to this broken world. Tutu can laugh with and at God because what God is about does indeed seem utterly ridiculous to a world bent on injustice.
Sarah’s laughter was laughter at God and God’s promises. She didn’t believe God’s promises to be possible. She was actually so cynical that she took matters into her own hands by trying to give Abraham an heir through his slave, Hagar. God won’t let her deny her cynicism. God comes back at her saying, “Yes, actually, you did laugh.” As we all know, laughter has a way of pointing to truth like nothing else does. The beauty is that God doesn’t require her to let go of her cynicism or fully trust before God keeps God’s promises. But eventually Sarah’s laughter turns into the kind of laughter that Tutu had – laughter that laughs with God because of the joy that God’s unbelievable promises bring. Sarah and her whole community with her saw the power of God at work in an unexpected way, and it brought forth the bellowing kind of laughter that often erupts from Tutu.
In our life together, where is God bringing laughter into our hopelessness? Might God be calling us to bring joy to people who are at their bitter end? What promises might we need to hold onto as individuals and as a community of faith? In what ways do we need to entrust our future to God? Our future is not closed or static. Even when we cling to hopelessness and cannot imagine God working in the life of our community, the God of Abraham and Sarah calls out to us asking us to remember the promises we have been given. God’s promises will intrude on our reality. God will shatter our expectations. God’s works are not limited by our normal categories. In order to receive God’s promises, we have to open ourselves up to the movement of the Spirit, and we have to trust fully in God and not rely on our own strength or our own resources. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Do we entrust ourselves to God or not? Do we believe that God can break into our hopelessness? The God of Abraham and Sarah cries out, “Keep laughing. Nothing is too wonderful for the Lord.”
[i] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation Commentary: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching – Genesis, 158-159.
[ii] Ibid, 160.