No Laughing Matter
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-6
“Yeah, right!” You know what that phrase is, don’t you? It is our way of responding to something we hear that we really do not believe. It is sarcasm to dismiss something that sounds too good to be true. It is how we make it known that we do not have one bit of faith that what was promised will be delivered. “Yeah right” is something we say to laugh in the face of chronic over-promisers & under-deliverers, a coping mechanism when we are confronted with those who stretch the truth. We are so accustomed to disappointment from these people that we have become cynical. We laugh, “yeah, right,” at the latest promise. I have done it; you have done it. I have said it; you have said it.
Like when I see someone out around town who has not been to church in months; and they say, “I’ll be there Sunday, preacher!” I say to myself, yeah, right. Or people buy a house at High Rock Lake & promise they will make the drive to Reeds for church every Sunday. As if there aren’t any other churches between the lake & Shiloh – yeah, right. And this concept applies to bigger issues as well. Politicians make promises we know won’t be delivered. Medical products made claims about cancer prevention & weight loss & hair loss. Someone says this is the year the Panthers will win the Super Bowl. Yeah, right. We dismiss with a laugh the truth-stretchers, over-promisers & under-deliverers.
If we are honest, we will admit that we can bring this cynical attitude to our relationship with God. It is, after all, a form of doubt; God wants us to be honest about our shadows of doubt, admitting them rather than pretending they are not there. We may not doubt God’s existence, but we do God’s involvement. We believe God is great; we just are not sure that God is good. We know the laws of nature & especially human nature. We see the obstacles in our life & know that some are simply insurmountable. So, when we read in Scripture these grand promises that everything will work out despite the obstacles, we respond with the tried & true answer: Yeah, right. We are really saying, “You could do it, God; but I don’t think you will, because you usually don’t.”
We do this with big, societal or worldwide issues. Eradication of the coronavirus? Racial reconciliation in the US? Spiritual revival in America? Yeah, right. We do this with personal issues closer to home. That couple will reconcile. That family member will come to know Christ. That infertile couple will conceive. Yeah, right. You know, in your head, that God is powerful enough to move in these things. But you also know, in your heart & from experience, that God usually does not. And so, you read Scripture with its impossible promises with a laugh, shrug your shoulders, & say, yeah, right.
We have all been there. We believe that God exists; we just doubt that God will show up.
Which brings us to the most significant yeah right story in the Bible, when God makes a big promise to Abraham & Sarah in Genesis 18. Abraham & Sarah lived between 1500-2000 BC, so about 4K years ago. This story is old; so are Abraham & Sarah! Abraham is 99 & Sarah is 89 years old. Following God, Abraham & Sarah had left their home years before to go to Canaan, the Promised Land that would eventually belong to the Israelites. Abraham & Sarah are living as foreigners at a place called the oaks of Mamre. God has promised to make Abraham the father of a great nation, but he has no children with his wife Sarah. He has a son Ishmael, by Sarah’s maidservant Hagar, but the family dynamics are strained. God was clear that Sarah would be the mother of Abraham’s chosen lineage, even though she is barren. So far, God has over-promised & under-delivered. Then God appears to Abraham in Genesis 18.
Read Genesis 18:1-15
The first 2 verses can be confusing. Who exactly appears to Abraham? Is it one Lord or 3 men? I say, yes. It is both. Last week was Trinity Sunday; I will let you do the math. Regardless, this appearance is odd & unprecedented.
We also know that in response, Abraham goes into full-speed hospitality mode. Look at the verbs that are used: ran, hurried, hurry, quickly. The urgency shows how important the visitors were to Abraham. The speed demonstrates that they have honored him by visiting. He goes the extra mile to welcome his guests.
The tone shifts in verse 9, when the guests ask: Where’s your wife Sarah? If the visitors are divine, they already know the answer. If not, it is a very inappropriate question to ask.
The answer is she is in the tent, eavesdropping. Eavesdropping is a frequent plot device in Genesis. She hears the conversation turn to her when one man says: I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!
The narrator immediately reminds us of the unlikelihood of delivery, telling us that Sarah & Abraham were both old & Sarah had passed the age of childbearing. If what God says is true, she will be 90 by the time she has her first child. This is simply not possible from a biological perspective.
So, Sarah’s response is understandable. She laughed. She said yeah, right. You could, God, but you won’t. The odds of this happening are too long. You may have created nature & reproductive systems, but I have not seen you bend the rules of nature like this in my 89 years. I am too old; so, your promise gets a laugh, a great big ‘yeah, right.’
That is exactly where many of us are today with our needs & obstacles. We hear about hope, a promise that God is going to show up & make things better, & we react as Sarah did: yeah, right. You & I laugh hope away because our situation is too immense & the promise seems too impossible. So, we respond yeah, right. We have all done it. We shrug our shoulders at God’s promises.
But what comes next in our story? The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Oops! Caught in the act! And God calls her out for her inner doubt & dismissal. To make matters worse, she lies about it. I didn’t laugh, she said, because she was frightened. She lied; the narrator says. Imagine, one of the great matriarchs of our faith lied directly to God. Of course, God knows, so he directly confronts her: No, you laughed.
In between Sarah’s laughing & her lying, between the crime & the cover-up, God gives us this little gem that makes all the difference. Is anything too difficult for the Lord? Is anything too supernatural for God? Is anything too unbelievable or too great for God to do? Is it impossible for the Lord to bend the laws of nature? Of course not. The one who created the laws of nature can surely edit them. God reminds Abraham, & Sarah who is listening in, that nothing lies beyond the Lord’s power. So, God repeats his promise: When I return to you about this time next year, Sarah will have a son. Sarah is going to have a boy. Her laughter & her lying do not end her relationship with God. She might not believe it, but God has not finished with her yet. God overcomes her cynicism, her laughter, because God is doing something bigger through her. Is anything too hard for the Lord?
Despite Sarah’s disbelief, God repeats the promise with a challenge: Is anything too difficult for the Lord? The whole story is centered on this: When you & I sneer, “Yeah, right,” God says, “Watch this!”
God is not only great; God is also good. Watch this. God’s desire does match God’s ability. Watch this. God’s nature is making a way when there seems no way. Watch this.
The claim of Genesis 18:14, is anything too difficult for the Lord, is a trait of God for us to hold on to. It is part of God’s nature we are called to embrace. It is not a promise to believe; it is a trait to cling to. Embrace God’s character trait – trusting in God’s greatness, faithfulness, goodness, & wisdom. What God tells Sarah & Abraham, & tells us, is that God can be trusted even when life is falling apart. It is more than a promise; it is an aspect of the divine nature.
Can you trust in that powerful character trait of God? Can you move away from cynicism & sarcasm? Just because humans over-promise & under-deliver, it does not mean that God does too.
We can respond to doubt by leaning on God’s very nature, looking for God’s grace in whatever form it may come. The miracle may be to sustain you & bless you through circumstances that never change. Do not be the person who believes God’s grace may exist for other people but not for you. A person of faith was asked why she believed in God. She answered, “Because I’m alive.” She knew her life was a testimony to God’s power & ability. Sometimes that knowledge is enough. We will never see the whole picture, why sometimes God answers with a miracle & sometimes does not. But we know God’s character, that nothing is too hard for the Lord.
Back to Sarah & her yeah, right. God’s promise & Sarah’s doubt are completed in Genesis 21. Read Genesis 21:1-6.
God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me. God fulfills the promise & Sarah delivers a son: just what he had promised her. The boy is named Isaac, which means ‘he laughs’ or simply ‘laughter.’ God transforms Sarah’s laughter. She no longer has yeah right on her lips. Now she laughs with joy, her heart full of delight at God’s fulfillment of the impossible promise. Her sneer turns into celebration. For the rest of her life, Isaac will be a reminder not to underestimate God. Whenever she sees Laughter running around, she will remember how God said, “Watch this!”
You & I have continual reminders in our lives not to underestimate God. We must open our eyes to see them whenever we start to sneer yeah, right. The marriage that goes on despite huge obstacles. The addiction that is in remission & recovery. Seeing police officers kneeling with protesters. The faith you have today when there is no earthly reason to explain it. I have the people of Shiloh UMC. Together we have the cross, the ultimate symbol of death & defeat that God has turned into a symbol of life & victory. All of us who know Christ have these reminders & others – large & small – to remind us not to underestimate God. Through them, we can celebrate that nothing is too difficult for the Lord. Like Sarah, we can remember time & again that God has the last laugh.