Sermon 18th June 2023: “No Laughing Matter” Genesis 18:1-15 – Rev Stephen Dewdney

In 2004 Adidas launched a very successful advertising campaign with the byline  “Impossible is nothing”.   If you think about it, you may well think “what a load of mumbo jumbo”, really “impossible is nothing”?   But it didn’t stop Adidas making a lot of money as millions of people bought their products.  Nor did it stop them relaunching the slogan in 2021.   “Impossible is nothing”.   Perhaps part of the success of Adidas’ campaign is that we love the story of the impossible becoming possible.   And that is very much the story we focus on today as we again turn our attention to Abraham and Sarah.

Last week we saw that God told Abram to leave Haran, to leave his people and his father’s household, and to go to a land God would show him.   And God made a promise, “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”. Well Abram obeyed, for we read that Abram left, as the Lord had told him, and they arrived in the land of Canaan. But there’s a problem.   How do you make a great nation out of a childless couple, especially as Abram was 75 and Sarai 66 when God made the promise.  And that’s where we left things last week. 

Today we pick up the story in Genesis 17 and 18, and we find the problem has become even more impossible. 25 years have gone by and not a single child has come from Abraham and his wife, Sarah.   God had said I’m going to make a great nation from you.   But there’s no child, not a single one.   Surely God’s left it a bit late for this now 100-year-old and his 90-year-old wife.   It’s now way beyond the impossible.   

Of course, 13 years before Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands.  They agreed to a plan where Sarah would give over her maidservant Hagar and Abraham would visit her in the middle of the night so Hagar could become a surrogate mother.    And it worked, Ishmael was born but, and there’s always a but, this was not how God intended to fulfil his promise.   So when you get to Genesis 17, the whole thing starts turning into a comedy.    God repeats his promise “I will bless Sarah, and moreover I will give you a son by her.  I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” And what’s Abraham’s reaction? Well, he falls flat on his face laughing and saying to himself “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”  And when he finally stops laughing he says to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!”. Hey God, Ishmael’s thirteen, use him to produce the kings and peoples and nations.  It’s a much more sensible plan.  At least by using Ishmael there’s a chance of success. But God replied “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac.”  And it seems that something clicks, that Abraham finally gets it.  He starts to believe that despite the problem of age he will have a son through Sarah.  And he goes away and the first thing he does, is to get circumcised as a sign that he believes God’s promise.

Sometime later we read that the Lord appeared again to Abraham, this time by the oaks of Mamre.   For Abraham it’s just another hot day and he’s probably thinking about his midday nap.  Yet something makes him look up and he sees three men standing nearby.   Well there goes the nap, he’s suddenly wide awake and running round at top speed.    He hurries from the entrance of his tent to meet his visitors and bows low to the ground by way of a greeting and says  “If I have found favour in the eyes of my Lord, don’t pass by”.   I’ll bring some water and wash your feet.   

Then he offers to get a little bread so they can be refreshed and go on their way.  They accept his hospitality so he runs back to the tent to find his wife Sarah, and tells her, “Quick, Sarah.   Bake some bread.   Get on with it.”   And then he runs again, and he goes to the herd, which are presumably chewing the cud out the back somewhere.   He finds the best calf and he takes it quickly to the servant who hurries to prepare it.   Everything’s at speed for this very old man, where it should be very, very slow.   He’s desperate to be the best host he possibly can.  And did you notice how he’s just offers a little bit.   “I’ll get you little water for your feet”, “Let me bring a little bread”.   Just a mouthful, a morsel.   And then what does he do?   3 measures of the best flour, that’s almost 12 kilograms of flour.   That’s at least 25 loaves of bread.   And it’s not just a mouthful of something.   It’s a whole calf.   No wonder everyone’s hurrying.   It’s going to take all afternoon to get this feast cooked.   And all the time this 100 year old is dashing around, serving his visitors curds and milk, where did they come from?   He serves them and then just stands there and watches them eat.   It’s a strange little scene carried out at a frenetic pace.

So, what’s going on?  There’s a clue in verse 3, “If I have found favour in your eyes, my Lord, do not pass your servant by”.   If you’ve been reading Genesis from the beginning, you may have noticed that this it’s said of Noah, that he “found favour in the eyes of the Lord.”  But there’s a difference here.   Noah obeyed God by building the ark and rescuing his family and the animals, but Noah’s heart at the end of the story is no different to his heart at the beginning.   Abraham is going to be different.   He will be an utterly new creation.   Where once life was impossible, for Sarah cannot conceive, life will be possible.   And that’s why it could not be through Ishmael, for that would be taking matters into their own hands.   It has to be the way of a gift, Isaac will be the impossible being made possible.   And Abraham it seems has got it. “If I have found favour in your eyes, my Lord, do not pass your servant by”.  

But what about Sarah?   Abraham must have told her about the encounter he had with God in Genesis 17.  She must have noticed the circumcision of Abraham and all the males in their household.   But we’re to see the contrast between her and Abraham.   Verse 9 is a turning point.  The chairs are pushed back after their rather big meal.   And Abraham is asked, “Where is your wife, Sarah?”.   And he replies “There, in the tent”.  And suddenly we go from being under the tree with Abraham and his three visitors, to in the tent with Sarah.   And notice everything towards the end is towards, and about Sarah who is behind Abraham listening at the tent door. 

The promise is made, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah will have a son” a promise repeated four verses later “At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah will have a son”.   And in between the promises it’s all about laughter.   And Sarah’s laughter is understandable, isn’t it?   It’s not laughter of mocking.   It’s a laughter of hopelessness.   Life has taught her not to clutch at straws.   She’s in her 90s.   She’s given up hope of ever having a child herself.   It’s laughter that’s filled with human realism of pain.   Age and experience and disappointment can do that to you.   And we’re supposed to see and understand, Sarah.   We’re supposed to empathise with her.  That’s why verse 11 reminds us that “Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” a rather polite way of saying that she’s well past  the age of childbearing.  It’s laughable that Sarah should have a child.   But while we’re supposed to empathise, we’re not supposed to agree with her laughter. 

The scene ends strangely.   “Then the Lord said to Abraham, Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child now that I’m old?’   Is anything too wonderful for the Lord.   At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah will have a son”.      Then we read “Sarah was afraid”.   So, she lied and said, “I didn’t laugh”.   But he said.   “Oh, yes, you did laugh.”   And the story abruptly stops there and you find yourself in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, then the incident with King Abimalech, only resuming in chapter 21.

So you are lft with questions.  Does Sarah believe it or not?  Does it happen, will she have a son?  But it also leaves us with a challenge.  What about you?   What about me?   What do we think about verse 14 , about the question God poses “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”   Are we going to be like Abraham, who welcomes the impossible?  Or are you going to be like Sarah, who laughs in the face of the impossible.   And if you think about it there are echoes of the Garden of Eden for, we’re under a tree again.   And under the tree we have Abraham doing what Adam should have done, which was to serve and to welcome God.   And we have Sarah who’s hiding, she’s lying and did you notice, she’s afraid.   Which way are we’re going to go?  Are we going to go with this new creation way, which is through God, or are we going to stick with the old and try and sort it out ourselves.

Lets jump ahead, to when the people of Israel retold the story of Abraham and Sarah and told their children “That’s great, great, great, great, great, great grandad Abraham and look, that’s great, great, great, great, great great grandma Sarah,” and the children are asking “why doesn’t she believe?  She’s crazy.   We’re all here.   We’re all listening to the story of it.   We’re the decedents of Abraham and Sarah. Why doesn’t she believe?”  And no doubt the parents chipped in that it’s not just Abraham and Sarah who couldn’t have children but then had Isaac.   But Isaac married Rebecca, and she couldn’t have children either.   But they did have Jacob.   And then Jacob got married to Rachel.   And you know what?  She couldn’t have children either.   And there’s a whole tribe of us lot, in fact twelve of them.   God has kept his promise.   With God the impossible becomes possible, with God the impossible is nothing.   You might say that God has got form here.   Of breathing life into what was once dead.   You see God is making it clear in the very opening pages of the bible a principle that will run all the way through and all the way through today.   

Jump back to chapter 17, to when Abraham manages to control his laughter and ask “O that Ishmael might live in your sight” What if God had said yes, all right, let’s do it your way, through Ishmael.   If that had been the case, it would have allowed some human means to bring about his promise of blessing.   And it wouldn’t have dealt with the problem of the human heart, which is the centre of the problem.   It’s that default position, which means that we grab Gods throne.  My life, my way.   And the opening chapters of Genesis are filled with human examples of taking matters into our own hands, Cain literally took life into his own hands by murdering his brother Abel.   The citizens of Babel said we can do it ourselves, we can make ourselves great.   Ishmael himself, will be a wild donkey of a man.   It’s going to end in ruin.   That is the way of the human heart and it’s the way of insecurity.   In all of our human efforts, to bring about blessing when is it ever enough?  We are slaves to personal improvement.   And it doesn’t match up all the efforts we make, what do we do?  We hide away.   We pretend it’s better than it really is.   We lie due to shame.   We’re in a culture of progress and targets.   We’ve tried capitalism, we’ve tried communism.   We’ve tried individualism.   We’ve tried pretty much any other “ism” that you can possibly think of.   Yes we think that the possibilities are limitless, but that’s a lie.  The reality is that we are limited, we are limited in our abilities, we are limited in our understanding, we’re limited in our time.   But what we do is crazy.   We try to limit God by our own experience of limitation.   But God is God.   He is the only one who’s without limit.   Is anything too hard for God?   You see, if God creates a divine roadblock to Ishmael, he creates a highway for Isaac.   If Ishmael is a way of insecurity and dashed expectations, the way of Isaac is a way of certainty and hope.   If God can breathe life into the barren womb of Sarah, he can breathe life into an empty tomb.   He can breathe life into your heart and mine, no matter what you are like or what you have done in the past   Is anything too hard God?  When it comes to God’s promise that he will change me and he wants me to be more be more like his son, is anything too hard for God?   What about this church as it struggles to nurture life and build connection with the people living around us. It’s all too hard, too much of a struggle, but is anything too hard for God.   And when it comes to God’s promise on a global scale that he will reach every tribe and tongue and nation with his grace and favour through Jesus Christ, is anything too hard for God?   

Abraham learned.   Sarah is learning.   What about us?   You see we long for the impossible to be made possible.  Will we go God’s way for God is in the business of fulfilling his promises, because for him actually, impossible is nothing.   

I want to quickly finish by jumping to chapter 21 where we read:-

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised.  Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him.  Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.  Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.  Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.  And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”