The text today is taken from Genesis 18:1-15. I am reading from the New International Version of the scriptures. And if you care to follow along, I think both NIVs and RSVs are in the pew. Listen to the word of God.
“The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way – now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.” So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread.” Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree. “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent,” he said. Then the Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son. Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of child-bearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?” 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.” Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.” But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
The word of God. Let us pray. Oh Lord, we pray that you would speak to our hearts by your Holy Spirit so that this word may become something more to us than ink on paper. We pray that it would pierce to the very thoughts and intentions of our heart and help us to understand your great love for us. Lord we ask that you would empower this message so that it would be placed in the hearts of each person so that they too might take and give a message to others. We pray it in Christ’s name. Amen.
There are not many things that graduate to your refrigerator once all your kids are out of the house. Every now and then, something will come along and it gets on the refrigerator because it has a special significance. A few years ago, a newsletter from a church came our way and Ellen clipped out the little article called “The Art of Laughing”. And I thought, you know, I need to remember this. And here are just a few excerpts from it:
“Laughing exercises the whole person. Laughing exercises the body. It stimulates the flow of blood. It expands the lungs. It is gentle and relaxing. Laughing exercises the mind. It shakes up the brain cells. It fills them with oxygen and drives out the cobwebs. Laughing exercises the emotions, uplifts the spirit. Laugh at all times of the day. Laugh in all kinds of weather. Laugh alone, but if with a companion, choose one who appreciates the secret of laughter. Laugh for fun and adventure, for health and inspiration.”
Just a reminder, just to not take life so seriously, because there is not one shred of evidence really in this world that tells me that life is serious. We often hear the phrase “I need a good laugh.” It’s true. Because too much seriousness is deadly to families, to relationships, to churches. In fact, that’s one symptom of a family or a church that’s really stuck. It’s very serious and nobody’s laughing. When you hear laughter in the walls, that’s a good sign. Scripture even says laughter is what? “Good medicine” the Bible says. And we laugh for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes we laugh because we see other people laughing. And again, there are some congregations where you’re not supposed to laugh, past and present. Very irreverent. But those are the kind of places that you are tempted to laugh even more, because you are not supposed to. We often have trouble holding in our laughter at times we shouldn’t laugh. Because sometimes we see something unexpected. Or we hear something unexpected and we try to not let it all out. You probably heard or read maybe in Ann Landers column a few weeks ago, actually, I think she got this column from a book by Richard Lederer who wrote a book called “Anguished English” and I’m sure you’ve seen it before, you’ve probably heard these things before, about church bulletin bloopers. But even if you’ve heard them before, they are so funny to me. Well, I’ll find out if they’re funny. Let’s see.
Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.
For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.
Don’t let worry kill you off, let the church help.
Pot luck supper, prayer and medication to follow.
See, we hear an unexpected turn of a phrase and we laugh. There are also times we laugh because things are very incongruent. Like the top 15 thinnest books. I’m not going to read you the top 15 titles, just a couple of my favorites:
“The Wild Years” by Al Gore
Dr. Kevorkian Collection of Motivational Speeches.
Everything Men Know About Women.
These are thin books now…
Mike Tyson’s Guide to Dating Etiquette.
The Amish Phone Directory.
Incongruous, unexpected, it makes us laugh.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, there is a different kind of laughter. Sarah in the passage laughs because she can’t believe what she is hearing. Let me tell you what kind of laugh it is. A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day. He said in English, a double negative forms a positive. In other languages like Russian or Greek, a double negative is still a negative. But there is no language, he said, where a double positive can form a negative. From the back of the room this voice pipes up, “Yeah, right”. You got it. Good. And that’s the kind of laugh that Sarah made when she heard this news at age 90 that the promise of God is going to be fulfilled. “Yeah, right”. That’s the kind of laugh it was. That’s what she expressed. Talk about unexpected. Three men visit Abraham, at least they appear to be men. They are messengers of the Lord. Abraham is 99, Sarah is 90 and they announce that in the spring of the following year, she will have a baby.
Verse 11 sets up the obvious incongruity. “Abraham and Sarah were already old, well advanced in years and Sarah was past the age of child-bearing”, so “Yeah, right”. How is this going to happen? So verse 12, “Sarah laughs to herself and says after I am worn out and my master is old will I now have this pleasure”. Worn out here refers to the use of worn clothing or dried up bones. And she is getting a tremendous chuckle out of this message. That she is 90 years old and she is going to have a child. How could two worn out old characters like us? How could this be possible?
Verse 13 reminds us that God was not telling any jokes. Verse 13 says in effect, What’s so funny? If I say that I’ll do something, I’ll do it. And then, verse 14, famous well known verse “Is anything too difficult, anything too hard for the Lord?”. You know, in order to get the full impact of this passage and understand this divine response of why we shouldn’t laugh in the wrong places, we have to go back 24 years, in this case, six chapters, to get the full flow of the promises that Abraham and Sarah had been given. From Genesis 12 almost every chapter, the promise is repeated. I am going to try to make this quick, but go back if you would like to follow to Genesis 12 and you will notice that every time the promise is given to Abraham, it becomes more and more specific about what God says God will do.
Genesis 12:1-4 “The Lord said to Abram (Abram at that time), leave your country, your people, your father’s household to then go to the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation. I will bless you. I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you. I will curse those who curse you and all the peoples on the earth will be blessed through you.” Nothing about a child, but the obvious implication is you are going to be a great blessing to many people. So it says in verse 4, “Abraham left as the Lord told him. Lot went with him. He was 75 years old when he left Heron”. Now that is not something to overlook. Here he is in his home, everything is happy, he’s got all his family around and all of his furniture and the Lord says, “You are 75, we are going to move you” and he says “Okay”. So he is believing God.
Then, as you go over to chapter 13:14-16, “The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, ‘Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south and east and west. All of the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever”. Ah, offspring. “and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth so that if anyone could count that dust, then your offspring could be counted”. Wow. So there is an affirmation on a promise. Not too long after Abraham left, he is thinking, okay, this is something.
We go over to Genesis 15 “After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. Don’t be afraid Abram”. Why would he be afraid? Well maybe what God said was going to happen isn’t happening. “Don’t be afraid Abram, I am your shield. Your very great reward”. But Abram said, “Oh sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus”? And Abram said “You have given me no children so a servant in my household will be my heir. And the word of the Lord came to him. This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir”. And He said “Now look, remember that dust thing I told you about, now go outside and look up at the stars and if you can count the stars, that’s how many your offspring will be Abram, if indeed you can count them. And Abram believed the Lord and he credited it to him as righteousness”. So Abraham in spite of the fact that it is so hard to get a hold of this promise, in spite of the fact that it has been many years, he believes and he takes another step.
And then we come over to 16 verse 1. “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no children.” And then all through 16 is the story and this is where we are going to be next week, the story about how Sarai talks Abram into having a child with Hagar the servant. Don’t we always seem to take matters into our hands when it doesn’t look like what God says God is going to do happens? I think that every great person in the Scripture, that would be an interesting study, but I think you could do a study of every major character in the Bible, Old and New Testament and come up with a time that they try to take matters into their own hands. Every single one and yet, that was not the plan.
Now we come to 17 and in 17 it says “When Abram was ninety-nine years old,” (This is 24 years from the time of the original call), “the Lord appeared to him and said I am God Almighty walk before me and be blameless” and this is were God establishes a covenant with Abram and changes his name to Abraham because “you will be the father of many nations and I will make you very fruitful and kings will come from you”.
And then over in verse 15, “as for Sarai your wife, she will be called Sarah. She will go from contentious as Sarai to princess as Sarah and I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her.” Now look at verse 17 of Chapter 17, “Abraham fell face down, he laughed” – “Yeah right” — “and said to himself, will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety? And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing.” You know, how can we blame him? How can we blame him? And yet he still says, “No God, this can’t possibly be true, Ishmael, my son from Hagar, he will be the heir won’t he?”. Verse 19 “and God said yes, your wife Sarah will bear you a son and you will call him Isaac.” You know what Isaac means? He laughs. That’s the name Isaac. He laughs. And then in verse 21 “But my covenant I will establish with Isaac and Sarah will bear to you by this time next year”. Finally God pinpoints it and says when it is going to happen. And that brings us to Chapter 18 in the passage that we started with and the rhetorical question, is anything to difficult for the Lord?
When Sarah realized that this God-sent message had been pinpointed and that next year it would happen after 24 years of waiting, she still couldn’t believe it. She still said “Yeah, right”. And one of the men, one of the messengers said not to scold her, but to foreshadow, No you did laugh and next year, when he laughs is born, you remember that you laughed, that you didn’t believe me. Why so long? Why 24 years? Maybe to show that God will do things when God wants to do them. Maybe to show that God is in control of all history. Maybe in spite of human attitudes and unbelief, God will still carry out the plan of the ages. Maybe to remind us that God is in control of our lives. You know Romans 15:4, this is not just written for the people of the day, this is written for us. Romans 15:4 “For whatever was written in former times was written for our instruction so that through the steadfastness and the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope”. We are like Abraham and Sarah as Christians. God has promised the rebirth of the whole creation. God has said we groan in these bodies, but one day, we will be clothed with heavenly bodies. We long for the fulfillment of a promise. We go into a cemetery or we go by a grave site and we hear a preacher say these bodies will come out of the grave and I don’t know, part of us sometimes says “Yeah, right”. But that’s the promise.
Central Presbyterian is in a waiting time. I could come as one of those heavenly messengers and say about a year from now, God will raise up a person that will take this congregation into the third Millennium. The next chapter of its life and some of us may be saying “Yeah, right”, the best is behind. But I am telling you, the best is yet to be in Jesus Christ. Isn’t it amazing that even if we do the “Yeah, right” thing with God, it doesn’t deter the promise. Aren’t you glad that God didn’t say to Abraham and Sarah, because they both laughed, “You laughed, I take it back!”? I am not advocating unbelief, I am just saying that God isn’t all that disturbed with the nature of our lack of faith as long as we are willing to take the next step. That’s what Abraham did. It’s like two sportscasters who were describing the late Walter Payton. One guy said, “Look at what a great ballplayer he is. Just think, 9 miles in his rushing career” and the other guy said “and to think that every 4.6 yards, somebody was knocking him down.” That’s the kind of thing we go through as Christians. Every 4.6 yards it seems like somebody is knocking us down, but God says it’s okay if you don’t believe, just take another step. Just trust me to take one more step and you will see the fulfillment of the promise. So what’s the application? What keeps you from believing that God wants to use you, that God is not finished with you, that God wants to work through you to be a blessing to others? Too old? Too dumb? Too young? Too unattractive? Too inexperienced? Too ill? What “too” is in your mind? Set that on one side and then over on the other side Genesis 18:14 “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” You may be disabled, but he is able. You may be weak, but he is strong. You may feel incapable, but he is capable. You may feel powerless, but he is powerful. I am telling you, faith will have the last laugh.
You know Paul Harvey’s the end of the story. I love that. The rest of the story thing. We see in Genesis 21, since we were looking before this passage, let’s look at Genesis 21 and see what the rest of the story comes out like. Genesis 21:6,7. “And Sarah said, God has brought me laughter”, I think this is a different kind now. I think this is the kind that you just can’t help it and you can’t believe what God has done and how God has blessed you. “And he said everyone who hears about this will laugh with me” and she added ” who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children, yet I have bore him a son in his old age”. And she probably would look at “He laughs” running and jumping all over the place and laughed to herself again and again and again. And she would say, “Why did I doubt?”. Lord thank you, thank you for not being limited by my unbelief. And when we are all in that place of eternal running and jumping and when the role is called up yonder, and when we see the face of Jesus and when everything that is a mystery now is explained, we will laugh and we will say “Why did I doubt? Why didn’t I believe?”. And yet it will be okay because we were willing by God’s grace to take the next step. You know the greatest step you can ever take in you relationship with God is to commit yourself wholeheartedly to Jesus Christ so that he might help you. It’s like a dad who came in on his little boy who was watching a video, tail end of the video, he could tell his son was immersed in what he was watching and the dad said “Well what did you learn?” and the little 3 year old guy looked up at him and said “I learned that Jesus died so that we could have everlaughing life”. That was the truth. Count on it. Believe it. No matter how long it takes to happen, because it is the promise of God. If you want to affirm this message? say Amen.
Let us pray. Oh Lord, thank you that we are all like the person who said Lord I believe, but help my unbelief. Help us to know that you are in control. That nothing surprises you. Bring healing and help and hope to every heart that is struggling with doubt. Give them grace to take one more step so that they too might speak of your greatness to others. We pray it in Jesus’ name, Amen.