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"God Has Brought Me Laughter:"
Sarah, "The Mother of Nations"

For Sunday June 15, 2008

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Genesis 18:1–15, (21:1–7) or Exodus 19:2–8
           Psalm 116:1–2, 12–19, or Psalm 100
           Romans 5:1–8
           Matthew 9:35–10:8, (9–23)

Angels announce the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah; 6th-century mosaic from Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

Angels announce the birth of Isaac
to Abraham and Sarah;
6th-century mosaic from
Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

           At a strategic meeting of our church leaders June asked an awkward but important question that caught some people off-guard. The result was predictable — nervous laughter, even though there was nothing remotely funny about the matter she raised. Laughter, in fact, has many voices that reveal different things about us.

           Derision and scorn can explode in a sarcastic laughter that intends to humiliate. The giggles of children, entirely unselfconscious, hearten us with their unfettered joy. Poking fun at our human frailty, foibles, and the occasional faux pas is almost always healthy. As for jokes, our family likes to say that we laugh three times — when we hear the joke, when it is explained to us, and then when we understand it.

           In the Genesis story this week we encounter yet another type of laughter, the dismissive laughter of incredulity. The matriarch Sarah, Abraham's wife, laughed at God's improbable promise to her that she would bear a child and become "the mother of nations" (Genesis 17:16). Then she lied in a ploy to deny her doubt.

           Standing at the entrance to their tent, Sarah eavesdropped on Abraham as he conversed with three travelers who had visited him. They bore a crazy message from God — that "about this time next year Sarah your wife will bear a son." This was the second time that Abraham had received this promise; when he heard it the first time he "fell face down, laughed, 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?'"

Abraham, Sarah, and the angel; oil on wood by Jan Provost (1465-1529).

Abraham, Sarah, and the angel; oil on
wood by Jan Provost (1465-1529).

           Sarah responded in an identical manner when she overheard the stupendous suggestion: "So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, 'After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?'" The ecstasy of erotic pleasure? The joy of a newborn baby? Sarah laughed in disbelief. But God rebuked her for her doubt, at which point she then lied and denied: "Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, 'I did not laugh.' But he said, 'Yes, you did laugh.'" (17:17; 18:10–15).

           Sarah doubted and denied, she laughed and she lied, because of the "absurd disproportion between the divine promise and the human possibility."1 Her response was entirely human, and not really surprising. From a human perspective her disbelief was warranted, even appropriate. People do not procreate in old age. But her unbelief also evoked a rhetorical rebuke in the punch line of the narrative: "Is anything too difficult for the Lord?" (18:14).

           When I was in seminary my classmate Phil coined a wonderful term for that sort of religious faith that has a firm and unwavering belief in a tame and innocuous divinity. It's a faith that doesn't have any expectations that God will meddle in human affairs, intercede in your life, providentially guide human history, care for a loved one, heal the hurts we suffer, or — God forbid — do the impossible. Phil characterized that sort of tepid faith as "functional deism." Functional deism never denies the existence or reality of God, but it also never expects His decisive action in your personal affairs. Yahweh thus rebuked Sarah for her timid faith in a tiny god.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Abraham Entertaining the Angels (detail), 1656, etching and drypoint, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection 1943.3.7160.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Abraham
Entertaining the Angels
(detail), 1656,
etching and drypoint, National
Gallery of Art, Washington,
Rosenwald Collection

           God did not shame Sarah in a punitive manner. Quite the contrary. We read that "the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised." In a delightful double entendre, they named their son Isaac, which in Hebrew means "he laughs." Their son of laughter would always remind them of their disbelief. He would also testify how God fulfilled His promises and acted in their personal history despite improbable and unbelievable circumstances. Whereas Sarah had brought her nervous laughter to God's promise, in the end the tables were turned: "God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have born him a son in his old age" (21:1–7).

           Sarah's disbelief, doubt, laughter, lies and denial convey not only an appropriate rebuke to our own tendency to do likewise, and a reminder of God's mighty power to act in the most hopeless of circumstances. Sarah also communicates a sense of consolation. We normally think of Abraham and Sarah as paragons of faith and virtue, and with good reason given how the New Testament remembers them as heroes (cf. Romans 4:18–25, Hebrews 11:11, and 1 Peter 3:6). But Sarah demonstrates how God's drama of salvation is not a story of stellar saints so far removed from our own experiences that we could never hope to emulate them, but of down and dirty sinners, messy characters portrayed with their own faults and failures.

           Acting out his own fears, Abraham lied about his wife Sarah (Genesis 12:13). Both he and Sarah scoffed at God's promise of progeny. Commenting on the untidy and unsavory nature of the Biblical characters, Eugene Peterson puts it this way:

One of the remarkable characteristics of the biblical way of training us to understand history and our place in it is the absolute refusal to whitewash a single detail...The history in which our Scriptures show that God is involved is every bit as messy as the history reported by our mass media in which God is rarely mentioned apart from blasphemies. Sex and violence, rape and massacre, brutality and deceit do not seem to be congenial materials for use in developing a story of salvation, but there they are, spread out on the pages of our Scriptures. It might not offend some of us so much if these flawed and reprobate people were held up as negative examples with lurid, hellfire descriptions of the punishing consequences of living such bad lives. But the [biblical] story is not told quite that way. There are punishing consequences, of course, but the fact is that all these people, good and bad, faithful and flawed, are worked into the plot of salvation. God, it turns out, does not require good people in order to do good work. As one medieval saying has it, "God draws straight lines with a crooked stick." He can and does work with us, whatever the moral and spiritual condition in which he finds us. God, we realize, does some of his best work using the most unlikely people.2

I take genuine comfort in knowing that my own doubts and denials, the lies I tell myself to rationalize my disbelief, and the times that I scoff at the likelihood of divine intervention in my puny affairs, are not only standard fare for normal human nature, but also the raw material of God's salvation history. They might deserve a divine rebuke like Sarah received, but they don't constitute an ultimate obstacle to divine action in my own little story.

[1] Editorial comment from The New Oxford Annotated Bible (1991), on Genesis 18:12.
[2] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 140-141.
Image credits: (1) Allen Farberas, SUNY, Oneonta, NY; (2) Web Gallery of Art; and (3) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.