The sermon was a lot of fun yesterday.
Now: I didn’t think it would be that much fun.
But people laughed — hard — at some unexpected places, we had some visuals that enhanced the verbals, and the message dealt with an issue people truly needed to process: what do you do when you believe that God is great but you doubt that he is good?
So drawing from the epic story of Abraham, Sarah, heavenly visitors, and an absurd promise from Genesis 18, the message became “No Laughing Matter.”
It concluded with a “Pictures Of Grace” exercise at the end (see below) — an exercise that yielded some revelatory moments in the lives of many people to whom I spoke afterwards.
Yeah, right. Yeah, RIGHT. YEAH, RIGHT. You know what that is, don’t you? It’s a phrase we use at the height of sarcasm as our way of letting it be known that we don’t have one bit of faith that what was promised will actually be delivered. Our way of laughing in the face of the chronic overpromisers and underdeliverers in our lives. A coping mechanism when we’re confronted with truth stretchers. I’ve done it, you’ve done it; I’ve said it; you’ve said it.
Like I’ll see people out, haven’t seen them here in months and they say, “Oh, I’ll be there Sunday!” and I think, yeah right. (What a jerk!) Or people will move to Mooresville and say, “but we’re still driving 50 miles down to Steele Creek for church!” and of course I think, or mutter, yeah right. It gets bigger than that, doesn’t it? You see a politician make a promise, you read an ad about a new cure for cancer with no side effects, you learn of a sure fire prevention for hair loss, you get a promise that the Panthers are going to win the Super Bowl! and we respond with this collective yeah right. Or maybe the best: you get an announcement at work that someone is leaving – suddenly – to pursue other interests or to spend time with family and the answer: yeah, right.
And isn’t it true that we can bring this overall attitude to our God connection? To the point that the shadow of doubt today is not so much about God’s existence as it is about his involvement. We believe that he is great but we doubt that he is good. Those times and those occasions when we see – due to the laws of nature and patterns of human behavior and the height of life’s obstacles – that there seems to be a gap between God’s ability and his interest. When we bump up against those situations that seem intractable and the thought that God might rescue us, deliver them, fix that moves us to sarcasm: yeah right. He COULD but he WON’T because I’ve seen time and time again in the past that he DOESN’T. From BIG issues like “Peace in The Middle East” & spiritual revival in Western Europe & the US to the much more personal. That couple to reconcile, that mental illness to subside, that family member to get saved, that infertile couple to give birth. Even like the person who said to me while in the middle of deep depression: “Sometimes I feel like his grace & mercy is meant for everyone but me.”
I’ve been on the “sort of” receiving end of this. I remember being in college, at a tennis tournament, and seeing another player whom I had known relatively well in high school. We were catching up and he didn’t even know I’d had a spiritual conversion and so when he asked what I was going to do after graduation, I answer, “I’m going to seminary!” and the deadpan look had written all over it: yeah right. Even the great God couldn’t do that with you, Talbot Davis. God could but doubt he will so: yeah right.
Which brings us to one of the oddest, strangest, most yeah rightstories in the whole library of the bible. So many unanswered questions come from just a casual look at the story, much less an in-depth one! Here’s the situation: it’s probably 3900 years ago; 1900 BC or so. Abraham & Sarah, the First Couple of the faith, are old, trekking to the Promised Land, and trying to avoid trouble. Abraham is supposed to be the Father of many nations but he doesn’t have biological children with his wife Sarah. He DOES have one, Ishmael, with Sarah’s maidservant Hagar – BUT THAT IS HIGHLY NOT RECOMMENDED! And as Genesis 15 opens, they’ve parked their RV at the KOA at a place called the oaks of Mamre. Look what happens:
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. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby.
So what is it? Is it one Lord or three guys? Yes. While we don’t know exactly what is going on or how it happened, it seems that Abe gets visited by incarnateedition of God. Almost a “pre-Jesus”; similar to the being with whom Jacob wrestles in Gen 32. It’s most likely one God-in-a-body with two attendants, though it could be an early image of the Trinity but we don’t know. We DO know it’s unprecedented and odd. We also know that Abe goes into super hospitality mode in 18:2b-6 & as I read circle all the “haste” verbs:
When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
3 He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord,[a] do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 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.”
6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs[b] of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”
Reading this is so much like how a visitor & an American gets treated in India today. Hospitality is exceedingly important in that culture and people scurry around making sure you feel appropriately honored. What Abe does to the Lord here.
Then look at more hurry in 18:7-8:
7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 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.
That line in 8 about the strangers eating and Abe standing, again, just like India: the guest eats and the host hovers. There is a love of hospitality and a commitment to honoring that is so winsome, so dif from the way I am as either guest or host.
Then at 18:9, everything changes with the question:
“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.
Where’s Sarah? Hey – if he’s God, he already knows; if he’s not, it sure is a nervy question! Answer: she’s in her tent, eavesdropping on us. Because look at 18:10:
“There, in the tent,” he said.
10 Then one of them 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.
Isn’t it sad, sort of? This news that Sarah has been waiting all her life to hear – I’m gonna be a mom! – and even now she only overhears it. Now: if we were to make a show Housewives Of Genesis, eavesdropping would be one of the main devices to advance the plot. Sarah, Rebekah, others.
But with this overheard promise, we’re immediately confronted with the unlikelihood of delivery in 18:11:
Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing.
Old, old. My mom was 46 when I was born and that’s old but it’s not Sarah old by a long shot. What gets promised here is simply not possible.
So Sarah’s response in 18:12 is perfect:
So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
She’s old, there’s a double entendre involving pleasure – both that of child rearing and that of love making & in each case the time for it has passed in Sarah’s life – and she can do nothing with the promise laugh. And I’ve tried to picture that laugh to herself and I figure it’s like Huhmph . . . yeah, right. Sarcastic little grin. You could God, but you won’t, Lord. Because the odds of this are just too long. You might have created nature & reproduction, but I don’t see you bend the rules of nature. I’m 90 and that’s a promise that just gets a laugh, a great big ‘yeah right.’
And I know. You bring that same slight sneer to the biggest obstacles you have. You believe in God’s greatness but you’re not so sure about his goodness and it’s yeah right. That marriage you’re in that just keeps spiraling. That status as single that you don’t think will ever change either because you’re not the right person or you haven’t found the right person. For me, it’s even on occasion: the promise that this church would completely live up to and beyond its potential (we haven’t!) and that I’d be the kind of leader to make that happen (not yet). I think about that sometimes and I’m like yeah, right. Sarah’s laughing doubt is ours.
But the story goes on. Look at 18:13:
13 Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’
Woops! Caught in the act! Of course the irony is that Abe had done the same thing in 17:17 and he suffered no reprimand. Sarah has no such grace and to make matters worse, she lies. Look at 18:15:
15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”
But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
Love that! Red handed. Nope. That’s not my hand in that cookie jar. That’s not my laugh you heard. As if the Lord doesn’t know! But tucked in between the crime and its cover-up, in between the laughter and the lying, is this gem in 18:14a:
Is anything too hard for the Lord?
Ah! Is anything too supernatural? Too mystical? Too great for God to do? Nope. Is it too hard for him to bend the laws of nature? Nope. He wrote them. To emphasize it all, 18:14b repeats the promise of 18:10: I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”
You, Sarah, are going to have that boy. Your laughter and even your lying doesn’t end our conversation because I’m going to show you what kind of God I am. I’m not only GREAT but I’m GOOD and you hang on to that. My desire matches my ability.
And so you know what it all means? Sarah’s sneer, Sarah’s lie, God’s grace, even Abe’s hopping hospitality? When you sneer ‘yeah right’ God says ‘Watch this!’ I’m not only great, I’m also good, watch this. I not only have ability, I have desire, watch this. My nature is lovingkindness, making a way where there seems to be no way, watch this. You’re so cynical, sarcastic, watch this. REF
Now: 18:14 and its “is anything too hard for the Lord?” and all that, is not a promise to claim. It IS a trait to embrace. And there is a big difference between the two. If you believe God is great but doubt that he is good, I am not suggesting you start claiming nature-bending miracles as your birthright before they even happen. However, you embrace God’s character trait – that even when he doesn’t bend nature’s laws your way he is still faithful and good and wise and loving and intimate – ah, that’s how you endure. Confession: I cry every time I sing Our God. Either here or somewhere else. Why? Because some parents whom I love so dearly insisted that song be sung at the funeral for their child. Can’t hear the song without thinking of their integrity, their endurance, and God’s goodness through it all. Laws of nature weren’t reversed; beauty of the Spirit continues to come through. REFRAIN
Oh, hold to that character, you who believe in God but just aren’t sure he believes in you. His 18:14 miracle may be to sustain and bless you through circumstances that don’t change. It’s like the person of faith who was sharing with a skeptic one time and the skeptic asked her what had God ever done for her. The answer came back: because I’m alive. Yup. Sometimes, that’s more than enough. You relate to God by faith and not by certainty. You’ll never know it all; never know why he answers and doesn’t. You just know his character through it. It’s why my favorite epigraph on a cemetery belongs to a Louisiana woman whose marker says simply: Waiting. Aren’t we all. REFRAIN.
Which brings us back to Sarah and her yeah right. Genesis 18 isn’t complete without Genesis 21:1-6:
Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. 2 Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac[a] to the son Sarah bore him. 4 When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
6 Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”
The meaning of the name Isaac? One who laughs. Laughter. Laugh with me. Sarah’s sin gets forgiven, her cynicism overcome, her doubt blessed, even her lying overlooked! Her sneer turns into a celebration. And you know what Isaac will be? Simply by virtue of his presence in her life, he will be a perpetual reminder to Sarah: don’t underestimate God. Watch this boy the rest of your days and don’t sell me short.
You know what? You, too, have continual reminders in your life of not underestimating God. The cross here. The marriage still intact. The addiction in remission & recovery. I have you, the people of GSUMC. We have those reminders, items large & small, global & personal, to urge us not to underestimate God. To celebrate the ways in which he has the last laugh. REFRAIN
A bit like this: