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Sermon: The Laugh

April 7, 2011

Genesis 18:1-15

Today’s scripture leaves us with a promise that is left open—yet again—and frustratingly unresolved.  The promise to Abraham and Sarah was that, though barren, they would have a child.  God then repeated the promise and reaffirmed the promise and kept telling them throughout the years that the promise was good.  They could count on it.

But living with a promise unresolved, a future unresolved, is incredibly difficult, especially when I am not responsible for its fulfillment.  Let’s take our new babies here as an example.  Babies, among a few other things, are precious bundles of potential promise.  They could grow up to be and do almost anything.  They could be doctors and lawyers, Olympic gold medalists or Oscar winners, parents, teachers, librarians, journalists—just about anything.

At this stage, however, it is all potential, but at least we parents and grandparents can do something to help.  It is our role to feed them and nurture them and encourage them.  It is our job to teach them in the way they should go.  But quickly, we learn that so much is out of our hands.  We cannot choose how interested our children will be in their schoolwork or piano lessons.  We cannot control them.  Even at a very young age, children long to be free agents in the world, to exert their will and make their own choices.

When the day comes that those little babies of ours are ready to leave the nest, there is a little bit of panic for many of us.  All of that potential promise is left very much unfulfilled.  It remains to be seen how much more the child will develop away from our watchful care.  Will she reach the pinnacle of her dreams, or will she leave that vast reservoir of promise untapped?  For the parent or grandparent, that is scary, because we don’t have any control.  The fulfillment of the promise is not in our hands.  We love them just as much as we ever did.  Each time they make a misstep, it hurts our hearts just as badly, but the future of the promise remains unresolved.

We like resolution.  At the end of that 30 minutes or that hour of television, we want the conflict to have been dealt with satisfactorily.  We don’t want “to be continued.”  But guess what.  The three men come to Abraham’s tent by the oaks of Mamre, and one says to Abraham, “I will come again in due season” (or as our pew Bible (Today’s English Version) has it, “nine months from now”) “so that Sarah will have a child.”

That’s the old promise that this even older couple have heard again and again.  “Yes, yes, we’ve heard it all before God.  We’re gonna have a child, blah, blah, blah.  I’m nearly a hundred, and Sarah is past ninety, and you first made that promise to us almost 25 years ago, so don’t mind us if we wait to count those chickens after they hatch.”  For Sarah’s part, she just laughed.  God said, “Sarah, this is what I’m going to do for you.”  And Sarah said, “Ha!”

It wasn’t quite so bold as that.  Sarah was listening from the inside of the tent, and she laughed to herself.  But God heard, and wanted to know why.  Why would she laugh?  “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”  Now we all know what the answer to that question ought to be.  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  No, of course not.  That’s the correct answer, the one in the textbook, the one on the teacher’s grading sheet.

But how many of us, like Sarah, haven’t privately wondered whether or not some things are just a little bit beyond God?  That is especially true when the promise is long delayed.  I have been looking for a job since Hawaii was admitted as a state.  I have been living with this illness every day for too many years.  My child, once full of so much promise, just can’t seem to get it together.  Maybe God can’t do this one.  Or maybe God isn’t interested.  And so Sarah laughed.  And we laugh…or we cry.  The hope, the promise, is unresolved.  Still.

I don’t know how God might respond to you or to me if I laughed at the promise, but God said to Sarah, “Hey, you laughed.  Why?  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

Sarah said, “Who, me?  I didn’t laugh.”

“Oh yes, you did.”  God repeated the promise, and I like the way the New Revised Standard Version translates it: “At the set time I will return to you, in due season” you will have a child.  The promise is in the home stretch.  After nearly 25 years of hoping and waiting and stumbling, Abraham and Sarah are about to see it fulfilled.  There will be resolution, and it would be a shame if they gave up on it now.  God came to them again and again, at the right time, to remind them that the promise was still coming, and in today’s lesson, God came to them again to say “It’s almost here.  Just a little longer.  Hang in there.”

The right time, the due season, is almost upon Abraham and Sarah.  And perhaps the due season is almost upon us, too.  Who knows whether or not today will be the right time for you.  Or tomorrow.  If the promise of God can remain alive through the 25 years of waiting for Abraham and Sarah or the 400 years of slavery in Egypt, then perhaps the promise of God can remain alive for you, too.  And how many wonderful things in your lives have happened as a result of an unexpected, unplanned event?  How many of you have met your spouses or a dear friend by chance?  How many times have you been visited by an unanticipated moment of grace?  The news of a birth or marriage, a visit by an old friend, a fresh sunrise, a field of poppies.  Abraham and Sarah didn’t expect a visit from three strangers that day.  Sometimes we may be so anguished over the unresolved promise that we miss the unexpected fulfillments that are ready to greet us.

But even at the end of the story today, Abraham and Sarah are left to wait some more.  The matter is still unresolved.  The promise has come much closer, but they must still wait in faith.  One more year.  It’s close.  Hang in there.  The God for whom nothing is impossible has promised.  And so we wait.

We wait, just as we wait for these children to grow into their own, unique futures, to tap into the vast potential that is embedded within them.  Sometimes we will wait with joyful anticipation as they start to take a first step.  Sometimes we will wait with anxiety as they take the car out by themselves for the first time.  Sometimes we will be afraid for them, perhaps as they move out into the world without us.  But always, always, we will trust them to God’s love and care.  We are not in charge of their futures.  We cannot control what will happen to them as they grow.  We leave that to God, to a God who came to a childless old man and woman, who said to them, “At the right time, in due season, I will give you a child, because nothing—nothing!—is impossible for the Lord.”

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