March 12, 2006 – 2nd Sunday in Lent
Revised Common Lectionary Readings
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
by William H. Willimon
Meditating on the Text
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
We never get too old, too set in our ways, too fixed in our expectations, that God cannot or will not surprise us, shock us, or cause us to laugh. Laughter is often the natural human response to those moments when we realise that the future is not exclusively in our hands, that God is resourceful, busy and creative.
Introduction to the Readings
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16: God comes to Abram and his wife Sarai, promising them that they shall have a child and that thereby they will be the parents of a great nation that shall bless all the nations of the world.
Romans 4:13-25: Paul recalls the story of Abraham, remembering Abraham as proof that “God was able to do what he had promised.”
Mark 8:31-38: At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus begins to teach his disciples that he must suffer and be rejected.
Lord, give us the grace not to take our dead ends, our failures and our tragedies too seriously. Give us the gift to see beyond our stories toward that great story that you are telling, your salvation of us and our world.
Lord, turn our tears to laughter, our sighing into singing, and make us smile at the triumph of your will for the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
The story of Abraham and Sarah and the gift of Isaac is a pivotal one for biblical faith. These two old people, at an utter dead end in their lives, are promised a place in God’s great redemption of the world. Sarah laughs as she asks God, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” (Gen 18:13).
In a way, it is a bit surprising that this story occurs in our lectionary here in Lent, for it could also be considered an Easter text with its promise of life out of death, and hope for the future out of what was previously considered to be a dreary dead end. Through the miraculous, even laughable work of God, Sarah and Abraham’s family shall go on, shall one day be a great blessing to all the nations. It is a wonderful story of divine imagination. As Sarah says, in effect, “nothing is too wonderful for the Lord.”
With Sarah laughing and God doing wondrously weird things to two old people, the story may be a bit too playful, too potentially humourous (they will call their baby “Isaac” which means “laughter”) for a serious sermon in Lent. Still, let us attempt to proclaim this grand, originating story as great evidence that our God is busy making a way when we thought there was no way.
Proclaiming the Text
I’ve just read a great book on aging by the psychiatrist George Valiant entitled Successful Aging. Valiant builds upon the Harvard University study that’s been going on for over 60 years, a study that has periodically interviewed people as they move through their life cycles, charting the course of their lives.
What does it take to age well? That’s Valiant’s concern. He lists all of the factors that seem to characterise successful aging – good relationships with children and grandchildren, good health, or a positive attitude toward health concerns, and so forth. But there was one characteristic that struck me: humour. That’s right. People who age well do so with a sense of humour. They are able to face the predictable trials and tribulations of aging with a smile – those aches and pains, those griefs and sorrows that move many to tears or to smile.
That smile is evidence of someone who has learned not only to take the pain of life with a grain of salt, but also someone who has learned to look upon life with the eyes of faith. To believe that God is alive and active, that the good purposes of God shall not finally be defeated, is to be moved from tears to laughter.
I can’t figure out why laughter is so rarely mentioned in the Bible. In the Old Testament there’s the geriatric laughter of Sarah and Abraham when told they’re going to have a baby. In the entire New Testament, laughter is only mentioned twice. There’s Matthew 9:24. Jesus goes to the grieving home of the ruler of the synagogue where his little daughter has died, and when Jesus dares speak of life in the midst of death, the crowd laughs. Their laughter, the laughter of mocking, cynical, derision, the laughter of disbelief. Easter after Good Friday? The crowd laughed when Jesus spoke of life, where there was so much death.
Then there is a second New Testament laughter, the laughter of surprised reversal, the smile that breaks out on the face when things go better than you thought, the grin occasioned by the undeserved, unexpected grace of God. Jesus promised, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Lk 6:21).
In today’s scripture, we meet a couple of old people. Meditation upon aging, termination of life, dead end is appropriate, for we are in the season of Lent, moving toward the tragedy of the cross. Sarah was old – 90 years old. Back bent, no teeth, and digestive problems when God promised Sarah, and her “as good as dead husband” Abraham (the words are Paul’s, not mine, Heb 11:11-12) that they would be parents of a great family, a family through which all the families of the earth would be blessed.
Ninety-nine-year-old Abraham let out a toothless cackle when he heard God’s promise. When Sarah overheard the Lord talking obstetrics to somebody her age, she laughed.
“Did I hear you laugh, Sarah?” (Ninety-year-old childless woman told that she is going to have a baby?) Why should I laugh?”
Said the Lord, “You laughed!”
And then the Lord said, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Just for that, I’m going to name your baby Isaac, which means “laughter,” just to remind you that the joke’s on you. Genesis, three chapters later: “The Lord did for Sarah as he had promised.” Nine months later she laughed all the way from the geriatric ward to the maternity ward!
Isaac was born.
And Sarah laughed. But this time, her laughter was no longer the laughter of cold, cynical disbelief. Hers was the laughter of wonderment. Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen 21:6).
Can’t you see them at the Tuesday Morning Bridge Club? They usually sip tea and talk about gall bladder surgery. Now there’s Sarah with the bassinet. Everybody had a great time, laughing with Sarah at the ability of God to work wonders. Blessed are you who weep now, you shall laugh – because nothing is too wonderful for God.
When the cynical laughter of disbelief becomes the astonished, stupefied laughter that comes from the unexpected intrusions of a loving, living God, when the promises of God come true, we laugh, and even though we are deep in the dark days of Lent, it’s Easter.
Laughter is thus a close cousin to faith, a humble recognition that the fate of the world, the significance of our lives, is not left entirely up to us. God is busy, so we are not permitted to give up hope for ourselves or for the world. Older people, perhaps because they have seen so much and lived through so many challenges, seem sometimes to have a greater capacity to laugh. Though events may be sad, tragic, perhaps they have learned that there is nothing too wonderful for God.
Thus Paul, in his letter to the Romans, in the passage that we have read this morning, speaks of Abraham as a great hero of faith. Faith is that “hoping against hope” (Rom 4:18) which is based upon great confidence in the ultimate triumph of God.
Relating the Text
Used to have a kid down home who’d believe anything you’d tell him. You could say, “The schoolhouse burned down. We’re not having school tomorrow.”
“Oh boy!” He’d believe it.
“They’re giving away free watermelons down at the town hall.”
“Really? Free watermelons?” He’d go running off.
“Did you know the president of the United States is coming to our town tomorrow?”
“He is? Really? Whoopee!” He just believed everything.
I remember once there was an evangelist who came to our town, and he said to that kid, “God loves you and cares for you and comes to you in Jesus Christ.” And do you know, that kid believed it? He actually believed it.
– Fred B. Craddock,
Mike Graves & Richard F. Ward, eds.,
St. Louis: Chalice Press,
2001, p. 52.
Her husband died after a brief illness. She was in shock and filled with sadness. They had been best friends for more than 40 years. When it came time for his funeral, I greeted her and the funeral procession at the front door of the church. She was helped into the church by attentive family and friends – walking just behind his casket.
I offered her my hand, leading her up the steps of the church. Just before we began our walk down the aisle, as the church began singing an Easter song, she turned to me, pointed toward the casket and said, “Good old Joe, he never much cared for church, God bless him. I pleaded with him to come with me to church more often. Now, he can’t resist! Let’s take him in!”
And with that she smiled. And with that I knew that she had given death the slip, that tragedy did not have her trapped. It was, in the face of death, a very Easter sort of moment.
There was a man on our street – Mr. Hill. He was an old man who used to walk his dog by the house. The dog was as old as he was, and they shuffled along with painful steps. The little dog had a harness and a leash. The leash was not to control the dog but to find it. And every afternoon, Mr. Hill shuffled along by. One day my wife said, “Mr. Hill hasn’t been by this afternoon.”
I said, “Oh, you probably missed him.”
The next afternoon, she said, “I’m afraid he’s sick.” So the next afternoon when I came in, she said, “I want you to take this down and see Mr. Hill.” She had made a pie she calls the Million Dollar Pie. That used to be the name of it; now it’s the price of it. And she gave me one and said, “Take this down there and see. I’m afraid he’s ill.”
He was not ill, but I discovered what the problem was. When I went inside the door, I saw the little harness that had been on the dog hanging on a nail. We visited a little bit. He was alone. He belongs to one of our churches in town, a nice church with a nice pastor and a lot of nice members. And he is a member of that church. When I got back home, I asked Nettie, “What’s he being punished for? I never see anybody there. I never see any cars. I never see anybody come from the church. What’s he being punished for?””
And she said, “You see, what he did was he got old.”
I said, “Oh.”
– Fred B. Craddock,
Mike Graves & Richard F. Ward, eds.,
St. Louis: Chalice Press,
2001, p. 55–56.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
– Andrew Marvell,
“To His Coy Mistress,”
There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream.
– Joan Didion,
Slouching Towards Bethlehem,
New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc.,
1968, p. 3.
This faith is not a theory for us; neither is it a dogma, a system of ideas, or a fabric of words, nor a cult or an organisation. Faith means receiving God himself – it means being overwhelmed by God. Faith is the strength that enables us to go this way. It helps us to find trust again and again when, from a human point of view, the foundations of trust have been destroyed. Faith gives us the vision to perceive what is essential and eternal. It gives us eyes to see what cannot be seen, and hands to grasp what cannot be touched, although it is present always and everywhere.
– Eberhard Arnold,
Why We Live in Community,
Plough Publishing House,
1995, pp. 2–3.
One of the early church fathers spoke of Easter as the “joke that God played upon the devil.”
I was visiting an older woman in my congregation. She is 98 years old, hasn’t been able to see or to read for at least the last 10 years, though she has a great spirit.
After a long visit with her in our little room in the health care facility, I asked, “Now, before I leave, would you like to have prayer?”
“Not really,” she replied in all candor. “I’ve had 98 years to tell the Lord about everything I’ve ever had on my mind. In my state of mind at this point, I doubt that the Lord really wants to hear what I’ve got to say to him.”
I walked into Bessie Jones’ room at the nursing home. Bessie celebrated her 99th birthday this year.
“I think the Lord’s forgotten me!” she exclaimed when I saw her. “I think he’s dropped me off his list!”