Second Sunday in Lent
4 March 2012
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, MO
God’s Laughter, Our Laughter
Based on Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-17
By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
Today we once again return to covenant. Last week we heard of the first covenant God made, that with Noah and all creation. This morning we hear of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah. This is one of the most important stories in the Bible. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all find their origins in Abraham and Sarah. God makes multiple covenants with them, promising law, land, and numerous ancestors. This story is near to my heart, not least because Sarah’s response to the incredulous promise is not unlike that of a dear friend of mine, also named Sarah.
Abraham and Sarah are very much seen as some of our chief ancestors in the faith, particularly in the Jewish roots of Christianity. Even today those who convert to Judaism are referred to as “children of our father Abraham.” According to Jewish scholar Eliezar Segal, Sarah is sometimes seen “as a representative of the divine presence in the world…closely akin to the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit.” They were the very beginning of God choosing the Hebrews for God’s special mission to humanity. One famous rabbi said that the Israelites were only chosen as God’s people after God had tried all the mighty and powerful people who refused the task, finally seeking out the Israelites who basically tell God, “Well, if you don’t have anyone else, we guess we’ll do it.”
God says to Abram, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” How does he respond? Abram falls on his face – perhaps out of reverence, shock, or sheer disbelief – or all three. If it is shock, who can blame him? God tells this 99 year-old that he is going to father a whole nation. God lays out this covenant saying, “this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.” You may remember a few weeks ago the reading which highlighted the renaming and transformation, of Abram into Abraham, among others. The change to Abraham is appropriate, as the name means exalted ancestor. The name Sarah actually means princess.
The covenant God makes with Abraham and Sarah is on a grand scale. They will be father and mother to a vast nation. They will be matriarch and patriarch to the greatest religions founded. When God tells Abraham that Sarah will bear a child, how does Abraham respond? He falls on the ground laughing and says “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” One of my favorite verses in scripture is Sarah’s own response a chapter later, simply, “Sarah laughed.” Not quite the holy, reverent, staid response we’ve come to expect from the great characters of the Bible. But their laughter at the preposterous promise of God shows that they are human, just like us. They are not the mythical stoic heroes that we sometimes make people of the Bible to be. They are human just like us, and respond like we do when we hear some ridiculous news – we laugh. Sometimes we might even fall on the floor laughing, it sounds so crazy.
Dr. Michael Cooper-White, president of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, reminds us that “Abram and Sarai bore a special grief, which is hard for us moderns to fathom. Unlike our culture’s increasing embrace of those who choose to remain single, or couples who freely decide not to bear children, Abram’s and Sarai’s world abhorred a status labeled “barren.” For the ancients, the inability to conceive and bear children went far beyond disappointed yearnings to snuggle a newborn or take pride in their progeny; such was cause for shame, especially for the woman.” By the time we hear of this holy couple – they likely had both given up hope for any heir, but also let go of some of their shame. Yet God comes to them, at the ages of 99 and 90, and says that now is the time! It’s unbelieveable – of course they laugh! And who can blame them, after all they’ve been through. But now, in these days when they feel so old they wonder if there is yet any use for them, let alone if God has any use for them. But there is, and God does – and they will name their son Isaac, which means “He laughs.”
Time and again God chooses the unlikely – people so aged the wonder if they have any purpose left, Moses and Paul who had speech impediments, reluctant and cranky prophets, the unwed teenage Mary and bewildered carpenter Joseph, not to mention the ragtag team of disciples. And God chooses each of us. We each may have a reason to say why we are unlikely candidates, to balk at the ridiculous idea God comes up with, the crazy scheme God wants to involve us in, or even to lead. When we laugh at the very idea of going out and being God’s hands and feet in the world, God laughs back at us saying, “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” As Christians we are heirs of Abraham and Sarah, and thus of God’s covenant. Remember that God says it is an everlasting covenant – it will never end. Once again God establishes it without any stipulations or preconditions. God promised to this aged couple offspring – which they received, and millions the world around consider them spiritual ancestors.
We often resist the call of God on our lives. I know many stories of people who felt called to ministry when they were my age or younger, but avoided it for a lifetime before finally giving in. One friend of mine, with whom I spent a year in seminary, was first a Navy Top Gun pilot, then a corporate vice president, before accepting the call to go to seminary and now serving as a UCC pastor in Connecticut. But that is only an example of God’s call to ministry as a career. God has a mission for each of us, especially for laypeople. God calls us at all ages, even at age 99 and beyond. Recently United Church News reported about an 8-year old named Megan Miller who has answered God’s call in profound ways for such a young girl. Megan is a member of Grace United Church of Christ in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. When she heard about the tsunami and earthquake in Japan last year, she organized the kids in her church to sell artwork they made, generating $700 in response. Her mother works for an AIDS foundation for children, and now Megan is thinking about making that her next charitable project.
You see, once we get done laughing at what God has in mind for us, we can actually get down to doing what we can to make this world look a little bit more like the Kingdom of God. Whether it’s raising a child, nurturing them, and teaching them to love God, or whether it’s that very child discovering ways he or she can show God’s love in tangible ways, or visiting and ministering to those who are sick and shut-in, and realizing that they ministered to you – God’s crazy scheme for us begins to sound less crazy. Somehow we get it into our minds that our possibilities are limited, even when God shows us a larger vision. But with God in charge and God giving us the mission, we ought to know that the possibilities are limitless. After all if God can use Abraham and Sarah who just fall down laughing at the thought of a child at their age, God can use us. And if God can use us, with all of our quirks and foibles – that’s a miracle in itself! Then why not expect that God can work miracles through us?!
The truth is that no matter who we are, or where we are on life’s journey, God not only welcomes us and calls us. God may call us to some absurd, ridiculous, preposterous, even downright silly things – things like ending poverty, hunger, racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, things like creating a more just world for all God’s people. Those are big audacious things – almost as crazy as a 99 year old having a son named “He laughs.” But once we get down to it and trust in God’s promise to be in relationship and in covenant with us, we can make an impact. When we answer God’s call, we can help one less person have to face the effects of the ills of our society, and slowly but surely we chip away at that poverty, hunger, racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism and be closer to the family of God that we were created to be. Crazy and audacious and bold as it may sound, God gives us the everlasting covenant to do no less.
To God be the glory. Amen.
 Eliezer Segal, The Legacy of Abraham and Sarah, http://people.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/Preaching/S970223_Covenant.html