Twenty-four years. That’s how long Abraham and Sarah had been waiting.
After the grand stories in chapters 1-11, from creation to Noah and the flood, the camera focuses in. In chapter 12, God speaks to Abram and offers a promise, a promise that grounds almost everything to come after. The promise was undeserved – in the stories to come Abram proves himself every bit as conniving and unsure as we are. Genesis 12:1-4 is the first articulation of this promise. GO, God says, from your country and your neighbor and your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and bless you – and here’s a line that is key, “so that you will be a blessing.” In you ALL the families of the earth shall be blessed.
But a couple becomes a nation in one way – kids, who procreate themselves, generation after generation. Abram and Sarai begin their adventure, but chapter 16 clarifies the problem: Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children, the text says. It is important we note these texts are soaked with the biological assumptions of the time. Many of them blame the inability to bear children on either God’s will or the woman, or both. While promise and offspring are deeply connected in these stories, we also must name how painful infertility is for many families, who often feel the need to wrestle in private. And I don’t believe people are cursed to not have children (if they even want them, and not everyone is required to do so!) in the same way that I don’t believe that people are cursed with cancer or depression or a car accident.
But in their infertility, they waited. After a DECADE Abraham and Sarah conspire. In chapter 16, the text says Abram takes a slave girl. With the power dynamic in play this is more like sexual assault than a fling – Hagar is a possession. Taylor will talk more about this side of the conflict next week, and it’s messy and tough. But this act – Abram having a son with Hagar, the slave, is its own tragedy. Abram and Sarai weren’t sure they could trust God with the promise God had made to them. So they went to try and figure it out themselves.
The Abraham narrative, and all of these stories that we’ll spend time with this summer, circle around one core question: Can God be trusted? Does God keep the promises God makes? It is fairly easy for most of us to proclaim the goodness of God when things go well. On a beautiful day it’s easy to thank God for the sunshine. BUT, it’s a heckuva lot harder to praise God when the relationship is strained, or the job falls apart. There was a shooting last Sunday morning, and a 62-year-old man was killed in a robbery. The thieves made off with $20. A life, really four lives – the three who robbed him, too – four lives for $20. A gunman shooting at congressional baseball practice, both an immense tragedy in itself and too indicative of our divisions, of our inability, all of our inability, to see the fundamental humanity, to listen, to empathize, to work to respect and ask for it ourselves, of those with profound differences. Our words – what we say and what we write and post – matter. Terrorism in London, Kabul. How are these things part of your plan, God? How are we to believe you all full of love, full of power? Most of the doubts in my life didn’t come on great days. They came when things seemed like they were falling apart. I’m not sure sometimes, God. And we ask: Can you really be trusted?
I bet those questions sat on Abraham and Sarah’s heart. Wanting to believe, so badly, but my gosh they had been waiting so long. After twenty-four years, though I imagine he was so tired, Abraham’s heart leapt when God showed up again as today’s text begins. Abraham looks up, knows it is God, runs – these first 8 verses are filled with verbs, and Abraham is the primary actor. Run, bow, hasten, take a calf, curds. Abraham barks out orders to Sarah, to his servant, cooks, the feast made ready. Abraham lays it before his guests, stands by the tree while they eat.
As one guests chews he asks, innocently, where is your wife Sarah? Over there in that tent, he says. Then one says, in a way that brought tears to his eyes, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah sat, out of sight, listening. And it went through both of their heads: It has been twenty-four years. We aren’t as young as we once were. It is no longer, ahem, biologically possible. So Sarah laughed to herself, a chuckle, not a belly laugh in response to a joke but one of those defensive chuckles, almost dismissive. You must be kidding me, she snorts, no way.
But God caught it. Why did she laugh? And then, the question: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? As I said before, God says. I’ll come back, and Sarah will be holding her son. No I didn’t laugh, she interjects. Yes, yes, God says. You did…
“Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” is this text’s way of asking that same question: Can God be trusted? Maybe you’ve had a time when you’ve asked it. When it didn’t make sense. And the Israelites, and the Bible, answer that question by telling a story. God has been faithful before, the people say. In fact, God has been faithful from the very beginning. I can’t persuade you with fancy logic or archaeological evidence. All I can do is tell you about my buddy Abraham and his wife Sarah. They laughed in God’s face. But God made a promise to them. It didn’t come true immediately. They did their best to screw it up.
And it lays on the foundation of today’s story. After the waiting, twenty-four years, the complications in their lives that would continue, Genesis 21:1 tells us what happened. “The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised.” God kept God’s promise. Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age. Abraham named him Isaac, which literally means “laughter,” “he laughed.” In his name he would bear a reminder of his parent’s laughter and surprise and wonder. The text turns and puts in Sarah’s mouth beautiful lines: “God has brought laughter…. everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children?” That this would be true?
We’ll hear stories of those promises in the coming weeks. Of Abraham and Sarah, of Issac and Rebekah and Jacob and Esau and Rachel and Leah. I don’t think, even if I were more persuasive that I am, that I could use stirring logic to convince you of God’s activity in the world. But I can tell you a story. Not just of these amazing matriarchs and patriarchs, stories of majesty and scope and subtlety that fill Scripture. But I can also tell you other stories, other places we’ve seen God in the world. That for whatever odd reason a wonderful bunch of youth and adults are going to Atlanta this week, to sleep on cots in a dirty gym with sweaty teenagers. And we’ll be hungry and tired and sometimes unpleasant, but also that we’ll love it. And that Jesus calls us all to take time away from work and families, from hanging out with friends, and go serve the hungry and the homeless. All we can do is tell each other about the stuff we see. Stories you tell in officer training about the way the music blows you away. Or a youth trip to Scotland. Or a baptism. Or a trip to Haiti. Or an unexpected friend. A chance to give away some money you thought you had plans for, to do something you know you don’t have time for but you sense that God might be calling you to do. Or that in the midst of the horrible crisis on Wednesday morning when the republican delegation was literally under fire, so terrifying, democrats gathered in their dugout in a different nearby park to pray for them. And I wonder if that might be a good practice for members of both parties or neither party – gosh we should have been doing it the whole time – all of us praying more and more for each other.
Scholars don’t know if Abraham and Sarah were real people. Maybe they existed exactly in this place in this way. Maybe what we have are composites of people and places. But I do know that their stories are true. They are here because they felt true to the community of God from the very beginning, and have had a hold on us ever since. The people of God say, here: In this midst of all the other stories you hear, these are the MOST TRUE. They tell us something about God you MUST know. Of a God who makes promises. And who keeps them.
All praise be to God. Amen.
 Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), page 182. His reading of this text has informed this sermon in ways impossible to demonstrate in footnotes.