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The Bible reading for today is two sets of passages from the Book of Genesis, chapter 18, verses 1-15 and chapter 21, verses 1-7.
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. As he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day, Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them and bowed down to the ground. He said, "My Lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant; let a little water be brought and wash your feet and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread that you may refresh yourselves and after that, you may pass on since you have come to your servant." So they said, "Do as you have said." And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah and said, "Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes." Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared and sat it before them, and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. They said to him, "Where is your wife Sarah?" And he said, "There, in the tent." Then one said, "I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son." And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed at herself saying, "After I have grown old and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" The Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Shall I indeed bear a child now that I am old?' Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you in due season and Sarah shall have a son." But Sarah denied saying, "I did not laugh," for she was afraid. The Lord said, "Oh, yes, you did laugh."
And then beginning with chapter 21, verse 1:
The Lord dealt with Sarah as the Lord had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as was promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore, and Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, "God has brought laughter for me. Everyone who hears will laugh with me," and she said, "Whoever would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children, yet I have born him a son in his old age."
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said at that time, "God has brought laughter for me. Everyone who hears will laugh with me." Sarah, whose name means princess, is not often thought of as a prophetess. But on the occasion of the birth of her son Isaac, whose name means laughter, Sarah accurately predicted the future. People smile and laugh when they hear this story of these two senior citizens, Abraham, whose name means father of a great nation, at age 100, and Sarah, who was 90 years old when she gives birth for the first time.
If I was to cast people for these two roles in a movie, I'd select Burl Ives as Abraham-you know, Big Daddy from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and the lovely and talented actress Lena Horne as Sarah, Abraham's wife. Together they make a dynamic duo. The birth of Isaac-Laughter, if you will-is an event where it seems Sarah had the first laugh and God had the last laugh. Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe God laughed first and Sarah had the last laugh. Perhaps a smile first came to God's face when the promise was originally made after Abram-and at this time in the story, this shorter name Abram means Pops or Dad-Abram complained to God about not having a direct heir. So God replied, "Look toward heaven and count the stars if you are able to count them." And then God said to Abram, "So shall your descendants be."
My hunch is Abram might have snickered just a bit too when he heard those words. For up until this point, it seemed that Abram and Sarah had it all. Everything, that is, except for a child, and if one didn't have an heir, then it would be natural to be somewhat concerned about the future. And maybe Sarah had the last laugh when she held little Laughter, little Isaac in her arms and nursed him.
I was on an airplane for a business trip. I hadn't slept well the night before, and I was apprehensive about the scheduled events of the next few days. As I glanced at the magazine provided through the courtesy of the airline on which I was a passenger, the following headline caught my eye: "The Balinese Language Knows Only One Tense-the Palpable Present." I thought to myself, "Can that be true?" As I read the article, it seemed that it was indeed true. On the island of Bali, which this article was touting as a modern-day paradise--and the pictures seemed to prove it-it suggests that the language of the people has no past tense or future tense. In other words, what one can speak of is only present tense, the here and now, the immediate. Part of me was drawn to this concept. How important it is, I reasoned, to be truly present in the moment.
My children often exhort me, "Carpe Diem, Dad!" Seize the day, Dad. Initially, it seemed like a great way to live, but then I thought about the past and also about the future. If one only had the here and now, how would one know where one came from or where one was going?
Abraham and Sarah must have been wrestling with similar thoughts when three visitors appeared at their tent one day by the oaks of Mamre. As was the custom of those days, Abraham was very hospitable to these visitors, and the text doesn't tell us if Abraham or Sarah recognized who it actually was that was delivering this heavenly birth announcement. Nevertheless, Abraham immediately invited them to stay for some refreshments, and as they accepted, he quickly ran in to tell Sarah to start baking some bread cakes. He himself ran off to the herd and selected a young calf for this afternoon snack. The quick stop for the travelers quickly turned into a feast of sorts. Sarah was probably in the kitchen entrance part of the tent when she heard the promise of a child. She immediately laughed, but when questioned why she laughed, there was a denial.
And so it happened as the Lord had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son. The promises of the past had indeed brought about the promise of a future. The present was connected to the past and the future to the present. The birth of the little boy Laughter was a living testimony to the surprising covenant of God.
Many years after the birth of Laughter, Jesus was teaching in the synagogues proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom and curing every disease and sickness. In fact, there are about 35 recorded incidents of Jesus healing people in the Gospels, and not only did he heal them, but on three specific occasions, he raised people from the dead. He raised his dear friend Lazarus, he raised the daughter of Jairus, and he raised the son of the widow of Nain.
A good friend of mine likes to say Jesus interrupted every funeral he ever attended, and as I have stood with families next to a casket bearing their loved one, that promise of a future is so very, very important. It is as the psalmist wrote, "Weeping may spend the night but joy comes in the morning."
Years later, Clement of Alexandria echoed that thought. "Christ has turned all of our sunsets into dawns." What was an ending has been turned into a new beginning. Laughter is born again and again as this joy is manifested in our lives. This joy that comes because while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, and those words of promise connected to the past bring a smile to our face, laughter in our hearts. It is as John Ylvisaker has said in his beautiful hymn "Morning Cry": When the evening gently closes in and you'll shut your weary eyes, I'll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise.
But life is not, as my grandmother used to say, all peaches and cream. In other words, life can be hard. Often, we experience situations that test every fiber in our body, and sometimes when we try so hard to do the right things, to trust the promises of the past and to look to the future with hope, in the middle of it all, our present days can be overwhelming and push us to the brink. And yet that's not the end of the story, but it sure does seem like it at times. I remember my grandmother also saying, "God will not give you anything more than you can handle." And my initial response to those words was, "Well, I wish God didn't have such a high opinion of me." But, you know, it's true. With the challenges also come the answers and energy for each and every situation.
St. Paul was calling us to see the rest of the story when he wrote these words: We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Now one of the challenges that we experience in these days has to deal with our concept of time. We live in a day and age of instant coffee, microwave popcorn, Jiffy Lubes, One-hour Photos, and same-day surgeries. When we want something done, we want it done yesterday, and what we need to have is the gift of patience, knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. Our hope, our mission, as people of faith, is to stand with Sarah and say, "God has brought laughter for me. Everyone who hears will laugh with me." Amen.
Let us pray.
Oh, God of Abraham and Sarah, of Hagar and Ishmael, of Mary and Joseph and Jesus, we thank you for the birth of Laughter, for the smiles that come into our lives and we ask that we might rejoice in your goodness and share in the hope that you have given us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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