Sep 15th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Genesis 21:1-7
Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. We’re in the book of Genesis - which means “beginnings” - and it’s not just the story of the beginning of all that is, seen and unseen. It is also the beginning of the people of Israel. It begins with a fellow named Abram, whom God calls, saying,
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
Now, that may not seem like all that big of a deal, except when you continue reading that story of the call of Abraham and we are told that “Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.” (Genesis 12:4) Going with Abram was his wife Sarai, and while we are not given her age, we can be well assured that she was not a much younger trophy wife. God is calling two old people to leave the land of their presumed retirement, travel to a land that God will get around to showing them in God’s good time, and, oh - by the way - they will be the beginning of a great nation - which means that they will become parents. That’s all in the 12th chapter of Genesis.
Abram and Sarai have a great many adventures, including a name change from Abram and to Abraham - which means, “ancestor of a multitude of nations, and from Sarai to Sarah, which means “princess.” That takes up chapters 13 through 20. By the time you get to chapter 21, Abraham is 100 years old when he starts passing out cigars at the birth of his son. So, if we’re going with the Bible’s chronology, around 25 years has passed since God first called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees, until Abraham realized his need for a diaper service.
There is a motif in the Scriptures which appears over-and-over in both the Old and New Testaments. The motif is centered on infertility and the lack of an heir. Not only did Abraham and Sarah experience infertility, but so did Abimelech and his wife. Isaac and Rebekah suffered through infertility for 20 years. Manoah’s wife was barren, until she gave birth to a son, whose head was never to be shaved and who would be dedicated to the Lord. His name was Samson. Hannah and Elkhanah went for years without a child, but one was finally born. His name was Samuel, the last and greatest judge of Israel. He was followed in that family by three brothers and two sisters. Michal was the daughter of King Saul and the first of King David’s wives, but who never had a child. Elizabeth and Zechariah were past childbearing years and yet, to them a child was born who became John the Baptist.
In our world and time, one in eight couples struggles with some form of infertility. That means that most of us know people who face such issues and some of us know first-hand how devastating such a diagnosis can be. It is one of the most trying and stress-producing situations couples can face. Marriages have dissolved because of it. Dreams are dashed. Hopes are erased. Expectations evaporate.
Three strangers show up at the tent of Abraham and Sarah. The rules of hospitality required Abraham to bring water for the visitors to wash their feet and to bring a little bread with which to nourish themselves. That would be the minimum expectation.
But Abraham takes it more than a step further. He goes into the tent where Sarah is and instructs her to start making “cakes” or small loaves of bread. He runs to the herd and takes a calf and hands it over to the attendant to be slaughtered and prepared. He retrieves milk and cheese and places this feast before his guests, and then withdraws to a nearby tree, from where he waits and watches his guests.
In the first part of the story, Abraham is the central figure. It is Abraham who greets, welcomes, and orchestrates the hospitality and the meal that is presented to the visitors. Abraham is the busy bee in all of this.
But now, the story shifts focus. Now the story becomes about Sarah. “Where is Sarah?” they ask. She’s been out of sight. One of the strangers then says the most amazing thing.
“I will surely return to you in due season,
and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” (Genesis 18:10)
Now, let’s say you were pushing 90 - pushing it kind of hard - and someone you don’t know, stops by your house, partakes of a meal which you prepare, and then says, “Oh, and by the way, you’re going to have a child.” What would you do?
Sarah laughed. She giggled. She disbelieved.
Then, suddenly, the story changes a bit. No longer is it the three strangers who show up. Now, the story tells us, the Lord says 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.”
It’s one thing to get caught in a fib, but to get caught by God in a fib is a little much. Sarah, like any of us, denied that she had laughed. She practices the age-old art of plausible deniability. She did it, but she wasn’t admitting to a thing.
Jump to the end of the story. In Genesis 21, we read,
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had 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 him. Genesis 21:1-3
When Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, and God told Abraham that he and Sarah would become the parents of a great nation, the Bible tells us that Abraham laughed until he fell on his face. (Genesis 17:17) Frederick Buechner writes that “Sarah stood cackling behind the tent door so the angel wouldn’t think she was being rude as the tears streamed down her cheeks.” (Peculiar Treasures, p. 152)
So, when the time came to name the baby, they called him “Isaac,” which means “laughter.” Nicknamed “giggles,” I am more than sure that Isaac brought more laughter to Abraham and Sarah than they thought they would ever receive.
Again, Buechner writes:
Sarah and her husband had plenty of hard knocks in their time, and there were plenty more of them still to come, but at that moment when the angel told them they’d better start dipping into their old age pensions for cash to build a nursery, the reason they laughed was that it suddenly dawned on them that the wildest dreams they’d ever had hadn’t been half wild enough. (Ibid., p. 153)
And why is that? We all go through tough times, trying times, even terrible times. We all know heartache and disappointment. We all face our fair and unfair share of hard knocks. We all know the reality of dreams dashed and hopes dissolved. We all know those moments when nothing seems to go the way we wanted it to go. We all know those moments when impossibility seems the only possibility.
At such a time, and in such moments, the Lord’s question to Abraham is still fresh. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Another translation offers it to us as, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” (Common English Bible) When the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, to tell her that she would be the mother of God’s own son, she was more than confused and bewildered. We’re not told that she laughed, but she certainly had grounds to. But then the angel says, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)
Now, I would not presume to stand before you and tell you that God will work out all of your problems and trials and challenges. I’m not here to tell you that if you pray hard enough, or work hard enough, or give generously enough, that everything will work out. I’m not even here to tell you that everything happens for a reason, which is a horrible lie.
But I am here to tell you that God is with you and me and everyone. I am here to tell you that God knows the pains and frustrations and vexations of our lives. I am here to tell you that God is not distant and removed from us and God is not unmoved by our situations and conditions, and our fears.
I am here to tell you that sometimes, in ways that we could never anticipate or foresee, God’s presence with us makes that presence perfectly clear. We may think - even believe - that we need things to be in a particular way in a particular time in a particular place. But God meets our need in a way we could never have seen, never have envisioned, never could have believed was possible.
Our God is not a God of dead ends. Our God is not a God who can be defeated by life’s challenges. Our God is not a God who gives up in the face of adversity.
Our God always makes a way. Always. Whether through a sea, or by the birth of a child, or through closing the mouths of lions, or standing in a fiery furnace, or calming an angry sea, or kicking down the door of a tomb and bringing forth life - our God always makes a way.
Which means that we should “never say ‘never.’” “I’ll never be able to do that.” Never say “never.” “I’ll never become that.” Never say “never.” “I’ll never know what that is like.” Never say “never.” “That will never be mine.” Never say “never.”
Never say “never.” Why? Because nothing is too difficult for the Lord. Because nothing will be impossible with God. It may not be what we expected. It may not be what we desired. But, nothing will be impossible with God.
Never say “never.” Not now. And not forevermore. Amen.