Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, “If I have found favour in your eyes, my lord,do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.” So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three measures of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree. “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent,” he said. Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?” Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.” But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
We’re going to spend the next few weeks with Abraham and Sarah, following the Old Testament readings from the lectionary for a change. This passage drops us in part way through their story, so let’s begin by filling in some background. Abraham and Sarah, then named Abram and Sarai, are first introduced in Genesis 11. Abram is a descendant of Shem, one of the sons of Noah, and we are told that his wife Sarai is childless because she is unable to conceive. They are living in a place called Harran with Abram’s father Terah and nephew Lot, having left their home in Ur to move to Canaan but settled along the way. Then in Genesis 12, God calls Abram to set out for a new land which will be given to him, saying he will become a great nation and all people of the earth will be blessed through him. And so Abram faithfully takes Sarai and Lot and “all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired” and travels through Canaan towards the Negev desert. A famine forces them into Egypt, where Abram has Sarai pretend to be his sister, so that men will not attack him in order to take her. Pharaoh does indeed take Sarai, and gives Abram livestock and servants in return, but the truth comes out when a plague afflicts Pharaoh’s household, and so Abram and Sarai are thrown out.
Genesis 13 sees Abram and Lot go their separate ways, and Abram settles near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, then in Genesis 14, Abram rescues Lot after he is kidnapped. Genesis 15 records God’s covenant with Abram, the promise that his descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky. Abram and Sarai still do not have any children, and given that Abram was seventy five when they set out from Harran, time is clearly ticking. Sarai therefore tells Abram to sleep with her Egyptian slave Hagar, for maybe he will have a family through her. He takes her at her word, and Hagar gives birth to Ishmael when Abram is eighty six. By Genesis 17, Abram is ninety nine years old and Sarai is ninety, and God tells him that he will yet have a child with his wife, at which point he falls facedown with laughter. This is also the point at which they are renamed Abraham and Sarah, and the practice of circumcision is introduced. That brings us up to where our reading started this morning, and it is quite a story, with plenty of drama and pathos. There is also a lot which feels quite uncomfortable - from Abram being a slaveowner, to Sarah being prostituted to Pharaoh, to Hagar being used as a brood mare. And that’s before we consider the promise of land, knowing the long and painful struggle that continues to play out in the Middle East. We can’t handle all of that now, but I think it is right that we at least name the parts of the story that trouble us. A fellow minister once asked a rabbi friend what she thought was the strangest thing Christians did with the Old Testament, and she said the way we seem to treat everything as an example, when really it is family history with all the scandals and skeletons that come with it. We are not meant to see Abraham as a perfect role model, and we do not have to justify all of his actions.
So with all of that background in mind, we come to the visit of the three mysterious visitors. They are described quite simply as men, not angels or even messengers, but they are clearly not just passing strangers. One of them has a message for Abraham, promising that he will return in a year and Sarah will have a child, and it seems to be the same voice that speaks again to ask why she laughed, only now we are told it is the Lord who is talking. And this isn’t just some confusion between lord and Lord, because it is the Tetragrammaton, the special name of God which is sometimes transcribed Yahwheh but not pronounced by Orthodox Jews, that is used here. Is this God speaking through an ordinary man? Or did God sometimes appear in flesh even before Jesus? Is the fact that there are three visitors a hint towards the Trinity? The text doesn’t give us the answers, so while it may be interesting to speculate, we could easily lose ourselves down a rabbit hole. What does seem clear is that God has a message for Abraham, and it has been brought by these three mysterious guests.
And the fact that they are guests is a central element of this story, which puts a great deal of emphasis on the hospitality Abraham shows them. He offers a little water and something to eat, and so we might expect him to come back with a snack, but then he rushes off to make a full meal. He asks Sarah to make bread using three measures of flour, the same quantity that is later used to bake twelve loaves for the temple, he brings milk and curds, and he has a servant slaughter and prepare a calf. He is humble in what he offers but generous in what he presents, so there is a sense that this is genuinely about providing for his guests and not about showing off. This display of hospitality is particularly notable when we realise that just after this comes the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which the scriptures make quite clear were destroyed because of their failure to practise hospitality. Abraham might not always be the best example, but here he is showing how we are supposed to respond to strangers, with kindness and generosity.
The guests eat and drink, and then they ask where Abraham’s wife Sarah is. She is hidden in the tent at this point, but still God knows her and remembers her and involves her. So much of the time the emphasis is on Abraham as the father of a nation, but the nation needed a mother too, and Sarah is not forgotten. Remember that God has already given an almost identical message to Abraham, so this whole encounter seems to be set up for Sarah’s benefit. She doesn’t come out of the tent, but she stands in the entrance and is near enough that she hears one of the visitors say that she will have a child, and he hears her laugh even if she does then try to deny it. Sarah may feel afraid, but I’m not sure that she has any need to, as she is not actually reprimanded for her laughter. Even when she lies and says she didn’t laugh, the response is no harsher than a simple “yes you did”. God understands her laughter because of course it seems laughable that a ninety year old woman should bear a child with a ninety nine year old man. As one commentator put it, this is a post-menopausal body in a pre-viagra world, and I imagine that Sarah kept laughing throughout her pregnancy, in joy and in disbelief. Don’t forget too that in the previous chapter Abraham laughed so hard he fell over, and you might also remember that the crowd who were mourning the ruler’s daughter in our gospel reading last week laughed when Jesus said she was only sleeping. God has a habit of doing surprising things, and we can be honest in our responses.
There does seem to be a particular poignancy to hearing this reading, with its promise of a longed for child, on Father's Day. When the narrative is squeezed into a few short chapters it's easy to lose a sense of the timescale, but Abraham and Sarah were seventy five and sixty six when God first declared he would become a great nation, so that is already twenty four years of waiting for the promise to be fulfilled. And while not all couples want children, it is possible that they had already grieved their childlessness for decades before that. Abraham had eventually become a father, but that had made things very complicated indeed, increasing Sarah’s pain and causing Hagar much grief, as we will hear a little more about next week. So perhaps Sarah laughed not because she thought the idea of bearing a child was funny, but because the idea of having her hopes raised and dashed again was too painful to bear, and if she didn’t laugh she would only cry. There is much joy around bearing children and raising families, but there is much sorrow too, and the church hasn’t always been a safe place to take that, because of the emphasis it has so often placed on a particular image of family life. But scripture shows us that families are complicated and take many different forms. It is true that there are plenty of dysfunctional conventional families, but there are also examples of wonderful nontraditional families. Psalm 86 tells us that God sets the lonely in families, setting a pattern for what marginalised communities now call chosen or found families. Ruth raises her son with her second husband and the mother of her first husband. Jesus himself had a stepfather and half siblings, and does not appear to have been married or had children, but still managed to be perfectly and fully human. We need to make space for all the pain and joy and messiness of family, which in the end is what we make it.
We heard in the second part of the reading that God was faithful to the promise, and in spite of Abraham and Sarah’s doubts and questions, although presumably with some action on their part, Isaac was born. Last week we heard the story of the bleeding woman whose faith made her well, and I said at house group that I have struggled to reconcile this with knowing faithful people who have not been made well. This story of a miracle in spite of what seems to be a lack of faith only makes things more complicated. Sometimes people have faith and something happens, sometimes people do not have faith and something happens anyway, sometimes people have faith and nothing happens. The only thing that seems clear is that there is not a simple line between faith and blessing. In many ways faith is its own blessing, as it opens us to God and inspires us to hope, but beyond those natural consequences, blessing is not given or withheld as a measure of our faith. Like Abraham and Sarah we will have faith in some things and doubt for other things, and like Abraham and Sarah we will find both fulfilment and frustration. That is the way of life, but it is all held within the grace of the God who seeks us out and hears us laugh.