18 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. 2 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.
3 He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4 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.”
6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”
7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 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.
9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.
“There, in the tent,” he said.
10 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. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
13 Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”
15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”
But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
We begin today the four Sundays of Advent. Very early in the history of the church there was a focus on the two big events in the life of Christ that were celebrated: his birth, and death and resurrection. By the fourth century, the church marked a period of time of preparation for each of these events. Six weeks of preparation called Lent preceded Easter and six weeks of preparation called Advent preceded Christmas. A couple centuries later Advent was shortened to four weeks and it has remained this way through the centuries.
These two events in the life of Jesus are clearly the greatest moments in the life of the church and they are the two greatest mysteries in the life of Jesus. How is it possible that God be made man? How could God be born as a baby in Bethlehem?
We get excited about angels announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds, but if Jesus is God in the flesh, then the supernatural events surrounding his birth would be completely normal. Why would angels in the sky not announce his birth to shepherds? That is to be expected. What is truly amazing is that God became flesh.
Equally mysterious is that God in the flesh could die. When Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?” we have no way of understanding how this could happen. The resurrection of Jesus, as incredible as that was, is more consistent with the divine nature of Jesus than his death.
These two great mysteries, Christmas and Easter, are highlights in the life of the church and having time to focus on these church mysteries is appropriate.
Augustine, the great church father from the fourth century, a Berber from what is today Algeria, wrote sermons about the mystery of the birth of Jesus. Here is a poem that is taken from one of his sermons.
Mystery of the Incarnation – Augustine
Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father he remains,
From his mother he goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at his mother’s bosom.
He is both great in the nature of God,
And small in the form of a servant.
We have heard the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem so many times we take it for granted. But it is good for us to awaken our minds and hearts to the mystery of what happened.
In Advent we anticipate the celebration of the birth of Jesus. We also, in Advent, anticipate the return of Jesus when he will gather his saints and call an end to time. Some year, a preacher will stand up in Advent and say, “Maybe this will be the year Jesus will return,” and he or she will be right.
In Advent we remember the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. We celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus and remember that the promise of his birth took four hundred years to be realized. Four hundred years is a long time. That is like a promise being given to us in 1620. This was the year that Pilgrims left England and sailed on the ship, Mayflower, to settle in North America, 150 years before the United States was founded. That is a long time ago and that is a long time to wait for a promise to be fulfilled.
In Advent we talk about waiting, waiting for Jesus to be born, waiting for the promised return of Jesus. So this morning, the first Sunday of Advent 2020, we will look at the story of Sarah and Abraham who waited and waited and waited for the birth of the son God promised to them.
As you remember, Abraham and Sarah had moved from Ur (Southern Iraq) to Haran (Southern Turkey). While there, God revealed himself to Abraham and called him to go to Canaan (Israel).
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. 5 He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
It is difficult to understand the ages of Abraham. Genesis tells us Abraham died at the age of 175. What kind of shape was Abraham in at the age of 175? Or 100 when the events of today’s scripture take place? He had to be more fit at the age of 100 than we are at that age.
This is not the point of the sermon, but it is clear that the ages of the patriarchs in Genesis do not correspond with the years that are measured by the earth’s rotation around the sun. For example, the sum of the ages of all the patriarchs in Genesis totals exactly 12,600 which is 10 X 1,260 and 1,260 has special significance in texts in the Bible that talk about the end times, such as Daniel and Revelation. The preciseness of this total tells us there is symbolism in these ages.
Did Methuselah really live to be 969 years old? It is clear that the ages of the patriarchs have some symbolic meaning.
Even if you take 175 years old to be the equivalent of 90 years old and then use that ratio to figure out what the other ages of Abraham are in the text, this does not help us. The numbers mean something but they do not mean the actual ages of Abraham and Sarah as we understand ages today.
So the best we can do is to read about how they were young and first married, then how Sarah was in childbearing years, then how Sarah was past childbearing years, in her postmenstrual years, and finally how they were old and Abraham was, as Hebrews tells us, as good as dead.
However you understand the ages of Abraham in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah had been trying for years to have a child and had been unsuccessful. God’s call to go to Canaan might have been a difficult call to respond to but the carrot at the end of the stick was impressive to a childless couple: Go to Canaan and I will make you into a great nation.
Ten years after God gave Abraham this promise, Abraham and Sarah were still childless. They had come in obedience to God’s call, they had prospered and were wealthy. Abraham had been militarily successful in rescuing their nephew Lot and forming a treaty with kings from the area – but they had no child, no heir.
So God appeared once again to Abraham and reassured him
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”
Abraham asked God what reward he could receive since his only heir would be his servant. God told Abraham “I am your shield, your very great reward.” and when Abraham thought about what reward he could possibly receive, the only reward Abraham could think of was to have a son.
This is a sermon in itself. God offers himself to us and our response is to want some material thing God can give us. God offers us himself. God offers to be present with us and we say, “Thanks,” and then pull out our list of all the things we want.
Abraham and Sarah wanted a son. We need to see the depth of the desire of Abraham and Sarah to have a child to really understand what is coming. The longing to have a son burned deep within them.
Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
It seems obvious that Abraham would have told Sarah about this and I imagine they tried with renewed faith and enthusiasm to have a child. But month after month, evidence arrived that showed them they had been unsuccessful.
So then they had an idea. God had promised Abraham that a son coming from his body would be his heir. The custom was that if a wife could not bear her husband a son, then she could give her husband her maid and through her maid she could bear her husband a son. So finally Abraham had a son and they thought the promise of God was beginning to be fulfilled. (At least Abraham thought so. He was the father of a son but for Sarah, she was still childless. She thought that the promise of God had been fulfilled to Abraham, but not to herself.)
Thirteen years later God appeared to Abraham again and made a covenant with him, promising to greatly increase his family. God changed his name from Abram which means exalted father to Abraham which means father of many.
Genesis 17 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
For twenty-four years, God had been appearing to Abraham, promising him as many descendants as the stars in the sky or the sands of the seashore and what did Abraham have to show for it? One son conceived by his wife’s maid.
To put what follows in context, the summary in Hebrews about the faith of Abraham and Sarah is helpful.
And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man [Abraham], and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
So here is a married couple without a child of their own. The husband is old and, to quote Hebrews, he as good as dead, and the wife is old and barren. It had been a long time since they had been able to have sexual intercourse. It had been a long time since Sarah had passed through menopause. Yes there were the repeated promises of God – but there was also the physical reality of their age.
It is in this context that we read Genesis 17:15-17
God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
17 Abraham fell face down; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”
The promise of God was not just to Abraham; it was a promise to Sarah as well. Abraham would be the father of nations and Sarah would be the mother of nations – “kings of peoples will come from her,” God told Abraham.
Abraham laughed. It might be like God telling me I will win the gold medal in the Olympic marathon when I can barely run five kilometers. What a joke! What did Abraham and Sarah make of that? Did Abraham even tell Sarah about his revelation from God this time? How do you go to your wife and tell her the two of you will bear a child when the pleasures of the marriage bed have long been a memory ?
Whether or not Abraham told her, she soon heard for herself.
Abraham looked up from the entrance to his tent and saw three visitors, angels, although he did not know that at the time. As with the hospitality that we see in Morocco, Abraham hurried to invite the three men into his tent to rest from the heat of the day. He hurried to Sarah to have a meal prepared for them, bread and a roasted lamb. While they ate he stood watching them and then this conversation ensued.
Genesis 18:9–15 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent,” he said. 10 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. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?” 13 Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” 15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.” But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
Why did Sarah laugh? Why did Abraham laugh?
Did they laugh at the ridiculousness of the idea? Did they laugh because of the joy they felt?
My oldest sister Mitzie, who was the first in our family to become a follower of Jesus, gave me her take on this story which led me to want to preach this sermon.
Why did Sarah laugh? Why when she was challenged, “Why did Sarah laugh?” did she deny it and say “I did not laugh.”
What was Sarah’s situation?
A woman who did not bear her husband a child, especially a son, had failed in her duty as a wife. Religions and nations blessed fruitful women because they provided children to keep the faith and nation going. A woman who was not able to bear children was cursed. There was something wrong about her. People talked about her behind her back. Even if people liked her she was viewed with pity because of her suffering.
Sarah was married to a wealthy and powerful man. She had whatever she wanted. Many women would be envious of her, except that she did not have a child.
The promises of God that were revealed to her husband must have given her great hope and encouragement. But time after time when her hopes were raised, month after month she had her period and discovered that she was not pregnant.
When she and Abraham decided he should have a child through her maid, Hagar, it must have been a deeply discouraging and bitter moment when Hagar became pregnant. And, in fact, you can see the depth of the bitterness and depression in Sarah by her reaction when she threw Hagar out into the wilderness.
When [Hagar] knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”
6 “Your servant is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.
This is another story, but Hagar, with all her humiliation and desperation, received a visit from God who told her to go back and submit to Sarah and he would bless her through her son and make him into a great nation. Hagar’s act of submission is deserving of attention and admiration.
Hagar gave birth to Ishmael and Sarah’s pain deepened. Now there was a daily reminder of the barrenness of her womb. When she saw Abraham holding his son, not their son but his son, the pain deepened. When she saw Hagar nursing Ishmael, she felt pain. When she saw Abraham and Ishmael walking together, talking together, she was painfully aware that this was her husband’s son but not her son.
How many times can you hope and have your hopes dashed and still continue hoping? When Sarah was married, probably as a teenager, she had anticipated she would have a child. When she did not become pregnant, the other women around her encouraged her that sometimes it takes time to get pregnant. But years passed and she still had not given birth. The women speculated about what was wrong with her.
Each time her husband received a revelation from God, her hopes must have been raised. If Abraham was to be the father of a great nation, that meant that she, Sarah, would bear many children.
She eagerly awaited that next month the lack of evidence that would tell her she was pregnant. But she was disappointed. And month after month she was further disappointed. So once again she buried her hope.
Her greatest desire was to have a child, a son. But as she aged, any hope that this would actually happen became so deeply buried she barely thought about it anymore.
When she went through menopause, all hope was lost. Whatever God meant when he told Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, it did not include her. She would never be the mother of a great nation. Her life was over. There was no more hope for her. She would live out her years, die and be forgotten. There would be no children or grandchildren to remember her.
And then in her old age, she heard the angel tell Abraham that she, Sarah, would bear a son within a year.
And she laughed.
I think her laugh was a mixture of “Who are you kidding? What drugs have you been taking?” and then, “Could it still be true?”
I think it was a laugh of joy, but it was a laugh of joy that got caught and strangled on the way up from the deep pit of despair where she had buried her hope. She had to repress this laugh. To admit that she laughed was once again to hope and to hope at this point was foolish and far too painful.
As joy and hope arose she immediately pushed it back down to protect herself from once again being hurt. On a rational and emotional basis, this was a hope that could not be allowed to see the light of day.
Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.” 15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.” But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
God would not allow Sarah to keep her hope buried.
Over time the angels have gotten used to people not believing what they tell them. Zechariah doubted that he and his wife could have a child. Mary wondered how she could have a child. But this was the first doubt. Abraham thought it was impossible and asked why God could not bless him through Ishmael. And now Sarah doubted the words of the angel.
God in his compassion did not judge them for their lack of faith but reassured them.
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 wanted to deny her laugh, to deny her hope
“I did not laugh.”
but the Lord wanted her hope to come up into the light and he affirmed her laugh.
“Yes, you did laugh.”
Her laugh of suppressed joy could not be denied. Despite her circumstances, despite the fact that so many times in the past she had dared to hope, only to have her hopes dashed, despite all this, the Lord encouraged her to hope once again. Abraham laughed when God revealed to him Sarah would have a son. Sarah laughed when she heard the man tell Abraham his wife would bear a son. The laughter that had been repressed was encouraged to come out and later when Abraham and Sarah discovered that she was pregnant, tears of happiness mingled with the laughter of joy at what God had accomplished through them.
Within the promised year, Isaac, whose name means laughter, was born.
Here is the question my sister asked: What could an angel say to you that would make you laugh?
That is to say, what deep longing do you have that you have buried deep down because it seems so impossible that it will ever be realized?
What deep desire do you have that you have given up on because it is too painful to keep thinking about? What dream do you have that has been deeply buried? What hope has God put in your heart that you have given up hoping for?
This is not some way of getting for yourself whatever it is you want. Remember that God had promised, several times, that Abraham and Sarah would be the father and mother of many. It was God’s desire that Abraham and Sarah have a son; it was not only their desire. Their desire coincided with God’s desire.
You cannot say, I want a new car or a house or a promotion and get it. This must be a desire that comes from God, not just yourself.
Sarah did not simply hope and it happened. God promised and Sarah dared to hope that this promise would be fulfilled.
What is there that God has promised to you through the scriptures, through a dream or a vision, through however it is that God speaks to you? What deep longing do you have that coincides with what God wants to give you?
Is it family or friends you want to come to Christ? Is it a relationship? A ministry? An experience?
I have often talked about my experience when I led a group who met to pray before church when we lived in New Jersey. This was during my years in business and I traveled a lot during the weeks so this was the only time I could meet. For three or four years we met in the morning before church to pray for world-wide revival and over those years a picture came to me. When revival came it was going to be like a parade and I told God that when revival came, I wanted to be on Main Street watching the parade. I did not want to be two blocks away on Elm Street, sipping my lemonade while I relaxed in my porch swing hearing the distant strains of the music.
We moved to a different church when there was a change in pastors and that prayer time ended. Seven years later we moved to Rabat and it was about six months after we moved here that I was praying one day and the thought came to me that God brought me here so I could be on Main Street and see the parade.
I have carried this hope with me and now that I have just about seven more months in Morocco I think about this picture I received. Over the years when I have told people about this, I have had an emotional sensation, a bubbling up of joy that it might be true, but now I think I will return to the US without this hope being realized. Could it still be true? Could it still happen? How could it be possible?
I think this is a desire God put in my heart, but how do you know something is a desire from God and not just yourself?
When you have a deep desire, something that you have wanted for a long time and you don’t even dare now to talk about it because to bring it up and talk about it means that the pain of not having it hurts, it is only in the presence of God that you can safely bring it up.
Because God loves you it is possible to open up even your deeply buried desires. Even if you do not get what you desire, in the presence of God who loves you and cares for you, it is safe and healthy to share with God the deeply buried desires of your heart.
Just because you have not seen the fulfillment of your desire does not mean your desire will never be realized. Maybe the parade will be both here in Morocco and in the US. I need to wait.
How long have you been waiting for the fulfillment of what God promised to you? A year? Five years? Ten years? Maybe you doubt that it was really from God that this desire came. Abraham and Sarah must have had many doubts over the years.
Sarah waited many years for this birth. Why did God not bring them the fulfillment of his promise many years earlier? That is one of many questions I hope someday to have a chance to ask. But it seems at least that God’s purpose was to grow their faith and faith does not grow in the presence of evidence but in the absence of evidence. Abraham is the father of our faith and his faith grew under these harsh conditions. Sarah’s faith grew in these very difficult years. When the angel told them Sarah would bear a child in the coming year, Abraham and Sarah dared to believe, despite all the years of an absence of evidence, that God’s promise to them would be fulfilled.
Because God loved Abraham and Sarah, he developed their faith. Waiting all the years they waited for the birth of Isaac was part of his love for them. Because God loves us, we wait as well.
In advent we anticipate the coming of Jesus. For four centuries Israel waited for the Messiah to come. For twenty centuries we have been waiting for the promised return of Jesus. Advent is about waiting and believing and hoping.
When will Jesus return? When will God bring much needed revival to our nations?
Open yourself to the dreams and desires God has given to you. Wait with faith. Grow in faith. Do not give up on the dreams and desires God has given you. There is nothing too hard for God.
Simeon waited day after day in the temple, waiting for the child God promised him would be the Lord’s Messiah. How many days, how many years did Simeon wait? We don’t know but I am guessing it was decades rather than years that he waited. And then one day he saw Mary and Joseph coming to have their son dedicated and he knew God’s promise to him was fulfilled.
In Psalm 71 the psalmist is under a lot of pressure and he writes, (Psalm 71:14)
As for me, I will always have hope;
I will praise you more and more.
We need to keep hope alive. What seems overly idealistic to us is not too much for God for whom the ideal is reality. God lives in the ideal and works to make the ideal our reality as well.
What seems impossible to us is normal for God who does what we could never imagine. Paul knew this from his own rich experience with Jesus. In his Ephesians letter he wrote this benediction, (Ephesians 3:16–21)
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen
Dare to believe the promises of God to you. Dare to trust that God will do for you what is good and best in your life. Dare to keep hope alive.