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 are clearly the greatest moments in the life of the church and they are the greatest mysteries in the life of the church. How could God be made man? I often say that those who say this is blaspheme are correct. Only because it is true do we accept what seems impossible to us. 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.
So 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.
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 will be right.
We celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus and so this year I thought I would take a look at four birth stories in the Bible. Today we will look at the promise of birth given to Sarah in her old age. Next week we will look at Jochebed who bore Moses in a time of great sorrow. Then we will look at Mary who risked shame and divorce when she consented to the angel and conceived Jesus and on the last Sunday of Advent, we will look at God who gave birth to Paul on the road to Damascus.
Today we begin by looking at Sarah and Abraham. As you remember, Abraham and Sarah had moved from Ur (Southern Iraq) to Haran (Southern Turkey) when God revealed himself to Abraham and called him to go to Canaan (Israel).
The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go 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.
3I 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 left, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. 5 He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
It is difficult for me to understand the ages of Abraham. The Bible says Abraham died at the age of 175. What kind of shape was Abraham in at the age of 75? 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.
However you understand the age of Abraham, Abraham and Sarah had been trying for years to have a child and 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 later at the ages of 85 and 76, Abraham and Sarah were still childless. They had come in obedience to God’s call, they had prospered and were wealthy, they 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 he would be his 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.
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 coming from your own body 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 told Sarah about this and I would 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 at the age of 86 Abraham finally had a son and they thought the promise of God was beginning to be fulfilled.
Thirteen years later when Abraham was 99, God appeared to him 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.
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 are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
For 24 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.
By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, 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, childless, the husband 99 years old and, to quote Hebrews, he as good as dead, and the wife 90 years 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 17:15f
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?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”
19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac.
Abraham laughed. It might be like God telling me I will win the Olympic Gold Medal in the marathon when I can barely run 10 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 when the pleasures of the marriage bed have long been a memory and tell her the two of you will bear a child?
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. 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.
“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.
“There, in the tent,” he said.
10 Then the Lord 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 old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my master 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 because of the joy they felt? Did they laugh at the ridiculousness of the idea?
My sister Mitzie, who visited Morocco last spring, gave me her take on this story which led me to want to preach this sermon and led me to take this birth theme for the sundays of Advent.
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 servant 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 them walk together, talk 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 some time. But years passed and she still had not given birth. The women speculated about what was wrong with her.
When her husband received a revelation from God, her hopes must have been raised. If Abraham would 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. Once again she buried her hopes.
Until God gave another revelation to Abraham and she once again willed herself to believe. And once again, month after month, her hopes were destroyed.
Her greatest desire was to have a child, a son. But as she aged, any hope that this would actually happen was 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 at the age of ninety, she heard the man tell Abraham 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 “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.
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.
A second time, the Lord told Abraham Sarah would bear him a son. The Lord once again tried to bring Sarah’s hope up from the pit of despair where she had buried it but Sarah again tried to protect herself. She was unwilling to allow her hope which had been so often destroyed to live again.
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.
A year later Isaac, whose name means laughter, was born.
Here is the question my sister asked: What could the 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?
This cannot be any old desire. This is not some way of getting for yourself whatever it is you want. Remember that God had promised, several times, that Abraham – and by implication Sarah – would be the father 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. You cannot say I want to go to Spain and earn enough to go back to my home country with money to show that I have been successful and Voila! there it is. This must be a desire that comes from God, not yourself.
Sarah did not simply hope and it happened. God promised and Sarah dared to hope once again.
What is there that God has promised to you through the scriptures, through a dream or a vision, through however it is 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?
How do you know this 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 even 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. 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 seventy or so years for this birth. That’s a long time to wait, don’t you think? 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. Abraham believed despite all the years of absence of evidence that God’s promise to him 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.
In advent we anticipate the coming of Jesus. For centuries Israel waited for the Messiah to come. Advent is about waiting and believing.
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.