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Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Three sermons from long ago: (2) Sarah's bitter laughter

and at St. Luke’s, Augathella
(12th June) 2005

 Genesis 18.1-15
 Psalm 116.1-2, 11-18
 Romans 5.1-115
 Matthew 9.35-10.8

A week ago we were confronted and hopefully challenged by the cry of dereliction not of Christ on the Cross, but of Sarah in her barrenness. Where there was no human way to go on, where her meaning for existence was removed from her, she and Abraham cry out and hear a word of promise from God.

We need to know, though, something that the Hebrew scriptures are not. They are not a story of instant gratification: they are not, that is to say, an advertisement for a sugar fix or a coffee fix. Nowhere in the scriptures, Hebrew or for that matter Christian, is the promise that all shall be made right now. The biblical literature a story of promise.

As we return to Genesis this week we find that, although we have skipped a few chapters of narrative, the promise remains unfulfilled. Abraham and Sarah have left their country, in accordance with the command of God, but they remain childless. Worse, they have become accustomed to their barrenness, and it has become a place of comfort. Indeed, if you know the story, you will know that Abraham and Sarah have fundamentally if humanly failed to maintain their belief in the promise.

They have elected for the easy and un-divine option; Abraham has had a child by Sarah’s slave girl, Hagar. They have stayed within the limitations of human insight, rather than raising their eyes to the heavens. It should not ever be forgotten that the Jewish scriptures reveal a God who is compassionate and promise-making also in his dealings with the slave girl Hagar. Her son “Ishmael”, the nomadic peoples of the east, is given a wild life, but it too is one breathed into being by God. That fact alone should be the basis for constructive conversation between Christian, Jew and Muslim, cousins as we are in faith.

Now we find further development in the saga. Abraham is the key character in the first half of our passage, and he is a person in a hurry. He runs from the tent to meet the stranger who is also strangers, he hastens back to Sarah, and demands that she likewise hastens in the preparation of the bread. He runs to choose a beast from the herd, orders his slaves hastily to prepare it, and only then slows down to stand with the strangers who are his guests.

The story slows down in the second half, as the camera shifts to focus on the “three men” who visit. One of these three – Christianity has always found significance in the fact that the narrative mentions both three and one – recounts the promise made my God in last week’s story, the promise of offspring. But the repetition of the promise is met only with the laughter of Sarah. It  is the laughter of disbelief, and of the human failure to hold to the divine promise of impossibility. Their hopelessness is normality, and the call of faith nonsensical. Theirs is a very twenty first century existence. Yet it is into their world that the stranger(s) speak again the promise of God.

The answer of God is, in playful Hebrew fashion, a question: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” It is a question we should wrestle with ourselves, as we witness the complexities of our existence.  Is anything too hard for the Lord: Is Iraq a question that the world has sought to answer with its armies, or Zimbabwe, a question we have sought to answer with feather-sized reprimands? Is illness, ours or the illness and suffering of our loved ones “too hard for the Lord?” Is drought? Is death, the last enemy that we do all possible in our society to avoid and to deny and to hide? Is this “last enemy” “too hard for the Lord?”

If our answer or Abraham’s is “yes”, then the Lord is simply not Lord, for there is a greater something beyond the grasp and capabilities of the one we have called “God”. Funnily enough and sadly enough, even within the Christian community, I find much speech and action that turns death and suffering into a demon seemingly greater than God.

The author of Genesis does not want us to answer yes to God’s rhetorical question. We are expected to let God be God, answering “No: there is not and cannot e anything greater than our god.” There may be “yeses” to our vision – we may have good reason to believe that our barrenness or even our death is the final and therefore tragic word, but we are asked by faith to see through the eyes of God.

Sarah laughs. It is the laugh of science at the possibility of a Creator God, or at the possibility of resurrection, at the possibility of life beyond death, or at the possibility of the New Heaven and New Earth envisioned by the seer of the Book of Revelation. It is the laugh of a society that will mock the God we love and seek to serve, dancing on sacred sites or beliefs, or maybe just too busy in the service of gods called money or security to pause before the God we believe in. Sarah is not mocked for her laughter and neither should we ever dare to mock or knock those who do not share our strange faith.

Sarah’s laughter does not have the final word. God’s promise is not dependent on her response, or on Abraham’s response. God has spoken and it will be done – in Italian it is called a “fiat”. God’s word is action, and, though Sarah laughs and has taken a poor option in the past and laughs in the present, the will of God, the promise of God, will be done.

Only the promise of God is a “definite”, not human longing. Long as they might to break through human barrenness, even using alternative tools to do so, the wok of God will be the only way in which their human predicament can be solved. It is sometimes the case that the “Yes” of God is a long time or an alternative way in coming, but we are called, as Paul clearly sees to be a people believing in the promise of God. The ultimate promise of God is that darkness and death are not the final word, but resurrection and light. It is that promise that we are called to bear in our lives

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