I know I have told you the story of the mountain climber who was climbing and because the footing was loose he slipped and fell over the edge of a sheer precipice and as he was going over the edge his hand grabbed the stem of a little scrub pine tree that was growing out of the side of the cliff. He looked down and it seemed like miles to the bottom and he couldn’t reach back up to the path again so he began to call for help. “Help, Help,” he cried, “Can anybody hear me?” There was no answer. “Help,” he shouted again and again there was no one to reply. He could feel the little tree which he was holding beginning to pull out so in desperation he cried out, “God, can you hear me?” The clouds rolled together and a voice as deep as thunder answered, “Yes, I can hear you.” “God, God will you help me?” God said “Yes, I will help you. You must let go of the tree.” There was a pause and then the man cried out again, “Help, help can anyone else hear me?” Sometimes it is tough to trust God; sometimes it is really difficult to believe what He has told us.
The Genesis reading today tells the story of the occasion when the Lord visits Abraham and Sarah at the Oaks of Mamre to tell them that in about a year Sarah will have a child. That’s pretty exciting news! What is Sarah’s response to this announcement? Did she drop down to her knees in gratitude and thanksgiving? Does she begin to weep with joy? No, Sarah laughed. She laughed at this announcement because she didn’t believe it. Before we question her for laughing, we need to understand her situation a bit. She actually had good reason to laugh and to doubt. She was ninety years old at the time—now granted, she was a young ninety year old and looked maybe twenty or thirty years younger than she was. And on top of that she was a Sophia Loren of her time, a beautiful, beautiful woman. But still, she was ninety. And in case we still don’t get it, the Bible goes on to say the she was past the way with women, in other words, she had already gone through menopause. Her body was not physically capable of having a baby anymore. That is one reason why she laughed.
There is another reason though. You see, Sarah was barren; she has been unable to get pregnant and have children. In a society where a woman’s worth was measured in how many children she bore, Sarah was not worth very much. Only a woman, who has wanted to be pregnant and not been able to get pregnant, can truly understand Sarah at this time. Only a woman like that can truly understand her feelings here.
We first read of Sarah in Genesis chapter 11 and there are two things noted about her. First that Abram took her as his wife and then several verses later that she was barren. We don’t know the age of either Abraham or Sarah at the time of their marriage. But we know that it would have been desired and expected for Sarah to have gotten pregnant right away; that was the norm and desired for young married couples. We men cannot relate, but imagine every month there is the hope that, “Oh, this month I will be pregnant.” Every month, month after month, and slowly, year after year, this goes on. After many years she has given up or at least would like to have given up-but one really cannot give up because the cycle always goes on and whether one wishes it or not, one hopes. Then, God tells Abraham her husband that he will be the father of a great nation. Now the hope starts up again a hope based upon faith. They move down to Canaan. Every month Abraham looks expectantly at Sarah. Every month they hope; every month they are disappointed. More months go by; then years go by; menopause comes and goes. For Sarah, her faith has not just flickered, it is gone. Now almost 30 or 40 years later the Lord tells them again here in this passage, “Sarah is going to have a son.” What does Sarah do? She laughs. It wasn’t the kind of laugh that one has after hearing a very funny joke. It is a laugh of cynicism, a laugh of bitterness. It is a laugh of disbelief. She doesn’t do it loudly; she does it to herself. Abraham after all still believes. But the Lord knows. The Bible says that the Lord asked Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh?” Sarah could have said, “I have been disappointed too many times. You don’t understand, Lord, I am just not willing to hope again, I cannot believe anymore. I am not willing to be disappointed again.” But she doesn’t, she says, “I didn’t laugh.” The Lord says, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Sarah will have a son and yes, Sarah, you did laugh.”
So what happens? We know that Sarah does indeed have Isaac just as the Lord said she would. In chapter 21 of Genesis she was laughing again but now she was laughing for joy, for praise to God. In the words of Paul Harvey, “What is the rest of the story?” We actually need to jump to Hebrews chapter 11 to find out. In chapter 11:11, we read that “by faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.” Through faith Sarah received power to conceive Isaac. We know that as of Genesis 18 she didn’t have any faith. So what happens between chapter 18 and 21? How did Sarah come to have faith in the Lord?
Where does faith or trust or belief come from anyway? What exactly is faith? Is faith a kind of strong wishful thinking? Is it some sort of really strong positive thinking? Is it having a lucky rabbit’s foot, or a blessed cross or something that will help and protect us? No, it is not. In the book of Romans chapter 10, St. Paul tells us that faith comes by hearing the word of God. Faith you see is a response to something God has said to us. Faith is a response to revelation. Knowing something and having faith are two different things.
Sarah heard what God said and at first she laughed. But then after the Lord left Sarah thought about what the Lord had said to her, “Is anything indeed too wonderful for the Lord? Is anything too hard for God to do?” She, like the Virgin Mary did years later, pondered these things in her heart. Then she decided that no, there is nothing too hard for the Lord to be able to do. So she chose to believe that God would help her conceive a child. She didn’t know how that would work but she had faith. She believed the Lord’s word.
Hebrews chapter 11 has been called the chapter of the heroes of faith. The people listed are people like Noah, Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Barak, David and Sarah. So why is Sarah in there? She didn’t kill any giants like David did. She didn’t part the Red Sea like Moses. She didn’t lead armies into battle and win great victories like Barak and Gideon. She didn’t almost kill her son in obedience like Abraham. But look at her life and look at her at 90 turn and gather her faith and wrap it around her!
How many times do we doubt God? How many times do we think that what God has said just doesn’t apply to our modern world and then to us, to me? Faith is a response to what God has revealed to us; faith is a response to God’s word. Let us like Sarah choose to have faith and even to grow in our faith through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen