Genesis 18: 1-15
I am 47 year-old. This means that I am a member of the generation X, which is between the Baby boomers and the Millennials. As children, we experienced the consequences of the significant increase of the divorce rate in our society. As teenagers, we witnessed the rise of the HIV / AIDS epidemic. As adults, we are mostly known as cynical individuals. And honestly, on most days, it is hard not to be cynical. We are surrounded by so many lies, deceptions and broken promises. We know that every politician runs to defend the middle-class, but once elected, they all implement policies favouring the wealthy. Leaders preach one thing in public and do the complete opposite in private. Glitter and sensationalism have become more important in our media than content and truth. So when someone shows up to proclaim a message of hope or transformation, we tend to be, at best, very sceptical.
Abraham and Sarah obviously were not members of the generation X. Still, when I read their story, I feel some sort of connection. At the beginning of the chapter 12 in the book of Genesis, God showed up in their lives with an amazing promise. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you”, says the Lord. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” So Abraham and Sarah went wherever God led them. As we meet them in today’s passage, at the beginning of chapter 18, their situation is not as fantastic as they might have expected. For several years, our couple had travelled across many lands and kingdoms without finding a place to call home. And above all, the promise of an offspring never materialized. They remained childless despite God’s assurance.
One day, when Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, he saw three strangers. He rushed to these men and invited them to come to eat and rest. Abraham offered them the best in ancient Near East courtesy and hospitality, not knowing that one of them was God. After inquiring about Abraham’s wife, one of the guests declared, “I will surely return in due season (meaning next year), and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Notice here… not may, but shall have a son! As she was listening from inside the tent, Sarah began to laugh.
Yes, Sarah laughed. Her laugh was not one of joy or relief from the cultural stigma of being a childless woman in a patriarchal society. No. Her laugh was rooted in disbelief. It was a cynical laugh. Sarah was aware that men are good to brag about their virility when they are among themselves. Still, she knew better. This pregnancy thing sounded ridiculous because she was beyond childbearing age. Biological facts cannot be denied. There was no conceivable way this could be. It made as much sense as being told, I don’t know, that all the staff is leaving at the same time but everything will be fine. Your answer would probably be, ‘Ah! It’s easy for you to say. You are not the one who will have to make this happen.’ So Sarah laughed at this improbable promise. She laughed so hard that God asked, “Did I hear Sarah laugh?” And Sarah replied with something like, “No Lord! I did not laugh when you said maybe the most stupid statement I even heard in my whole life. Of course, I will have a child. My husband is too old to do… what a man has to do to get me pregnant. I am old myself, but sure it will happen. Even if you made this promise many, many years ago and I never saw the beginning of it fulfillment, I will trust you this time. Sure, why not.” To Sarah’s unbelief and skepticism, God replied: “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” That day, Sarah’s answer was surely yes. However, as we continue to read the story, she bore a son from Abraham in the following months and called him Isaac, which means in Hebrew he laughs.
For centuries, ‘Is anything too difficult for the Lord?, has been in our churches a mantra we often repeat. When confronted to a challenging situation that seems issueless, we like to remind ourselves that nothing is impossible to God. It’s like in the Gospel according to Matthew when Jesus declares, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” So my friends, let us pray, pray, pray and pray. If God can grant Abraham and Sarah a child despite their old age and barrenness, let us have faith that God can to the same for us. Nothing is too outside the ordinary for the Lord. Ask and you shall receive.
All of this can be very inspirational, especially for regular churchgoers. We like to believe that God’s promises are true. However, what do we say to those whose prayers are not necessarily answered? What happens when your spouse is not healed from this terrible or terminal disease? How should we react when a loved one struggling with addiction assures us for the fifteenth time that this time is the right one, he or she is over it? What should you believe if despite all your prayers and deeds you cannot have a child of your own? What does it say about your faith? What does it say about God’s faithfulness? Many years ago, I encountered a man whose father was a drunk and violent. As a child he reached out to his clergy person who told him to pray so God can change him… which did not happen. What do you think his reaction was when I said I wanted to become an ordained minister? Who can really blame him? If God is love, why his life had to be such a mess? What did he do to deserve this? As you can see, ‘Is anything too difficult for the Lord?’ can turn to be a very harmful statement for many.
When we focus all our faith in the fulfillment of our prayers, we might end up profoundly disappointed. God is not a vending machine granting favours and blessings to those who put the right amount of prayers and devotions in a cosmic slot. This is not how it works. However, we can still believe that God is faithful. Despite all the evidences pointing to the contrary, God never forgot nor abandoned Abraham and Sarah. Through all their trials and tribulations, God remained present and gave them the hope, the reassurance and the strength to go on. They doubted; they questioned; they struggled, and yet they continuously felt God’s presence at their side. Eventually they discovered that God was as much as in the fulfillment of the promise than in the journey leading to it.
Sometimes, we are invited to change our perceptions and open ourselves to the signs surrounding us. God is present in our midst, often in the most unexpected places. We often encounter strangers in our neighbourhood, reach out to visitors at our churches or talk to children in our communities and suddenly this word, this idea emerges in our mind and souls. We discover we can open ourselves to unexpected new possibilities. We can change our mindset and go beyond our pain, grief and disbelief. We can even come to believe in a God that does not necessarily meddle in human affairs, requires our constant devotions or even expect the right number of prayers every day, but still loves and cares for us.
Honestly, on some days, it is difficult not to be cynical. It is difficult not to be convinced that all this “God stuff” is just wishful thinking. Nevertheless, when we expect it the least, we are reminded that God’s promises are true. As the story of Abraham and Sarah teaches us, we are all invited to go and journey with God. While we know from experience that our prayers and demands are not necessarily met exactly when or the way we desire, we can be assured that something will change, often starting with ourselves. We can believe that God will never forget or let us down, no matter our doubts or how loud we laugh. Amen.