I continued our fall sermon series on The Questions God Asks by looking at Sarah’s laughter in Genesis 18.1-15 and how the Apostle Paul uses her laughter and Abraham’s shady character in Romans 4.
Did you ever notice how quickly God raised the degree of difficulty in the Bible? Adam, don’t eat the fruit of that tree in the garden. Noah, build me a boat. Abraham, cut off the tip of your….
Uh…can’t I just build you a bigger boat?
I mean, how do you think Sarah reacted when she came home and found Abraham in the shower?
Why did you do that to yourself?!
God told me.
Abraham, if God told you to kill your first born child would you do that too?!
There’s not a lot of laughter in the Bible.
There’s jokes we could make about the Bible.
Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and said to the Israelites: Look guys, I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news— I got him down to 10 Commandments. The bad news— the one about adultery is still there.
Speaking of the 7th Commandmet:
Why is divorce is so expensive?
Because it’s worth it. (My wife came up with that joke.)
There’s not alot of laughter in the Bible; though, there’s jokes we could make about the Bible.
Jesus walks in to a bar and says to the bartender: “Give me a wine glass and fill it with water.”
How long did Cain hate his brother? As long as he was Abel.
Look people, I published a book with the word funny in the title. That’s practically like a comedy diploma. If I say laugh, you say how high.
Adam said to Eve: “Stand back, we don’t know how big this gets.”
Speaking of Eve, you might not know it but there was a midget in the Garden of Eden too. You never hear about him because he got kicked out before the Fall. He kept sticking his nose in Eve’s business.
Jesus came across a woman caught in adultery, surrounded by angry priests and Pharisees. So Jesus said, “Whever is without sin may cast the first stone. And one by one the priests and the Pharisees dropped their rocks and slank away, but then suddenly a stone came sailing through the air and struck the woman upside the head, killing her dead. And Jesus said, “Sometimes you really torque me off, Mother.”
There’s not alot of laughs in the Bible, but there’s things in it that might make us giggle, like the story of the prophet Elisha and the children and the 2 she-bears.
You know that story?
Check this out:
Maybe church folks like you get your reputation for tight-sphinctered humorlessness honest because, while there are stories in the Bible that might make us scratch our heads and chuckle, there’s not alot of laughter in the Bible. In fact, by my reckoning, there’s just two instances of laughter in all of scripture.
The first place is Matthew 9 where Jesus is called to the home of a ruler of the synagogue and it’s no laughing matter. The ruler’s little girl has just died. Jesus comes to a place of death and the crowds gathered at the man’s home laugh at him.
They laugh at Jesus.
What was the punchline?
The punchline was Jesus’ promise: “Your daughter will live.”
Life from Death.
Good news in the face of grief.
The Living God shows up and all of us gathered around Death laugh him off.
The second place is today’s passage in Genesis 18. Her husband entertains God himself unawares while Sarah eavesdrops from the flap of the tent. Her back is bowed. Her hair is thinned. Her hands are palsied and liver-spotted. She’s all gums. She’s got just a few teeth, which is fine because all of her appetites are about gone. She’s closing in on 100 years old.
Eavesdropping, she overhears God’s promise of redemption through a child— her child— and she laughs. She hears the promise of God as a punchline. God’s redemptive promise sounds to her ridiculous. And why wouldn’t it? This was 4,000 years before the invention of Viagra.
Where Mary receives her part of this same promise and replies “Let it be with me according to your word,” Sarah laughs. Like the crowds ready to bury the dead girl, Sarah laughs.
Not “Ha ha!” but “Yeah, right, when Sheol freezes over.” A cynical laugh. An understandable laugh. A laugh we would all likely laugh but a laugh that, nonetheless, is the opposite of faith.
Before we pile on Sarah, I should point out— Sarah laughs at God’s redemptive promise (for you, through her) because she’s hearing God’s redemptive promise for the first time. Old Abraham never told her. Go back to Genesis 12. To undo all that we had done at Babel and before, God first made this promise to Abraham 25 years earlier.
Abraham sat on this promise of God longer than Diane Feinstein did on the Kavanaugh letter. For almost 3 decades Sarah’s dearly beloved didn’t bother to share with her what God had promised for both of them.
It’s true that her laugh is a cynical laugh, the opposite of faith, but that’s because her hubbie didn’t believe the promise enough to pass it on to her.
It’s funny— these are not impressive people.
By the way, when God first called him, Abraham left behind his home and his family and his belongings and his country in order to go to the land that God would show him. Left it all behind.
The reason Abraham here has servants whom he can order to grind and knead and bake— the reason Abraham here has not just a calf but a whole herd of cattle from which he can feed his guests— is because, back when she was young and beautiful, Abraham passed Sarah off as his sister and pimped her out to the Pharaoh.
He lied about her.
And then, with dollar signs in his eyes, he rented her out for money, which I’m guessing required more than chocolates and roses to reconcile.
The wealth Abraham lavishes on his mysterious guests here in Genesis 18– it was ill-gotten gain. God has been eating and drinking with sinners from the very beginning.
But before you start feeling sorry for Sarah, remember.
Turn the page and Sarah is the one who will pitch a jealous fit and demand that her husband forsake their servant-girl and her baby to the wilderness and God only knows what else.
What a joke!
Of all the people in the world, the God who knows the secret thoughts of all of our hearts chose these two for his redemptive purpose.
These two: lying, pimping, coveting, conniving, unbelieving— ungodly even— Abraham and Sarah. The two people to whom God gives this promise— they’re not even God’s people. They are literally the ungodly.
Don’t forget, Abraham and Sarah were from Ur of the Chaldeans, which means Abraham and Sarah were zigarat-attending moon worshippers. According to the Talmud, Father Abraham’s father was an idol maker by trade. When the Living God first encounters Abraham with this promise to redeem the world from its sin through him, Abraham is a pagan. Sarah is a pagan.
They are sinners— their story in scripture bears that out.
But even before their story in scripture begins, they are ungodly, both of them.
Abraham and Sarah— their character is as barren as her womb, and their religious potential is as unlikely as him rising to the occassion without the help of one of those little blue pills.
There’s not a lot of laughter in the Bible, but we could chuckle at the absurdity of God using the likes of these two for his redemptive purpose.
Not just absurd, it’s offensive. I mean— why would God use two people like this when he’s got good like us to choose?
Of course (Haha!) the joke’s on us.
God works his redemptive purpose through ungodly people like them; so that, good people like us will realize that we do not contribute anything to God’s promised work of redemption.
That grates against everything you’ve ever been told so I’m going to say it again:
God works his redemptive purpose through ungodly people like Abraham and Sarah; so that, good people like you will realize that you do not contribute anything to God’s promised work of redemption
The only thing we contribute to our redemption is our resistance. I mean— no sooner has Sarah heard this promise than she’s urging Abraham to hurry its happening by sleeping with their servant, Hagar. Like her we hear the promise and then we refuse to believe its happening isn’t our responsibility.
Don’t let the cakes or the curds or the fatted calf in today’s feast fool you. When it comes to God’s work of redemption, you and I bring nothing to the table.
That’s what we’re supposed to take away from this question God asks us: “Why are you laughing? Is anything too hard for God?”
He didn’t say: “Is anything too hard for you when you’re partnered with God.”
He didn’t say: “Is anything too hard for you when you have God on your side.”
He didn’t say: “Is anything too hard for you if….” If you pray on it. If you have faith. If you commit yourself to the Lord. If he blesses you.
No, and in the Bible it’s the Devil who speaks in if/then.
It’s “Why are you laughing_______? Is anything to hard for God?”
Listen— this is no laughing matter.
When it comes to God’s work to redeem the world from the Powers of Sin and Death— you and I— we bring nothing to the table.
This is what we’re meant to hear in this question that God asks us today, which is the very same takeaway we’re supposed to see in the scene just before today’s text.
Just before this mysterious visit from God in Genesis 18, God visits Abraham in order to seal God’s promise in the blood of a covenant.
God orders Abraham to bring him 3 animals and 2 birds. God instructs Abraham to slaughter them, to cut each of them in half, and then to lay out the slaughtered pieces in rows, forming an alley in between.
The contract’s fine print said that whoever broke it “may the curse fall upon them so that what was done to these animals will be done to them.”
According to the conditions of the contract, if the two parties sealing the covenant were equals then both of them would pass through the pieces of slaughtered animals, swearing aloud: “Thus let it be done to me.”
If the two parties were not equals in power, then only the weaker party would walk between them and swear “Thus let it be done to me.”
It’s funny though— that’s not how God ratifies his redemptive promise.
The weaker one doesn’t pass through the bloody passageway at all. In fact, Abraham doesn’t do anything at all.
Like the disciples in the garden at Gethsemane, Abraham can’t even stay awake. He instead falls in to a deep sleep, as cooperative as a corpse.
He’s stirred awake to find that Almighty God— as though God had been made the weaker one, as though God had poured out all of his power— had condescended to him and was now passing through the blood and invoking the curse upon himself.
“Thus let this death be done to me,” the Living God says.
The joke’s on Abraham— after all that bloody busywork of finding and catching and killing and carrying and cutting, Abraham is a completely passive party to the promise.
The author of Genesis assumes you get the joke. It’s a two-party promise, but other than fetching the ingredients Abraham brings absolutely nothing to the table.
All he does is fall asleep, as though he’s dead in his sins.
Let’s give Sarah the benefit of the doubt.
Maybe that’s why she’s laughing. Maybe she’s laughing because she knows better than anyone but God that, other than the cakes and curds and fatted calf, she and Abraham bring absolutely nothing to the table. For them to be a part of God’s promised work in the world they will have to be made a part of God’s redemptive work in the world. Abraham and Sarah— they have “no ground for boasting.” That’s how the Apostle Paul speaks of them in Romans. No ground for boasting.
They brought nothing to the table, Paul says, they simply trusted— eventually— that the Living God is able. They simply had faith that the Almighty is able. They brought nothing. They could only believe— believe that the Living God is powerful to work what his word promises. They simply trusted God’s word and, by their trust— by their faith, the Apostle says— God reckoned to them “righteousness.” As it says just before today’s passage: “Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
Now the Apostle Paul is no one’s idea of a comedian, but here’s the funny thing and Paul, a Hebrew who wrote in Greek, assumes you’re in on the joke.
That word “righteouness” (as in, you’re in the right with God) in Hebrew and in Greek (in other words, in the entire Bible) it’s the same word as “justice” (as in, to do right according to God).
You got it?
The word “justice” in the Bible is the same word as the word “righteousness.”
And so at baptism, when we pray over the water “clothe this child in Christ’s righteousness…” we could just as easily pray “clothe this child in Christ’s justice…”
Or in the Sermon on Mount, you could just as easily hear Jesus preach “Unless your justice exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you wil not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
And in Paul’s proclamation, it could just as easily read: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that you and I might become the right-making of God.”
Except that’s not exactly it either— all of those examples make justice/rightousness sound like nouns, like a quality or an attitude or an idea that we possess or that God possess.
But, in Hebrew and in Greek, the word for righteousness/justice is a noun that functions with the force of a verb.
Believe me, I know this sounds like we’re getting lost in the weeds. Just trust me— I mean, half of you are odds with the other half about the place of social justice in church. You need to hear me.
In scripture, justice and righteousness are nouns that function with the force of a verb. And verbs do work. But, remember too, St. Paul says Abraham is the example. What’s true of Sarah is the same for all of us. We bring nothing to the table.
Verbs do work, but on our own we can only work sin.
Thefore this noun with the force of a verb— it belongs to God. Rightousness…justice…it’s all God’s work, from beginning to end. We’re the objects of God’s verb.
It’s not we do our best and God does the rest.
It’s not we do our part after God has done his part.
It’s not God declares us righteous so that then we can go out and deliver the world from injustice.
It’s all God’s work— that’s the point Paul makes with Abraham and Sarah. The God who is both sides to his 2-party promise is the subject to both meanings of the verb.
Put it this way:
By grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, God declares you forgiven by the justice of his cross for you.
The God who has done for you in the work of Jesus Christ is the Living God who is able to draft you into his work for your neighbor.
It’s the same word, in Hebrew and in Greek. And in both, it works like a verb. And in both, God is the active agent. God is the subject of the sentence.
This why the question Isn’t there work we have to do as Christians?— pardon the bluntness— it isn’t a very good question.
By faith, you’ve been reckoned in the right with God.
There is therefore now no condemnation— there’s nothing you have to do.
But, by faith, God is able to reckon onto your doorstep some part of his right-making work in the world.
You could say no to it. I know it sounds crazy funny but your status before God won’t suffer one iota for it. But your neighbor may suffer.
Here’s a joke:
What do you call a Catholic who practices the rhythm method?
A guy is on his couch and hears the doorbell ring. He goes to the door and sees a snail. Snail says “Hey I got something to talk with you about.” Guy picks the snail up and throws him and says “Get the heck out of here.”
Three years later the same guy is on the couch. He hears the doorbell. It’s the snail. Snail says “What the hell was that all about?”
I know. They can’t all be pearls.
Those two jokes are the favorite jokes of one of my best friends, Brian Stolarz. He’s a lawyer here in DC. Let those jokes serve as Exhibits A and B, proof that Brian brings nothing to the table.
Trust me, he’s not a very impressive person. A Mets fan, Brian still wears Kirkland brand pleated pants and unironically listens to Run DMC.
An evening out with Brian mainly involves fart jokes, jabs about the measurements of man parts, and pranking the drive-thru worker at Taco Bell. Thurgood Marshall he is not.
He brings nothing to table.
Brian grew up Catholic. He belongs to my previous congregation, and he’ll be our guest here in a few weeks. Brian works at a fancy white-collar firm.
Because he’d come up as as public defender in NYC and because he had a good BS radar, a few years ago Brian’s firm asked him to head up a death penalty case in Texas, a case his firm had taken pro bono.
It was one of those bleeding heart cases firms take to make themselves feel good about themselves and use to boast about themselves to their paying clients and prospective hires.
It was a cop-killing at a cash-checking store in Houston. With no DNA, the DA had prosecuted Dewayne Brown, a mentally handicapped black man with no record whose IQ the state doctors ginned up a few points so the prosecution could notch another win.
After Brian visited Dewayne for the first time on death row, he walked out into the parking lot, his heart racing, and he threw up on the pavement.
It hadn’t really ocurred to Brian until meeting Dewayne but meeting Dewayne, Brian realized Dewayne was innocent.
Dewayne’s free now.
And Brian will tell you about that part of the story in a few weeks.
What he might not tell you though, he’s told me.
Told me how the case almost ruined his marriage.
How it hurt his career. How it made him a stranger to his young kids.
How if it was up to him and he could do it all over again he wouldn’t.
If it was up to him, he would not take Dewayne’s case again.
In the drive-through at Taco Bell one night, making jokes about his man-parts, Brian said to me:
“I’m not a social justice warrior. I grew up Catholic hearing that the death penalty was wrong. And then— out of the blue— it was thrust upon me [pay attention to how he puts it]. It was like God put this good work in front of me to do. Still, I didn’t want to do it. I felt compelled—something compelled me— to do it in spite of what maybe I wanted to do.
Its funny— its like our definitions of activism aren’t passive enough.”
I don’t think Brian really thought too much about the title to his book.
He called it Grace and Justice as though they were one and the same.
The Living God, who declares you in the right in Jesus Christ, is able.
Able to draft you into his work that is even now rectifying the world.