A female patient in her 90s arrived at the doctor’s surgery with a bad dose of hiccoughs. Within seconds of seeing the doctor she rushed out laughing loudly and with no hiccoughs. A colleague asked how the doctor had cured the lady, and the reply was “I told her she was pregnant.” Poor Sarah got a similar message – only she didn’t laugh at a doctor, she laughed at what God had said.
1The Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinths of Mamre, as he was sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. On seeing them, he ran from the tent door. Bowing low 3he said, ‘Sirs, if I have deserved your favour, do not go past your servant without a visit. 4Let me send for some water so that you may bathe your feet; and rest under this tree 5while I fetch a little food so that you may refresh yourselves. Afterwards you may continue the journey which has brought you my way.’ They said, ‘Very well, do as you say.’ 6So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Quick, take three measures of flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ 7He then hastened to the herd, chose a fine, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who prepared it at once. 8He took curds and milk and the calf which was now ready, set it before them, and there, under the tree, waited on them himself while they ate.
9They asked him where Sarah, his wife, was, and he replied ‘She is in the tent.’ 10One of them said, ‘About this time next year I shall come back to you, and your wife Sarah will have a son.’ Now Sarah was listening at the opening of the tent, close by him. 11Both Sarah and Abraham were very old, Sarah being well past the age of childbearing, 12so she laughed to herself and said, ‘At my time of life I am past bearing children, and my husband is old.’ 13The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Can I really bear a child now that I am so old?” 14Is anything impossible for the Lord? In due season, at this time next year, I shall come back to you, and Sarah will have a son.’ 15Because she was frightened Sarah lied and denied that she had laughed; but He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
Text © The Revised English Bible, published by OUP/CUP, used with permission.
Some English translations tell us that Abraham was near oak trees, others keep to the Hebrew terebinth, but if we tell this story in an Australian context we might say he was under the shade of a coolabah tree. Does it really matter which tree he was near? If we’re after the meaning of this passage of scripture we can do what the Israelites did, and tell the story in the context of the listeners. It’s a hot day, and three visitors arrive unannounced. What would we do? What would you do? In four weeks of walking around suburbs, handing out political material and talking to voters ahead of an election in March this year, in temperatures so high that I literally melted the soles of a good pair of shoes, I had three people, just three, offer me a drink. Abraham, on the other hand, welcomed the visitors, got Sarah to make some cakes – the NRSV suggests he went for bread but asked for cake – and even had a calf killed and prepared. One calf, for three people! I can’t eat more than 200 grams of beef in one meal; here we’re talking of more than 200 kilograms for just three people. Excuse the pun, but isn’t that a bit of overkill? When I prepare a simple roast it takes an hour per kilogram (or thereabouts) just to cook, and a whole calf would take many hours after being slaughtered and cut up, yet these travellers were fed and watered in the heat of one day, so the message obviously is not about over-eating, or supremely fast preparation of meat: it’s about hospitality for strangers. “Truly I tell you that anything you did for my brothers and sisters, you did for me” [Matt 25:40, REB]. Paul’s frequent message was that we establish a good relationship with God through faith, not works, but James points out that if we have faith then we will do the works which God calls us to do. In this case Abraham’s response to his faith is to provide food and water for the travellers, without asking questions. Is that what we do? If an old man turned up on the church steps ahead of a service, looking unkempt and having slept on the streets the night before, would we send him away while we have our prayer session, or share communion, or would we welcome him in because he just might be God coming to see what good works our faith will provide? Who would be more pleased, Satan, because he had succeeded in putting a wedge between us and anyone who was even slightly different in some way, or God, who could see us showing unconditional love?
Did the travellers name Sarah when asking where she was? If they did it would indicate some previous meeting and remembering of names, which, if course, is easy for God. With Abraham already well advanced in age it would be assumed that his wife was also well past child-bearing age, so is it really surprising that she laughed when one of the travellers said she would have a son within a year? “Laugh and the world laughs with you” (from ‘Solitude’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox 1850-1919), and remember that God is everywhere in the world, so when you laugh God laughs with you too – even if you are laughing at what He says.
There are times in our lives when we often think something is impossible, but impossible isn’t a word in God’s vocabulary. Everything is possible with God, even bearing children at a ripe old age. Does that mean that women who don’t have children after 40 don’t have faith enough to have more children? Of course not! God does, however, do what we think is impossible every day. People who have miraculous escapes, or who are restored to full functioning life after being under water for far longer than the four minutes it takes for the brain to die from lack of oxygen, are just two ways in which we see God’s hand at work. Have faith and God might surprise you, quite possibly more so if you laugh at the prospect. Even if she didn’t emit a single sound suggesting laughter God still knew she had laughed, and knew that her lie was because the thought of being pregnant at her age was incongruous. God knows everything about us, even our thoughts as they form, so there is no need to hide those thoughts from God, just to ask for His help to channel any bad thoughts to make good ones.