(Lectionary for June 18, 2107)
I first must apologize for my failure to write for the first Sunday after Pentecost, missing the wonderful first creation story of Genesis 1. Ironically, while I was not writing my usual lectionary blog, I was speaking to a group of folks on retreat about—you guessed it—Gen.1, among other useful and at the same time dangerous biblical passages that address the environment. Indeed, Gen. 1:26-28 has been used over the centuries as a club with which to assault our God-given cosmos with our so-called “mastery” of all creation. It is far past time to put that foolishness aside in the face of the multiple environmental catastrophes we now face. But I have written of these things before in these columns. I refer you to my small book, Preaching Creation, for further ways a preacher may approach this crucial series of issues, far and away the most serious ones we now are confronted with. But that is enough talk about something I wish I had said but did not.
Today the lectionary tosses us a most delightful tale, centered around an aged couple who have been promised a child by YHWH, but whose increasingly sagging skin and deeply lined faces bely the possibility of a parental future. In the previous chapter YHWH has offered Abram a covenant, sealed by adult circumcision (ouch!), and promising him a son, birthed by Sarai herself. Of course, Abram has heard this tune before in Gen.15 where YHWH, perhaps to the accompaniment of a huge organ, thundering a C-major chord, vows that Abram will have descendants like the stars of the sky (Gen.15:5). There, Abram shouted that “Eliezer of Damascus,” a slave of his household, will be his heir. No, responds the great YHWH! Gen.17 plays out the same scenario. This time Abram holds up to YHWH his son by the slave girl, Hagar, as his heir, but again YHWH will have none of it. No, YHWH responds again, this boy will not be your heir; it will be a child from the womb of the aged Sarah.
Well, Abram has had enough of this absurd game, and he “fell on his face and laughed, and thought, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is 100 years old? Can Sarah, who is 90 years old, bear a child’” (Gen.17:17)? Then aloud he pleads with YHWH, “If only Ishmael might live before you!” Behind that demand surely lies the belief that Ishmael is the only son of Abraham that YHWH is ever going to see. But YHWH reiterates the nonsense that Sarah will give birth. I picture this interchange conducted while Abe is prone in the dirt. In the Bible usually when someone is face down in the dust, it means that they are facing a conquering foe, pleading for their very life. Not here! Abe is howling with unrestrained laughter, calling YHWH’s claims the idiocy that they obviously are.
And that leads us to the story of the day. Some time has obviously passed, and Abraham and his family, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and assorted slaves, have made camp near the “terebinths of Mamre.” Suddenly, “YHWH appeared to him, as he sat by the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day” (Gen.18:1). The scene is well drawn. It is blistering hot in the desert afternoon, and Abraham has obviously left the sweltering tent in order to find a bit of breeze under the tent’s awning, waiting for the merciless sun to descend toward the horizon. YHWH appears, we are told, but what Abraham sees is “three men standing near him.” It is as if the three strangers have risen from the desert sands, so quickly they show up. However, we are told that in some way they are YHWH, though later it will say that YHWH is in fact merely one of the three.
Without hesitation or comment, Abe rushes to meet them, and bows low to the ground in appropriate middle-eastern hospitality. He promises the strangers “a little water” and “a little bread,” along with extra water with which to wash their feet. Abraham then “hurries” to the tent (he is a whirlwind of activity), and shouts orders to his wife, Sarah, “to take three measures (a significant amount) of the finest flour and make cakes” (Gen. 18:6). He then “ran” to the herd, and grabbed a calf, “tender and good,” certainly his finest, and gave it to a servant to cook. After the calf has been well baked, Abraham picks up curds and milk, and sets it all before the three visitors. So much for a “little” of this and a “little” of that! This is a grand desert feast, and Abraham has set a high bar for perfect hospitality. He stands apart from the three, as they tuck into the wonderful meal.
It is now time for Sarah to have her laugh at the ridiculous claims of YHWH, though she is polite enough to keep her chortling to herself, unlike her more raucous husband. “After I am old, and my lord husband is old, shall I still find pleasure” (Gen.18:12)? Note that Sarah does not say that she cannot give birth in her old age; she says that she and her ancient husband are no longer capable even of pleasure. I like her spunk, don’t you? Her implication is: “Just have a look at that old man! Can you imagine that I can still have any pleasure with that?”
YHWH clearly cares very little about these laughs of rejection and scorn for YHWH’s plans. “Why did Sarah laugh,” YHWH says to Abraham, “and why did she say she was too old to have a child?” Let me say it once again. “I am returning to you in the season of life, and Sarah shall have a son! Is anything too astonishing for YHWH” (Gen.18:13-14)? The tale then ends in a lie. “I did not laugh,” says Sarah, and YHWH replies, “Oh, yes you did” (Gen.18:15). And with the word “laughter” ringing in our ears, in chapter 21 the prune-faced couple do indeed have a son, and they call him Isaac. What else would you name a son if you had one at the age of 90? After all, Isaac is based on the word “laughter.” All of us are bid to laugh along with Sarah and Abraham, as on their walkers and canes, they try to care for and finally corral a tiny but growing baby boy.
Just what are we 21st century types to glean from this wonderful story? Surely we are not to argue after the historicity of the thing, how old women in our day can give birth at increasingly advanced ages, how Invitro science has changed so much for many infertile couples. So, why could Sarah not give birth at 90? I cannot go there, nor I think can many of you. Let me suggest that the famous line—“Is anything too astonishing for YHWH”—may be the focus here, but perhaps not in the way you think. I do not think that this line calls us to forget all we know of science and history, and to claim that anything can happen when God is around. The danger of that idea is palpable when some couples are helped in their desire for a child and some are not, though each prays fervently to the same God. Some people die young, while others live long and happy lives, though each prays fervently to the same God.
I want to say that the line suggests that God still matters in the ways of humanity, that we are not on our own as we live our lives, that we do not make decisions alone, wholly apart from a loving deity. YHWH does not give us whatever we ask for, but YHWH is with us in our struggles to discern what YHWH wants from us and from our world. Nothing is too astonishing for a God who made it all and loves it all. This I hear in the tale of the aged couple and their amazing bundle of joy, the child called laughter.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)