Years ago, a friend of mine told me he was thinking about running for public office. I honestly thought he was joking, so when he said this to me, I laughed and said, “Yeah, right.” And then there was that split second in our interaction, just the slightest pause on his part…and I realized that he wasn’t kidding. And I realized that I had hurt him deeply with my incredulous laughter. I tried desperately to salvage the discussion, but the damage was already done.
We remain friends to this day, but he’s never spoken to me again about his dream of running for office.
This kind of incredulous laughter — the “Yeah, right” kind of laugh — seems to be commonplace today. We scoff because in a world like ours, it’s harder than ever to distinguish between earnest and sarcastic. Rampant cynicism often leaves us jaded and disillusioned…so we laugh and say, “Yeah, right.”
And that sort of cynicism can really undermine our faith. How do you think God feels when, after hearing about His promises, we laugh and say, “Yeah, right?”
As Genesis 17 opens, Abraham is 99 years old. He has been walking with God for many years, living with the promise that someday God would give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens. The Lord appears to him and changes his name from Abram to Abraham, indicating that his circumstances are about to change as well. This is what God says:
Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.Genesis 17:4-5
The name Abram means, “exalted father” but the name Abraham means, “father of a multitude.” And this is what God promises Abraham — descendants too numerous to count.
But as we said last week, this promise doesn’t simply impact Abraham; it also concerns his wife, Sarah. And God changes her name as well.
And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”Genesis 17:15-16
God changes Sarah’s name because her circumstances are about to change as well. After 24 years, God is finally ready to fulfill His promise to Abraham and Sarah. But look at Abraham’s response:
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.”Genesis 17:17-19
When God says He is ready to fulfill His promise, Abraham laughs! And the context shows us that it wasn’t the “I can’t believe it’s finally happening!” kind of laughter — but more of the incredulous, “Yeah, right,” kind of laughter. We can see this because when God tells Abraham what He plans to do through Sarah, Abraham brings up Ishmael. He’s essentially saying, “I think you mean Ishmael, Lord. May he live before you!” And God has to correct Abraham’s faulty assumption here: No, Sarah will bear you a son.
Abraham laughs because what God says here seems, frankly, impossible. And that seems to be one of the underlying themes of Abraham’s story. It seems as if God decides to wait until there is no other possibility — and that’s when He chooses to act. He’s not going to fulfill His promise on a technicality or a loophole; He’s not going to use a surrogate like Hagar. “No,” God says, “I’m going to use 99-year-old Abraham and 90-year-old Sarah.” And God even names this unborn child. And you shall call his name Isaac — which means, “he laughs.”
God reacts to our incredulous, jaded laughter with a little bit of laughing of his own. “Oh, you think I can’t do this? Just you wait, Abraham. I’ll give you something to laugh about.”