And this whole story repeats itself in the next chapter.
And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.Genesis 18:1
Not long after the events of Genesis 17, Abraham sees three visitors passing through and he rushes to receive them. Hospitality was one of the most important virtues in the ancient world. So Abraham runs to these guests, bows low to the ground in an act of humility, and invites them to receive his hospitality. He runs to the tent and tells Sarah that they have company; then he runs to command a young herdsman to prepare a calf for a great meal. And the Bible says that Abraham joined them under a great shade tree while they ate, ready to tend to their needs. Then the guests ask Abraham a question.
They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” The LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.”Genesis 18:9-10
Over the course of this interaction, it becomes evident that these aren’t ordinary guests. One of them is the LORD himself. The first evidence of this is that the guests call Sarah by her new name. Sarai was known for her beauty, known as the wife of the wealthy Abraham. But the guests know her new name — because one of them is the one who gave her that name.
And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him.Genesis 18:10
Sarah is in the tent listening and she overhears the LORD when He promises that she will have a son of her own when He returns in a year’s time. And this is Sarah’s response:
Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?”Genesis 18:11-2
Sarah’s response is the same as her husband’s; she laughs! And like Abraham, her laughter is incredulous, even a bit sarcastic. “Ha! Yeah, right! Now that I’m 90 years old, I’m going to have a baby? That’s a good one!” After all these years of disappointment, Sarah is jaded. She can’t even go there, can’t even get her hopes up — so she does the same thing so many of us will do; she armors herself with snarkiness and cynicism. She scoffs and laughs and says, “Yeah, right.”
I wonder how many of us are disillusioned like Sarah. I’ve been there before; bitter and jaded. When that happens, it’s so easy to armor up with snarkiness or sarcasm — we do this to protect ourselves. Cynicism is just someone projecting their own hurt out upon the world. Etymologists tell us that our word “sarcasm” derives from an ancient word which literally means “to tear the flesh off.” Maybe that’s why we talk about snarky comments that “cut” so deeply. The snarkiest person you know is simply covering up their own deep wound.
And the same thing applies in our relationship with God. When we reach the point of being disillusioned with God, we’re definitely in the danger zone. But the root of our disillusionment is often disappointment. We’ve lost something and we blame God for it. So we mask our disappointment with bitterness and sarcasm.
When we respond to the promises of God the way Sarah and Abraham responded — with incredulous laughter — “Yeah, right!” — think about how much that must hurt Him.
The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”Genesis 18:13-15
The LORD calls Sarah out for her laughter — and this frightens her. And this seems appropriate: it seems we ought to be fearful whenever we laugh in the face of the living God. When she denies this, God corrects her and says, “Oh, no. You definitely laughed.”
But I’m most struck by something else God says here. When Sarah scoffs, God says, Is anything too hard for the LORD? In response to her jaded, bitter laughter, God asks this question — which is ultimately the question of faith. Do you trust that I am able — that I am capable — that I am mighty to keep my promises? Is anything too difficult for me? Is anything impossible for me? This is the question we all face. Is anything too hard for the LORD?
Interestingly, there is another way of reading this statement. It can fairly be translated in the way we just read: Is anything too hard for the LORD? But this Hebrew word also means “wonderful” and “extraordinary.” That gives some helpful nuance to God’s question. Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? Is anything too extraordinary for the LORD? Is there anything too extraordinary for the God of creation?
This is His question to Sarah — but to us as well: Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? Is anything too extraordinary? Is any situation beyond His power? Is any obstacle great enough to keep Him from achieving His purposes? Is anything too difficult for Him?
The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.Genesis 21:1-3
Even while we laugh, God remains faithful. He keeps His promise to Abraham and Sarah; He returns to find the old couple holding their son in their arms. Picture Abraham beaming with pride — “Look, Lord. Here he is! My son, Isaac!” Picture Sarah with tears of joy streaming down her cheeks saying, “You’ve given me good reason to laugh now!” We can only imagine Abraham and Sarah’s laughter — not incredulous but joyful. “Who would believe it? The old couple having a baby!”
I wish I could tell you that it’s as simple as this: just believe in God and you’ll get everything you’ve ever wanted. But that’s just not the way faith works: not for Abraham’s descendants who would spend over 400 years in captivity in Egypt; not for Paul who pleaded with the Lord to remove the thorn from his flesh; and not even for Jesus who cried out in the Garden of Gethsemane. We know that faith isn’t nearly as simple as the health and wealth preachers make it out to be: “just believe and God and you’ll have everything you’ve ever wanted.”
And furthermore, I think Abraham and Sarah would push back on any simplistic reading of their story. I think they would remind us that theirs was a story 25 years in the making. And as we’ll see next week, it’s a story with another very important chapter.
But this much we can say: Abraham and Sarah’s experience points us toward a God who waits until there is no other possibility to act. Because our God is the God of the extraordinary.
Sarah scoffs and asks, “Are you going to bring life out of my old and barren womb?” And God says, “Is there anything too extraordinary for me?”
Elsewhere the Bible tells us of a young unmarried woman — Sarah’s opposite in so many ways. But she too receives the promise of life from God. And Mary asks, perhaps incredulously, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” And God says, “Is there anything too extraordinary for me?”
And when Mary’s child is crucified, the crowd laugh at Him. The Bible records their jaded, incredulous mocking: “He saved others; let Him save Himself.” But He doesn’t save Himself. And after He dies, they put Him in the grave — a place just as devoid of life as the wombs of Sarah and Mary; the 90-year-old and the unmarried virgin.
And as we stare at that tomb, we might ask — maybe even a bit incredulously — “Are you going to bring life out of death?” And God says, “Haven’t you learned by now? Is there anything too extraordinary for me?”
Our God is still the God of the extraordinary.