Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
July 22, 2018
Genesis 11-21, selected (CEB)
11 27 These are Terah’s descendants. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Haran became the father of Lot. 28 Haran died while with his father Terah in his native land,[d] in Ur of the Chaldeans.29 Abram and Nahor both married; Abram’s wife was Sarai, and Nahor’s wife was Milcah the daughter of Haran, father of both Milcah and Iscah. 30 Sarai was unable to have children.
15 After these events, the Lord’s word came to Abram in a vision, “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your protector. Your reward will be very great.” 2But Abram said, “Lord God, what can you possibly give me, since I still have no children? The head of my household is Eliezer, a man from Damascus.” 3He continued, “Since you haven’t given me any children, the head of my household will be my heir.” 4The Lord’s word came immediately to him, “This man will not be your heir. Your heir will definitely be your very own biological child.” 5Then he brought Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them.” He continued, “This is how many children you will have.” 6Abram trusted the Lord, and the Lord recognized Abram’s high moral character.
16 Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not been able to have children. Since she had an Egyptian servant named Hagar, 2Sarai said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from giving birth, so go to my servant. Maybe she will provide me with children.” Abram did just as Sarai said. 3After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai took her Egyptian servant Hagar and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife.4He slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant. But when she realized that she was pregnant, she no longer respected her mistress. 5Sarai said to Abram, “This harassment is your fault. I allowed you to embrace my servant, but when she realized she was pregnant, I lost her respect. Let the Lord decide who is right, you or me.”
6Abram said to Sarai, “Since she’s your servant, do whatever you wish to her.” So Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from Sarai.
17 15God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you will no longer call her Sarai. Her name will now be Sarah. 16I will bless her and even give you a son from her. I will bless her so that she will become nations, and kings of peoples will come from her.”
21But I will set up my covenant with Isaac, who will be born to Sarah at this time next year.”
18 The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat.
9They said to him, “Where’s your wife Sarah?” And he said, “Right here in the tent.” 10 Then one of the men said, “I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!”
Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were both very old. Sarah was no longer menstruating. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, I’m no longer able to have children and my husband’s old. 13The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Me give birth? At my age?’ 14Is anything too difficult for the Lord? When I return to you about this time next year, Sarah will have a son.”
21 The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. 2She became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. 3Abraham named his son—the one Sarah bore him—Isaac. 4Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old just as God had commanded him. 5Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born. 6Sarah said, “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me.” 7She said, “Who could have told Abraham that Sarah would nurse sons? But now I’ve given birth to a son when he was old!”
Four thousand years ago, barrenness was the ultimate disgrace; it was seen as a sign of divine disfavor. If you don’t have children, it’s because God’s got something against you. Period. A woman who couldn’t conceive suffered not only lack of approval, but also the threat of divorce. And barrenness in the ancient world was ALWAYS the woman’s fault. Talk about adding insult to injury! She was ridiculed by others, believed to be shunned by God, and considered disposable by her husband. Sarai was barren.
The Bible is full of irony, and the story of Sarai and Abram “fits the bill.” God had great plans for Abram. This man was to be the “father” of many nations. God carted off Abram and Sarai to “the land which [he showed] them.” This land, Canaan, as it was called, was to become what we know as the “Promised Land.” God was making all the necessary preparations for this nation building through Abram and Sarai, and they were following in faith. They uprooted their lives, left behind their families, and settled in the land to which God had directed them. But month after month, when her monthly began, Sarai knew that there would be no multitude of offspring yet; no nation building for now.
Any of you who have experienced the disappointment of infertility know the hopelessness and despair that eventually sets in. Every fourth week is approached with cautious optimism, only to have your hopes and dreams dashed to pieces. We can only imagine how Abram and Sarai must have been feeling as they journeyed through this range of emotions not only month after month, but year after year; even decade upon decade. And with the added social stigma and pressure on Sarai, the disappointment must have been doubly so. I can’t even imagine the weight she carried on her shoulders day, after day, after day.
Still, Abram did not divorce her as he had the right to do. He believed the promise God had made to him, and he believed that Sarai would be blessed by God, too. So it was that Abram and Sarai journeyed through life together. They settled down in Canaan, but when drought and famine struck the land, they were forced to move. The chosen destination was Egypt, where the Nile river basin promised infinite abundance. But there was also a problem in Egypt, a wildly promiscuous Pharoah who would stop at nothing to have access to a beautiful woman. But that was a mild threat compared to the starvation Abram knew would set in if he and Sarai did not leave Canaan. So Abram told Sarai that they would be moving to Egypt until the famine ended. He also told Sarai, who was an exceptionally beautiful woman, that she must claim to be Abram’s sister so that Pharoah would not kill him in order to have access to her; because that’s what Pharoah did, he killed husbands so he could have the wives.
Now, in case you don’t follow what all this means; Abram basically asked Sarai to give herself to the Pharoah up front so that he wouldn’t have to be killed on her behalf. Now, for those of us women who like a “knight in shining armor” kind of guy who we know will defend us no matter what, this is pretty disappointing; disgusting, even. But Sarai complied. We cannot know why. Perhaps she feared Abram would divorce her if she did not follow his wishes. And, of course, the only thing worse than a barren woman is a barren, divorced woman. Or maybe she knew that Abram would indeed be killed if their marriage was known. She was stuck between a “rock and a hard place” on all sorts of levels. Nevertheless, she called herself Abram’s sister and sure enough, she ended up right there in Pharoah’s harem as expected; at least until God intervened. Perhaps there is a reason for this woman to hope, after all. God punished Pharoah’s whole household with a plague because he had taken another man’s wife, and so Pharoah kicked Abram and Sarai (the only ones not affected by the plague) out of Egypt. They returned to their home in Canaan. And I can only imagine that once again that cycle of disappointment set in.
But God’s promises remained. God once again appeared to Abram to reinforce the covenant. But Abram is beginning to doubt now. He has no children of his own. He is fully expecting that his household servant will become his heir. Yet, God has other plans. He shows Abram outside and tells him to count the stars; promising him that HIS offspring, Abram’s very own flesh and blood, will be more numerous even than the stars. Abram believed God. At that moment, there must have been something about Abram that changed. Because we sense that perhaps Sarai has noticed his hopes of having his own children have been reinvigorated. So Sarai decides it’s time to take matters into her own hands (take note now, this ends up being a HUGE mistake). She believes that she will never be able to bear a son for Abram, and so she offers to him her slave, Hagar. Again, Sarai did not have to do this, but despite the rather ill-treatment by Abram in Egypt, she still obviously loves him deeply and remains committed to him and to their marriage, and to giving to him all that he desires.
Now, there are a few things about this offer that are important to note. First of all, Abram could have asked for Hagar a long time ago, just as he could have divorced Sarai. But Abram chose not to pursue either of those paths. Secondly, in the ancient world, when a servant bore a child to her master, that master and his wife had full rights to the child as if it were their very own. In other words, the servant would be like a surrogate. So it was that Abram’s first son, Ishmael, is born to Hagar. The result is rather predictable; Sarai becomes wildly jealous of Hagar and her son. By the way, this might be the best place to mention that the name Sarai means “argumentative.” So Sarai goes to Abram begging him to fix the problem, which, remember, she had created; and Abram gives permission to Sarai for her to do with her slave as she pleases. At this point, Sarai again takes matters into her own hands and mistreats Hagar. The Hebrew seems to indicate that she may have even been abusive. Hagar, obviously and understandably, cannot handle such treatment, and so she flees with her son.
Abram and Sarai are now decades into this deal, this covenant, and still they are childless. God has promised Abram descendants of his own flesh and blood, and we can only imagine that Abram probably got it in his head that those descendants would come through Ishmael. Sarai at this point must be terribly disheartened. On top of the barrenness, she has been mistreated and passed off, only to turn around and treat another person in the same way. It almost makes you wonder if the persistent disappointment had driven her to near insanity. With Hagar and Ishmael now gone, wandering the wilderness alone, we begin to wonder if Abram and Sarai will just pass away the rest of their years in numb compliance; doing only what is necessary to get by—no vitality, no hope, just sadness. The Bible instructs us that we should “wait in hope for the Lord.” But when we’ve trusted and waited and hoped and trusted and waited and hoped, yet God has not answered our prayers, it’s hard to keep trusting and even harder to keep waiting and nearly impossible to keep hoping.
But God was not done yet. God really never is, I guess. Because God comes around again. This time he appears to Abram, who is now 99 years old. God tells Abram yet again that he will be the father of many nations, and now because of that, God says, “Your name will be Abraham.” Then, finishing up the terms of the covenant that God will establish with Abraham, he says, “As for your wife Sarai, you will no longer call her Sarai. Her name will now be Sarah. I will bless her and even give you a son from her. I will bless her so that she will become nations, and kings of peoples will come from her.” With this subtle name change—only an “h”—Sarah’s name became sacramental, covenantal. Sarai means argumentative, but Sarah means “princess.” In a year’s time, God says, ninety-year-old Sarah will give birth to a son. Through that son, God’s covenant will be fulfilled, and Sarah’s influence would extend far past the boundaries of Canaan. She was to become a “princess” to all the world.
Now just to reinforce this news, and to make sure Sarah knows she’s blessed just like Abraham, God appears one more time; this time, right on the homestead. Again, he’s conversing with Abraham, but Sarah is within earshot now and God wants it that way, as he again tells Abraham that in a year’s time, Sarah will bear a son. Now Abraham has heard this news before, but Sarah has not. Yet she reacts in exactly the same way as Abraham had, she laughs. Because what else can you do when you’ve endured 90 plus years of agonizing disappointment? What else can you do when your hopes and dreams have been dashed to pieces not just once, but over and over again? What else can you do when you’re far beyond childbearing years and God walks up and casually mentions that by this time next year you’ll have a son? You laugh.
But all joking aside…events transpired exactly as God had said they would for Sarah and Abraham. One year later, Sarah gave birth to a son. The son was named Isaac; “Yitzchak” in Hebrew. The name means laughter. After years of tears, Sarah was finally able to feel pure, unreserved joy. After surely drowning in hopelessness, Sarah was given hope again. After decades of disappointment, Sarah ultimately received what she desired most. Isaac was the embodiment of all that desire, all that hope, all that joy. He was truly a gift from God, given in God’s own way; a reminder that God is never really “through” with us, even when we try and take matters into our own hands, even when we find it hard to summon just one glimmer of hope or faith.
If God could do this impossible thing for Sarah at the age of ninety…what will he do for you and me? The possibilities are endless. Sometimes we may feel as if things will never go “right.” But through all the disappointments of this life, we can always give thanks to God for HOPE.