06.18.2017 Preaching Text: “So Sarah laughed to herself…” (Genesis 18:12a)
Among the many odd Old Testament stories, of which there are indeed a few, this just may be the oddest. Here aged Sarah and Abraham are told by God that they will conceive a child.
To make sense of this we need to realize that much of what is found in the Old Testament is not history, strictly speaking, at least not the kind of history we moderns generally expect.
In our world, history is thought to be a kind of science. It attempts to get the “facts’ straight, although such a thing is always approximate at best.
In pre-literate times, however, “history” was most often passed down orally from generation to generation. As Israel developed a clear sense of identity after settling into the land, these stories about their ancestors continued on.
But it was Israel’s theologians who later took the wealth of Israel’s “oral tradition” and put it down on paper (or the nearest equivalent). Their interest, however, was not to slavishly recount these stories and events as “facts,” but to place them within a certain context.
And that context had to do with Jahweh and how Jahweh had been involved specifically in the lives and events of Israel’s past. Their interest was in theology, in other words, not “straight reporting.”
To our ears this may sound a bit spurious. After all, they seem to have taken an awful lot of liberties with the facts. Consider, as a classic case in point, today’s story about Abraham and Sarah bearing a child.
But, again, as I say, the intent of the biblical writers was not straight history. Instead they sought to present the one thing that set Israel’s faith apart from all others, the one thing that has proven to be Israel’s greatest singular achievement.
And that was Israel’s groundbreaking belief that God was intimately involved in human history. Everything that occurs in life, therefore, is necessarily related to God’s actions. Nothing is purely random. Spiritual meaning and purpose are to be found all around us, even in the midst of life’s seemingly arbitrary and chance encounters.
The task of Israel’s theologians, therefore, was to identify in specific terms what God had been doing throughout their history, the very history transmitted in and through received oral tradition.
For us, there’s great benefit in this. For as we know, we live our lives forward, without the benefit of hindsight, which means that life confronts us with any number of seemingly random, chaotic, and inscrutable events.
Being familiar with the Old Testament’s theological treatment of its own history thus enables us to look for God with a keener eye in those places we might not otherwise think to look.
Of course, accurately perceiving the spiritual meaning of every single event in life is not always possible, even in hindsight. Thus, if you look carefully at certain events as told by Israel’s Old Testament theologians, you’ll sometimes see rather obvious contradictions.
For instance, there are two interpretations of the relative merits of Israel’s first king, Saul. At one point we’re told his kingship is the greatest thing since sliced bread, a blessing bestowed on Israel by a beneficent God.
Turning the page we then discover a completely different narrative that actually excoriates Israel for having a king. The idea here was that God only allowed Israel to have this king because its people so wanted one, so they could be just like the nations around them.
This discrepancy suggests that Israel’s theologians disagreed on the matter, especially after it became obvious that many of Israel’s kings proved to be weak and ineffectual.
More broadly, the rabbinic tradition is rife with debate and disagreement. Its merit, however, is that in the midst of this impassioned debate, God’s will is sometimes revealed. It seeks to answer the question: where is God in all this?
What is found in the Old Testament is an earnest and informed attempt to understand, theologically, God’s role within human history, a task we should be about as well. For if we can train ourselves to think the way Israel’s theologians did, we often discover traces of God’s handiwork even in the midst of life’s greatest uncertainties and conundrums.
Moreover, in reading the Old Testament, certain broad themes can be detected. And one of them is found in our “odd” story this morning from Genesis.
To wit: God, beginning with the call of Abraham, makes a promise to save the whole world, us included, by reconciling it back unto its Creator, after, that is, the tragic events precipitated by the Fall.
This is to be accomplished through the hereditary line of Abraham. God assures him that through his progeny a great nation will arise, its sole purpose to announce and lead the world back to its God. And from this, as it developed in tradition, a messiah would arise to conclude the matter.
This is why, parenthetically, we find so many seemingly mindless genealogies throughout scripture. The point is that God’s Promise is specific, and will be effected by and through the genealogical line running from Abraham to David and ultimately, for Christians, to Jesus.
As such, throughout the entire biblical witness one basic question continually arises: will God’s Promise prove to be true? Time and again people and events conspire to put the Promise in jeopardy. From a human perspective at least, things at times look utterly impossible. What, after all, could be more humanly impossible than Abraham and Sarah giving birth to a newborn child? It’s so preposterous, in fact, the very idea makes Sarah laugh.
But the point of the story, again, is not to provide the reader with straight history, but with theology. Theologically, spiritually, the point of the story is to prove how God’s Promise can never be broken, and that our salvation, therefore, is ever assured.
This matters. For in our lives we surely shall know those times when God seems all but absent, when such a Promise appears, from a human perspective, utterly laughable.
Yet the Genesis story assures. God’s Promise is real, and that in and through that Promise God shall never abandon us. Amen.