Aged Sages of Biblical Renown: Sarai, A Story of Laughter
Scripture: Genesis 18:9-15
- Prelude – “The Whole Armor of God – Ephesians 6:13,” by Todd Kendall; Pauline Olsen, Organist
- Welcome – Pastor Brad Beeman
- Hymn 617 – “I Come With Joy,” by Brian Wren; Janice Parks, hymn leader, pianist
- Special music – “Take My Life” – Frances Havergal, Chris Tomlin, and Louie Giglio; Janice Parks, vocalist and pianist
- Scripture – Genesis 18:9-15 – Deacon Kathleen Charters
- Sermon – “Aged Sages of Biblical Renown: Sarai, a Story of Laughter;” Pastor Brad Beeman
- Hymn 77 – “How Great Thou Art,” by Stuart K. Hine; Janice Parks, hymn leader, pianist
- Postlude – “Fantasia on ‘Old Hundredth'” arr. by Roger C. Wilson; Pauline Olsen, organist
This last week a group of us were able to attend the Leadership Institute done by The Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. For the first time, I was able to attend, albeit virtually, the class on radical hospitality. I also attended worship and another workshop. I’m aware that the Institute this year was not the same as being in attendance, but it was a wonderful gift none-the-less. Among the things talked about was the setting of priorities for a church; the importance of mission and vision, of focus, and direction particularly in this time.
The timing was perfect as we explore some of that this morning particularly as we focus today on priorities. Today we’re going to talk about sage-oriented priorities, how we figure out what those are, and particularly how to allow God to help us. To get started I want to ask you, who are at home, to take a piece of blank paper. Draw a really large circle whose edges go to the exterior edges of that paper. Or, for those in the parking lot, take the paper plate you were handed when you arrived. Now, take a pencil or pen and divide that circle or plate into three equal sections. Should end up looking like the trademark for a Mercedes Benz (see flip chart).
In one of the triangular areas please write: “time” in small letters, somewhere on the outside edge of that area. In another please write: “thoughts” again small and on the outside edge of one of the three areas. In the other third, please write: “money,” again, on the outside edge. So, you have time, thoughts, and money as the headings of each of the three areas – one per third. I remember sitting at the feet of Peter Drucker, one of the great business minds of our time. What I loved about him was that he consistently sought to make things simple.
He was talking about priorities. He named three areas that define our priorities. They are where we spend our time; what we most often think about, and where we spend our money. He then said: priorities are what you do. Now think about that for just a minute. Priorities are what you do. I think we often think about priorities in different ways. We have our hoped-for priorities. We have our “I don’t want to think about this” set of priorities. We have those priorities that keep us healthy or not.
We have those priorities that keep us in our homes with the lights on, heat, and food. But to get to the root of what our priorities really are, we need to go through an exercise like this one. So as you sit, as you listen, think about these three. The key here is to be honest with yourself whether it’s about time, thoughts, and or money. What remains is the question: is this where God would have you/us place your priorities? If so, then great. If not, well, there is probably some work to do. And that brings us to this story of Abraham and Sarah; two aged sages of biblical renown. And like previous weeks, in order to get the gist of this story, we have to go back to the time and culture and expectations of that time.
For ancient Jews, hospitality was one of the primary expectations that defined them as a people. But hospitality wasn’t simply about saying hello, spending time at coffee hour, or making people feel comfortable at church. The laws of hospitality were held to just as strongly as those of marriage, of honoring the Sabbath, and of honoring God. Not practicing the laws of hospitality came with harsh, sometimes deadly consequences. The story that follows this one is but one example of just how harsh God could be with those not practicing the laws. Hospitality, therefore, was a huge priority. It was defining. I’m not sure I can say it more strongly than that. Let me explain, and to do that I’ll use this story.
In the Harper Collings Biblical Dictionary, I love how it is how the laws of hospitality are explained. The authors call it “an intricately choreographed dance.” The goal was to have “outsiders” become honored guests. It involved three distinctive stages. The first was to “test” the outsider to make sure they weren’t potentially harmful. Once established as a non-threat, some kind of action would ensue by the host that would receive the strangers into the tent (home) of the host. To do so was to place them under the protection of the host. The protection of the guest would be the responsibility of the host. It was up to the host to welcome, feed, protect, honor, and even wash the feet of the guest. It was up to the host and the host’s family to do nothing that would offend the guest.
There were laws about what to say and even what not to say. To put it more succinctly, the story gives us a brief window into the law. Abraham saw them, ran to them, honored them, invited them, refreshed them, prepared a meal for them, and then served them. And given that the word “Haste” is used five times in this small set of verses, everything needed to be done so that the guests were not left wanting for anything. He offers the best he has. He sought to find favor in their eyes. He under-promises and over-delivers. He is attentive. And once they prepare to leave, he departs with them.
But here is the problem, like Abraham does in the previous scripture, Sarah laughs when she is told by the strangers that the next time, they visit she will have borne a son. This is where it gets sticky. Sarah is ninety years old, and ninety then was the same as ninety now. The story uses delicate language as it says that she is beyond childbearing years. And, by the way, Abraham was even older than Sarah. So, what does she do? She breaks the laws of hospitality by laughing at what these quests were saying. But I would laugh. I think you would laugh. I think almost anyone would laugh. But what’s missing in my retelling of the story is that the central visitor is God, and the two with God are angels. God knows our very thoughts. So, God questions Sarah. Sarah lies. Sarah is human. Sarah is overwhelmed.
Sarah is afraid. Sarah is intimidated. But what is so ironic, and intentionally so, even though she breaks the laws of hospitality, and even though she questions the possibilities offered by these strangers, she isn’t punished. But where God and the angels are headed is to Sodom and Gomorrah, where the entire city is to be destroyed – and not for the reasons we so often talk about, but because they have, as a community, broken every expected law of hospitality…every one.
Two things are important here. First, Abraham has already honored these guests in every possible way. He has done everything. Sarah has also honored these guests but unlike Abraham, she doesn’t recognize who or what they are. Sarah’s overall priorities have been in the right place. And, I’ve got to believe that she was shocked into laughter. But the question asked of her is the right question. “Is anything too hard for God?” And then affirms, one more time, the promise of a child. Yup, she lies, but there seem to be no consequences. However, getting called out by God may have been consequence enough. God seems to offer her grace, because God knows what she will do with the incident.
As Sarah looked back on the laughing incident with the angels, and the fact that out of that came her first-born son, she decided to name the son after the incident. The name Isaac means, “laughter” or “they who laugh.” She celebrated God’s gift by remembering her own response. What was a potentially negative situation turned into a positive because of her relationship with God. In as much as she may have broken a law of hospitality then, she made up for it by honoring God in the naming of their son. Her hope in so doing was to bring laughter to others, the joy of God as she shared the story of what God had done for them, in spite of her mistake. Loving and honoring God had always been a part of who she was, a significant priority in her life. It was why God changed her name from “princess” to “God’s servant teacher,” Sarai to Sarah. It is amazing how our mistakes can be utilized by God, particularly if we would but turn and honor God in the midst of them.
I’ve made so many mistakes in my life…more than I could possibly count. But even in those times, as realization sets in, I’ve sought to reset my priorities, honor God, be filled again, where even those mistakes might become something more, something else, something positive. They become a learning opportunity, an opportunity for growth, an opportunity to mature in faith. But that depends on how we set our priorities, and I think this scripture and these sages can help us. What if we offered to God what the laws of hospitality did for strangers or outsiders? What if we looked at our list of priorities and tested them against what we know God expects of us? In seeing anything that needs to change, we turn toward God to meet Him and shift toward what God needs.
It’s a way of honoring God, and of inviting God into our tent, our home, our hearts. I will assure you that if we do that, we will be refreshed, and by refreshed I think of what we do on our computers when we want to rethink, recheck, and look ahead. Here’s an opportunity to push the refresh button. From there we can shift, prepare, and serve God first. We become the servant God needs us to be. So friends, check your paper and your priorities. Check what God expects, hopes, or requires of you. Then look again at the list of priorities and together let’s seek to align our lives with His. Let’s pray…