Laughter and Promise

+ A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent (Year B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on February 28, 2021 +

Text: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25


“Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed.”

We heard part of the story from Genesis this morning, part of that beautiful assurance that God will make Abraham and Sarah the ancestors of many nations.
But we didn’t hear that next verse: Abraham laughed in God’s face.

You see, this was not the first time God made this promise.
Six chapters of Genesis have gone by since God told Abram, as he was named then, to pack up his family and move into the unknown.
Abram was 75 years old and Sarai was 66 years old and God came to disrupt their entire life.
But in return, God made an astounding promise—even though the couple had never been able to have children, God would make of them a great nation and all the world would be blessed through their descendants.
Well, Abram and Sarai keep waiting and waiting while God keeps promising a child.
But now 24 years have passed, and the couple still hasn’t had a baby.
They did everything they could think of to make it happen—Abram even had a child with their maidservant, Hagar, to see if that would fulfill the covenant.
And now God is doubling down on the promise yet again, clarifying that Sarai would be the mother of a nation and kings would come from her.
But the fulfillment of this promise seems even more out of reach now than it did the first time.
Abram is 99 years old and Sarai is 90—how could they possibly have a child anymore?

And yet, God Almighty comes again to Abram, who falls on his face in worship and devotion.
God bestows a new name on Abram and Sarai, he shall now he be called Abraham, which means ‘the father of many,’ and she will be called Sarah.
God establishes an everlasting covenant, to be God to all generations of Abraham’s descendants.
And God promises again that they shall have a child.

Abraham falls on his face yet again.
But this time not in worship and devotion.
This time, he falls on his face in laughter.
When Sarah hears of this promise, she laughs, too!
I wonder what kind of laughter it was.
Was it laugher of exasperation?
Laughter of resignation that promises are being made but never kept?
Laughter of doubt, that their best years were surely behind them?
Laughter at the ridiculousness of this situation?
I mean really, a 99 year old and a 90 year old having a baby?
That is ludicrous!
Never gonna happen!

Well, one commentator wrote that perhaps God was laughing, too.
Because about a year later, Sarah would give birth to her son and name him Isaac.
And even in that name there is a joke—you see, Isaac means “laughter.”
In the original Hebrew, when Abraham fell on his face, he isaaced.
When Sarah heard the promise, she isaaced.
But through their son, Isaac—who would become the ancestor of the Jewish people and, by faith, us Christians too, and through God’s promise to bless Abraham and Hagar’s son, Ishmael—who would become the ancestor of the Muslim people, God finally fulfilled the promise to make of them a great nation and through their offspring blessed all the nations of the earth.

Now, even a cursory glance through Genesis will tell you that these two individuals are unlikely choices to be ancestors of many.
They are certainly not in my top contenders to become God’s source of blessing for all nations.
And not just because of their age; they were both deeply flawed individuals.
Scripture really doesn’t hold back in listing their failures.
There is absolutely no way that they could have earned God’s blessing.
And yet, remarkably, these are the people with whom God has chosen to make an everlasting covenant, a promise of love and faithfulness that covers not only Abraham and Sarah, but all their descendants throughout the generations, all the way down to you and me.
God demonstrates a willingness to work with even the most unlikely, improbable partners to do impossible and amazing things—not on their own merits, but through the lavish, abundant love and grace that comes only from God.
Through these individuals, seemingly near the end of their lives, God would inspire a new beginning, a new life that would bless the whole world.
That through the womb of a woman assumed to be barren, God would give rise to prophets and kings and, eventually, even the Son of God.
That through the doubts and wanderings and laughter, God would remain steadfast to the promise.

The Apostle Paul tells us that by faith, Abraham and Sarah have become our spiritual ancestors, even if they are not our biological progenitors.
That they, who were “as good as dead,” became exemplars of a trust in God that withstands the foolishness and impossibilities of what we know to see the dazzling possibilities that only God can work.
But more than prototypes of faith, they are reminders of God’s transformative power in our lives.
That even at the ripe old age of 75, Abraham could start a journey of renewal and recreation, transformation into something completely new. Genesis tells us that Abraham would live to the remarkable age of 175, perhaps an encouragement, Dr. Wil Gafney writes, that “you’re never too old to leave behind that which will not bless you and start over.”[1]

In this season of Lent, we have been invited into a journey of recreation and transformation.
Of taking stock of our lives so we can leave behind anything that does not bless us.
Of returning to the Lord our God, seeking a new start rooted in our own baptismal covenant with God—an enduring promise of God’s love for us and God’s commitment to doing the impossible in our lives.
Of looking past our failings and working with us to be God’s blessing in the world.
Of transforming our death into the new life of Christ’s resurrection.
And I’ll admit, during this Lenten time, especially this year’s Lenten time, it can be all too easy to scornfully laugh and doubt that this is even possible.
It can be all too easy to see the failings of our lives, see the corruption of this world, and bitterly resign ourselves to the certainty that it is too late, that things can’t truly change, that this promise may go unfulfilled.

But as people of faith, my friends, this is the promise we cling to in these times—the promise made and remade to our ancestors Abraham and Sarah—that we are never too old, that it is never too late, to allow God to rework our very selves and reform us into something new.
That God is not limited by what we deem as laughably impossible, but is bursting into our lives to do wildly impossible things.
That while we can never earn God’s love, we are being transformed by that love to bring blessing and life to the whole world.

We know, too, that this congregation has been eagerly awaiting God’s transformation in our life together.
That for years now, we have been discerning, praying, discussing, waiting to see what future God has in store for our little church.
I know that for as long as I’ve been your pastor, I’ve heard the questions.
‘Will we ever go back to how it used to be? With full pews on Sunday and a bustling church building?’
‘Will we be able to continue caring for our small slice of God’s creation?’
‘Are we able to use our land to better serve our neighbors, following Christ’s example?’
‘What does the future hold for Holy Cross?’
I’ve even heard the unspoken questions wondering if perhaps these things aren’t possible anymore.
That with the increasing age and decreasing numbers of our congregation, perhaps our time has passed and there’s no use hoping for a future.
That maybe our best years are behind us.
That it is laughable to assume that our chance for building something new, starting afresh, living into our mission has not already passed us by.

But as our reading from Romans reminds us, we are invited to view Abraham and Sarah not as our exemplars in moral and upright living, but rather in faith—in bold trust that God can and will do impossible, remarkable things.
That like Abraham, we are invited to hope against hope that God will be faithful to the promise, that God will do things in this place, in this congregation, in these people gathered for worship today that we could have never done on our own.
That despite our age or size, no matter our doubt or cynicism, that even when we laugh it off as impossible, God can and will do amazing things within and among us.
That while it may not happen on our preferred timetable, that while it may look different than we imagined, that while we may laugh it off and doubt it will ever come, God will remain forever faithful to the promise and we will continue to be a blessing to our neighborhood and the whole world.

This season of Lenten journeys is meant to train us, my friends.
Not to wallow in our sins, not to be burdened by doubt our despair, but to train our eyes to blink away the visions of this world and instead to see through the eyes of God.
To watch as doubt gives way to trust.
To witness how impossibilities are supplanted by incredible opportunity.
To behold how even an instrument death itself is transformed into an everlasting promise of new and abundant life.
It’s a training that, I admit, may take longer than our whole lives to truly accomplish, but perhaps that’s why we are invited to practice every year.
Because, like our ancestors in faith, we have put our trust in the laughable.
We have put our faith in the God of the impossible.
And as we journey together toward the end of this Lenten pilgrimage, we eagerly await that day when we will marvel again at the promise fulfilled as we see life triumph over death and our doubt-filled laughs of scorn transformed into laughter of pure joy.

[1] Gafney, Wil. “Commentary on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16” on, February 25, 2018 (

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