The Reverend Dr. Lillian Daniel
November 9, 2008
First Congregational Church,
Introduction to the Scripture:
A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon on Sodom and Gomorrah. You may remember the central character in that story was a man named Lot who lived in a land that was hostile to him. Well, today’s reading takes place before that story, but in the same lifetime. Today you will hear about Lot’s uncle, Abraham. You see Lot and his uncle, Abraham, divided the territory and went their separate ways.
Now you may remember from that Sunday that Lot was visited by three angels, who appeared as men, and were seeking hospitality. Well, in today’s story, those same three angels visit Abraham, Lot’s uncle, before they visit Lot in Sodom. These are the same angels, just earlier on their errand. They come to tell Abraham and Sarah that they are going to have to adjust their retirement plans because Sarah is about to have a baby.
This child will turn out to be Isaac. There’s a famous story about Isaac and his father that you may remember, where Abraham almost sacrifices that son he had waited so long for. God did not desire that sacrifice, and instead told Abraham not to harm the boy, or to ever sacrifice a human being. Isaac went on to lead a long and fruitful life as the father of the Jewish people. That’s a story for another time. Today, you are going to learn about how Isaac came into the world, and the strange parents who gave him life.
Scripture: Genesis 18:1-15
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, ‘Where is your wife, Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ 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 wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
At the age of ninety nine, Abraham learns that his beloved wife of all these years, is about to have a baby. Sarah will go on to have a baby, whose name will be Isaac. So what happened to get this couple to this point? Many people remember this key detail in the life of Abraham, that he and his wife Sarah had a child at a very advanced age. How much of the rest of the story do you know?
This morning I am preaching to you about Abraham because this man will be studied by our children in their workshops. The way our Christian formation program for our children works is that they get to spend six or seven weeks at a time learning about one key Biblical character, or one key theme. So this is Abraham’s time. In order to integrate that, your pastors try to preach to that same topic at least once during the unit, in our hopeless effort to keep the adults up to speed with the kids. So, today, we’re all going to hear about Abraham.
I am approaching this one with a little bit of mischief. Because, this is a case where you may actually come out of here smarter than a fifth grader. Why? Because I am going to tell you the whole story of Abraham, and that’s something your children are not going to get. Why not? When you hear the story, you’ll know why. They are getting the G rated version, but you guys are going to get the R.
Welcome to one of scripture’s most fascinating couples, a woman and a man whose marriage survives trickery, infidelity, polygamy and diapers – in that order.
Back before Abraham got the news that at 99 years old, he was about to be a daddy, he had been a young man like any other. He had a different name back then. It was Abram, and his wife’s name was Sarai. It was only after receiving the big news that you heard in today’s reading, by the way, that they got their new names by which we know them, Abraham and Sarah. That’s a common Biblical trope by the way. When people encounter God, they sometimes leave with a name change. You may recall that in the New Testament, that happens to the apostle, Paul. Before his conversion he is Saul, but then after, he is Paul. It’s as if God is saying, from this point on you are a new person, with a new life, and to symbolize that, a new name. So as we begin our story, we will call them by their old names, Abram and Sarai.
Now age in the Old Testament is a tricky thing, second only to time. Do they really mean these ages or did they count differently? You can interpret these texts for yourself, and decide that for yourself. The age of the characters in this story seems to matter to the plot. It is part of a story in which a long-married couple gets surprised, over and over again. That takes a few decades.
So the couple emerge in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, already married, and in fact, when their story begins, Abram is supposed to be 75 years old, when God appeared to him and made a covenant. In that holy promise God told Abram that his descendants would be a nation one day, a nation that we know looking back, will be the people of Israel. In order to make that promise come true, Abram, his wife, Sarai, and their nephew, Lot, had to leave the land of Haran for the land of Canaan, and then toward the Negev.
As often happened in those days, a famine struck the land and Abram and his people, all the shepherds who depended upon him for an income, and his wife had nothing to eat. For nomadic people, that meant another move, and this time they took off for the wealthy land of Egypt. Here’s where the story gets interesting.
As he drew near to Egypt, he said to his wife, Sarai, “Look. We both know that you’re a beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you they're going to say, ‘Whoa, check out his wife. Let’s kill her husband and take her for ourselves.’ But they’ll let you live. Do me a favor, darling: tell them you’re my sister. Because of you being such a “hottie,” they’ll welcome me and let me live.”
Now that’s as much as the scripture tells us, and by the way, it’s all in there, but I can imagine that Sarai had a few choice words for her husband who had just dragged her across the country for a career move based on a divine revelation. Apparently, she went along with the plan as a way to save both their lives.
Well, it unfolded just as Abram expected. When they arrived in Egypt, the Egyptians took one look and saw that his wife was stunningly beautiful. Pharaoh’s princes raved over her to Pharaoh, the all-powerful leader of the all-powerful nation. Now, I’m just going to quote the scripture for you here, because if I didn’t, you wouldn’t believe this was in the Bible about our gray-haired eminence, Abraham. It reads.
“She was taken to live with Pharaoh. Because of her, Abram got along very well: he accumulated sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, men and women servants, and camels.”
So basically, Pharoah, a polygamist, like most men in those days, takes Abram’s wife to be his own wife, thinking that she is single and the sister of the man she is actually married to. Well, apparently God did not approve of this soap opera, and decides to take action by making every one in the Pharoah’s palace seriously sick. Not Abram, mind you, the one who hatched this scheme, but the Pharoah.
So Pharaoh called for Abram, “What’s this that you’ve done to me? Why didn’t you tell me that she’s your wife? Why did you say, ‘She’s my sister,’ so that I’d take her as my wife? Here’s your wife back—take her and get out!” – so that we can all get on some antibiotics and get better, for an appearance on the Dr. Phil show, where we’ll all unpack our feelings.
Pharaoh ordered his men to get Abram out of the country. They sent him and his wife and everything he owned on their way, remarkably, with their lives. And I can just imagine them hightailing it out of town, with Sarai chiming in, “Got any other good ideas, honey?”
By then Abram was rich, from his business dealings in Egypt, and they were able to go back and settle in the Negev.
Now his nephew Lot, who was traveling with Abram, was also rich in sheep and cattle and tents. The land couldn’t support both of them; they had too many possessions. They couldn’t both live there and we are told that quarrels broke out between Abram’s shepherds and Lot’s shepherds. The family business was getting crowded.
So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have fighting between us, between your shepherds and my shepherds. After all, we’re kin. Look around. Isn’t there plenty of land out there? Let’s separate. If you go left, I’ll go right; if you go right, I’ll go left. Your call.”
Lot looked. He saw the whole plain of the Jordan spread out, well-watered like God’s garden, much like Egypt, and stretching all the way to Zoar. So Lot set out to the east and took the whole plain of the Jordan. (Perhaps not a great choice, by the way, since that land included two cities noted later in this chapter, Sodom and Gomorrah, destined for destruction.)
That’s how they came to part company, uncle and nephew. Abram settled in Canaan; Lot settled in the cities of the plain and pitched his tent near Sodom. What’s that real estate maxim? Location, location, location. It turns out that this is where we learn more about the problems with Sodom and Gomorrah, by the way. If you go back and read this part, you find out that the kings of those cities, along with some other mean kings, take Lot prisoner, and Abram has to rescue him. The land that had at first seemed so appealing, was filled with tar pits, and the kings all fell into them, slowing them down as they tried to make off with all the plunder, until eventually Abram was able to rescue his nephew and recover all his possessions.
When that happened, the king of Sodom came out and paid tribute to God, which is interesting, and Abram we are told, gave the king of Sodom a tenth of the plunder he had grabbed in the battle. The king told Abram he could have all the plunder in exchange for the people, but Abram refused, saying, “I can’t have you going around saying that you made me rich.” Apparently when it came to dividing up other people’s plunder, stuff other people had stolen that you stole from them, there were ethical boundaries that Abram was not willing to cross – but not many. This would be a great business school case study, wouldn’t it?
Well, after the plundering and pillaging stage of his life Abram’s thoughts turned, as you might expect, to thoughts of being a daddy. Sarai could not have children. So now it was Sarai who had the idea for the next weird stage of their marriage. She invited Abram to sleep with her maidservant, Hagar, and to make Hagar his second wife. Like many ideas that the this couple comes up with, this would not turn out to be a Kodak moment for the scrapbook. Sure enough, Hagar got pregnant but the scripture says that then, the maid began to look down on the mistress. And Sarai complained to her husband in the way that faithful women have continued to do, because it’s right here in the Bible that she tells him, “It’s all your fault that I’m suffering this abuse. I put my maid in bed with you and the minute she knows she’s pregnant, she treats me like I’m nothing. May God decide which of us is right.”
“You decide,” said Abram. “Your maid is your business.” In other words, do you have any more bright ideas, honey?
In a sad twist, Sarai let out her anger on the one who was less powerful than she. She couldn’t torment her husband, so she tormented her maid, until poor Hagar ran away into the wilderness. There, God met her, and told her, “Go back to your mistress. Put up with her abuse.” He continued, “I’m going to give you a big family, children past counting.
From this pregnancy, you’ll get a son: Name him Ishmael; for God heard you, God answered you. He’ll be a bucking bronco of a man, a real fighter, fighting and being fought, always stirring up trouble, always at odds with his family.”
Really, in this family, you wouldn’t need God to tell you that. They were all at odds with each other. So Hagar went ahead and gave birth to her son Ishmael, and at this time, Abram was a first time dad at the age of eighty-six. I’m guessing Hagar took care of those night feedings, and for the next thirteen years, Ishmael was Abram’s only son. So what about God’s early covenant with him that his descendants would populate the earth?
Well, that gets us almost up to today’s scripture reading, but just before our reading, God makes a new covenant, or at least fills out some of the concrete details in the old one. First God give Abram a name change, and says from this point on, he will be Abraham. Then God says “And Sarai your wife: Don’t call her Sarai any longer; call her Sarah. I’ll bless her—and I’ll give you a son by her. Kings of nations will come from her.” God continues with other practical details about how all this covenant-keeping will play out. By the end, the scripture tells us that Abraham passes out and falls on face at this news. Why? Had he thought that God had forgotten about him? Perhaps. I suspect it had to do with the rest of the covenant, because it is here in the Bible that God says, for the first time, “Circumcise every male.” Here you can sort of imagine Abram saying, “Ok, can we negotiate here? You know I’m on board with the overall concept where I produce a mighty nation, it’s just some of these fine points.”
God continues, “Every male baby will be circumcised when he is eight days old, generation after generation.” At which point Abraham is thinking, OK, babies, they’re little, they won’t remember. Then God makes it clear “Make sure you circumcise both your own children and yourself. That way, my covenant will be cut into your body, a permanent mark of my permanent covenant.” I think it’s at that point that Abraham passes out.
The scripture says, “Abraham fell flat on his face. And then he laughed, thinking, “Can a hundred-year-old man father a son? And can Sarah, at ninety years, have a baby?”
That gets us to our scripture reading today, where three men, who are really angels, show up and tell Sarah that she is going to have a baby. Her reaction? She laughs. She laughs and laughs and laughs. That, if you remember, is exactly what Abraham did when he got the news. He laughed and laughed and laughed. This, my friends, is how this bizarre marriage made it – these two people were nuts. Abraham sent his wife off to marry the Pharoah in order to save his own bacon, and accumulate some serious wealth, and she did it. Sarah convinced Abraham to marry her maid and have a child, only to regret it and blame her husband for the whole idea. Then, at ninety, she gets ready to have a child. At ninety-nine, Abraham actually gets circumcised. It’s explicit in the Bible. That, in my humble opinion, was payback for his shipping Sarah off to the Pharoah and may have been the real reason Sarah was laughing.
What a complicated story. So why read it? Why know it? Well, first, I wanted to bring comfort to anybody out there who thinks their own marriage is complicated.
Nothing beats this.
I mean these people have raised family dysfunction to an art form. Anything our generation comes up with looks like the work of amateurs. You have to admit, the story is an engaging one – entertaining even – in a guilty, life-time-channel Jerry Springer kind of way.
So seriously, why read about them? Because they are our spiritual ancestors. Church, meet the parents. This is where we all spring from, according to our faith story.
Technically, in the Jewish and Muslim traditions, Hagar’s son, Ishmael, becomes the father of the Muslims and Isaac, Sarah’s son, becomes the father of the Jewish people, and together they populate the Middle East. We, the Christians, who follow the Judeo-Christian trajectory, understand ourselves to be the people of Abraham and Sarah, and Hagar, the outcast, as well. These are our roots.
Now, the people putting the Torah together, the Jewish people who had to decide which texts should be scripture and which should not, were just as smart as we are. They knew that this story would not reflect well on the central characters. While they had cultural blind spots, for example around women and slavery, the story is written in such a way as to make it clear these are very imperfect people in a very imperfect marriage. Yet their lives are recorded for posterity, and our children are currently studying them in Sunday School.
I realize that after today’s sermon, you may be regretting that, but I trust our educators to do something with the G rated version.
The “G-rated” version of this story is the covenant, the promise that God makes with Abraham and Sarah, with Ishmael and Isaac, with Hagar and with us. We are God’s people, not because we have earned it, but because God so loved the world that he chose to love us, to send his son, Jesus Christ, that we might have life: in our brokenness, in our fallibility and in our poor decisions. If God can work with and bless people like Sarah and Abraham, surely God has great things in store for each and every one of us. Amen.