Laughing With Sarah

Babies make us laugh. When we watch the strange faces a baby can make, it’s hard not to start chuckling. When we hear the noises a baby can make–some charming, some gross–it’s tough not to smile. When we consider the messes a baby can make, it’s almost impossible not to roar with laughter. Babies do some funny things, but they don’t have to do much in order to make us laugh. If adults are looking at a baby and the little one decides to smile or giggle, it’s contagious; the grownups are instantly smiling and giggling. It seems we’re quicker to laugh around babies. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because babies increase our sense of hope and delight. They warm and gladden our hearts with the beauty and potential of new life. Yes, babies are a lot of work and may seem like a burden at times, and yet being around a baby gives a sense of freshness and excitement about the future. Our spirits are lifted, and we are quicker to laugh.

Another reason babies make us laugh is that they make us less worried about proper appearances and more willing to act silly. It’s easier to laugh when you don’t mind looking laughable. A corporate boss might always insists on proper procedures around grownups, but put a baby in his arms, and that stern, formal big shot may be transformed into a big marshmallow. Instead of barking orders and taking himself seriously, he’s making silly sounds like “goo-goo” and “ga-ga” and roaring with laughter at the baby’s every move. He doesn’t care if he seems like a clown. Somehow, when you’re around a baby, it’s okay to act goofy. A baby somehow brings out the babyish side in many adults who usually keep that side of themselves under wraps, and a flood of carefree, fun-loving, childlike joy comes pouring out.

But not everybody can enjoy the laughter that babies bring. There are people who for years have longed to have a baby, but with each passing year it appears more and more certain that they will never have a baby of their own. People who want a baby but haven’t been blessed with one may find it hard to laugh when they are around other people’s babies. Although babies often make people laugh, the lack of a baby can make some people cry.

A Baby Named Laughter

Now, if wanting a child but not being able to have one is hard, just imagine you’re a childless woman married to a man whose name means “exalted father.” What a sad joke! You’ve been married for many years, but Mr. Exalted-Father hasn’t fathered any children for you. You’re eighty-nine and he’s ninety-nine, and you’ve never been able to get pregnant. One day your husband comes home and says, “I need to change my name, dear.” You might think it makes sense for him to be called something besides “exalted father,” but then he tells you that from now on his new name is “Father-of-Many.” When you hear that, you may wonder if he’s lost his mind. But you love him, so you play along. Abram, “exalted father,” is now Abraham, “father of many.”

Meanwhile, you have a new name, too. You were called Sarai, meaning “princess,” and now you’re to be called “Sarah.” That also means “princess”–but it’s a newer form of the name and apparently means you’re to be a princess in a whole new way.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to change names than to change reality. Your husband can be called “father of many,” and you can be called “princess,” but he is still an old geezer, and you are still barren. Abraham and Sarah may be new names, but reality is the same old same old.

If we put ourselves in Sarah’s shoes, we might not know whether to laugh or cry at the silliness of it all. Her husband said that God told him to make the name changes and that God would bless them with offspring who would eventually change the world. But could Sarah be expected to believe all that?

Sarah’s husband certainly didn’t find it easy to believe. When God told Abraham that Sarah would have a son and be the mother of nations and kings, Abraham literally fell over laughing (Genesis 17:17). But the Lord insisted that he meant what he said, and he told Abraham that Sarah’s baby should be named Isaac, which in Hebrew means “he laughs.”

The story continues in Genesis 18, where the Bible says that Abraham “was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.” Abraham urged the visitors to rest and freshen up and enjoy a meal before going on their way. He told Sarah to bake some fresh bread and ordered a servant to prepare choice, tender meat. Then Abraham himself served the food and waited on the visitors as they ate.

“Where is your wife Sarah?’ they asked him.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

Then one of the visitors (who was really the Lord God appearing in human form) said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. When she heard this visitor say that she would be a mother at age 90 and her husband a father at age 100,

Sarah laughed to herself and thought, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?'”

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.”

When the Lord said that, Sarah stopped laughing and was suddenly afraid. It’s possible that at first she hadn’t known the person speaking to Abraham was really the Lord, since the Lord and the two angels with him had taken on human form. But it’s also possible that Sarah knew it was the Lord and laughed anyway. After all, her husband had earlier fallen down laughing at God’s promise of a new baby, and Abraham had known perfectly well that it was the Lord speaking. At any rate, Sarah was shaken to realize that her secret eavesdropping and her silent laughter weren’t really secret or silent to this visitor. This was Someone who didn’t like not being believed and didn’t like being laughed at. When he asked why Sarah laughed, Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.” (Genesis 18:1-15)

Of course, God himself got the last laugh. The Lord wasn’t going to let Sarah’s disbelief get in the way of his plans for her. Listen to Genesis 21:1-7.

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac [meaning “he laughs”] to the son Sarah bore him. When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

Even ordinary babies can make people laugh, so you can imagine how much little Isaac made Sarah laugh.

Would you name a baby “Laughter”? Maybe not, but for Abraham and Sarah’s baby, no other name would do. They had to call him Isaac, Laughter, because both Abraham and Sarah had laughed in disbelief when God promised them a baby in their old age; both laughed in amazement and delight when God came through on his promise; and the joyous laughter of God himself was echoing all around them as he took another step in his plan to transform this world of tears into a place of unrestrained, unstoppable laughter and merriment for ever and ever.

Is Anything Too Hard for the Lord?

You and I are invited to laugh along with Sarah and with God. After all, Sarah herself said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” Before we can laugh with Sarah in her joy, however, we first need to get beyond laughing with her in disbelief.

When Sarah and Abraham looked at their circumstances, they couldn’t see any possible way for God’s promise of a baby to come true. What’s more, it had been 25 years since God had first promised them a baby, and in all that time, nothing had happened. So when God came along and said that the baby would be coming along shortly, within the next year, Sarah thought, “Yeah, right. Most people my age walk with a cane if they’re not already in a coffin, and you say I’m going to have a baby next year? That’s a funny one. Got any other good jokes?”

Perhaps you know the feeling. You look at your situation and see no reason to think anything will change for the better. Maybe you hear promises over and over for a long period of time but nothing happens, and you tend to greet those promises with disbelief. Even if God himself is the one making the promises, you can’t help reacting like Sarah and laughing in disbelief.

But God doesn’t like it when we laugh at his precious promises. When we laugh because God’s promise sounds impossible and he hasn’t acted as soon as we would like, God has one simple question for us, the same question he had for Sarah: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14). Would God be God if there were something in the universe too great or too hard for him to handle? In that case, God would not be the supreme being; the obstacle God couldn’t handle would be supreme. How could that be? What can stop almighty God from doing what he says he will do? Is anything too hard for the Lord? That is the supreme question each of us must face.

Maybe you find it laughable when God says in the Bible that he created earth and stars and plants and animals and people by speaking them into existence. Why do you laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord? Maybe you snicker at Bible stories about the sun standing still, or a huge fish swallowing Jonah, or Jesus walking on water. Why do you laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord? Maybe you sneer at the idea that dead people will all be raised from the grave someday. Why do you laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord?

Or maybe you believe Bible stories about miracles, but your own personal life is such a muddle that it sounds like a bad joke when you’re told that your life could be dramatically changed for the better. Why do you laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord? Maybe you’ve sunk so deep into sin and stupidity that you think it’s too late ever to be forgiven and accepted by God, and you snort if anyone says otherwise. Why do you laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord? Maybe you think the church is too boring and irrelevant and full of hypocrites to ever amount to anything again, and you snort at those who expect great things. Why do you laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord?

When we can’t believe God is going to do something great, our problem is that we’re looking at ourselves and our limits, rather than looking at God and his possibilities. The Bible says that when Sarah laughed in disbelief, she was telling herself how old and worn out she was. But when Sarah later laughed in joy, the first person she mentioned was not herself but God. “God has brought me laughter,” she exclaimed. Only when Sarah’s eyes turned from her own limits to God’s limitless possibilities could she believe the truth of God’s Word. The same applies to us. We must turn our focus away from our immediate situation and limits and concentrate instead on the absolute power of God.

But what if, deep inside, we simply don’t believe some word or promise from God? Well, if we’re somewhat religious, we may not want to admit our unbelief to anyone, especially not to God. We’re like Sarah. Honesty would be too scary; we’d rather lie than be honest. But it never works to pretend with God. If we must face the question, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” then we must also face the question, “Is anything hidden from the Lord?” Sarah was hidden inside a tent, but God could see her. Sarah laughed only to herself and didn’t make a sound, but God could hear her. Sarah kept her thoughts to herself, but God could read her mind, and he challenged her disbelieving laughter. When Sarah denied it and said she didn’t laugh, the Lord fired back, “Yes, you did laugh.” At that point, Sarah gave up trying to fool God.

You and I, too, might as well give up trying to fool God. If our faith isn’t what it should be, we might as well just admit it, rather than trying to pretend. We’re not going to fool God anyway. Once our own lack of faith has been exposed, we’re in a far better position for genuine faith to start growing.

God’s Promise-Keeping Grace

And grow it will, if that’s what God has decided. Faulty faith doesn’t stop God’s irresistible grace or prevent his promises from coming true. Sarah may have laughed in disbelief, but did that stop God? No, says the Bible, “the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son… at the very time God had promised” (Genesis 18:1-2). Notice, the Bible doesn’t credit anything Sarah did; it says God was gracious to Sarah and says repeatedly that this was in keeping with God’s promise.

Can you imagine Abraham and Sarah looking at baby Isaac and saying to each other, “Wow, dear, we did it. That new diet of fruits and vegetables and that new exercise program we’ve been working on must have done the job! We’ve made ourselves so youthful and fertile that we were finally able to have a baby.” No, they knew it was not their work or efforts or capacities that created new life. Their ability to produce life was dead. It was only God’s grace that produced new life for them.

What was true of baby Isaac’s birth is true of all who are born again spiritually in Jesus Christ: it’s not human work or decision but God’s grace and power which make a new child of God. The Bible says that “to all who received [Christ], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13). You have less chance of making yourself be born again as a child of God than a 100-year-old man and a 90-year-old woman have of making a baby. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,” says Jesus (Matthew 19:26).

God’s new birth into eternal life comes to us through faith, but don’t think God’s promise is based on our faith. It’s the other way around: our faith is based on God’s promise. Some people have the idea that God looks ahead to see who will have faith and then gives grace and life to those whom he foresees will have the proper degree of faith. But that is backward. It is grace that creates faith, not faith that creates grace.

After hearing the story of Sarah, can you imagine her saying, “Wow, isn’t my faith strong? God is making me a mother of nations and kings because he saw in advance what terrific faith I have”? Now there’s a laugh! If God based his grace on looking ahead to see how people respond to his promise, he would have seen Abraham and Sarah snickering at him. Of themselves, they didn’t have a faith worth looking at. But God in his grace kept after them until faith took root, and he showered promises on them to make their faith grow and flourish.

In fact, God is so gracious that once he moves us beyond unbelief to faith, he does some special accounting. He records our faith as a right standing with him, and he wipes our doubts and unbelief off the books. Consider what the New Testament says about Abraham. It says, “Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead–since he was about a hundred years old–and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:19-21). Now, we know that there were several times that Abraham’s faith wavered severely, but God strengthened his faith, and the Lord kept account of that strong faith and did not hold any previous weakening or wavering against Abraham.

And what does the New Testament say about Sarah? It includes her among the heroes of faith! Hebrews 11:11 says, “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past age, since she considered him faithful who had promised” (Hebrews 11:11 RSV). By faith? Sarah? Is this the woman who laughed in disbelief? She considered God faithful? Well, maybe not right away, but apparently, by God’s grace, God’s promises put down roots in Sarah and grew into a living faith. As faith grew in her heart, baby Laughter grew in her womb. And now God regards laughing Sarah not as a doubting, lying failure but as one of his heroes of faith!

It’s enough to make us laugh–and laugh we should, for Sarah expected people to laugh with her, and God expects us to laugh along with his holy laughter. As our unbelief melts away under the power of God’s promises, and as God creates faith in us, he forgives our disbelieving laughter and hypocritical lies, he counts our faith as righteousness, and he fills us with joyous laughter and celebration of his grace and faithfulness.

He laughs best who laughs last, and God gets the last laugh. He frowns when we laugh at his promises, but at the same time it strikes him as ludicrous when we think something is too hard for him. Too hard for God? What could be sillier? Unbelief is a joke–a bad joke–but God has a few jokes of his own up his sleeve. The Lord has his own holy humor. He replaced Sarah’s disbelieving laughter with the laughter of joy and wonder. He made all Sarah’s old sorrows and problems and disbelief seem funny to her in hindsight. We hear Sarah laughing, and as she laughs, we can almost hear God saying, “See, I knew you laughed earlier, even though you denied it. Now you’re laughing again, but this time, it’s healthy, holy, happy laughter–and I’m laughing too!”

Eventually, from the line of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac, another baby would be born. Sarah was astonished when God gave her a baby, but she hadn’t seen anything yet. God was just getting started with his plan of salvation. Greater things were still to come. Give a baby to an infertile and aged couple? That’s easy, said God. How about giving a baby to a virgin? Helping old folks to produce life? That’s easy, said God. How about taking a man who is dead and buried and making him gloriously alive? Jesus Christ, born of a virgin and raised from the dead, is the supreme revelation of God’s power and grace, for Jesus is himself God in human flesh.

Perhaps you think that what the Bible says is too good to be true. You find things like Jesus’ virgin birth and resurrection to be unbelievable, even laughable. It’s time to stop laughing long enough to realize whom you’re dealing with. Almighty God is not some wimpy weakling; he created the world out of nothing and is not limited by anything in the world. God is not a liar; when he says he’ll do something, he does it. This great God has worked wonders in Christ, and he continues to do so.

In fact, he just might be planning to work his wonders in you. When he does, you will laugh again, but in a totally new way. Right now you may think you’re the last person on earth who would ever be singled out by God to become a hero of faith, but God has been known to do some mighty funny things. Like Sarah, you could end up seeing the impossible happen, be transformed by God’s grace into a hero of faith, and say, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.