Wednesday, January 23, 2019

When Sarah Laughed: a reflection on faith and the sanctity of life

I've begun this year by exploring the faith of Abraham and Sarah, whose sojourn is exemplary for us. "Look to the quarry from which you were hewn. Look to Abraham and Sarah," says the prophet Isaiah.  We are made of the same stern stuff, justified by grace through belief and inheriting the promises of God through faith and patience. To turn from pagan gods to trust God, to leave their homeland and go to a land they did not know, to trust that God could give them a child in their barrenness and old age; all required remarkable faith. Faith that I want to imitate.

I find to my relief though, that their faith sojourn was a faltering one. "Abraham did not waver in faith but grew strong as he gave glory to God?" (Romans 4:16) I doubt it! In one sense, I suppose, they were unwavering. They never returned to their pagan gods. They never returned home. They kept living as pilgrims in tents even when God brought them to their new land. Their faith trajectory was up and to the right, as they say, growing stronger with the passing years. But there were some notable dips in the upward trajectory. Abraham lies about Sarah being his sister out of self-protection, allowing her to become one of Pharaoh's concubines. Sarah tells Abraham to sleep with Hagar her slave, because she becomes impatient with God's promise of a child. Abraham obliges and Ishmael is born. 

Yet, God is faithful. After Ishmael is born God changes Abram's name to Abraham - from father of many to father of many nations. This, to a man who has fathered only one illegitimate child! The whole name change is not only  incredulous to us.  Abram literally falls on his face laughing at God when he hears about his new name. It wasn't a good kind of laugh. The Hebrew here means to mock or scoff. Still, God seems undeterred. In the next chapter, God speaks to Abraham at his tent door, reassuring him that within a year his wife Sarah would have a baby boy. Sarah overhears this and laughs to herself. The same Hebrew word! She scoffs silently at God's promise. Apparently, unbelief is contagious. 

Abraham doesn't hear Sarah laugh, but God does. This time He is unimpressed and holds Abraham accountable. "Why did Sarah laugh?" He asks. When Abraham confronts Sarah she lies and denies it. Apparently, unbelief morphs into other forms of sin. Abraham stands his ground. "No, you did laugh." An awkward, unresolved tension because Abraham knows he is culpable.

And yet God is faithful. "The Lord came to Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what He had promised." She bore a child within a year and they named him Isaac. Sarah laughs again, but this time it is a laugh of pure, unadulterated joy. "God has made me laugh, and everyone who hears will laugh with me," she exclaims. 

How gracious is our God! They laughed at Him, yet He kept His promise to them. 

Of course, this raises the tension between God's sovereignty and our responsibility. If God is going to be faithful despite our faithlessness, why does our faith even matter? While God's faithfulness is clearly decisive, our faith certainly does matter. Otherwise, God would not have confronted  Abraham about the doubtful scoffing. Faith pleases Him and unbelief displeases him. We have a responsibility to a grow a culture of faith in our souls, our families, our friendships and our churches. It's become tragically hip to be cynical and pessimistic. In many ways, our world doesn't give us any good reason to be otherwise. Life is hard. Disappointment abounds. But God, who calls us to be a peculiar people in this world provides us with a peculiar hope against hope. This passage is not merely about faith though.

During a week in which abortion protagonists celebrated NYC's passing of a law permitting abortion of  unborn children up until birth, this passage is a powerful contrarian to a brutal cultural deception. Before Sarah even conceives, God tells the parents  that the child will be a boy and that they are to call him Isaac, which means 'he laughs!'  God sees the child with gender, personhood and personality before he is even in the womb! The Scriptures are saturated with the sanctity of  the unborn child.

Take heart if faith is at times faltering for you, like it is for me. If God was gracious with Abraham and Sarah's faltering faith, He will be gracious with yours. God, in His sovereign grace, can turn our cynical scoffing into a deep belly-laugh of joy, like He did for the mother of our faith. God will always have the last laugh.  And He will be laughing with us, not at us. 

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