Where are you this morning? Some of us are coming off an incredible week of Vacation Bible School, both exhausted and exhilarated for what God has done. Others come drained. It’s been a long week, a long month, a long year. We are looking for a little hope, like cool water on the tip of our dry tongue. Some of us come feeling all mixed up, a jumble of thoughts, feelings, longings, and hopes that we cannot seem to untangle.
Where are you this morning? However you come to this place today, God’s word is for you. We pick up the true story of God in Genesis 20, after what has been eight chapters for us and twenty-five years of waiting for Abraham and Sarah for the child God has promised them. Listen to these words from the book that we love, but before we do, let’s pray:
Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.
If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s Word.
Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:
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 to the son Sarah bore him. When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter and everyone who heard about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have born him a son in his old age.”
The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had born for Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”
Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered into the Desert of Beersheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went away and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.
God heard the boy crying and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.
God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.
At that time, Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do. Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you now reside as a foreigner the same kindness I have shown to you.”
Abraham said, “I swear it.”
Then Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized. But Abimelech said, “I don’t know who has done this. You did not tell me and I heard about it only today.”
So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelech and the two men made a treaty. Abraham set aside seven ewe lambs from the flock and Abimelech asked Abraham, “What is the meaning of the seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?”
He replied, “Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.”
So that place was called Beersheba because the two men swore an oath there.
After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines. Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and there he called upon the name of the LORD, the Eternal God. And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.
This is the Word of the LORD. Thanks be to God.
Where are you this morning?
Perhaps some of you are sitting with Sarah. It’s verse 6: Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”
Laughter. Sarah’s laughter is the kind that bubbles up with joy after the long wait. It is the laugh that comes unbidden to our mouths when those first few drops of rain fall after a long, dry summer. It is the laugh of the bride and groom on the wedding day, the joyous smile of a mother as she holds her child for the first time. It is the joyous laugh of relief for those who hear good news – the cancer is gone, our child has come home, we were safe in the storm.
Laughter and Joy. In many ways, laughter is the most appropriate response to the gospel and to all gracious actions of the LORD in our lives.
Sarah had been waiting a long time. 25 years at least, but probably longer than that. She was already sixty-five when the promise came to Abraham. A year before our story began, the LORD promised that she would bear a child the next year. Sarah laughed. At that point, it was a laugh of disbelief. Are you kidding? Me? A child?
But now that laugh of disbelief has been swallowed up by the laugh of joy. All those long prayers, all those times waiting and wondering if there would ever be relief, ever be hope, ever be joy, all of that has finally been answered. Joy comes rushing into Sarah and she bursts forth in laughter.
We have been with Sarah as a congregation. We have seen prodigal children come home. We have seen cancer recede and healing take place. We have seen children have faith in Jesus Christ and adults join them in praising his name.
So Sarah’s laugh should be our laugh, our response to gospel joy. Joy and laughter have always been our truest response to God’s work in our midst. It was the response of the psalmist when he said, “The LORD has done great things for us and we are filled with joy.” It was the response of John the Baptist in the womb at first being in the presence of Jesus. Elizabeth says, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” Then Mary joined in the joy by saying, “My soul glorifies the LORD and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” It was the response of the shepherds and angels at the birth of Jesus – joy and laughter. It was the response of the father when he saw the prodigal son a long way down the road. He ran out to him. Joy and laughter – son dead is alive again, lost and was found. Joy is what Jesus proclaims is resounding in heaven at every lost soul that is found. And joy, mixed with bewilderment, was the most common response to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Joy and laughter should characterize much of the life of the church. Gospel joy is not a cheap emotional high, but the deep laughter we find in Sarah – God has brought me laughter and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me. As the church, we should be those who laugh most in the world, for “The LORD has done great things for us and we are filled with joy.” We who have experience the graciousness of God in Jesus Christ after the long wait for that promised child should be the first and most exuberant in our joy.
The church should be known for its holy joy. However, we midwesterners could probably do joy better. We are often good at saying thank you, but as a church we could do with more celebratory joy. That was part of what I loved about Vacation Bible School this past week. I saw the children singing with joy to God, but it was also a chance to see Diane Eilderts and Tam Aswegen and Mary Kolder and others show great joy in worship.
Where are you this morning? Perhaps you are sitting with Sarah this morning, captivated by the graciousness and goodness of God. Then laugh with joy, for the LORD is good and his love endures forever.
But perhaps, this morning, you are huddled with Hagar. The idea of trying to be joyful only twists you up inside. You know others might be tasting the joy of the LORD, but your cup seems only filled with tears.
Hagar has twice been cast out of Abraham’s household. For a long time, it was hoped that Ishmael would be the child of promised, but he wasn’t. Not only was Ishmael not the promised child, but he would have no share in the inheritance. With nothing but a little bit of food and a skin of water, Hagar is sent off into the desert.
Soon the water runs out. The land is dry, her mouth is dry, her son is weak and weary from the heat. She places him under the shade of a bush and goes where she cannot see or hear him, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.
In this place of thirst and despair, God hears their cry. God hears and he provides. Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.
God heard their cry, lifted them up, and provided water to sustain them. He didn’t take them out of the desert, but he was with them in it.
When we are in the pit, when we are stretched beyond what we think we can bear – application after application only ends in rejection, the doctor tells you you should be sitting down to hear the diagnosis, the miscarriage, the child walks away from the church – when we cry out to God, he hears. Hagar and Ishmael cry out in lament and God hears their cry.
Joy and Laughter should characterize much of our life as a church, but so should honest lament. We, of all people on earth, can truly lament. We can afford to be honest about the pain we see in the world and in our lives, because it does not lead us to despair but to the God who hears our prayers. Apart from God, we might easily be tempted to paint over all the ugly, to sweep all the dirt under the table, or resign ourselves merely to surviving a world gone wrong. Instead, we come to the LORD. We can be a people who weep with those who weep, who mourn with those who mourn, who cry out with those crying out under oppression, because God hears our cries. God hearing our prayers empowers us to face the ugly, face gut-wrenching pain, face the brokenness and rebellion in the world and in our hearts, not with despair or resignation, but with honesty and hope, because we can take it all and bring it to the God who hears.
God hears and does not remain silent. When it was Hagar and Ishmael, the LORD provided water in a dry land. It is as the psalmist says, “Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever.” I have had the privilege over the last five years to sit with many saints as they were dying. They were facing all of the ugliness and pain of death. I have seen people face death with fear and trembling, but most didn’t. The storms were coming, but the house did not fall, because it was founded on rock. I saw the look in Chuck Juel’s eyes as I shared God’s Word with him right before he died. I heard Shirlene tell me, “I love Jesus very much and it is going to be okay.” I sang “The Refuge of My Soul” with Rhonda as we waited for her to enter her everlasting refuge in Jesus. I stood next to Herman Frey in the hospital as he told me how the song ‘Blessed Assurance’ meant so much to him.
I have had the privilege of sitting with many of you in the dry, desert seasons of these past years. No matter how much the wind howled or when the water ran out, I have seen you cry out to the LORD. And God heard and, for at least that day, there was cool water to wet your dry tongue. I have also witnessed God lead you out of the desert again into beautiful land, where the boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places.
We know what it is like to be with Hagar. We know how sweet it is, even in the desert, to know that God hears our prayers.
So where are you this morning? Some of you might be with Hagar, or be sitting with the Hagars in your life. If you are stretched beyond your capacity, bring it to the LORD who hears. If you are with someone struggling, weep with them, cry out with them, mourn with them, because the LORD hears and when he hears he does not stay silent.
Where are you this morning? Perhaps some of you are sitting with Sarah, full of laughter and joy. Perhaps some of you are huddled with Hagar, groaning and crying out to the LORD. But perhaps some of you are also with Abraham, planting a tree for the future.
Abraham, like Sarah, has been living a long time holding on to the promise of God. I imagine that Sarah was not the only one in their household who couldn’t hold back the laughter at the birth of Isaac. However, Abraham responds differently. There is a curious episode at the end of our story that I want us to reflect on for a few moments before we close. After the treaty was made at Beersheba, Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines. Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and there he called on the name of the LORD, the Eternal God. And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines a long time.
Abraham plants a tree. His response to all the gracious work of God that he has seen is to plant a tree. Not just any tree, we are told it is a tamarisk tree. I learned something significant about the tamarisk tree. It takes an incredibly long time to grow. Eventually, it provides shade and food and fuel, but a tamarisk is not a tree you plant expecting the reap the benefits next year.
No, a tamarisk is a tree you plant for your grandchildren to enjoy. That’s how long it takes. That is the kind of investment and vision that comes with planting a tamarisk tree.
Abraham plants for a day he will not see. He looks to the future, takes his resources and plants a tree. This is particular significant for us as we reach maturity in our life and faith. Where are you planting a tree? Where are you using your time, money, and resources for those who will follow you, for a day you will not live to see? What are you planting with your life that will bear fruit in the lives of the generations that you will never see?
Abraham does this as an act of praise to God. It is an act of faith that the LORD who was faithful to him all the days of his life, faithful to bring him Isaac – the joy of his heart – in his old age, will be faithful beyond the days he himself will see.
Where are you this morning? Perhaps you are sitting with Sarah, filled with joy that overflows into laughter. Perhaps you are huddled with Hagar, crying out to the LORD who hears. But perhaps you are with Abraham, looking back on a long life of tasting and seeing that the LORD is good and now looking to plant a tree for a future you will not see. A future you see by faith in the one who has always been faithful to you.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.