"What's in a Name: Sarah's Laughter" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer
Genesis 18: 1-15; 21:1-7
The following was written by Sarah, woman of God, mother of nations, and wife of Abraham to her son Isaac so he might understand his mother’s experience before his birth.
“Where is your wife, Sarah?” I froze just inside the tent and the pitcher of milk I was holding sloshed with my sudden movement. Why were these visitors asking about me? I tried not to second guess your father’s hospitality, but Abraham had gone above and beyond for the trio casually lounging under the shade of our oaks. They were enjoying the best of what we had, for that’s what Abraham offered them. And while I didn’t share his conviction that there was something special about our visitors, I’ve long respected his generosity.
But I wondered what he’d gotten us into. There was no reason for the strangers to be asking about me. Abraham was their host; they had no need of me. And if I’m honest, their question “Where is Sarah?” made me jumpy and suspicious because I’d been wondering the same thing for a long time.
Abraham offered the obvious answer, “She’s in the tent,” and of course he was right. Physically I was there, in this place that will always feel foreign to me no matter how long I live here. Physically I was by his side as I’d been for decades. But emotionally? Spiritually? At that moment those felt like impossible questions to answer all because of a promise.
You should know that up to this point God’s promise had never been made to me, only to your father. For years it felt as though God chose not to speak to me, just about me. As though my barrenness only existed between your father and God. As if we hadn’t uprooted our lives multiple times because the Lord commanded it. All the while, our God promised Abraham that he would be the father of nations through the child I was to bare him.
The first time Abraham told me of this promise it seemed miraculous. He was 75, I was 65. Childless so long, we knew we needed divine help to have a family, and we were overjoyed to finally become parents. So, we waited. And waited. And waited.
24 years passed. Your father and I weren’t even what you’d politely call “older parents,” we were elderly people and the thought of having a child had become laughable. In fact, after God’s last repetition of “the promise” your father did laugh. Telling me the story later he said he laughed so hard he fell on his face!
Picking himself up and wiping away tears, Abraham reminded the Lord that he had a child; his son, your brother, Ishmael born to him by our slave Hagar. To be candid, hearing Ishmael’s name made my heart clenched, for the conception and birth of that boy brought out the worst in me. It took me years not to be angry at your father and Hagar and not to resent Ishamel. Despite it being my idea, your father’s ability to have a child with Hagar made me feel like even more of a failure and I know it damaged my relationship with Abraham.
But despite his efforts to convince God that Ishmael could fulfill the promise, our Lord insisted that my child would fulfill the covenant. God even went so far as to name you! He told us your name and, in that moment, the last, small bit of hope I’d carried around in my heart crumbled. I thought I finally understood the joke God was playing.
You know don’t you that your name Isaac means “he laughs” or simply “laughter?” Well, I was convinced God gave you that name because the Lord was laughing at my emptiness. Laughing at my inability to give your father a child. Laughing at me.
I knew your dad didn’t agree. He would’ve told me not to say such things. He would have dismissed my certainty that God’s “promise” was nothing more than a cosmic joke from a capricious deity. But such was the distance between us that I keep my thoughts to myself, allowing my perception of our God’s intentions to eat away at me. I became so bitter.
Then the three strangers appeared, and I found myself standing just inside our tend, milk jug in hand when I heard the voice of one of our visitors. He said to your father, “I’ll be back here around this time next year. When I arrive, your wife will have a son.”
Before I could stop it, laughter burst out of me like a spring. I covered my mouth immediately so they wouldn’t think I was eavesdropping, but I couldn’t help thinking, “an old woman like me? Get pregnant? With this old man of a husband?” How ridiculous!
Somehow in my outburst I hadn’t spilled the milk, but as I backed away from the tent flap to set the pitcher down and calm myself, I heard our visitor ask you father, “‘Why did Sarah laugh saying, ‘Me? Have a baby? An old woman like me?’”
Oh, how the hair stood up on the back of my neck! How did this stranger know what I was thinking? I edged back to the tent flap and snuck a peek outside. Abraham looked as confused as I felt. Still looking at your father our visitor continued, “Is anything too hard for God? I’ll be back about this time next year and Sarah will have a baby.”
I don’t really remember what happened next, but whatever force had been holding me in place evaporated. I marched out of the tent before I was conscious of taking a step. Stopping inches from the stranger I snapped out, “I didn’t laugh!”
It wasn’t my best moment and I’m still not sure why I felt the need to lie. Maybe fear played a part. After all it’s terrifying to realize the stranger lounging under your oak tree, hearing your laughter and your thoughts, is the Lord. But the truth is, asking why I lied isn’t the important question. Asking why I laughed is.
For the answer to “Why did Sarah laugh?” tells you infinitely more about me at that point in my life. About my pain, my disappointment, my exhaustion with a broken body I couldn’t figure out but had to inhabit, my knowledge that I was a failure.
Why did I laugh? Because I was weary of hollow promises and waiting for “God’s timing” as I felt my body aging daily.
Why did I laugh? Because I was the reason your father and I didn’t have a child.
I laughed because I was frustrated and angry. My bareness made room for resentment and hurt to fester between me and your father, and in our efforts to have your brother we only succeeded in further damaging our relationship. Neither of us knew how to fill the void we both felt. So why did I laugh? You know the old saying; it was either laugh or cry.
Then a miraculous thing happened. Now I know what you’re thinking my son, “Mama, you’ve told me this story a hundred times. I know my birth was a miracle and I am the carrier of God’s promise for our family.” That is certainly true, but the miraculous thing I’m speaking of is how God responded to my lie. For in all the times I’ve told you this story, my precious boy, I don’t know that I ever shared that God simply looked at me and said, “No, but you did lie.”
Calmly, without anger or an ounce of frustration, our Creator acknowledged my lie. But more than that, God finally looked me in the eye. After my years of being the object of discussion without being part of the discussion God spoke to me. To me. For the first time, I knew the Lord saw me in my brokenness, in my heartbreak, and despair. For the first time I was confident the vastness of my disappointment and failure were fully understood by someone else.
With five words I was laid bare. With a look I was known. And as your father left with the Lord to show him the way to Sodom, I was confident that both my laughter and my lie were understood as the protective armor I had been wrapped up in for so long. That day, that very moment as the men walked away from our oak trees, I began to let that armor fall away. Not all at once, but slowly, over time I was able to shed my old self like a snake sheds its skin.
Eventually a new Sarah emerged. A new Sarah who finally understood that the power of God’s promise was calling me, me a barren woman in her 90s, toward a future that wasn’t a fantasy but God’s reality. God cut a covenant with your father that required Abraham to make physical changes to his body. God cut a covenant with me that required I lay aside years of defining myself one way to define myself the way God saw me in that moment by the oaks. My covenant required me to trust, to have faith in a promise and in a God who exists beyond my ability to comprehend.
Of course, you know the rest of the story. A year later I did have a child - you, my impossible boy. It has been the joy of my life to be your mother dear Isaac, for every time I look at you, every time I speak your name, I remember my laughter. At first it was bitter laughter as I stood frozen in that tent hearing the Lord’s promise once again. Then I was changed, and my laughter became something different. No longer bitter or heartbroken, my laughter became an expression of my covenant with God. That’s why your name is so perfect my Isaac, for every time I speak it, I give honor to that covenant. Remember what your name means, my son. Remember my story, and never let your resignation take the place of God’s promise.