Women of the Bible - Sarah
Passage: Genesis 18:1–18:15
I want to start off this morning with a little game of counterfactuals. This is a game that’s not really a game but where we change a detail in history or in story and wonder what would have happened if…. Now you can go as big as you want to with this, I remember being in AP European History in high school and the question was asked what if Hitler had gotten into art school. Could the fate of Europe have been changed completely? But let’s not get so big.
What would have happened if there had been a second empty train car on the Hogwarts Express? In the first Harry Potter book Harry and Ron meet for the first time on the train on the way to school. Ron comes into the booth where Harry is sitting and asks if he can sit there because everywhere else was full. What if there had been another empty seat that Ron could have taken? What if Harry doesn’t make friends and enters the castle feeling like a loner, an outsider? Is he placed into a different house? Does he join Lord Voldemort out of an intense need to be accepted instead of fighting against him?
There’s a great scene at the end of the first season of The West Wing where the Vice President asks one of the main characters, if I had listened to you Josh would I be president now. You see Josh, the main character, had originally been with the campaign to make this guy president, left, and now this guy was the Vice President. But what is that show if, all those years earlier, John Hoynes listens to Josh and becomes President?
Here’s one that haunts me: what would have happened if the Redskins didn’t trade up to draft RG3? We won’t spend too much time on that, it’s too painful.
But we know that little moments, little details can have huge impacts on stories, on history, on lives. The Bible has several such moments. And oftentimes the characters surrounding these moments are women. Oftentimes the most central characters in the stories of the Bible are women. And yet so often we overlook them. For the next few months I want us to look at these stories and these characters. We’re going to look at eight different Old Testament women, some you know and some you’ve never heard of. We’re going to look at who they were, what do we know about them, what can we imagine about them. And what impact can their stories have on our stories?
This morning we are going to begin with the mother of the promise, the woman who gave birth to the family who would save the world. We’re going to look at Sarah.
We first meet Sarah in Genesis 12 when she was named Sarai and we are told she is the wife of Abraham, then named Abram. Genesis 12 comes on the heels of a downward spiral of human morality from Genesis 3 through 11 that sees humanity banding together to take on the heavens. Genesis 12 is a heel turn in the Biblical narrative as the story turns from humanity getting worse and worse to God’s plan to save the world. And that plan begins with Abram and Sarai.
God tells Abram that he is to leave his homeland and go to a new place that God will show him. And if he does that, God will bless Abram and make of him a great nation and through Abram bless all the nations. So Abram did as God commanded taking Sarai with him.
Now this was not done in ancient times. You did not leave your hometown. For one thing, leaving your “father’s land” as the Bible calls it was really leaving your tribe. And in ancient times your tribe was everything. You needed your tribe for security, for employment, for food. If you were a herdsman, your tribe was your insurance policy against a predator claiming part of your herd. If you were a farmer, your tribe was your insurance policy against a drought or a bad crop. Your tribe banded together to protect itself against outside threats and other tribes. So when God calls Abram to leave his tribe and start his own tribe, Abram is takin an enormous risk. Because its not like he could just go join another tribe like Kevin Durant joining the Warriors. Abram would be leaving and have no protection, no insurance, nothing. But he goes anyway. And Sarai goes with him.
This should tell us something about Sarai. While it certainly would have been noteworthy for her to not go with her husband, it would have been understandable. And while leaving and defying your husband in ancient times was a risky move, leaving the tribe to strike it alone would have been a bigger risk. So she had to be on board. She had to have faith in this God. She had to believe that what God had spoken to Abram was true. So she went and followed Abram to the land that God would show them.
They then went to Egypt as there was a famine in the land. Abram was worried that when he arrived in Egypt and the Egyptians saw Sarai they would kill Abram in order to take Sarai for themselves. So he says to his wife, “Pretend you’re my sister.” Which means she could still be handed over to another Egyptian man. The outcome for her will still be the same. But Abram gets off the hook. Just so we’re clear about Abram’s priorities.
Abram’s chivalry aside, this does show just how dangerous it was to be a couple without a tribe. Had Abram come to Egypt with his tribe he would have had some folks to have his back should anyone try to kill him to take his wife. But he has no tribe. He has no back up. So he concocts this plan. And eventually Sarai does catch the eye of someone, the Pharaoh. And she goes into Pharaoh’s household. But God afflicts Pharaoh’s household because of this and Abram and Sarai are expelled from Egypt.
A few other things happen, you can find them in your Bible in Genesis 13 and 14, and then God appears to Abram again. And God promised that Abram would become a great nation, with as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. Which is nice to get some confirmation because by now Abram and Sarai have trekked over half the Middle East with not a whole lot of movement in the whole great nation promise thing. But God says he will be faithful. This is, after all, how God has decided he will save the whole world.
There’s just one slight problem: Abram and Sarai are getting pretty old at this point. And while ancient humans didn’t have quite the same understanding of science, biology, and human reproduction that we have now, they did get that at some point we too old to have babies. So Sarai decides to take matters into her own hands and tells Abram to have a child with her servant Hagar. Abram and Hagar conceive and bear a son whom they name Ishmael.
There are potentially two ways to view Sarai’s decision here. We could claim that she loses faith in the promise of God that she loses faith in God. We could claim she doesn’t believe that God will make good on God’s promises. So in her lack of faith she comes up with a solution in her own power.
The other side of this is that she is someone who really, truly gets it. She gets how important it is for Abram to bear a son. She is a true believer, one who has left family and safety and security, one who has left everything behind, and understands that the promise of a child to Abram is vitally important. And rather than being faithless she’s being pragmatic. I mean, after all God never promised Sarai children. Just Abram.
I’ll let you make up your own mind as to which one it is.
So God commands that Abram be circumcised and for Abram's descendants be circumcised. And then God renames Abram Abraham. God says that Sarai will be named Sarah and that she too will bear a child and that child would be born in the next year. Abraham is confused asking shall a man who is 100 and a woman who is 90 bear a child. But God persists and says this will happen.
And then we get this story in the 18th chapter of Genesis.
Genesis 18:1-15 The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he 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. He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.” So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree. “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent,” he said. Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord 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.” Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.” But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
I find its in this story that we get a real glimpse into who Sarah is. I find its in this story that we lose track of Abraham for a second and really get to see Sarah apart from Abraham’s wife. And it’s here that Sarah can begin to teach us what it is to have faith and we can begin to see ourselves in Sarah.
So God reveals himself to Abraham in the form of three visitors. Three angels. Three persons? God in three persons? And Abraham invites the three persons to come and dine with him. He washes their feet, yep, Abraham washes the feet of three people who collectively are somehow an appearance of God. And Abraham brings them bread and cheese and meat and they eat.
Then the visitors ask Abraham where his wife is. And the visitors say that they will come back in a year and when they do Sarah will be with child. Sarah is listening to this conversation and she laughs.
And can you blame her. One of the reasons I wanted us to walk through her whole story, which is like six chapters of the Bible, is to see all that she has been through. She left her homeland and her family. She left safety and security. And the first thing that happens is that her husband, the man she left everything to follow, said to her hey could you pretend to be my sister cause I don’t want to die. She’s promised that she will have children and yet they walk all over the Middle East and no children. She’s told again that she will have children and again nothing happens. She watches her servant have a child. And again she’s told it’ll happen for you, trust me, it’ll happen.
I think at this point holding onto that promise is either deeply painful or comical. It’s one or the other. There’s no middle. Has there ever been a point in your life or something in your life where you either have to laugh or cry? Like those are your two choices. And you laugh because to do anything else would reduce you to soul crushing tears? There are things in our live that are the sources of so much pain, dreams differed, hopes seemingly dashed, that the only way we can cope is to laugh.
There are interpretations of this passage that insist Sarah was a person of little faith. That she laughs because she finds it all ridiculous. She laughs because she doesn’t believe God can do miracles. I don’t think that’s true. She’s already demonstrated her faith, as much or more so than Abraham. And she has never had an experience of God. Whereas Abraham has talked with God Sarah has not had those experiences. She is truly going on faith that what Abraham has experienced is real. Is worth risking everything for. And yet she hasn’t seen the fruit. She hasn’t seen God work in her life, she hasn’t seen God show up. And with each passing year, with each passing month it gets more and more painful to hold onto this promise. It gets more and more painful to not see a work of God in your midst.
Sarah laughs because that’s the only way she could keep going in faith. Sarah laughing isn’t about a lack of faith. Sarah laughs because she has faith and the only way to continue having faith is to laugh in the midst of pain.
What dreams do you believe God has for your life? How does God want to work in your life? What obstacle is standing in the way? What thing has God promised to do, what thing has God promised to move? Don’t give up hope. Don’t give up on the promise that God has made to you. Even when it is so painful, even when it seems like you can’t possibly hold onto that promise, keep hold. Laugh with Sarah if you need to. But claim what God has promised you.
Because Sarah did conceive. Sarah did bear a child. The promise that God made to her was fulfilled. God was faithful. And the promise that God made to save humanity through the child of Abraham and Sarah was fulfilled as well. Through Abraham and Sarah God did bless the nations.
Sarah teaches us what it looks like to have faith over time. Sarah teaches us what it looks like to be a person of faith throughout our lives. Sarah felt all the same things we do when it seems like God is not moving or working or active in our lives. She felt disappointed. She felt dejected. She felt abandoned. I’m sure she doubted, I’m sure she wondered what her life could have been like if she never left the tribe. I’m sure she had moments where she thought it was just never going to happen for her. But she never totally, fully gave up on the promise. She never abandoned the hope she had that God would make a way for her. She never deserted God or Abraham or God’s plan to save the world. She remained. She persisted. She kept the faith.
Throughout our lives there will be highs and lows in our spiritual journeys. There will be times where we can see God in our lives so clearly. When we get good news, when things come together. When we pray and feel our spirit uplifted. When we come to worship and feel on fire. When we serve God or go on a retreat and feel like we are so clearly in the presence of God. And then there will be times when it seems like God is far from us. When we pray and just don’t feel anything. When we come to worship and it feels like going through the motions. When we read the Bible and just can’t seem to get anything out of it. When we get bad news, when we experience pain or loss or sickness, when the money just doesn’t add up. When we pray to God for deliverance and find ourselves still stuck in the mess.
What Sarah teaches us is that to be a person of faith means to not see ourselves as blessed or cursed based on what’s happened recently. What Sarah teaches us is that to be a person of faith is not about how worship went this week or how much I’m feeling it in my prayer time. What Sarah teaches us is that we can have faith, we can have hope in times where God feels close and in times where God feels distant. We can claim the promises of God in our lives even if we can’t see tangible evidence they’re fulfilled. We can claim that God is with us, that we are blessed, even if it might look otherwise to the world. And Sarah teaches us that our God is faithful. Our God is true. Sarah teaches us that those who hope will not be put to shame.
One of the things I want to do this summer as we spend some time looking at these women of faith is to get us talking to each other about where we see ourselves in the story and how the lessons these women want to teach us can impact our lives. So with the people next to you, take a few minutes to discuss:
When in your life have you felt like Sarah? What does Sarah’s story mean to you?