Overheard: "I know you're here but where's here?"
A woman overheard me on my mobile this week and laughed loudly. So what did I say? "I know you're here but where's here?" It so happened that on Wednesday I came across a similar incident in the Bible, of another woman on overhearing a conversation who could not stop herself from laughter. Sarah, wife of Abraham - who essentially begin the story of God’s covenant with us. It’s a strange story as “the Lord appears to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.” (Genesis 18:1). Except it’s not God but “three men standing nearby.” So the text moves between Abraham conversing with the three men and then with God, the two seem interchangeable. Clearly the writer is trying to convey the otherness of the situation. This is no ordinary conversation. So the story reaches its climax when one of three men says “I’m coming back about this time next year. When I arrive, your wife Sarah will have a son.” (v10) “Sarah was listening at the tent opening, just behind the man. And she begins to laugh.” We laugh for all kinds of reasons, not just because something is funny or amusing. We laugh because we are embarrassed or insecure or just frightened. For Sarah it was all three. As comedian Jeff Ross reflects: “Life is short. You have to be able to laugh at our pain or we never move on.” And Sarah was in pain. We are told: “Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing.” It had been a very rough ride for Sarah. For she was unable to provide her husband with an heir, a key role in her culture, maybe the key role for the wife. Years of monthly disappointments. Time isn’t on their side but God is. For God had promised her husband that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him. Clearly that meant her as well, their offspring. But that was six chapters ago, in Genesis 12 when Sarah was still in Haran, when her name was Sarai. By chapter 16 everyone is beginning to panic: no offspring. So Sarai and her husband decide to go for plan B, to use Sarai’s handmaid Hagar as surrogate. Big mistake for as far as God is concerned there is only plan A. Incidentally I gave up watching Channel 4’s award-winning Handmaid’s Tale at episode 9. Too drawn out. After all the whole series is based just on a short-story by Margaret Atwood, who was inspired by this story from Genesis. But in the character of Serena Joy, the wife of the commander Fred, you get the idea of Sarai’s humiliation and scheming. Even so God keeps Abram and Sarai’s spirits up after the debacle of Hagar So in the next chapter God renews his promise to the ageing couple., now long past child-bearing age. We have it there in black and white: “You will be the father of many nations.” (Genesis 17:4) And to keep them going, God gives them new names. Abram and Sarai now become Abraham and Sarah. It must have taken their friends ages to adapt. I’m afraid the change of meaning from Sarai to Sarah is lost on me but presumably not lost on her. Just keep believing, Sarah. Stay the course, don’t give up And as further encouragement (and here, as we will discover we have some clever plotting), God gives her son a name: Isaac. But still nothing happens. It can be tough being blessed by God, even when he gives you a new name. But in chapter 18 we are nearly there, less than 12 months to go, as the LORD/the three men visit Abraham. We don’t know whether Sarah just happened to overhear these visitors talking to her husband. As Terry Pratchett observes: “It's quite easy to accidentally overhear people talking downstairs if you hold an upturned glass to the floorboards and accidentally put your ear to it.” But she gives the herself away by laughing. “I didn’t laugh,” she tells God. “Oh yes, you did,” replies God (verse 15). We’re meant to laugh too. But her laughter gave her away, her profound sadness, those years of hopes being dashed. It’s a laughter of pain. “My focus is to forget the pain of life,” confesses Jim Carrey. “Forget the pain, mock the pain, reduce it. And laugh.” Sarah can’t get to Genesis 21 fast enough. “God visited Sarah exactly as he said he would; God did to Sarah what he promised: Sarah became pregnant and gave Abraham a son in his old age.” (Genesis 21:1). We now know why Isaac is called Isaac. The name – wait for it - means Laughter. So Sarah rejoices: ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ But now a very different kind of laughter, a laughter of joy. “How we laughed and sang for joy. And the other nations said, “What amazing things the Lord has done for them.” (Psalm 126:2)