Do you want to read the text of the Bible first?
Last held on the 8th of August at Hattem
The birth of Isaac
People don’t laugh that often in church services. Why not? Why do the faces always have to straighten up here, so tight and severe? Why are things always so serious on Sundays? Surely there should be some humour and cheerfulness involved. That makes a church service, which is not in fashion anyway, a bit more attractive. And we also find humour in the Bible. I know a booklet in Dutch with that title.
But you also may not find it so appropriate to laugh here in the church. After all, here it’s about serious matters: our sins, the deepest questions of life, our eternal destiny.
All in due time. There will be a time for laughter, but not when we talk about those things. And a pastor, who also wants to be a kind of comedian, can annoy us. Yes, don’t people laugh too much in the world? One skips over the seriousness of life. It’s almost every night, laughing, yelling, roaring for the TV, with comedies, cabaret programs, and humorous movies. Cheap entertainment distracts us from what’s, in reality, going on in life. Then the church must adopt a different attitude. And there's something in there too.
By the way, it’s important how and why you’re smiling. Some light humour should be possible, also in the church. But the laugh of gloating is something different, and gallows humour also is. And the burst of laughter at brainless fun as well, as well as the giggles at nothing. And so does the constantly obligatory smile on the face. Sometimes we laugh about something that should make us cry. There sometimes is even bitterness and great disappointment behind a smile. Strangely, we say to someone who lets us laugh heavily: you’re killing me.
In any case, when it comes to the birth of Isaak, we must talk about laughter. For his name is associated with the Hebrew word for “laugh.” Even long before he was born.
And usually, people immediately think of Sara, but Abraham was the first to laugh. When God confirmed His covenant with him, it says in Genesis 17, the Lord also promised: ” I will bless Sarah, and I will also give you a son from her. And what was Abraham’s response? He threw himself on the ground, laughed and said: “Will a child be born to a centenarian and Sarah, a ninety-year-old, give birth?” Doesn’t that go against all the rules of nature? Impossible! Abraham laughs at it, but actually, he would have preferred to whimper. He long time had looked forward to the promise that was the only meaning of his existence. But now, he no longer can believe in it. His laughter is that of disappointed disbelief.
And that’s especially absolutely the case with Sara. Three strangers come to visit Abraham. He receives them hospitably, has a meal prepared for them quickly. And then one of them says: ”I will come back to you in a year, and then Sarah, your wife, will have a son. And that while Abraham and Sarah are old and Sarah no longer goes in the way of women, as it says, so she no longer had her period. Sara hears it through the tent cloth, and she laughs to herself and thinks, actually a bit rude and bitter: will I still be able to enjoy lovemaking while I’m so old and my husband too? So her laugh is even a bit sarcastic, derisive. She also absolutely doesn’t want to cherish any hope and perhaps be fobbed off for the umpteenth time. Her smile, too, is that of disappointed disbelief.
And how many people do laugh because of unbelief! Is God mighty? Does He help and save? Can He do miracles? Don’t make me laugh! Or: I only can laugh about it; about those fairytales. I must laugh bitterly and cynically about it. Isn’t it all according to the order of the harsh capricious laws of nature? Or even according to the order of injustice and bitchiness among the people?
And maybe we get around to laugh like that too. When we’re getting one blow after another; when we have to wear a cross all the time; when we’re deeply disappointed in people and God. We can be very bitter because we’ve got the feeling God is playing with our deepest desires. We desire health. Every time we hope things are going better and every time there's that backlash, we can do less, have more pain. We desire peace and harmony in the family. We’re doing our best and are praying for it every time. And then another blazing fight breaks out that spoils the atmosphere for days on end. We desire peace on earth. Every time we hope for that, but we see it on the TV: again, those mutilated bodies on the streets.
And - to get closer to Sara - maybe a child’s desire too. Time and time again, you use the modern medical resources - resources that others even find at or beyond the edge of ethical permissibility - and to no avail. Then you can cynically laugh at God’s promises of salvation, peace, health, saving miracles. Al that the gospel promises us? Laughable! Because it just won’t happen.
And yet it does happen! Yet God keeps his promises. For Isaac is born. And Sarah says: ”God made me laugh.” And that’s completely different laughter. That's the laughter of the elation about the unimaginable miracles of God’s love and grace. That,s the laughter because the impossible is possible with God. That's the laughter about the enormous happiness that the Lord gives to everyone with whom He has made his covenant. That’s the laughter because God is there anyway, and He still is good and doing what no human can do.
Others will certainly laugh at the talks that are being told about Sara. Sarah also says: everyone who hears this will laugh at me. Someone in their nineties a child? In what kind of cheap sensational newspaper did that appear? Or what cheap gospel brochure has that been? And yet it’s true!
Isaac. A strange name. Let’s translate it as: people will laugh. People will laugh out of disbelief and will laugh out of belief. Abraham and Sarah did the first at first and the last afterwards. And those who laugh last, laugh the best. How do we laugh? In bitter, cynical, sarcastic disbelief or happy, surprised, exuberant belief?
The Lord wants to take care of the latter. He wanted that with Abraham and Sarah. He wants that with us too.
And how does He do that? “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised.” It is written in the beautiful Hebrew poem of parallelism, as we also find it in the psalms. Two sentences say almost the same; to emphasize it.
The Lord visited Sarah. And when the Lord visits us, He pays special attention to us, does special deeds to us. Sometimes they are punitive and judgmental acts. “If you don’t listen to me, I will visit you with terror”, so He will warn Israël later. But most of the time, they're wonderfully saving acts. For example, it’s a much-used word for God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt. When the Lord visits us, He looks especially loving and helpful to us in our needs and concerns. As with Israel in slavery and with Sarah in her barrenness. The Lord visited Sarah. How wonderful to receive a visit from our Lord. And actually, we’ve all already had that, for He has visited our earth in Jesus Christ. He came to visit us in his Son. The hymn of Zechariah speaks of this when it uses the same word as in our text: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath looked upon his people, visited them, and brought salvation.” And isn’t it the wonderful secret of everyone who may believe? The Lord looked after me, came to visit my life. In Jesus, as it was portrayed to me in the Bible, the sermons, the stories about him at school, etc. And He came above all as a comforter in sorrow, as a saviour in need. Dear folks, if the crying is closer to you than the laughter, there’s a visitor for you! The Lord! Have a nice visit. Visit, which is not laughable, as the unbeliever claims, but brings laughter, the laughter of joy at God’s salvation.
“The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised.” In other words, whatever God says, He does. Sometimes He adds the time, like at Abraham and Sarah. “In a year.” And so Sarah bore Abraham a son at the appointed time. Sometimes He doesn’t say the time. Sometimes He says the way, sometimes not. And then it sometimes happens in a different time and way than we think. But it does happen. You can rely on Him; you can trust Him. God is not a man that He would lie, Balaam had to say to Barak, really unwillingly. We humans can use great words, followed by small deeds or no deeds at all, but the Lord cannot. What He promises, He delivers. Even if we no longer believe in it. “Your word is the truth,” Jesus said in his high priestly prayer. And it’s precisely in Him that God’s promises are yes and amen (2 Cor. 1:20), and they gloriously are fulfilled. In particular, God does as He says in His gospel. Just believe in that. It's true. Sarah has experienced first-hand that you can trust the Lord in His word. And so can we. Although we need to know very well what the Lord has said in His Word and what thoughts are of us.
And then God gives reasons to laugh. But He alone! The Lord visited Sara. The Lord did to Sara. So it’s the Lord and no one else. It’s not us with our religious or unbelieving mess. People come up with everything to make something out of it, to make it seem real. Much is more to cry than to laugh. Just as Abraham and Sarah have messed up, for they engaged the slave girl Hagar, to whom Ishmael was born with Abraham as a father. And after Abraham had laughed in disbelief about God’s promises of a son to Sarah, he also asked: “Oh, might Ishmael live before you.” Should I still have a future in him! Should he be the bearer of your promises! We will arrange it in an unfortunate way. And we already are satisfied with what is humanly possible. And when the squeeze starts, we also make strange twists and turns, like Abraham, who gave Sarah to Pharaoh of Egypt and King Abimelech for his sister, so that God’s chosen One and the glorious object of his wonderful promises almost had ended up in a harem. More one cannot expect from us. But you can expect everything from the Lord. The Lord does it just as He promised. The God with that glorious name, who indicates his faithfulness. Yahweh. I’ll be there.
You may still expect the impossible from the Lord. For what is impossible with men is possible with God. It was impossible with Abraham. After all, he was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. The Hebrew writer calls him dead. He was as good as dead because the possibilities to pass on life had run out in him. And Sarah’s sterility runs like a common thread through the patriarch history. It’s already mentioned in Genesis 11, in the family tree of Shem, before God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees. “Sarai was now barren.” And yet, a son was born to Abraham, and Sarah conceived and bore him a son. God’s miracle from the utter and radical impossibility of us humans. For who would have dared to promise Abraham, Sarah will nurse children, breastfeed children? That’s how He is and does. He makes the sour smile at what is not possible to the generous laugh at what happens anyway.
This He did it to the one with whom He began His covenant with us. And He did it more often after that. Just think of the miraculous birth and custody of Moses while the midwife should have killed him anyway, the miraculous birth of Samson while his mother was barren, the miraculous birth of John the Baptist while Elisabeth was barren, and she and her husband Zechariah meanwhile had come on high age. He did it especially with to One by whom He confirmed and fulfilled that covenant: the Lord Jesus. Our Saviour came to earth, not by the will, power, potential of people but by the will of God. Joseph was not involved. The Lord visited Mary as He had said, and the Lord did to Mary as He had spoken. The Holy Spirit came upon her and the power of the Most High overshadowed her. And so the Son of God was born of her. Nothing from us. Everything from God. A pure miracle. Pure grace. A twig of deadwood. Because that’s all we are. We’re failures. Most of us produce offspring, but real life, as God intended, we don’t produce. Real peace and love everywhere. Equal rights for everyone. Happiness for all. A life without alienation and removal, pain and sorrow. We don’t produce it. In that regard, we’re just as barren as Abraham and Sarah. But God wants to give it in Jesus Christ. God wants to fulfil in Him gloriously all His promises of salvation and peace. A complete miracle.
God continues where we left off for a long time. God opens a future where we no longer dare to look ahead. God gives life, where it has long been death with us. Faith can never expect too much. What God’s love wants to accomplish does not disallow His power. And the Lord Jesus is the great proof of that. It’s not possible that God is well pleased with people who are lost in sin and guilt. It cannot be that God Himself descends to them, reconciles with them, and opens His eternal future of salvation for them. And yet it’s happened. “Today, the Savior is born to you.” The child that could not come and still came. Jesus. God made me laugh. Laugh with joy at God’s love, mercy, faithfulness. Laugh with joy at God’s victory over sin, devil, death. Laugh with joy at God’s salvation for all his children. Jesus. Through whom God gloriously fulfils all his promises. Jesus. The child of the laughter. God’s bringer of joy to this often so sad earth.
Anyone who hears it will laugh at me, says Sara. Maybe the mocking laugh first. What weird talking about Sara. She would have given birth. Later the laughter of wonder and joy. It is true, though. What a miracle from God. Who still did as He had said. And so it’s with Jesus. There may be the mocking laugh of unbelief about Him in this world. But some people hear the gospel and laugh differently. Faithful laughs with surprise and joy at what good the Lord has given us in His Son. Salvation and forgiveness. Hope and future beyond death.
And that faith is part of it. Also, now with us. We feel there is quite a bit of tension between the old and the new testament at this point. In Genesis, Sarah does not seem very religious. But in the book Hebrews, it says: through faith Sarah also received strength to become a mother, and that despite her old age, because she considered Him who had promised it to be trustworthy. But are we often not one of those ambivalent people who in our hearts rock back and forth, swinging between unbelief and belief? And therefore, cannot both be true? And doesn’t the green twig of our faith always grow on the deadwood of our unbelief? Didn’t Mary say at first at the announcement of Jesus’ birth: “How will that be, since I have no association with a man?” But afterwards: “Behold, the maidservant of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word?” In the same way with Sarah, that old faith, by which she followed Abraham in the way the Lord showed them, will have come up again against unbelief. For God fulfils his promises only through faith. The Lord gives his wonders of goodness, comfort, and mercy through faith. He grants forgiveness and eternal life through faith. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world, John writes.
And we find that belief again in Genesis. Sarah confesses: God made me laugh. Abraham gives his son the name that God instructed him before. And he circumcised Isaac when he was eight days old. They go the way of the testimony of faith and the obedience of faith. They go the way of the covenant. And we should also walk that course. It’s the way of obediently doing what the Lord asks us to do, being faithful to it every day, living according to God’s “thou shalt”, walking every day in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus, loving the Lord and the neighbour every day.
That’s also the way of witnessing, of telling what the Lord has done to us. God made me smile. He made me happy and fortunate because I know I’m surrounded by God’s care, his blessing, his miracles. God has made me do what I cannot do on my own. That I, of myself spiritually dead and barren, yet bring forth fruits of faith and conversion. God has made that I can look ahead again, have a future again, that my life is focused on his Kingdom. It’s also the way of living in God’s covenant. In God’s new covenant in the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s for us no longer the way of circumcision, as with Abraham, but the way of Baptism. This means: we put the children the Lord has given us in His hands. We educate and lead them in faith in the Lord Jesus. In all our dealings with them, we aim that they’re destined for the Lord, serving Him and living towards His eternal Kingdom.
There is not much laughter in church. And yet, if the laughter of joy and happiness belongs somewhere, then here. Joy in the Lord. Blessings from the Lord. Isaac. People will laugh. And it’s God who makes us laugh.
Israel was once miraculously delivered from the captivity of Babylon by the Lord. And thereupon they sang a beautiful song, in which the laughter is not lacking: Psalm 126.
“When the Lord made a change in Zion’s fate, we were like men in a dream. Then our mouths were full of laughing, and our tongues gave a glad cry; they said among the nations, The Lord has done great things for them.”
An even more wonderful redemption is that of the Lord Jesus. The child who could not come and yet came. The child who tells of God’s new life on the dead mess we humans have made on this earth. The child in which that new life smiles at us. The child by whom all the families of this earth are blessed. The child through whom the Lord has done us great things. The child through which I sing, in grateful wonder:
My heart wants to jump for joy,
it can’t be sad,
I’m laughing and singing
in pure sunshine.
The sun that shines,
O Jesus, that is Thou.
I thank you a thousand times,
how good you are to me!