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An Old Testament Version of the Christmas Story

September 19th, 2011

An Old Testament Version of the Christmas Story

Genesis 18:1-15 & 21:1-7

September 18, 2011

 

            Rolf Jacobson, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul has suggested that the story we just heard might be called an Old Testament version of the Christmas story.  It’s a story that reaches its climax hundreds of years later when a young unmarried girl gives birth to the Son of God in Bethlehem.  Similar to the birth of Jesus, this story moves from announcement to fulfillment, from God’s promise of a child to the birth of the promised child.  More importantly, this story shows God being God, who keeps promises, who turns darkness into light, who transforms Sarah’s mocking laughter of disbelief into a joyous laughter of faith.   

But first, there are some things that have happened in between our reading last Sunday and our reading for today.  Last Sunday we read the story of Creation in Genesis chapter 1 and heard how it was good; in fact it was very good.  Unfortunately it did not stay that way.  In the next few stories we see this recurring cycle of sin, judgment, and grace.

In Genesis chapter 3 Adam and Eve sin by eating from the forbidden tree, trying to be like God.  One commentator has said that the problem was not the apple in the tree but rather the pair beneath the tree.  The judgment is death, the death of their relationship with God as God had intended it to be.  But God, in grace, stays in relationship with them, and forgives their sin, symbolized by covering their nakedness, their sin, with garments made from skin. 

              In Genesis chapters 4 and 5 Cain sins by killing his brother Abel.  God’s judgment is that he bans Cain from his presence.  But in grace God puts a mark on Cain to protect him from others.

            In Genesis chapters 6 through 9 is that strange story about the sin of divine beings, called the sons of God, being sexually intimate with earthly women.  God’s judgment is the destruction of the earth with a flood.  But in grace God uses a big boat, the ark, to preserve Noah and his family, and the animals.

            In Genesis chapter 11 humans sin by trying to build a tower, the Tower of Babel, to reach up into the heavens to make a name for themselves, and to prevent themselves from being scattered over the face of the earth.  It would seem that they did not want to multiply and fill the earth as God had desired, so, one might say they were trying to storm the gates of heaven to make their point.  God’s judgment was to confuse their languages, resulting in them being scattered.  That’s sin and judgment.  Where is the grace?

            The grace comes in the story that begins in Genesis chapter 12, and which I believe is the story of the rest of the Bible, the story about God restoring creation to what it was intended to be, a story that begins with God forming a chosen people.  This is a story that could be a made-for-television miniseries. 

In week one of this miniseries God makes a promise to Abram, whose wife Sarai was barren; who had no child.  It was a three-fold promise: Abram would have a land; he would have many descendants; and through his descendants all the people of the earth would be blessed.  But the years went by and Sarai remained barren.  She and Abraham had no child.  And they grew old. 

            In week two of the miniseries, in Genesis chapter 15, at a later time God calls Abram outside on a star-studded night and tells him to look up and count the stars, if you can, and tells him that’s how many descendants you will have.  But you can’t have a sky full of descendants when you don’t even have one child.  And Sarai remained barren.  She and Abraham had no child.  And they grew still older.

            In week three of the miniseries, in Genesis chapter 16, Sarai is tired of waiting for God to deliver this promised child, so she suggests that Abram try to have a child with her slave Hagar.  Abram agreed, Hagar give birth, and finally Abram had his child – a son named Ishmael.  Abram was 86 years old.  But this left Sarai out of the promise.  What about her?  Wasn’t she part of the covenant God had made?  Well, God wasn’t done with them yet.

            In week four of our miniseries, in Genesis chapter 17, God appears once again to Abram, repeats the promise, and changes Abram’s name to Abraham, which means “father of many nations.”  And God makes it clear that Sarai is part of the covenant, changing her name to Sarah, and promising Abraham, “I will give you a son by her.”  Abraham’s reaction was two-fold.  First, he fell on his face and laughed.  Second, he tried to convince God that his son Ishmael was enough for him.

            Now we come to week five of our miniseries, the first part of today’s reading from Genesis chapter 18.  Three travelers stop by Abraham’s tent, one of whom apparently is God.  Once again God repeats the promise: “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah will have a son” (verse 10).  Sarah overhears and laughs to herself.  The Hebrew phrase “to herself” literally means “inside of herself” or “in her guts, in her abdomen, in her belly.”  In other words, Sarah had a great, big belly laugh at God and the promise that God keeps making, and keeps on not keeping.

 Can you blame her for laughing?  This was not a new promise.  How many times had God renewed the promise, and over how many years?  What kind of promise is harder to believe than one that has repeatedly not been kept?  What kind of promise maker is harder to believe than one who has repeatedly not kept a promise?  Many of us have probably had an experience with someone like that; maybe we’ve even had that kind of experience with God.

 Can you blame her for laughing?  After all, it had “ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women”—meaning that she was no longer menstruating and ovulating.  And Sarah refers to both herself and Abraham as old.  Sarah has a great, big belly laugh about all of this.  But, the belly, the abdomen, is also where the womb is located, and I wonder if within Sarah’s belly laugh there isn’t also the painful laugh of one who has hoped for a child, but been unable to conceive.  Some, even today, know that painful feeling all too well.

            Sarah laughed.  And then she gets chewed out for laughing.  She denies that she laughed, but the messenger says, “O yes, you did laugh.”  Abraham didn’t get chewed out for laughing in chapter 17, so why does Sarah get chewed out for laughing.  Who knows? The word occurs four times in verses 12-15.   Maybe the exchange is meant to emphasize the laughter.  Maybe it is setting the scene for the laughably, surprising turn of events in chapter 21. 

The table is further set for this surprising turn of events in the exchange between Sarah and the messenger.  Sarah questions, “Shall I indeed bear a child now that I am old?”  The messenger replies with a question, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”  Sarah must have thought so.  Knowing what was coming, I wonder if God laughed.

            Finally, week six of the miniseries, the second part of today’s reading from Genesis chapter 21, the fulfillment of the whole series of promises made in Genesis chapters 12, 15, 17 and 18.  The child Isaac is born – the child whose very name means “laughter.”  When God renewed the promise to Abraham in chapter 17, the old man laughed.  When God renewed the promise in chapter 18, the old woman laughed.  So when the child was born, I suppose you could say that God had the last laugh. 

But there’s more.  Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; and everyone who hears (this story) will laugh with me.”  Why?  Not only is this the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham; it is also the fulfillment of God’s promise to Sarah.  Some refer to this section as the Abraham narrative.  I think that at least this chapter is the Sarah narrative.  Chapter 21 begins, “The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised.”  That would have been quite counter-cultural in the patriarchal society of that day.  The point is that God’s promises were not just for Abraham, they were also for Sarah.  The Lord’s covenant was big enough not just for the old man, but also for the old woman.  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? 

So, going back to that idea that this is the Old Testament version of the Christmas story.  At the center of both stories is a woman who experiences disbelief in what is being promised.  The first woman, Sarah, is near the end of life.  She is childless, and well beyond the age of child bearing.  The other woman, Mary, is near the beginning of life.  She is not married, and is just reaching the age of child bearing.  Both stories move from God’s promise of a child who will be a blessing to all the people of the earth, to the birth of that promised child.  The first story, the one in which a barren, old woman gives birth to Isaac – the Old Testament version of the Christmas story – is a story that reaches its climax hundreds of years later, in the New Testament version of the Christmas story, when a young unmarried girl gives birth to the Son of God in Bethlehem.  Both stories show God being God, who keeps promises, who turns darkness into light, who transforms the laughter of disbelief into the joyous laughter of faith.  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

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