Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7
It is a great turn-around story. Mt. Paran was a Presbyterian church shriveling up after almost 290 years of Christian witness in the same community. Fewer people in worship on Sundays than the number of disciples around the table with Jesus. An 11 acre tract of land to care for and two aging buildings needing major attention. In 2004, Ruling Elder Ed Terry, previously a member of Hunting Ridge, was commissioned by the Presbytery to minister to this withering church. The Presbytery was recommending that the doors be closed due to an inability to keep up with the costs to operate a church. God had a different plan. God, who specializes in the impossible, has transformed this church. Today it is a bustling, joy-filled family of 225 people, so many that they had to provide a separate children’s church during Sunday worship because everyone could not fit in the sanctuary building at one time. So many that now they have moved their worship into the fellowship hall. The church first formed by people seeking a new life in a new land in 1715 is now a vibrant, multi-cultural church with members from Cameroon, Trinidad, and other nations around the world. Once again, Mt. Paran is a Presbyterian family formed of people establishing new lives in a new land, bringing with them the music, the faith practices, the joy and the laughter from far off places. It is a new birth. Old timers and newcomers at Mt. Paran are celebrating the impossible work of God.
God’s impossible work turned around the life of Hannah. She and her husband were childless. She so desperately wanted a son that she promised God that she would let him serve God for his whole life, living in the temple with the priests. She promised to give up precious years with her son just to have one she could call her own. I wonder what would have happened if she had given birth to a daughter… but the impossible happened and Samuel was born.
God’s impossible work definitely upended Mary’s life! She was so surprised at the preposterous idea that she would have a baby boy before she and Joseph married. No way, she said. Couldn’t be! Gabriel had to remind her: Nothing is impossible with God. Indeed, the impossible happened and Jesus was born.
God does specialize in the impossible. When Abraham and Sarah are presented with the idea that they will have a son within the year, they who are 99 and 90, respectively, of course it seems preposterous. Out of the question. Impossible. They did not know yet that God specializes in the impossible. They did not know that a study by two London universities has found that children of older mothers are more likely to have better emotional well being, less self caused injury or hospitalizations before they are 3, and better language development. That is mothers who give birth after age 40. No one has done a study of mothers who give birth at 91. But if they did, I can imagine that they would find that these mothers just can’t stop laughing– laughing at the very idea that from a dried up womb could come new life, laughing at themselves trying to change diapers while using a walker, laughing with thanksgiving and great joy over the impossible work of God.
The idea is so crazy, that both Abraham and Sarah laugh out loud. Abraham and Sarah knew that their child bearing days were long over. Sarah describes herself as withered and Abraham as old. It is funny. God’s promise to make Abraham the ancestor of a multitude seems preposterous, out of the question. With this promise, God renames Abraham— first he was Abram, meaning exalted ancestor. Now he is Abraham, ancestor of a multitude. At their advanced age, Abraham and Sarah knew that if this promise were to come to fruition, it was not going to happen naturally. So they attempted to take things into their own hands, making their own plan for Abraham’s family line to be carried on through a much younger maidservant named Hagar. The whole thing basically blew up in their faces. Sarah was humiliated and angry, Abraham abdicated any responsibility, Hagar was thrown out of town, and poor baby Ishmael arrives to a mess.
God had a different plan, a truly laughable plan. God’s plan was to bless Sarah with a child. At God’s instruction, Abraham named him Isaac. Isaac means “he laughs” or “laughter”. When you say Isaac’s name in Hebrew, it sounds like this: Izaak. His name even kind of sounds like someone laughing, maybe like an old, withered woman laughing at the edge of her tent. Unexpected laughter rolling out over the desert. Laughter at the impossible promise of God.
God will make Abraham the ancestor of a multitude. God promises the impossible. God promises laughter in a tent grown quiet. God promises laughter and life and energy and hope. What had seemed to be ending is all of a sudden being renewed, birthed, transformed into a new beginning. A new beginning full of joy and laughter to a family. Just ask any parent. God’s impossible work brings laughter, and Isaac is born. The promise comes to fruition, and the branches of the family tree are beginning to grow, eventually expanding and spreading to include even us, grafted onto the family tree through another one of God’s impossible works– Jesus the Christ.
You don’t have to walk too far from our front door to find yourself in a neighborhood that feels like a dead end on multiple fronts. Too many houses are boarded up. The trash just accumulates, blown along the gutters or the storm drains. The corner store was burned in the riots. Trees are few and far between, but shady characters hang out on the corners. For many families trying to raise children in our depressed neighborhoods, the hope for a way out is withering, drying up.
That is when the impossible work of God is the most noticeable. When community groups and local churches band together in new ways. When children from different ethnic backgrounds make new friends on the bus trip to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. When you see the smiles and hear the laughter of children playing I Spy and Simon says on the sidewalk. Can the promise of laughter roll down the street, laughing in the face of evil, of poverty, of fear, of oppression and discrimination? The odds seem impossible. Yet God specializes in the impossible.
Perhaps you have felt like you were at a dead end of sorts. A turning point. The end of a long standing tradition. After all, we do get kind of stuck in our ways. Maybe it is the end of the line and you are without a real plan for where to go next. God can bring a new birth, new options, new hope, new life. We know it in our heads. We read it in the gospels. We hear the turn-around stories, the impossible works of God. Can we believe it for ourselves? Can we trust a God who promises laughter? It depends on what kind of laughter we are talking about. Could be we will look back and laugh at ourselves for doubting God’s impossible work. Could be God will laugh at our anxious scurrying around as we try to cover all of our bases. Could be we will laugh with joy and thanksgiving at a new birth we had never even imagined. A birth of new ideas, or new practices, or new job or new __________ (you fill in the blank). God specializes in the impossible.
Several of us from Hunting Ridge celebrated the 300th anniversary of Mt. Paran the other night. The children’s choir (backed up by adult voices) was energetic and joyful. The Christian Men’s Fellowship sang in harmony with rich rolling tones. And the Christian Women’s Fellowship choir was supported by visiting women from other parts of the state as they lifted their voices in praise of God. As we prayed, listened and sang together, we were laughing at the impossible work of God.
Let us not be afraid to laugh, for laughter is a sign of health. Laughter keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. Laughter is a sign of life filled with joy and thanksgiving. God took Abraham and Sarah’s laughter and fulfilled a promise in Isaac, he who laughs. I have to believe God was rolling in the aisles of heaven’s worship space, laughing until tears came out, filled with joy and thanksgiving at the birth of a multitude. Amen.