Laughing with the Lord of life

Genesis is a book of beginnings. The beginning of heaven and earth. The beginning of light and life. The beginning of humankind, made in the image of God, and the beginning of the puzzling, deep contradictions that mark our experience of life. In the opening chapters of scripture they are presented from God’s perspective: one the one hand, God saw everything God had made, and indeed, it was very good; and on the other hand, God saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.[1]

Life is a source of profound delight as well as heartbreak, for God as well as for us. The Creator’s desire for life’s flourishing and our desires are out of sync, as it were, and as a consequence life is not the way it’s supposed to be. There’s a brokenness within us and between us, and the cracks don’t just appear out of nowhere; they’re always already there, inescapably so, it seems, and we do what we can to heal them, but we also contribute to their spreading, with what we say and do or fail to do. In scripture it is called sin, this inescapable brokenness we both suffer and commit.

Genesis is a book of beginnings, and it traces the beginnings of sin to fractures in our relationship with God, to a desire to be self-made men and women rather than creatures made in the image of God and for communion with God and our fellow creatures. Our loveless ways break the heart of God, but in the heart of God we are also embraced, forgiven and healed. Our sin is great, and we all fall short of the glory of God, but God’s faithful love reaches wider than the deadliest consequences of our lovelessness.

In the story of the great flood, we are asked to imagine the impossible possibility of God’s No to humanity without the Yes of a new beginning, the impossible possibility of the complete undoing of creation, and at the end of the story God makes a promise, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”[2] God will not abandon God’s creation because of humankind’s proud determination to live as masters of the world rather than covenant partners.

Genesis is a book of beginnings, and in chapter 11, after the story of the tower with its top in the heavens, and after God scattered the people abroad over the face of all the earth, the narrative zooms in on one family in Ur of the Chaldeans, the family of Terah, and then it zooms in a little closer on one of his sons, Abram who was married to Sarai and Sarai, we’re told, was barren; she had no child.[3]

End of story. No child, no future. The story of the whole human family has reached a dead end. And God chooses this couple to make a new beginning.

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[4]

Go, I will make of you a great nation, the Lord said, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you. And they went, trusting the promises of God and obedient to God’s call. One night, the Lord came to Abram in a vision and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.”[5]

Abram had faith in the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness, but Abram and Sarai still had no child, only the promise of a future rooted in God’s faithful intention.

Years went by; still no child. Abram was ninety-nine years old when the Lord appeared to him and spoke again of making him exceedingly numerous, exceedingly fruitful, the ancestor of a multitude of nations, and gave him a new name, a new identity: Abraham, “father of multitudes.” And Sarai’s name now would be Sarah, “princess,” mother of nations, mother of kings of peoples – the contrast between promise and circumstance could not possibly be drawn any starker.

Abraham fell on his face and laughed. “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”[6]

When Paul wrote to the churches in Rome, he pointed to Abraham as the example of one who was righteous, in right relationship with God, based not on obedience to the law but on faith, on trust in the promises of God. Paul didn’t mention that Abraham fell on his face and laughed, but portrayed him in slightly heroic colors: unwavering in his faith, fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised, not weakening in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.[7]

What if he did waver occasionally, like most of us do? What if Abraham wasn’t some Olympic super athlete of faith, zipping down a snowy mountain with great skill and fearless confidence, but a rather shaky skier who took wide turns in the steep sections, who even stopped sometimes on the edge of the slope, wondering how long it might be to the foot of the mountain and if he should perhaps walk down? What if Abraham barely managed to hold onto the promise during the nights when doubt crept in? Didn’t he fall on his face and laugh when he tried to imagine himself and dear Sarah in the maternity ward struggling to remember when to pant and when to breathe deeply?

Abraham and Sarah became the ancestors of Israel because they became the parents of Isaac, and they became the ancestors of all who have faith in God, because they learned to trust the promise of God when their circumstances clearly suggested other visions of the future. They learned to trust, not through unflinching determination, but in the ups and downs of daily life, in times when confidence was simply the air they breathed and in times when the world felt like a conspiracy to snuff the flickering flame of hope.

We still tell their story, not because they were such exemplary believers, but because God, in steadfast love and righteousness, made a new beginning with humankind, introducing a way for us, sinful human beings, to be in relationship with God, a way not based on our high score performance of holy demands, but on the fidelity of God who keeps faith with us and invites us to trust the promise of life.

All of us have experienced the pain of broken promises, promises we have made to others or to ourselves, or promises others have made to us. For many of us, all people need to say is, “Trust me,” for alarm bells to go off in our minds and heavy doors of skepticism to slam shut. We have seen and felt how the brokenness within and between us can undermine our best intentions and turn us away from each other or against each other.

During Lent, for the sake of repentance and renewal, we reflect on how we betray our true identity as creatures made in the image of God and how we contribute to the fracturing of life rather than its healing. But this is not the end of our considerations. We remember Jesus Christ whom we betrayed, accused, condemned, and executed in the name of justice and of true religion and for the sake of maintaining the status quo we remember Jesus who was handed over to death for our trespasses and raised to life for our justification. And so we reflect on our brokenness not in despair, but in the light of God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. We look to the cross and we see the empire of sin having its way with the Beloved of God, crucifying the Son of God, wanting to silence the proclamation of the coming kingdom, bury the body of God’s incarnation, and be done with the promise of redemption.

But God is faithful beyond what we can imagine. Abraham fell on his face and laughed when God continued to speak of a future that had a baby in it, his and Sarah’s little boy. Sarah laughed when she overheard three guests they had invited into their tent talking about her having a child in due season. They both laughed incredulously when they considered the circumstances, but hoping against hope, they still held onto the promise. And when the child was born they named him Isaac, “laughter.” It was the laughter of unbridled joy. It was the beginning of the great Easter laughter when all of creation will rejoice in the redemption of life and erupt in praise of God.

 

[1] Gen 1:1-31; 6:5-6

[2] Gen 8:21

[3] Gen 11:30

[4] Gen 12:1-3

[5] Gen 15:5

[6] Gen 17:17

[7] Rom 4:19-21

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