The old woman lay on her mat in the tent. It was hot. Nothing was moving, her husband seated under the flap at the entrance, the servants, the animals. Even the birds seemed to be asleep. The air itself was still.
Sarah thought how nice it was to have this break in the day – a respite from all her responsibilities. Yet, at the same time, the heat made it not a time of renewal, but a forced stillness. They were imprisoned by the heat.
She heard Abraham. Later scholars would declare that he was using this time to talk to God. He would always claim that he did. Yet, Sarah heard his gentle snore from time to time. If he was talking to God he was doing it through his dreams! Sarah laughed to herself. “I guess God talks to us through our dreams,” she thought. “Or maybe, in our dreams, we think that God has spoken to us!”
She wondered if Abraham’s assertions about God’s plan had been merely a dream. They had been married a long, long time – she, Sarai, and Abram – when God “spoke” to Abram and told him he would father multitudes. Abram told Sarai that from now on he would be called Abraham, ancestor of a multitude. And Sarai was now to be Sarah! Abram – Abraham – was 99 years old! Why did he need a new name? And, ancestor of a multitude? They, she and Abram, were childless! She wasn’t sure she wanted a new name—even from God! The news that she was included in this promise of being ancestors to multitudes was laughable! Abram—Abraham—admitted that he had 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?” This pragmatic husband of hers suggested that Ishmael, his son by her servant, be his heir. Yet God persisted in the promise that she, dried up old Sarai – or Sarah—would bear a child.
Sarah reflected on theses things as she lay on the mat – drifting in and out of an uneasy sleep. Such news, such promises, seemed to be the false hopes of a man who had sought to follow God all through the years. And where had that gotten him, them? They were both old. Time had run out, it would seem. Hope had shriveled and died – dried up in the relentless passage of days that took their toll like the heat on all living things.
She heard Abraham move away from the tent. She heard it, but did not respond. The heat pressed down on her and she couldn’t seem to move. Then she heard Abraham speaking. Was something wrong? Everyone should be resting at this time of day! Even the animals were resting!
His voice drifted into the tent. “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.”
Sarah thought the heat and the years had gotten to him. He was seeing things. Then a stranger’s voice answered. “Do as you have said.”
“Do as you have said.” No dream – at least no dream on Abraham’s part! Maybe Sarah was dreaming. No one travelled in this heat! This was the time for rest! She struggled to get up. Then she looked out – and saw three strangers—three! Sarah sighed. Her rest was over. She knew what she had to do. Abraham had already promised bread.
She was starting to get things ready when Abraham came into the tent. She couldn’t say he was running –but he was moving pretty quickly for a man over one hundred years old! He told her to take the “choice flour, knead it and make cakes.” “Thank you, Abraham,” she thought. “I’m sure I wouldn’t have known what to do if you hadn’t told me!” She heard him scurry off to the herd, she assumed to get a calf to prepare.
Later scholars would say that, yes, Abraham had been praying. The arrival of strangers meant that his talk with God would have to be suspended. Extending hospitality was more important. Abraham may have promised a little something, but Sarah knew that a feast would be expected – bread, milk, cheese, and meat.
For a while Sarah was too busy to think. Life had intruded and demanded what she thought she could no longer give. She prepared the cakes – the loaves of bread – for the strangers and gave them to Abraham so that he could serve these surprise guests as they sat under the tree.
Sarah was curious. Who were these men? Where had they come from? Where were they going? Why would they travel in the heat of the day? It was inappropriate for her to join them, but she listened from the tent.
They asked Abraham where she was – where Sarah was. How did they know her name? Her new name? The one Abraham told her that God had given her? Who were these men?
Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”
Perhaps she was still asleep, caught in the heat of the day, unable to awake. Perhaps she was hearing in her dreams what Abraham had heard in his – that life would, could come from tired old bodies. She knew, however, that she was awake. Had God not seen her age – and her husband’s age? Did God not understand the very realities that God had created? Time had passed by them. The hopes of youth had withered with the years.
Sarah couldn’t believe what she was hearing! Those men were as addled by the heat as she was! This was nonsense that they were proclaiming. She had half a mind to walk right up to them and tell them to look at her – and Abraham – and then have the nerve to say something so ridiculous!
She snorted quietly. Men and their dreams! Men and their visions! She would just wait for them to go away and for life to settle back down into its regular rhythm – wake, fix breakfast, fix lunch, doze, wake, fix dinner, sleep. It was the rhythm an old woman could accept.
“Why did Sarah laugh?” She heard those words. How could they know she had laughed? She was in the tent. She was too far away for them to have heard. Who were they?
“Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” they asked. Sarah left the tent and stared at the strangers – the strangers who knew her name. The strangers who came in the heat of the day and disturbed her life – the set patterns, its predictability. She stammered, “I did not laugh!” But they laughed back at her – with joy dancing in their eyes. “Oh yes, you did laugh!”
So Sarah wondered. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Abraham’s words had seemed to be an old man’s dream. But, these men had come with a message that, like Abraham’s dreams, disrupted everything familiar.
Sarah had accepted Abram’s, Abraham’s, call. She had journeyed with him, leaving behind everything and everyone she had known. She had gone with him because that’s what good wives did. She didn’t really have a choice. But, maybe she hadn’t believed that God’s promises would come true. Maybe she hadn’t believed that she, too, had a part in those promises. And, as the years passed and she remained childless, she counted herself out. She was just a barren old woman. What could God see in her? Did God see her?
Sarah laughed again. God saw her. God saw her. Sarai, Sarah. God chose her – old, tired, barren Sarah. She would have a child!
Everything Sarah counted as real told her it was not possible. But, these strangers who had appeared in the heat of the day – even if they were a mirage—proclaimed a promise that she suddenly believed – with all her being. She would have a son. She would be an ancestor of that great nation God had promised.
Out of barrenness comes life – when God is present. Out of hopelessness comes promise. When even the earth is tired and still, God acts and a new future emerges. The old woman laughed, not in scorn, but in joy.
Christmas Eve Service
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