If there is anyone in the universe who enjoys laughter, it is God. How do we know God enjoys laughter? Because we enjoy laughter. And we were created in the image of God. Honestly, the person who cannot laugh needs to be prayed for and delivered into holy hilarity. The Bible says laughter is organic and healthy: “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” It is ok even to laugh during a sermon, if there’s something funny. Charles Spurgeon was a great preacher but also quite a character. Some of his fellow clergymen railed against his habit of introducing humor into his sermons. With a twinkle in his eye, he once replied: “If only you knew how much I hold back, you would commend me…This preacher thinks it less a crime to cause a momentary laughter than a half-hour of profound slumber.”
Sometimes we laugh because something totally unexpected happens, and one place we see that kind of laughter in the Bible surrounds the birth of Isaac. This famous baby was born to a 100 year-old father and his 90 year-old wife. What? That’s miraculously funny right there. When Isaac was born, his mother said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” If you read the rest of Sarah’s story, you must admit that before this baby came along, she had a tough row to hoe. I’m not so sure that 90-year-old Sarah had much to guffaw over before then, especially for the 13 years since Ishmael came along. You can read about that in the 16th chapter of Genesis. Sarah did not even titter in that chapter.
But God changed her mindset, her sense of humor, and her name. Sarai became Sarah. Both names mean princess, and ladies and girls, you cannot be a princess without a king! God, her king, says twice in Genesis 17, “I will bless her.” He also tells Abraham and Sarah three times that they will have a son. Together. Abraham laughs at that and suggests God is confused, thinking about Ishmael. God says “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.” It’s like he is saying, “Abraham and Sarah, you like to laugh? Great, that’s your son’s name. In one year, you will really be laughing as you hold him in your arms.” No name book needed. No gender reveal party necessary. Isaac, the promised son, is on the way. The name Isaac, by the way, means “laughter.”
Someone reading this may believe in a sourpuss God who sits in heaven just waiting for someone to enjoy life for a second and, God forbid, even laugh out loud. That’s when he punishes them with a lightning bolt or even worse, a re-run of “Bill Nye Saves the World.” Nope. That’s not who God is. Iain Duguid said that many people approach God as if they were interviewing him for a job position for ‘personal deity of my life.’ If the man in the sky fits the job description, being nonjudgmental and accepting, and allows us to determine what is right or wrong—he’s got the job.” Nope. Wrong again.
God laughs at that idea.
What if I told you to go home, take 5 animals you own, maybe your dog, cat, parakeet, gerbil, and goldfish, and cut them in half and lay the pieces side by side, each half across from the other? You would call the SPCA and report me, right? But that’s what God told Abraham to do with a cow, a goat, a ram, a dove and a pigeon, and Abraham didn’t bat an eye. It was normal in those days, including in Mesopotamia where Abraham had come from, that two parties would make a covenant in just this way. They would both walk between the bloody pieces, a gruesome path of promise. They were saying to one another by doing so, “May it be done to me what was done to these animals if I do not keep this covenant.”
This day in Abraham’s life reminds us that since the fall, when God covered Adam and Eve with animal skins, requiring the life of those animals, that the covenant we have with God is a blood covenant. As the Bible says, “…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” This is how a covenant was made. Something had to die, and eventually, praise be to God, that something became a Someone. The only One. The Son of God as our perfect high priest would enter the holy place, but not like a priest who entered “with blood not his own.” Jesus went to the cross as the priest and the sacrifice. God’s covenant with Abraham pointed to that.
As the sun went down, Abraham fell into a deep sleep, and a “dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.” The last time the Bible mentioned a deep sleep was when God caused Adam to go to the third level of anesthesia so he could remove a rib and make Eve. But here, the sleep comes as the covenant sacrifice is made, attended by deep darkness and great dread. Again it points us to the cross, where from noon until 3pm, the last three hours of Jesus’ crucifixion, there was darkness over the whole land as the new covenant was being cut. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The darkness and the weight of that moment we will never understand. We can only imagine such horror and be amazed at such sacrifice.
The most beautiful part of the story of God’s covenant with Abraham may not seem like much as you just read through it. When there was no daylight left, the sun was gone and it was totally dark, Abraham saw a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass between the pieces. What is going on? This was God appearing to Abraham as he would hundreds of years later to the children of Israel in the wilderness, a pillar of fire by night.
Even more amazing and important to our faith, this is a unilateral covenant. When a man and woman get married and they make a covenant with one another at the altar, and he kisses the bride and they are pronounced husband and wife, BOTH walk down the aisle together to ratify the covenant they just made. But here, God walks down the aisle, if you will, right between the bloody halves of the five animals. He makes the covenant by himself. Because there is no one greater to swear by, God swears by himself to Abram, and all of Abram’s descendants, including you and me who are in Christ, that he will keep his promise. “And if you are Christ’s,” Paul wrote, “then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” What are five of many promises we who follow Jesus Christ have from God?
He will make us a people. He will take us through trials and tribulations. He will give us grace for each moment and strength equal to the calling on our lives. He will hold our hands as we pass from this realm to the next, in peace. He will give us a home.
What a great God who loves us so!
God took Abram outside to help the old man see the promise God made, that he would be the father of a multitude. He told him to count the stars. Look up, Abram, and number the stars! Now in my sometimes-fertile imagination, I see Abram staring at the sky and counting out loud: One, two, three… and this goes on for a long time and when he’s up to maybe 120, God says,
“That’s good…you can stop now, son. But as many as you could count, Abram, and many, many more, that’s how many offspring you will have.”
And Abram sighed with relief and said, “Yes, Lord.”
He heard the Lord and as Walter Brueggemann says, “God’s word was the voice around which his life is organized.”
That’s when it happens. The linchpin verse of faith. His faith and ours. “And he believed the Lord, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” He believed the Lord. He leaned into God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength, and put all his trust in God the Lord. John Calvin wrote, “Faith is not a distant view but a warm embrace of Christ.”
Here’s an important question. Did Abram fully understand the promise? No, and that becomes obvious later when he is still waiting for that son and agrees with his wife on a work-around solution. Nonetheless, Abram believed the Lord, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
Wait, righteousness? He was considered righteous by God because he just…believed? Come on. Surely Abram must have done something more than just believe. Maybe he prayed for 4 hours to the Lord? No. He memorized the book of Genesis, that hadn’t been written yet? No. He told 15 people about God! No. He went to the altar and sacrificed 100 rams? No. He went one whole day without doing anything wrong! No! If had trusted in any of those things, it would not have been the grace of God but his own works upon which he stood. Faith depends on the grace of God which guarantees the promise. He believed. The word means to consider something dependable, reliable, and then act on that belief. But listen! Action follows belief. It always does. “It (his belief) was counted to him as righteousness.”
Is it the same for you and me? Paul writes, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”
How do we become people of faith? Like Abraham, we trust God whom we do know to take care of the things ahead that we do not know. Faith in his future grace glorifies God.
Did you know that the African impala has a vertical leap of over 10 feet and can jump MORE than 30 feet! Yet these amazing creatures can be kept in an enclosure in any zoo with a 3-foot wall. How? Because impalas will not jump if they cannot see where their feet will fall. Powerful and athletic…but faithless when it comes to the unknown.
Go ahead. Believe in God. Take that leap of faith.