10 July 2016

Sermon – “Sarah” (Genesis 18:1-15, et al.)

No doubt many of you have heard it said that behind every successful man there is always a woman—and I’ve heard it added that she couldn’t be more surprised. Originally when I was planning to preach in July I thought I might do a series of sermons on the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But then I began to ask myself, what about those largely overlooked women who stood beside them? What about Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, the Matriarchs, each of them a towering figure in her own right? So it is that I want us to take a three-week journey together as we meet ever so briefly with each of these three remarkable women.
As I do so, I am reminded of another quotation, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” As I have been preparing this series I have received numerous warnings from my wife, Karen, whose wisdom has proved itself countless times over the years of our marriage. “Do you think the women in the congregation haven’t been over these stories countless times at women’s conferences and retreats?” That may be so, but perhaps we men in the congregation also need to hear them and to allow God to speak his word to us through Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel.
I should also say at the outset that I am indebted to a contemporary author named Carolyn Custis James, whom Karen and I were privileged to hear as she gave the convocation address at Bethel University early in our years in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her book, Lost Women of the Bible, was in large part the inspiration that got me started looking at the great parade of amazing women whom we are privileged to meet on the pages of Scripture.
So let’s turn to Sarah, whom we first encounter in Genesis 11:29. There, and for the next six chapters, her name is not Sarah but Sarai. Scholars differ on exactly what distinction can be made between the meanings of the two names. However, one possible meaning for “Sarai” is “my princess”, while “Sarah” is simply the Hebrew for “princess”. In Genesis 17:15-16 God speaks to Abraham and says to him, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai [“my princess”]; her name will be Sarah [“princess”] … I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” Perhaps I am trying to derive too much from a name, but my take on this is that what God was declaring about Sarah was that she was a princess not because of anyone else’s assertion about her, but entirely in her own right. Whatever the case, there can be no doubt that the character we meet with in these thirteen chapters of Genesis was a regal woman.
Sarah’s faith
Like Abraham, Sarah came from the city of Ur, a cosmopolitan oasis in the midst of what was then and is today a chaotic and dangerous desert region in modern-day Iraq. Even in their time, the city had more than 2000 years of history. In Sarah’s day it was an important trading centre for precious metals such as gold and silver, and gems like carnelian and lapis lazuli. Archaeologists have excavated tombs containing immense amounts of wealth. Fields were kept fertile through an extensive irrigation system. Its skyline was crowded with temples, including an enormous ziggurat. All in all, the picture we are left with is of a city of unparalleled prosperity in the ancient world.
All of this Sarah left behind in response to her husband’s call from an unseen God. “She gives up certainty for uncertainty, acquaintances for strangers, civilization for wilderness, the amenities of the city for the hardships of the desert,” wrote the Scottish preacher and hymn writer George Matheson.[1] And to quote another Scotsman, Herbert Lockyer,
If Abraham is ‘the father of all them that believe’, surely Sarah is their mother… Sarah speaks of that which is in faith, and by promise, and is free—and therefore is carried on in those who live on God’s promises by faith in Christ, and have that perfect freedom which is alone found in his service, and thus belong to the heavenly Jerusalem.[2]
So it is that we find Sarah in that great portrait gallery of the faithful in Hebrews 11: “And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.” Like her husband Abraham, she “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:11,10).

Sarah’s beauty 

Alongside her faith, one of the things we learn about Sarah early in her story is that she was a woman of exceptional physical beauty. Centuries later the rabbis would comment In the Talmud, “She was so beautiful that all other persons seemed apes in comparison.”[3] No doubt that was something of an embellishment on the facts. Yet Sarah’s beauty was such that when Abraham ventured into Egypt to escape a famine, he had her pose as his sister, not his wife, for fear that the Egyptians might kill him in order to claim her.
To be fair, what Abraham and Sarah professed about themselves was not entirely untrue. It was a fact that Sarah was Abraham’s sister, sharing the same father but born of a different mother. Yet both of them knew very well that their marriage vows took precedence over their blood relationship and their deception quickly came back to haunt them. It did not take long for news of Sarah’s beauty to reach the ears of none less than Pharaoh, who took her into his harem. Within a very short time the whole household was stricken with a series of illnesses and Pharaoh began to suspect that the problem lay with Sarah. People in power have ways of finding things out, and when he discovered that Sarah was in reality Abraham’s wife, he had the two of them banished from his kingdom.
Now you’d think that Sarah and Abraham might have learned a lesson from that. However, it appears that twenty years later Sarah’s striking beauty had not diminished. This time they were living in the little kingdom of Gerar, a Philistine town in what is now south-central Israel. It was almost an exact repeat performance, with Sarah masquerading as Abraham’s sister. This time around Abimelech, the king of Gerar, was warned in a dream that the woman he had taken into his harem was already married. However, instead of ejecting them from his kingdom, he gave them the freedom to live wherever they chose.
So we discover that while Sarah was a woman who trusted God (and I think honestly trusted him with all her heart), she discovered, as many of us have, that it was not always easy to live out that faith though difficult challenges or adverse circumstances. She did not possess the boldness of Deborah, who accompanied the Israelite army against the chariots of Sisera. Nor did she enjoy the quiet confidence of Esther, who risked her life to plead the cause of her people before the emperor of Persia. Like Peter outside the high priest’s court, Sarah along with her husband Abraham allowed her faith in God to fade into the background in the face of danger.
So we see that the picture that the Bible gives us of Sarah is not some paragon of perfection, the “ideal” woman. No, beneath her extraordinary physical beauty we find a frail and flawed human being like the rest of us, yet whom God still used to advance his purposes in the world.

Sarah’s pain

Beneath that beauty Sarah also carried a secret pain—her inability to bear a child for Abraham. In fact one of the first things that the Bible says about Sarah, before it mentions her beauty or almost anything else about her, is her inability to conceive. In Genesis 11, where she is first introduced, a list of all of Abraham’s family with their wives and husbands and their children tersely concludes, “But Sarai was barren; she had no child.”
“These words would have sent a dagger straight through Sarah’s heart,” writes Carolyn Custis James, “… exposing an open wound and simultaneously eliminating her from the big things God was doing in her family…” She continues,
In the ancient world the value of a woman was measured simply by counting her sons. By this calculation, Sarah scored a zero. Her sole contribution … was to produce a son for her husband, and she didn’t have what it took… She was a woman in a man’s world, and she was barren.[4]
I have no doubt that Sarah and Abraham agonized and prayed for years over what can only have been a source of deep and abiding sorrow for both of them. After all, had God not promised that Abraham would be the father of a great nation whose numbers would be like the stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore? Yet as year followed year what had been a promise must have felt for them more like a curse. Finally, as any possibility of childbearing became for Sarah a thing of the past, she hit upon a plan. In the words of Alexander Whyte, “Sarah sacrificed herself on the cruellest altar on which any woman ever laid herself down.”[5]
Sarah’s decision to give her slave Hagar to Abraham as a sexual surrogate seems strange to our ears, but in fact it was not an unheard of custom in the ancient near eastern world. There is, for example, an Assyrian marriage contract, dating from around 1900 BC, which specified of a newly married wife, If within two years she does not provide him with offspring, she herself will purchase a slave woman, and later on, after she will have produced a child by him, [she] may then dispose of her by sale wheresoever [she] pleases.”[6] So it was that Abraham slept with Hagar and Hagar conceived. And as anyone who is familiar with this story well knows, the results were disastrous. Hagar, now pregnant with Abraham’s child, began to despise her mistress, with the result that Sarah became cruel to Hagar, and that rivalry and ill will continues through their descendants right down to our own time. But that is another story.
What is germane to us is that for years Sarah was forced to live with the silence of God. Again and again we can picture her alone in her tent sobbing and crying out with the prophets and the psalmists, “How long, O Lord?” And she is not alone. How many of us have not had times when we have been faced with the silence of God? Mother Teresa was one of the towering figures of Christian faith during the twentieth century, but little was known of her decades-long inner struggles until after she died. Listen to one of her prayers:
Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The child of your love—and now become as the most hated one—the one you have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want—and there is no one to answer—no one on whom I can cling—no, no one. Alone… I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

Sarah’s laughter

As far as we know, Mother Teresa never emerged from that silence. Mercifully for Sarah the silence ended one hot noonday as she rested inside her tent. Suddenly Abraham was bursting in and saying, “Quick, get fifteen kilos of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” It was no small order; and as she stood there exhausted at the end of the day, she could hear the conversation that Abraham was having with his three strange guests: “Where is your wife Sarah?” “There, in the tent.” Then she could hear one of them saying, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
At this Sarah could not control herself. After all these years? After I have prayed and wept and entreated and begged again and again for a child? Now, after my childbearing years lie in the dust of the past? Now after all hope is gone you say I am going to have a child? All she could do was laugh. I suspect she didn’t intend it to come out audibly as it did. But she couldn’t muffle it. It simply had to come out.
In her embarrassment Sarah tried to deny that she had laughed. Yet that laugh—an anguished combination of derision and despair—was the occasion of one of the most profound statements of the Bible, the very words that her sorrowing heart needed to hear: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
Nine months later Sarah’s laugh of bitterness would become one of joy as she brought her son into the world—and she and Abraham named him “Laughter”. Countless generations later and just twenty kilometers away their joy would be echoed in the “good news of great joy” proclaimed by the angels at Jesus’ birth. And Sarah’s story remains as a testimony to the utter faithfulness of our God, who is true to his promises, who in spite of our weaknesses and sometimes our strengths, remains forever faithful. And so we sing with the prophet Isaiah,
Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness
      and who seek the Lord:
look to the rock from which you were cut
      and to the quarry from which you were hewn;
look to Abraham, your father,
      and to Sarah, who gave you birth. (Isaiah 51:1-2)

[1]        Portraits of Bible Women, 36
[2]        All the Women of the Bible, 155ff
[3]        “Sarah (Sarai)”, The Jewish Encyclopedia, [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13194-sarah-sarai]
[4]       Lost Women of the Bible, 68
[5]        Bible Characters, Vol 1, ch 13
[6]       James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 543

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