Sarah had waited twenty-four years. Twenty-four years have passed between last week’s passage and this week’s passage. Sarah has been following Abraham around a quarter of a century, waiting to see what God means by his blessing. Years after the original promise, not long before today’s reading, God told Abraham he would have as many descendents as there are stars in the sky, but still Sarah has not gotten pregnant.
For years Sarah has lived with this hope, only to see her hope dashed over and over and over again. First, each month that came had the disappointment of a monthly flow visibly reminding her that she was not pregnant. Now, she is years into menopause, well past the hot flashes and mood swings, and her hopes of becoming pregnant are completely encased in the cement of cold, hard reality.
Sarah has tried to be obedient to God. She has maintained Abraham’s household. She has followed him to places she would never go of her own accord. Sarah even tried to arrange for Abraham to have a child through another woman, her servant, Hagar. But, as you can imagine, surrogacy did not turn out well. Sarah soon could not take the painful sight of another woman happily playing with Abraham’s child, and banished them both. Sarah has tried to be open to God’s blessing, but reality has crushed her dream.
So when Sarah welcomes a stranger into her home and goes out of her way to prepare a lush meal for him, and then overhears this stranger making bold claims about Sarah’s reproductive future, well, I think the visitor was lucky all Sarah did was laugh. We don’t know if Sarah knew the visitor was God. But we do know that she laughed. And we know that laugh was not rooted in joy, but in deep disappointment and disgust that this visitor would so casually claim Sarah would bear a child. This laughter bore the pain of twenty-four years of doing what God had asked of her and seeing no blessing in return. This laughter bore the pain of her own, personal desire to be a mother, which had been dashed month after month.
To add insult to injury, the stranger tells Abraham that Sarah will bear a child in “due season”. Due season? Sarah is in her nineties, for crying out loud. Due season would have been twenty-four years ago when God began making these promises. Due season would have 50 years ago, when Sarah was still in her thirties and had the energy to deal with child bearing, nursing, and rearing. “Due season” has come and gone a looooong time ago.
We know, ultimately, that Sarah does get pregnant. But that pregnancy does not come for THREE MORE CHAPTERS. Our lectionary reading transposes her pregnancy to the end of this passage, but a lot more goes down in Abraham and Sarah’s life before they are blessed with Isaac’s birth. There are many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures of barren women miraculously becoming pregnant, but Sarah’s story is the only one of these stories in which the time between God’s promise and the ultimate pregnancy is so agonizingly long.
Remember, Sarah and Abraham are the first couple with whom God is exploring this new covenant. He has committed to being their God and they have committed to being God’s people. And what does God do to celebrate this relationship? (Besides asking Abraham and all the men in the family to get circumcised, of course.) God asks them to wait. He asks Abraham and Sarah to follow him and trust that he will provide an heir, and not only an heir, but a nation of descendents that will be God’s chosen people for thousands of years.
This waiting is not unique to Abraham and Sarah. Waiting is a profound part of the experience of being in relationship with God. Abraham and Sarah had to wait a quarter of a century to get pregnant. Job had to wait for answers from God. The Israelites had to wait forty years to finally arrive in the Promised Land. Even Jesus’ disciples had to wait three days between Jesus death and his resurrection.
God calls us to keep following him, and calls us to wait. And this waiting can cause us terrible suffering. Those who struggle with infertility, waiting month after month suffer deeply. Those who wait to find work as the economy struggles, suffer. Those who wait to heal suffer. Those who wait for true love suffer. Those who wait for their sons, daughters to return from war suffer. Those who wait for grief to subside suffer. This suffering can feel incredibly painful and very personal, but it is important to remember that the suffering of waiting is not a punishment or a rebuke. In Paul’s letter to the Romans today, he calls us to:
. . .boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
When I was a child and had to do something I did not want to do, my father would always tell me, “It will build character, Sarah.” The word character sours after while, when building character means making your bed, being nice to your sister, staying late to help clean, working on your science project instead of going to the circus when your sister gets to go to the circus with your most hilarious family friend who does magic tricks with his hat. (Deep breath)
But I digress. . .
I don’t know about you, but to me, character and hope do not seem like related words at all. Character is a stodgy word, and hope is a lofty word. Character is about hard work and discipline and hope is about dreaming and longing. Character is about being firm and grounded and hope is about taking big emotional risks.
So, why does Paul link these words to suffering? How does our waiting give us hope?
I think the imagery we discussed last week-the imagery of our lives with God as a journey is helpful here. After all, when we wait, we are not just sitting on our couches holding perfectly still waiting for God to show up. No, when we wait, we wait actively: going to work, loving our friends and families, and most importantly staying connected with God. When we wait, whether we wait patiently, eagerly, or bitterly, we pray about that waiting. We ask God. We beseech God. We may rail at God. But in the waiting, in the praying, God is at work in us, maturing us, developing us to be the people he has designed us to be.
Oftentimes we have transformative experiences while we wait. We may discover our friends’ deep love for us when we wait, or feel the deep presence of God while we wait. And when we feel the deep presence of God, we realize that God loves us in a profound way, and that love and that sense of God’s immanence gives us hope. Paul’s passage is not about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, but about the intense, personal, transformative experience of suffering in the light of God’s love for us.
Paul suffered. He was shipwrecked. He was imprisoned. He was blinded for a time. He had some unnamed “thorn” in his side. Paul knew what it was to wait for God, to wait for answers. Paul knew first hand that the suffering he encountered during his long journey of faith was transformed by God into something enriching and life giving, even before his problems were resolved or God’s answers were revealed.
Some who suffer, like Sarah ultimately rejoice. In the 21st chapter of Genesis we read:
The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
Sarah’s bitter laughter is transformed back into the joyous laughter of delight, and she even names her son Isaac, which means “He will laugh.”
But not everyone who waits receives the object of their desire. Even for those who get bad news, whose longings never disappear, who still ache with desire for some unmet need, even these people are offered the hope that comes from an intimacy with God. This hope is not an easy hope. This hope is born of stodgy, sturdy words like suffer, endurance and character. This hope is hewn out of the rough wood of prayer after unanswered prayer. This hope is borne from open raw hearts meeting the living God, and being filled with God’s spirit.
This hope is Sarah’s hope, and Paul’s hope, and Job’s hope. This is the hope of the grieving disciples. This hope is your hope, all of you who wait, and all of you who yearn.
And this hope will come. It is God’s promise to you, and as surely as he granted Sarah a child, he will grant you this hope.