From Loss to Laughter

If we didn’t know how this ended, we’d be really worried. And even though most of us do know how this ends, I trust that this passage’s plot twist will encourage us with God’s power to do what He wants in spite of our best efforts to get in His way.

Chris Hutchison on April 2, 2023
From Loss to Laughter
April 2, 2023

From Loss to Laughter

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Passage: Genesis 20:1-21:7
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Good stories often have plot twists—where things go in directions you don’t expect. And good plot twists often happen right before the end. Right before the runner crosses the finish line, he stumbles and falls. Right as Frodo gets to Mount Doom, he can’t throw the ring in the fire.

And real life, which tells a story of its own, often works the same way. Think about today’s passage: right before Abraham and Sarah finally have their son together, Sarah gets carried off by yet another king who thinks she’s beautiful and takes her into his house.

If we didn’t know how this ended, we’d be really worried. And even though most of us do know how this ends, I trust that today’s plot twist and resolution will encourage us with God’s power to do what He plans in spite of our best efforts to get in His way.

1. Abraham Stumbles in Faith (Again) (20:1-2)

Our passage begins with Abraham once again on the move, a reminder of his lifestyle and that he never had a fixed address in this land. He journey on to the south of the land and comes to Gerar, where an early Philistine king reigns. And in verse 2, we hear these disheartening words: “And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’”

Now we know from chapter 12 what this is all about. And in case we forget, we’re going to be reminded in a few verses. Sarah was beautiful, and Abraham was afraid that he would be killed so they could take his wife. So he tells people that she’s his sister, and just lets them take her anyways.

A question you might have at this point is, “Sarah was ninety. Seriously? At ninety Abraham was afraid of her being stolen for her beauty?” And the answer is obviously yes. She must have been remarkably beautiful.

Sarah also lived until 127, so she likely aged slower. And something else to keep in mind here to help is that the men who stole Sarah were kings. And they were probably not taking Sarah to be their one and only wife. They were adding Sarah to their harem.

It’s gross, and it’s not right, but that’s what they did. Kings collected beautiful women for their own enjoyment and just to show off. And if they saw a woman they thought was particularly beautiful, they could just take her and add her to their collection.

So it’s not as if these kings saw Sarah and thought “She is the most beautiful person on the planet and she’s the one and only girl of my dreams.” I mean, maybe. But it’s more likely they thought, “That’s a particularly beautiful ninety-year-old; let’s add her to the harem.” Which, just so you know, I’m not saying is good—I’m just saying that’s what they did.

And sure enough, that’s what happened. “And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’ And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah” (Genesis 20:2).

Abraham once again tells a lie, and lets Sarah be taken into a vulnerable situation, rather than being willing to die to protect her if needs be.

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting frustrated with the men in Genesis throwing their wives or daughters into harm’s way in order to save their own skin. And this is Abraham’s second time doing this. And it’s even more of a problem this time around because God has specifically promised that Abraham would have a son by Sarah. And he specifically told him this would happen in a year’s time. And now Sarah has been taken by a king and is living in his harem.

The clock is ticking and the plot is thickening and it looks like Abraham has gone and ruined everything. After all those years of waiting, and so close to the finish line, there’s no chance Abraham can have a son through Sarah now if she’s in the harem of some other king.

Abraham should have trusted God and thought, “God promised me a son through Sarah. That means that nothing bad is going to happen to either of us until that promise has been fulfilled. I can tell the truth and trust God.” But he didn’t. He got afraid, and lost faith, and let Sarah get taken. And now God's promise appears to be in danger.

2. God Rebukes Abimelech (20:3-7)

But just think about this: if God is powerful enough to give Sarah a baby at 90 years old, then don’t you think He’s powerful enough to get Sarah out of Abimelech’s harem? And sure enough, that’s what he does in verses 3-7 as He intervenes to rebuke Abimelech.

“But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, ‘Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.’” (Genesis 20:3).

This is the first time in the Bible that God uses dreams to communicate with someone. And in a dream, God steps in and tells Abimelech what Abraham was too afraid to tell him. And God tells Abimelech that he’s stolen a married man’s wife, and stands under the death penalty.

Verse 4 and 5 are really interesting, because they show Abimelech responding to God in a surprising way. First, we find out that Abimelech had stayed away from Sarah thus far. And then he goes on to plead with God in a similar way to how Abraham pleaded for Sodom: “Lord, will you kill an innocent people?” And then in verse 5 he argues that he didn’t do anything wrong as far as he knew.

“Then God said to him in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her” (Genesis 20:6).

God knew all of this. God saw all of this. It was God who kept Abimelech from doing anything wrong with Sarah. And so when God told him, “You are a dead man,” what he meant was, “You will be a dead man if you don’t change your course and do what I tell you to do.”

And that course is laid out in verse 7: “Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours’” (Genesis 20:7).

This is the first time Abraham is directly identified as a prophet, although we’ve seen him acting as one before now. That makes Abimelech’s situation that much more dangerous if he doesn’t turn around.

3. The Philistines Fear God (20:8)

Abimelech has been warned—perhaps even threatened. And look at how he and his men respond in verse 8: “So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid” (Genesis 20:8). Hang on to that. Don’t forget this response by Abimelech and his people. It’s going to be very important to remember this in a few moments.

4. Abimelech Rebukes Abraham (20:9-10)

But first, Abimelech calls in Abraham to chew him out. Just like God rebuked Abimelech, so now he rebukes Abraham. Verse 9: “Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, ‘What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done’” (Genesis 20:9).

And Abraham has nothing to say. So Abimelech keeps going in verse 10: “What did you see, that you did this thing?”

Abimelech is not happy with Abraham, in case you can’t pick up on that. You’d probably he unhappy, too, if you almost died for committing a great sin, unintentionally, because someone lied to you for no good reason. And Abimelech’s words here show us very clearly that Abraham was in the wrong here. There is no excuse for what he did.

5. Abraham Defends Himself (20:11-13)

Now Abraham wouldn’t agree. He thinks there’s a great excuse for what he did. And once he’s regained his composure, he tries to defend himself in verses 11-13.

Verse 11: “Abraham said, ‘I did it because I thought, ‘There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’”

Isn’t that ironic? He pre-judged the people and assumed that they didn’t fear God. And was he ever wrong. Look at how Abimelech responded to God that night. Look at how the men feared in the morning. They did fear God. There’s a lesson here on not judging by appearance or jumping to conclusions.

Then Abraham tries to cover his tracks by saying that it was just a white lie, or a half-truth. Verse 12: “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.”

And finally, in verse 13, he explains it was nothing personal: “And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”

“So don’t take it too personally, Abimelech. I don’t trust God to take care of me with anybody, not just you. It’s not you, it’s me.”

6. Abimelech Restores, and Is Restored (20:14-18)

Well, Abimelech could get offended, and upset, and tell Abraham to take off and never be seen again. Instead, he acts honourably and does everything he can to prove his innocence and restore Sarah’s honour.

In verse 14, he gives Abraham a fresh supply of animals and people, along with Sarah. In verse 15, he invites Abraham to live wherever he wants in his land. That’s an incredibly generous offer to make to a man with as many flocks and herds as Abraham has. In verse 16, he tells Sarah that he’s given Abraham a huge amount money—1,000 pieces of silver—as a gesture of her innocence.

Babylonian labourers around this time make about half a shekel of silver a month. So this is like 166 years worth of salary for a labourer. An incredible amount of money that was apparently designed to change people’s perception of Sarah from a disgraced woman to a highly valued and treasured woman.

Abimelech is treating Sarah better than Abraham did, isn’t he? And you wonder if he noticed that himself. Notice the barb in his words in verse 16: “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver.” Not “your husband.” There’s probably a bit of sarcasm here as Abimelech is still stinging from Abraham’s lie.

Nevertheless, his generosity is amazing. And as he restores Sarah to Abraham, and works to restore her honour and dignity, Abraham does pray for him and Abimelech himself, along with his household, is restored. “Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. For the Lord had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife” (Genesis 20:17–18).

7. Isaac Is Born

And so the story of Sarah in Abimelech’s house ends on a really ironic note. God had made the women of that household barren as long as Sarah, who herself was barren, was there. Sarah leaves, and they become fertile again—which raises our hopes that God is able to finally do the same for Sarah.

And sure enough, as we turn over to chapter 21, the news that we’ve been waiting for for several months, and Abraham and Sarah had been waiting for for several decades, finally arrives as we see the birth of Isaac.

a. The Lord’s Visitation (21:1)

It starts with the Lord’s visitation in verse 1: “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised” (Genesis 21:1). Make no mistake, this is God’s work in fulfillment of God’s promise. God is the main character of this story and He’s the one who deserves the credit for what happens here.

b. The Son’s Birth (21:2)

And so in verse 2, we see the son’s birth: “And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him” (Genesis 21:2).

Sarah bore Abraham a son—not Abimelech! Now we see why it was so important that chapter 20 made clear Abimelech didn’t touch her. Now we see why it was so important for him to give everyone a sign of her innocence. It needed to be obvious that this is Abraham’s son, not Abimelech’s son. And sure enough, it is, and Isaac is born to the old couple right when God promised it.

I just wonder what it must have been like for Sarah to feel pregnant for the first time. Did she get morning sickness? Did she notice the bump first, or feel the flutter of little arms and legs moving around inside of her? What wonder must have filled Abraham as he placed his old hands on her rounded belly and felt little feet pressing back? Those months of pregnancy must have been filled with such a holy expectation.

And what a flood of emotions would have swam through Abraham’s heart as he heard his 90-year old wife crying out in the pain of childbirth. He knew how many women died in that process. He knew how dangerous it was. Was his faith strong in those moments, knowing God had brought them so far?

And then the moment when those little lungs filled with air and Sarah and Abraham heard the sound of their son crying out for the first time. I would love to see the expression on Sarah’s face a few minutes later as she looked down on Isaac nursing, and how it would have reflected the absolute surreal feeling of wonder that must have filled her heart.

c. The Father’s Obedience (21:3-4)

But before Genesis lets us reflect on Sarah’s reaction too much, the very first thing we hear about this child is not anything about him, or his mother, but his father’s obedience. We see that in two stages in verse 3 and 4. First, verse 3, “Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.” Just like God commanded.

Then, verse 4, “And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.” Isaac is a covenant child and he receives the sign of the covenant as he’s welcomed as the son of promise.

d. The Miracle Celebrated (21:5-7)

And now, finally, verses 5 to 7 share in some of the celebration of this moment. “Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him” says verse 5, just to make sure that we don’t miss the miracle here. And honouring his mother, this section closes out with two wonder-filled reflections from Sarah. “And Sarah said, ‘God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.’”

Remember that “Isaac” means “he laughs,” and Sarah is giving new meaning to his name here as she speaks of the joyful laughter that people will share with her at this miracle baby.

And finally she says, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age’” (Genesis 21:7).

Good question, Sarah. Who should have said that? Who would have guessed? Nobody—but God. God said this would happen. And God was right. And here you are, bearing Abraham this son in your old age.

Truths for Today

a. Patience

It’s taken us a long time to get here, hasn’t it? And like we’ve reflected already, it it felt like a long time for us, imagine how much longer it felt for Abraham and Sarah. Called to the land of promise, they had to wait 25 agonizing years before the promise was fulfilled.

That’s like from 1998 until now. Where were you in 1998? Some of you weren’t even born yet. But those of you who were, think of where you were at in 1998. Think of how much has changed in the world and in your life since then.

Imagine getting a promise from God that year, and having it be repeated maybe two or three years later, and then years go by, and God repeats the promise again. And then more years pass, and you hear the promise again. Still nothing. Finally it happens.

It’s not hard to see that God works on different time scales than we do. After all, this 25 year period is small compared to the big story of redemption. He promised a snake-crusher in the garden. Adam and Eve maybe thought their son would be that liberator. Could they have imaged thousands of years would pass before Jesus would be born?

And here we are, waiting. Maybe you’re waiting for an answered prayer. Maybe you’re waiting for a promise to be kept. Maybe you’re still waiting for all things to work out for good in your life as you reel from tragedy or suffering.

And as we do that, we groan with creation which “waits with eager longing” for Jesus to come and make all things new (Romans 8:19). To be a Christian means that you are someone who is waiting “eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved” (Romans 8:24).

And it’s been a while, hasn’t it been? Are you ready for Jesus to come back? And the more that time passes, like Abraham, the easier it is to get impatient and to lose the plot.

How we need to remember that God’s time scales are not ours. As Peter reminds us, “do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:8–9).

If God waits, He waits on purpose. He waits to save people. He waits to extend mercy to more and more people. He waits to make sure that our eyes are on him. He waits to bring Himself glory, which means that He waits to increase our joy.

And then one day, it happens. Sarah holds her child, and some of us are going to find each other in the new earth and say “hey, we made it.” And I wonder if we’ll gather around Abraham’s feet and hear him fill in some gaps in the story, and tell us that those twenty-five years don’t really feel all that long looking back on them.

The birth of Isaac encourages us to wait with patience as we ask God to keep His promises to us, especially as we wait for “our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

b. Miracles

If we shift perspective just a bit, we can see how the birth of Isaac also has some things to teach us about the nature of miracles. We can think about it this way: the birth of Isaac is not a demonstration that every 90 & 100 year old couple who trusts in God is going to have a baby. After all, how many times has this happened since then? However, the birth of Isaac is a demonstration that if God wants to give an old couple a baby, He can go right ahead and do that, and nothing is going to get in His way.

This is important, and it helps us to be both realistic and hopeful as we consider the impossible situations in our life. Realistic, as we remember that God does not do miracles like this all the time. After all, that’s what makes a miracle a miracle: it’s not a part of every-day life. There’s a reason that Isaac’s birth, and all the promises and preparation for it, takes up so much space in Genesis. It’s a very rare event.

But hopeful, because God can do that. He can create a universe out of words. He can bring life from nothing and give a baby to an aged couple. He can give a baby to a virgin named Mary, and raise that son back from the dead after He was killed. If he wants to do something, nothing can stop him. Which means that if He doesn’t do a miracle, it’s not because He can’t or because He doesn’t care. It’s because He has a good reason, and we can trust Him.

Maybe you’ve got some impossible situations in your life today. Maybe something in your body. Maybe something in your family. Maybe a hard heart that you’re praying will soften. Maybe a roadblock in your life that you just can’t get past.

The hopeful side knows that God has the power to completely change the situation in a heartbeat. We hear the cries of baby Isaac and we remember that nothing is impossible for Him. He can do whatever He wants. And so we pray.

The realistic side helps us recognize that God does not owe us a miracle. He may, as He often does, choose to sustain us through the difficulty, walking with us, carrying us when we’re weak, and manifesting His glory in the middle of the pain, not because He can’t do anything else, but because He’s decided that’s the absolute best way of doing things.

And you might be thinking, “that sounds pretty hopeful to me. I can walk through suffering if I know that God will be with me,” and if you’re thinking that way, you’re on the right track. As Romans 12:12 says, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation.”

c. Providence

There’s a final truth for today we want to make sure we see today, and it’s God’s absolute power over all things, not just in performing miracles on occasion, but in purposefully ruling over all things and working all things for His good purposes. And the word for that is providence—God’s purposeful sovereignty over all things.

If we were to see, for the first time, Sarah being carried off to Abimelech’s household, we might think that Abraham had gone and wrecked everything. But Abraham’s stumbles once again highlight the power of God, and prove that this is about God, not Abraham. God stops Abimelech from touching Sarah, speaks to him in a dream, and sends Sarah back to Abraham with a public display of her innocence. All of that highlights that the child born to her a few months later was Abraham’s son and not Abimelech’s.

And in each of those events, God was at work, directing all things—even the heart of a pagan king—to bring His purposes to pass. Not all of that qualifies as a “miracle,” but it is the work of God who is greater than any human heart and who thwarts the plans of people to bring about what He’s decided.

There’s a reason Ephesians 1:11 speaks of God as “him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.”

Today is Palm Sunday, where we often remember the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. In those last days of Jesus, don’t we see God’s providence on full display? Think of all the human actors. Judas, the high priests, the disciples, the crowds. Think of all the competing motives and plans and passions at work in all of those characters.

And in it all, the plans of God stand. “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27–28).

Just like with Abraham and Abimelech. And just like us.

So when things feel like they’re falling apart for us, when our foundations feel like they’re shaky, when it seems like wicked people are doing their best to get in God’s way, we can look back to these events and rest assured that God is in control, reigning over all things in His perfect providence.

He’s going to bring glory to Himself. And He’s going to take care of His children. If He so ruled over those dark days in Jerusalem to make sure that Jesus went to the cross for you, and if you’ve been bought with His blood and united to Jesus forever by the Spirit, then He’s not going to let things fall apart today.

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