No Laughing Matter
I would like to start this morning with a few Bible jokes. What’s a dentist’s favorite hymn? Crown him with many crowns. What kind of man was Boaz before he got married? He was Ruth-less. When was the first math homework problem mentioned in the Bible? When God told Adam and Eve to go forth and multiply. And finally: An elderly woman had just returned home from an evening church service when she realized there was an intruder in her home. Seeing that he was in the act of robbing her home of its valuables, the lady yelled “Stop! Acts 2:38!” Hearing her, the burglar stopped dead in his tracks and stood motionless. The woman calmly called the police and explained what was going on. As the officer cuffed the man to take him in, he asked the burglar, “Why did you just stand there? All the lady did was yell a Bible verse at you.” “Bible verse?” said the burglar, “She said she had an ax and two 38’s!”
As I thought about this morning’s passage a couple of things stood out. One, life can be funny and life can be unpredictable and sometimes you just have to laugh as life happens. Two, there are times in life when we may want to laugh but in reality the situation that occurs is no laughing matter. And third, God has a sense of humor.
When I think about times when we may want to laugh but in reality the situation that occurs is no laughing matter I think of practical jokes. Practical jokes may be funny but they are usually at the expense of someone else and it is probably not funny to them. If you didn’t know, MASH, is my favorite TV show of all time. As I thought of this idea of practical jokes being no laughing matter I was reminded of a certain MASH episode. In this episode it's almost April Fool's Day, and Hawkeye, B.J., and Winchester are getting into the spirit by pulling pranks. Colonel Potter learns that the 4077th is about to be inspected by Col. Tucker, a fire-breathing, Army-regulation quoting martinet who, according to Potter, "Picks his teeth with a rusty nail" and he puts the kibosh on all tomfoolery. Going against Potter's direct order, Hawkeye, B.J and Winchester get back at Margaret who has pranked all three of them recently. After finding her tent missing, she storms into the men’s tent, where waiting for her in Hawkeye's cot is a skeleton, which elicits a scream from her. The guys laugh in delight, causing a pillow fight which spills out onto the compound right into the path of the incoming Col. Tucker, who is not amused and he berates them all, including Potter. The next day, Tucker has nothing but criticism for the medical staff, hurling insults and sarcasm when they protest his lack of respect for their surgical prowess. After a confrontation outside, Tucker puts them all on report, and then tells them he plans to bar them all from medical service and have them court-martialed. Hawkeye, B.J., Margaret, and Winchester decide that if they're going to get busted, they might as well go out in style - pulling off one last giant prank on Tucker. In the Officer’s Club, they set it up so when Tucker asks for his trademark beverage, a bucket of it will dumped on him from the rafters. After being dumped on Tucker is apoplectic, red-faced with rage and after screaming at Hawkeye, he collapses onto the floor with an apparent heart attack. Talk about a time where a practical joke was “no laughing matter.” The Officer’s Club goes silent, and Col. Tucker asks for Hawkeye to come closer. As Hawkeye gets in close, he whispers: "April Fools." It turns out this was an April Fools plot hatched by the both Col. Potter and Col. Tucker, weeks in advance, pulled off to perfection. Practical joking can really get out of hand and at times is no laughing matter.
In our scripture this morning, found in Genesis 17:15-27, God continues to give additional information to Abraham about the covenant he is making with him. We will see that by Abraham’s reaction he thinks God must be playing the first April Fool’s joke in history on him and all Abraham can do is laugh but God is totally serious about the promise he has made to him. To Abraham what God has just told him is seemingly impossible and as we dive into our scripture this morning we will see that when God says he will do the impossible it is no laughing matter. That brings us to our big idea this morning which is “We can trust God to do the impossible.” God is in the business of doing the impossible and Abraham and his descendants will find this out as we continue to study Genesis. And God can and will do the impossible in our lives as well.
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, pour out your Holy Spirit on us this morning as we seek your truth in your Word. Help us to believe in your promises no matter how impossible they seem to us. Let us hold on to the fact that you are all powerful and that you can do the impossible in our lives, our families lives, our churches and in the world. Guide us this morning in our study of your Word, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Our scripture this morning is found in Genesis 17:15-27. There are two points. The first one is God’s Promises and is found in verses 15-22. This is what God’s Word says, “Then God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her by the name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Will a child be born to a man a hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, give birth to a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” But God said, “No, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will establish My covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this season next year.” When He finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.”
If you remember a couple weeks ago we saw that the Lord appeared to Abram. He confirmed his covenant with him, he changed his name to Abraham, promised that he would be the father of many nations, and again promised that the land of Canaan would be an everlasting possession to him and his descendants. He then commands Abraham to circumcise every male in his household, including himself, and every male eternally for generations to come. Circumcision was to be the sign of the covenant between God and his chosen people and anyone who was not circumcised would be cut off for breaking his covenant.
The first thing we notice this morning is that God is still talking to Abraham and he tells him that he is no longer to call his wife Sarai but Sarah. The changing of a person’s name was significant. When you named something it was a privilege to do so and you had authority over it, such as when God allowed Adam to name the animals. Names also represented blessing and destiny such as when parents named their children. The names often expressed their hopes and dreams for them. The renaming of Sarah brought her into the covenant just as Abraham was because the child of promise came from both of them. Interestingly, Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose name is changed.
The second thing we notice is that it’s God who changes her name. Normally it would have been the husband who changed their wife’s name but this was done because the Lord was the one who would go on to pronounce the blessing on Sarah. The Lord would bless her and give Abraham a son by her. She would also be the mother of nations and kings of peoples would come from her. The name Sarai and Sarah both mean “princess” but there is a subtle change in the way the word is used. This quote from Charlie Garrett in his sermon, “The Promised Son, A Time for Laughter” explains it well. “Sarai is like “a princess” as if she is in a room with many princesses. But Sarah is like “the princess.” She is over all the princesses and the mother of all the people who would come from her.” Sarah would be a princess because she would be the one to bear the promised child. Just as Abraham was to be the father of many nations, Sarah would be the mother of many nations and “kings of peoples” would come from her. From Sarah, came King Saul, King David, King Solomon, and many other kings and ultimately from her came Jesus, the King of kings.
As God is telling Abraham that Sarah was going to give him a son he again falls face down in worship just as he did in verse 3. But this time as he falls face down he laughs and comments to himself. We can imagine that he probably thought God was joking. What did Abraham mean by his laughter? Most commentators don’t see it as laughter of unbelief. Some see it as laughter of joy and others as laughter of doubt mixed with faith. We have seen Abraham’s doubt mixed with faith before in chapter 15 when he questioned God about how the land of Canaan could really be his and his descendants when he didn’t even possess it at the time. It was also probably laughter brought on by surprise. For a split second, he must have been thinking, “Ok, God, that’s a good one, you got me.” Abraham is thinking that what God is promising is impossible; there is no way that a son can be born to a man who is a hundred years old and that woman can bear a child at ninety. Ultimately Abraham knew that God was all-powerful and he trusted that God could and would do the impossible, but Abraham was thinking in his humanness at that moment. He couldn’t understand how this was physically possible. We see Abraham doing some fast thinking and fast talking as all this must have flashed through his mind in an instant and what came out of his mouth was not what he must have been thinking but a comment that showed a doubt tempered by faith and a love for his son, Ishmael.
We see God’s answer to Abraham in verse 19. God knows Abraham’s thoughts and he answer’s his question about a man having a son at hundred years old and a woman bearing a child at age ninety with (and I am paraphrasing) “No, humanly speaking that is impossible but Sarah is going to have a son and he will be called Isaac.” God’s covenant would be established with Isaac and an everlasting covenant would be established with his descendants. God is going to do what Abraham sees as impossible because it is part of his plan for the salvation of the world. What is impossible for man is not impossible for God.
We notice a few things in verse 19: God gives Abraham the name “Isaac” for his son before he is even born. This reminds us of John the Baptist and Jesus. Next, we know that names have meanings. In Matthew, the angel tells Joseph to name his son Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. The name, Jesus, comes from Greek for Joshua which means “God is salvation.” Do you know what the name, Isaac, means? It means “he laughs.” Here’s where I believe we see God’s sense of humor. God says the ninety year old Sarah is going to have a son, Abraham laughs at that impossibility and immediately God tells him to name his son, Isaac, which means “he laughs.” I wonder if Abraham thought about why God name his son Isaac? Was it because he (and Sarah later on) laughed? Or was he thinking “God got the last laugh.” Isaac actually means “God has laughed” or smiled or looked favorably on. What will see later is that Isaac will bring laughter and joy to his family when he is born because God had looked favorably on Abraham and Sarah.
We can trust that when God promises to do the impossible he can and will do it and it’s no laughing matter; it will be fulfilled. Which brings us to the first next step on the back of your communication card which is to trust that God can and will do the impossible in my life. Whatever that is for you, you can claim that promise today and see what God will do. The last thing we can notice is that again God elects the younger son to be the conduit through which the covenantal line, the line that will bring his son, Jesus Christ, will come into the world. We have already seen this with Seth being chosen over his older brother Cain, Shem being chosen over his older brother Japheth and even Abram being chosen over his older brother, Haran. We will also see it later as Jacob is chosen over his older brother Esau.
I also learned something that I never really thought about before as I was studying this passage. This was the first time that Abraham had heard he and Sarah were going to have a biological son together. God had promised that Abraham would have a son but it’s not until now that a son was promised to come from Sarah. No wonder he laughed. Abraham must have been stunned to learn that Ishmael was not the son that God had promised to him so long ago. Ishmael was precious to him and he considered him his heir. For the last thirteen years Abraham had may have been living under the impression that Ishmael was the son of promise. Think about the relationship that they must have had. All of of Abraham’s love, all of his hopes and dreams have been poured into Ishmael. He may have even discussed the covenantal destiny with him. Abraham has not seen Ishmael as an obstacle to the covenant but as the solution.
As Abraham quickly recovers from his surprise, he suggests that God might work out his purposes in Ishmael. Abraham uses the phrase, “if only” and it is the only time in the Bible that God is addressed this way relating to the future. It was Abraham’s prayer that God would favorably look and smile upon Ishmael and provide for him. God not only knew Abraham’s thoughts but he also heard Abraham’s prayer on Ishmael’s behalf. In verse 20, we see God’s answer to that prayer. In God’s mercy and grace he complies with his request and promises to bless Ishmael making him fruitful and greatly increasing in number. Ishmael was going to be the father of twelve rulers and become a great nation. Later in Genesis 25:12-16, we see these words: “Now these are the records of the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s slave woman, bore to Abraham; and these are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages, and by their camps; twelve princes according to their tribes.” Of course, we know that Ishmael was also the father of the Arab people. God’s promise that he would be fruitful and increase in number would be fulfilled. Ishmael would participate in the earthly blessings but Isaac would participate in the spiritual ones as the child of promise.
God then tells Abraham that Sarah would bear Isaac by this time next year. Then as soon as God finished talking to Abraham he went up from him. Just as suddenly as he appeared to Abraham he just as suddenly left him. The meaning is that God visibly ascended in front of Abraham. There was no doubt as to who Abraham had been speaking with.
The second point this morning is Abraham’s obedience. This is seen in verses 23-27. This is what God’s Word says, “On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, and his son Ishmael was thirteen; Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day. And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.”
Notice when Abraham fulfilled his part of the covenant. It says he did it “on that very day.” This is a chronological phrase and is also used in other momentous occasions in the bible. It is used in Genesis 7:12, when Noah and his family entered into the ark. In Exodus 12:41, when at the end of 430 years, all the Israelites left Egypt. And in Joshua 5:11, when the Israelites first ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan. Then the very next day God stopped supplying manna from heaven. By obeying God immediately it showed that Abraham did have faith that God would give him a child by Sarah. We see these words in Romans 4:18-21, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead, since he was about a hundred years old, and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.”
There was no waiting around. Abraham obeyed God immediately and exactly as he had been instructed. We see Abraham’s obedience in three ways. The first way was in his personal obedience. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, so this was probably not something he was looking forward to at his age but he did it immediately. We can also surmise that he circumcised himself first. Courson says, “It was important that even Abraham deal with his flesh in this way, even though he was ninety-nine years old. As we get older we may think that we don’t need to pray or serve or do Bible study – I have already learned or done all I can. I am too old to be stretched spiritually anymore. Not so with Abraham.” We should be the kind of people that tells the Lord “we have had some great days here at Idaville Church, but what do you have for us now.”
The second way was in his parental obedience. It was important that as the spiritual leader of his family he circumcised his son, Ishmael, who was thirteen years old at the time. It is mentioned three times in our passage that Ishmael was circumcised. He was not left out of being blessed even though he wasn’t going to be the child of promise. This was keeping with the Lord’s promise in Genesis 12 that all the peoples of the earth would be blessed through Abraham. God is not going to exclude anyone from the blessing and will include everyone in his plan and covenant and we must do the same. Abraham also didn’t just tell Ishmael to circumcise himself; he took the responsibility for it. How many times do we tell our children or young people that they need to be praying or reading their Bible, etc. Instead we should be praying and reading the Bible with our children and young people. Each of us must be willing to take responsibility for the discipleship of others.
The third way was in his professional obedience. Abraham also took every other male in his household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner and had them circumcised. This is talking about all the non-family members including workers, slaves, foreigners, etc. Abraham made a stand to obey God completely and these other males in his household were not left off the hook just because they weren’t part of his biological family. This speaks to how we should conduct ourselves in our workplace. How can we as Christians use the position that God has given us in our jobs for his honor and for his glory? The Lord considers it worship when we are devoted to him at work.
We can learn so much about how we are to live into our relationship with God from Abraham. We must obey God completely and immediately, no matter what, no matter how far-fetched it sounds or how hard it will be to accomplish. That brings us to the second next step on the back of your communication card which is to obey God immediately and completely no matter how impossible the task seems.
Until now, the covenant had been unilateral and unconditional. Now God was making a partnership with Abraham and the covenant became bilateral and conditional. Abraham and his descendants would be required to mark or circumcise each male in their household with the sign of the covenant. This was not an option for God’s chosen people but an obligation. Circumcision marked God’s people as separated from the world and as his own. They were set apart by God as a holy people in a covenant relationship with himself. What was important was that their faith was lived out by obeying the command to be circumcised. Once it was done there was no undoing it, no turning back and it was not a private experience but a corporate one. Personal holiness is important but so is corporate holiness.
Covenantal signs are important because they serve as the visible response to being in a relationship with God. They also show that a person is totally committed to that relationship because God commanded them to do it. For the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision was the condition for a person’s inclusion into the community of God’s chosen people. It was a sign of initiation and participation into a relationship with God and a symbol of subordination to him in that relationship. Later in the Sinai covenant, the sign was the keeping of the Sabbath. In Exodus 31:13-17 God said that the keeping of the Sabbath was the sign between God and Israel which showed their continual participation in the covenant and their subordination to God, the covenant maker. We see in Ezekiel 20 that the violation of the Sabbath was one of the primary reasons for God’s judgment against Israel. Later, the sign of the Davidic covenant was the anointing of the Davidic king signifying that the king was chosen by God. By submitting to the ceremony, the king showed that he recognized his subordination to a divine kingship.
Today, we live under the new covenant and God still wants his people/us to be so visibly committed to him that it shows everyone around us whose we are; that we belong to God and that we follow Christ. The signs of the new covenant are seen as sacraments: baptism which is the sign of initiation into the covenant and communion the sign of continual participation in the covenant. There are also two others signs, that are not sacraments, that show we are committed to a relationship with God and Jesus. In 1 John 3:23 it says, “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” We prove that we are committed to a relationship with God by showing love to one another. And John 15:10 says, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” We prove that we are committed to a relationship with God by obeying him. Just as circumcision was not a condition of the covenant but a sign of participation in it we understand that baptism, communion, loving one another and obedience are not conditions of our salvation but are the appropriate and expected signs of participation in the new covenant. What does our salvation cost us? Nothing. What does our faith cost us? It should cost us everything. It should cost us everything that this world offers because they can’t offer us what we have in Christ Jesus. And it should cost us all of ourselves/all our will in that we submit all of ourselves to Christ and allow him to be Lord and Master over our lives.
In the OT, God wanted the Israelites to not only be circumcised in their flesh but to have a circumcised heart, as well. They had the physical mark of being in relationship with God but at times did not have a circumcision of the heart. They did not submit to God’s authority by showing love to one another and fully obeying him. If we have a circumcised heart, a purified heart, a sanctified heart, it will be a heart that is in total submission to God’s commands inwardly and outwardly, not just giving lip-service but living out our faith on a daily basis. That brings us to the last next step on the back of your communication card which is to have a circumcised heart that is in total submission to God inwardly and outwardly on a daily basis.
As the praise team comes forward to lead us in a final hymn, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, I pray that we would trust you to do the impossible in our lives. I pray that we would obey you immediately and completely no matter how impossible the task seems, and Lord I pray that we would have circumcised hearts that are in total submission to you inwardly and outwardly on a daily basis. I pray that your Word would lead and guide us as we live out our faith in the world. Give us divine appointments in order to share your Gospel with those who need your salvation. Give us boldness to share and strength to pursue holiness daily. In Jesus’ name, Amen.