I would like to tell you the story of a woman who never laughed. Okay, she chuckled when her husband told a stupid joke and she giggled at the punchline of the late-night talk show host. Sure, she chuckled and giggled, but she never laughed.
You know that kind of laughter that comes out when you have no words to describe what is going on in the inside?
My wedding day produced that kind of laughter. It was the best day of my life. I was marrying my best friend and all of my favorite people were there to celebrate the day with us. I woke up that morning without an alarm, the air smelled fresher than before, and I could not stop smiling. Every joke was funny. I was ecstatic to see everyone. I was marrying the love of my life and I just couldn’t help but laugh. This woman never laughed like that because the thing that she wanted most was the thing that she could never have.
I would like to tell you the story of the woman who never laughed.
I. Setting: There once was a beautiful princess and a father of many.
Her name was Sarah. His name was Abraham. Sarah means princess. Abraham means the “father of many.” A beautiful princess and the father of many were married and lived happily ever after—well, not exactly. After Sarah and Abraham were married, the Lord appeared to Abraham. He gave them a promise. The Lord was going to make Abraham and Sarah into a great nation. He was going to bless them. He was going to make his name great. This couple would be so blessed that they wouldn’t know what to do with it. The blessing would extend to all the nations of the world. The tribes from rural India to the tribes of Boston, Massachusetts, would be blessed through the lineage of Sarah and Abraham.
II. Conflict: The beautiful princess is barren.
Abraham was not surprised—after all, his name meant the “father of many.” It made sense that the “father of many” would be the “father of many.” But for Sarah, this was overwhelming news. Sarah had no children of her own. She could not have children. She was barren. Sarah spent her whole life longing for a child. She lived many sad years knowing that she would never have a child. But, the Lord delivers the impossible promise of a barren woman having a child.
In Sarah’s day, kids were an integral part of life. Let me explain. I am the oldest of seven—me, Isaiah, Leah, Ian, Ethan, Eli, and Ezekiel. My mom still gets our names mixed up. My dad would joke with us that the reason why he had so many kids was so that he could claim us on his taxes and get a write-off. He was joking, of course. To have a child today, even with good health insurance, takes a lot of money. Raising a child, putting them through school, keeping them fed, clothed—well, I don’t have to tell you—it’s a lot of work.
In the ancient world, things were a little different. People lived in close-knit communities. Whole families—brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and great-grandparents—lived in tents and traveled together as they cared for each other and their animals. It was the way of life. When a baby was born, there was a celebration because that meant there was another set of hands to help out on the farm. There would be one more person to share the workload. In our culture, we work to provide income for our children. In Sarah’s culture, children were inherently the income. Children held a special place in the ancient world.
There was an ancient practice in the East and still practiced today among some traveling Bedouin peoples that helps to illustrate this point. After a couple was married, the friends and family would cut open a pomegranate. They would spread the seeds on the doorway of the newlywed’s home as a way to say, “May you have as many kids as there are pomegranate seeds on the ground.” Having many children was coveted. That’s how Abraham and Sarah felt.
Sarah’s barrenness was a tragedy. But Abraham loved her immensely. He worked incredibly hard. All he wanted was for her to be happy. He wanted to see her laugh. Sarah was impressed with Abraham. Even though she was not able to have kids, Abraham did well for himself. He became a real-estate tycoon; he owned lots of land and cattle; he hired men and women to help him out and even provided food and shelter as a part of their benefits.
Even though Abraham worked so hard, he knew deep down that the thing Sarah longed for most he could never provide no matter how hard he worked or how hard he tried.
III. Rising Action: Sarah’s barrenness was a source of shame.
Not only was this reality a strain on her family, but it was also an enormous source of shame for her emotionally. Many believed that barrenness was a curse from God. Sarah wondered if she was cursed by God. All her friends had growing families. Sarah watched by in despair. Every day she was reminded that the thing she longed for most would be the thing she could never have.
Shame follows us everywhere. It keeps us up at night. It keeps us in bed in the morning. We know what it’s like to carry this kind of shame.
When I was younger, I was overweight. In middle school, my weight haunted me. I hated going clothes shopping. Nothing fit just right, no matter the size. I quit the track team in eighth grade after the coach had me run a 100-meter dash against the fastest upperclassman in our school. Even today, I work out and diet not because I want to be healthy, but because my worst nightmare is going to back to that old place of shame.
We all know how Sarah felt. For you it may be like Sarah, not being able to have a child. It may be your weight and how you think others view you. It may be the job you have doesn’t provide the kind of life you really want.
Sarah wished she could flip a switch that would change it all. She thought to herself, “If I could just have one child to call my own, my life would be so different.” Just then, the light bulb flickered on. She found that magical switch—or at least she thought she did.
Like many in the stories in the Bible, Sarah’s story does not have a “PG rating.” What she does next will sound foreign to our ears.
In Sarah and Abraham’s day, couples who were unable to have children had an alternative solution. If the wife was unable to have children, she would choose one of her slaves to have a child with her husband. It was “agreed” that this child would belong not to the servant but to the couple. This child would be the couple’s heir. This child would inherit the family’s wealth. This child would take care of the couple in their old age. It was their version of surrogacy. Sarah knew of other people who did this. The culture expected this to happen—after all, who would take care of Abraham and Sarah when they were old? Who would inherit Abraham’s wealth?
This was Sarah’s plan. She gave Abraham her slave, Hagar. Hagar became pregnant and gave birth to a boy named Ishmael. His name means “may God hear.” Sarah tried to be happy. She tried to laugh. She just couldn’t. She knew something was not right. While culturally acceptable and even expected, she thought back to the promises the Lord told her husband—it would be through them two that the promised son would be delivered.
Sarah’s lack of hope drove her to do something against what God had promised. Would God still follow through on his promise?
IV. Climax: Three mysterious men visit Sarah and Abraham.
At this point in the story, Sarah is 89. Abraham is 99. Abraham was sitting outside under a tree and doing what most 99-year-olds do—sitting, waiting, thinking. As he was dozing off, he remembered when the Lord called him out of a life of idolatry and promised that he would make them into a great nation. That made him think back to the time he met the pharaoh and almost lost Sarah. Oh, and how could he forget his wild nephew Lot?
Sarah was with Abraham through it all. “Life must be so tough for her,” he thought to himself. Just as he began to nod off, he thought back to those different times when the Lord promised that they would have a son.
All of a sudden, he was startled awake by the presence of three men standing in front of him. Abraham was a good host. He jumped up and offered them a place to rest. Abraham bolted into the tent. He asked Sarah to prepare a meal for these weary travelers. After all, wouldn’t they want someone to do the same for them if they were traveling all alone? Abraham glanced at Sarah with a look of suspicion. He whispered to Sarah, “These men seem strange.” He was right.
Sarah fixed a beautiful meal. It wasn’t customary for Sarah as the wife to be with the men, so she had stayed in the tent while Abraham made sure to care for his special guests. As they finished up the main course, they loosened their tunics to make room for dessert.
We pick up the story in Genesis 18:9. “They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” As the words slipped off his tongue, he thought to himself, “Strange, I haven’t introduced them to Sarah. Wait, how did they know I had a wife? How did they know her name was Sarah?”
In that moment, it clicked—the Lord was in their midst. The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah, your wife, shall have a son.” Sarah’s ear perked up as she listened “at the tent door behind him.”
Previously, Abraham had always relayed these messages from the Lord to Sarah, but now for the first time, she will hear it for herself. “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah.” So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” In that moment, those feelings of heartache and shame filled her body.
The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”
Sarah did not know what to think. She was scared, “What will having a baby do to my 90-year-old body?” She was confused. “Wait, barren 90-year-old women do not have babies.” She was excited. “After years and years of waiting, me? I am going to have a baby?” All that Sarah could do was deny it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. The Lord graciously responded, “No, but you did laugh.”
The woman who had never laughed, for the first time laughed. And this would not be the last.
V. Resolution: The Lord does a miracle.
A few months pass. Sarah woke up feeling sick. She tried to work through it. Every morning she felt like she was going to hurl. The stench from the animals out back made it worse. The thought popped into her head. “Could it be?” She chuckled to herself, “No, that’s impossible.” and went back to work.
While Abraham was out conducting business deals and working alongside the workers on the farm, Sarah was the one who really kept things running—paying the bills, balancing the books, and managing Abraham’s schedule. For the third time that day, she forgot where she left her glasses. “I mean that would explain a lot!” she thought to herself. But, she didn’t allow herself to believe such a thing. She snickered and said to herself, “That’s impossible!”
She continued to wake up feeling sick every morning, forgetting simple things, and began to have a strange craving. She quickly explained it away, not allowing herself to believe such a thing. After all, “an old, barren woman having a baby? That’s impossible!” She looked in the mirror one morning and her stomach was getting bigger. She could no longer deny it. Sarah ran to Abraham exclaiming, “God has done the impossible!”
Sarah finally gave birth to a boy and named him Isaac. His name means laughter. The day Isaac was born was the best day of her life. She could hardly contain herself, and she laughed like she never laughed before—I mean really laughed. She rejoiced, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have born him a son in his old age.”
Barrenness in the Old Testament
The woman who never laughed could now laugh. God overcame Sarah’s barrenness and performed a miracle. It is how God has been doing things since the beginning. In Genesis 1, God looks at a barren cosmos and, though it is a formless void, speaks and creates life. After Sarah, God would continue the line of promise through barren women.
Barrenness in the New Testament
In the Book of Luke, we meet Mary. Not a barren old woman but a young virgin. Mary gave birth to Jesus. This son, while similar to those who were born from a barren womb, would be a different kind of son, the Son of God. This Son would bring forgiveness, freedom, joy, and laughter to a world that was once dead. This Son would bring laughter to all the tribes and nations of the world.
While we lacked the ability to save ourselves, God provided a Savior for us through a miraculous birth. The world that could never laugh can now laugh. The coming of Christ proved what we learn in the story of the woman who never laughed—for a God who can do the impossible, even our barren womb will do.
Just like Sarah, we have a difficult time believing this promise. We want to believe that “In our strengths, we can do the impossible.” After all, we live in a country built on the grit, talent, and hard work of the strong. I want to believe that through my strengths, I can do the impossible.
There is a growing subculture of books and resources that are built on this very assumption—books I have read and honestly can be very helpful.
For example, for $19.99, you can take the Strengths Finders test and determine what makes you feel strong and design your work around those strengths. On Amazon for $18.35, you can buy the book High Performance Habits and learn how to make the most of every moment of every day and become a high-performing person. You can subscribe to the Ken Coleman Radio Show and learn about the proximity principle: The more you spend time with the type of people who you want to become, eventually you will become as strong as they are. Or you can download the free Storyline Productivity Schedule and manage your mental energy through the day so that you are always working at your peak performance level.
These books and tools offer a solution to our weaknesses by capitalizing on our strengths. I have read these books and used these tools. After all, who doesn’t want to be better, more productive, or healthier person?
But for some reason, God really likes showing up where we are weak. He really likes to work through the barren old woman. The danger of these resources is that we take this message, put our hands to the plow, and step back and say, “Look at me! I have done the impossible. I have overcome my weaknesses.”
God works through barren women and weak, ill-equipped people so that others will have no other option but to say, “Look at what God has done!” God works through barren people like you and me so that others will say, “Look at what God has done!” God works through churches like ours so that others will say, “Look at what God has done!”
And when he does, we can step back and laugh, saying, “I guess God can do the impossible!” We have a God who can do the impossible and is able to overcome our barrenness. We are free to laugh.
Subject: Who did the Lord promise would have a son?
Compliment: Sarah, the barren, old woman.
Exegetical Idea: The Lord promised that Sarah, the barren old woman, would give birth to a son.
Homiletical/Big Idea:For a God who can do the impossible, even our barren womb will do.
FCF: “This woman never laughed like that because the thing that she wanted most was the thing that she could never have.”
Application: God is able to overcome our barrenness to perform a miracle. We can stop trying and striving to overcome our weaknesses and failures. We can believe that God can work through us in spite of our barrenness. When he does overcome, others will say, “That could only have been God!” We are free to laugh.
As a result of engaging with this sermon, I want my listeners to:
Resonate with Sarah both in her shame of not being able to have a child and in her laughter knowing that God can use us in spite of what we lack.
Laugh freely because they have experienced God’s grace and acceptance in the face of their barrenness.
Isaac Fabian and his wife, Lauren, are Pennsylvania natives who are actively preparing for a life of ministry. Isaac is currently studying at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and interning at Cornerstone Church where his focus is serving and discipling North Shore college students. While not at church or in the library studying, Isaac and Lauren can be found enjoying the serene Singing Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea or exploring the cobble stone streets of Boston.