Chagall, Marc, 1887-1985. Abraham and the Visitors at Mamre, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
Chagall, Marc, 1887-1985. Abraham and the Visitors at Mamre, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

When the day ends, and he settles down in his tent and looks up at the night sky, the expanse of the stars reminds Abraham of God’s promise to make him the father of children so numerous they are like stars in the sky.  Can you count the stars, God asks Abraham?  (15:5)  Your descendants will be that numerous, God has promised.

But with the tent quiet, and the wrinkles apparent on Sarah’s face, are the stars a sign of hope now to Abraham?  An aggravating reminder of what God hasn’t done yet?  A painful prick of a once cherished dream of laughing children all around him? As this story opens, twenty-four years have gone by since God first made that promise. (Read the scripture here.)

The story of Abraham and Sarah, and God’s slow work to make them the parents of a great nation, makes one wonder if God really is an underachiever, as has famously been suggested.   God first makes this pledge to Abraham (then Abram) when he leaves Haran at the age of 75.  God repeats the promise to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre, after Abraham and Lot separate, and then repeats it again.  The third time Abraham and God have this familiar conversation, Abraham thinks to ask exactly how this will happen, since Eliezer, his servant, is currently his heir.  God promises that only Abraham’s own son can carry on this promise.  After this, Abraham is willing when Sarah urges him to have a child with Hagar, resulting in the birth of Ishmael.  By now, they have been in Canaan for ten years, and there’s still no sign of even one child, let alone any great nation.

When Abraham is 99, God repeats the promise again, reminding Abraham that Ishmael is not the vehicle for this promise.  For the first time, God says that Sarah will have a child.  “I will bless her and she will give rise to nations,” God says.  This time Abraham it’s Abraham who laughs.  No gentle giggle — he laughs so hard that he “fell on his face and laughed,” disbelieving.  Abraham tries to convince God that Ishmael can carry on the promise.  Nope, God says, Ishmael will have his own blessing, but this covenant depends on Isaac.  This time, the covenant is sealed with circumcision.  Abraham has enough faith in God to commit his own body, and those of all of the men in his household, to this agreement with God.

After all of this, God appears to Abraham at the oak of Mamre, in our story.

Abraham, perhaps still filled with a sense of possibility, runs to meet the three guests who come to his tent in the heat of the day.  This is the traditional time for a nap, but Abraham is wide awake.  He welcomes the divine visitors, prepares a feast for them, and even serves them  himself, instead of calling a servant.

The promise is made again, and this time Sarah hears it.  This may be the first time that Sarah hears this promise, or hears that she is part of it.  There’s no mention of her presence all the other times God speaks to Abraham.  Even now she’s on the edge of the conversation, listening at the tent door.  No wonder she laughs!

Or, if she has heard all this before, perhaps she is right to laugh.

And between this visit, and Isaac’s birth, yet more happens.  Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, and then Abraham takes her into Egypt, and tries to pass her off as his sister.  Then, finally, Isaac is born.

The story has two different kinds of laughter.  Sarah’s first laughter is doubtful, full of the pain of wanting a child all of these years.  We can hear the cynicism and doubt in her laughter.  After Isaac arrives, she laughs again, and now we can hear joy, gratitude and even relief.

Perhaps God is really an overachiever, ready to bring a great nation out of one couple, their serving woman, and two sons. Each time God speaks to Abraham, the promises grow more specific, as if Abraham is being formed into his role as the father of a nation of people.  It takes a long time to grow into being the father of people as numerous as the stars.

Sermon possibilities:
  • God asks Abraham why Sarah is laughing, and Sarah is bold enough to answer back for herself, but not brave enough to admit to laughing, “for she was afraid.”  Still, God doesn’t seem to mind.  Abraham has already laughed at God’s plans, too.  The sermon might look at what God asks of us.  People who laugh, doubt, worry and behave badly all have a place in God’s plans, in this story.
  • What are the people in your community waiting for?  What has been long denied?  A good school?  Safe streets?  In some families, the birth or adoption of a child?  Financial security?  Where do we find God in that long wait?  And what spiritual skills – or just plain dogged determination – allow us to wait when we want something right now?  Are we formed into something different as we wait?
  • Throughout Genesis, God appears to people in human form (Genesis 16:7, 19:1, 21:17, 22:11, 32:1.)  The sermon might look at the times we see God through another person.  It could be someone familiar, or someone met in passing, who speaks a word of truth, or help, or illumination.  The sermon might look at these connections, and the value they have for us.
  • The sermon might look at the joint nature of God’s promises.  Do we share promises with anyone else?   Can God’s promises to us be fulfilled if others aren’t included?
  • As always we appreciate the fine minds at Working Preacher who devised the Narrative Lectionary. Read the Working Preacher commentary by Roger Nam here for more ideas.
  • What possibilities come to your mind?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.  We’re eager to hear what you’re thinking about!
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9 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: Unexpected Guests (Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7)

    1. Ah, poor Sarah. It had never struck me before, but reading the whole narrative at once, I started to wonder if she had ever heard God make this promise to Abraham. She’s not present for any of the other conversations…no wonder she laughed! Hopefully Abraham thought to mention it along the way…


  1. I want to focus on laughter in some way. I had been thinking about distinguishing between the two laughs she has. Haven’t we all laughed at God’s ideas before? (I am pretty sure that is part of several of our call stories.) I just read a rather thought provoking sermon on these texts, given by a rabbi to an Episcopal church. The premise is that religion without laughter is blasphemous. I like his conclusions and may tell the joke about the priest, the preacher and the rabbi. Here is the link:


    1. I’m sure God has laughed at more than a few of my plans. I love that idea — like Sarah, we laugh at God’s plans, and God also laughs at our plans.


  2. Mary, thanks so much for this wonderful piece. I love the way you set the stage for our passage… really lovely, thoughtful, and poetic. I love, too, the idea of the join nature of call– we are called in community (in a world that very much privatizes Christian sentiment/ sentimentality).


    1. Pat, maybe it’s age, but it seems more and more to me that our destiny, call, success, whatever we’re about, is all connected to other people. Sometimes that’s very inconvenient…


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