For me, the visit of the Angels to Abraham and Sarah always brings me back to this icon…
This icon of the Holy Trinity was created by Andrew Rublev, a Russian iconographer in 1425. The three persons seated are the three strangers that come to visit Abraham and Sarah in the book of Genesis. Abraham and Sarah offer their hospitality to the three (offering food, drink, rest) and they in turn announce the unexpected birth of Isaac.
Rublev uses this encounter to paint the scene of three angelic figures, representing the three persons of the Trinity: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are seated together and look at one another. The Son points to the sacrificed lamb on the table. The Father has a blessing gesture in the scene and the Holy Spirit points to the opening in front of the table or altar. One can see the connection between the Father’s Blessing, the Son’s sacrifice, and the opening of salvation of the world by the Son through the work of the Spirit.
They are indeed all connected. It is a House of Love, as Henri Nouwen put it, that he experienced in his meditation on that icon of the Holy Trinity. Nouwen said, “the spiritual life keeps us aware that our true house is not the house of fear, in which the powers of hatred and violence rule, but the house of love, where God resides.”
The story of course, invites us to go deeper, for in the midst of the hospitality to these strangers/angels, that out of this House of Love comes the promise that Sarah will conceive and bear a child. One of them said, "I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son." And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?"
There is a wonderful medieval illuminated manuscript on this passage, as Abraham gives the hospitality to the angels and hears about the gift of a child in the background is Sarah who is laughing at the tent door. Abraham who in the previous chapter of Genesis hears that the Lord would bless Sarah and she would conceive and bear a child, fell on his face laughing at such an idea. It is a natural reaction. It seems impossible. A child now after all these years. But God is at work and offers a blessing.
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 wonderful for the LORD?”
At midnight on Friday night, I stood with others before the stage at the Relay for Life, many people were still there, young & old, survivors, caregivers and friends, and we stood there at the “Fight Back Ceremony.” The ceremony “symbolizes the emotional commitment we each make to the fight against cancer. The action we take represents what we are willing to do for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for our community to fight cancer year-round and to commit to saving lives.”
As we stood there I thought of Abraham & Sarah’s laughter and how just a few years ago we might have laughed too at the idea of fighting against cancer. Its too big, too hard to fight, too depressing, can we win? And God would have replied, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”
We do fight back, for we continue to find affective therapies to combat many cancers, we have learned over the years of what we can do and we have learned to fight. Childhood cancers have declined 48% in 30 years, most other cancers have also declined due to earlier detection and improved treatment options.
But sadly, we know that not everyone wins that fight, I know someone who recently lost his fight at the age of 23 after battling cancer since childhood. I also know that God is in the midst of this fight with us, inviting us to that House of Love, to know that God promises more for each of us.
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 Sarah said, "God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me." (from Genesis 21)
They named him Issac, for Issac means in Hebrew, "He will Laugh." The laughter of incredulity has turned to the laughter of joy at such a birth! The last picture I have is all those who walked the Relay to celebrate and remember and fight back. An image of hope and indeed of laughter too.
May our laughter be that type of joy as we celebrate with those who have survived cancer or are battling it now, for those who have just given birth in our parish family, for those whom God has blessed. For we know that God fulfills God’s promises and we know it’s a journey we all walk to understand and celebrate those promises.
As one author put it, “We laugh Sarah’s laugh, not because we have faith, but because we find it impossible to have it. That is the disturbing truth being held up before us in this week’s story: that faith is not a reasonable act and that the promise of God is not just a conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Abraham and Sarah laughed because they had reached a dead end in their lives and because they had adjusted to it. They had accepted their hopelessness [of not having a child] just the way, if we are honest, we too accommodate ourselves to all those barren places in our lives where the call to believe in “a new thing that God will do” seems, quite frankly, nonsensical. And yet ... there is another kind of laughter to which the promise made in this story also points. A very different kind of laughter. The laughter, not of Sarah or Abraham, but of that One who keeps his own counsel and works his own will—whether or not we have the faith to see it. Sometimes we have to wait to share in that kind of laughter, just as Abraham and Sarah had to wait, too.” (Barry J. Robinson)
May we indeed share in that kind of laughter, that kind of Joy, celebrated in that House of love. May we hear & know of God’s work in our lives and our world, and put our faith and trust in what God is doing. Amen.