The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say,

Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’

Is anything impossible for the Lord?…”


Prayer comes in different forms and at different times. At home we observe the custom of a table grace – maybe an extended grace. We pray for members of our family, good friends…and then from time to time we pray for special needs or situations, maybe someone will be having surgery, maybe someone has lost a loved one. A week or so ago – during an extended dry spell – I added – as sort of a flippant second thought – “And, oh yes, we sure could use some rain.”

A day or so later we were finally getting some rain, some real rain. I had been reading – trying to get a head start on a message – as a matter of fact on the message I am bringing to you now. I had been reading this passage from Genesis and then reading about this passage from Genesis from a commentary – and then I dozed off.

And then almost as someone had put his hand on my shoulder – “Wake up!” It was the wind. Through the window the leaves of the oak tree were tossing in great agitation. The wind, the wind driven rain, the rain coming down in bucketsful.

Sometimes wakened suddenly and unexpectedly you’re still half asleep…It was then the thought came to me, “the prayer, the answer to my prayer.”

The reading that we have heard from Genesis is sort of difficult to follow.

It begins by speaking of “The Lord.” Yet in the very next sentence we hear, “He looked up and saw three men standing near him.” Some versions speak of “three angels.”

Over the centuries “the three men” has been thought by some to be a prefiguration of the Trinity. Indeed, a work that has been described by some as the greatest work of Russian art is an icon – Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity – of this mysterious meeting that is the subject of our reading from Genesis. We have a copy of Rublev’s icon in our service booklet this morning. A somewhat larger copy is framed and is in our chapel. 

Indeed, it occurs to me that knowing something about this icon – and how it portrays the Trinity – might be an approach to understanding the Trinity as contrasted with any number of sermons or reading dusty books about doctrine.

For that one could do worse than Henri Nouwen’s short book “Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Praying with Icons.” In it he discusses four icons, the first of which is Rublev’s “The Holy Trinity.” His appreciation, his meditation even, comes from years of using this icon in his prayers and having this icon as part of his furniture for living.

The original is quite large – almost 4 feet by 5 feet – and is now located – well, that’s sort of a matter of controversy itself. I found a recent photograph of it in a Moscow cathedral. It’s protected behind glass with two uniformed guards standing watch on either side.

Henri Nouwen’s talks about Rublev’s purpose in “painting” this icon: He “…painted this icon not only to share the fruits of his own meditation on the mystery of the Holy Trinity but also to offer his fellow monks a way to keep their hearts centered on God while living in the midst of political unrest.” He “painted” it in 1411. We seem to be living in the midst of political unrest as well.

Nouwen tells us an icon, then, is more than a piece of art to be seen in a museum. It is rather a means of prayer and meditation. In addition to words and meditation one prays through the eyes with what one sees.

One “sees” then three men around a table. A tree, an oak tree, behind one establishes the place as Mamre. The three are in intimate and loving conversation. One who “sees” with prayerful eyes in meditation may even become part of that conversation.

Nouwen tells us, “The one in the center, the son, points to the sacrifice indicating his mission “to become the sacrific[e]…, human as well as divine, through the Incarnation.” “The Father on the left, encourages his Son with a blessing…And the Spirit, who holds the same staff of authority as the Father and Son, signifies by pointing to the rectangular opening in the front of the altar that this divine sacrifice is a sacrifice for the salvation of the world.”

Look at the opening.

As Nouwen explains, “…this rectangular space speaks about the narrow road leading to the house of God. It is the road of suffering. While its four corners remind us that it represents the created order, including all people from north, south, east, and west, its position in the altar signifies that there is room around the divine table only for those who are willing to become participants in the divine sacrifice by offering their lives as a witness to the love of God. It is the place where the relics of martyrs are placed, the place for the remains of those who have offered all they had to enter the house of love.”

And here Nouwen suggests that a cross may become visible: “…gradually a cross is becoming visible, formed by the vertical beam of the tree, the Son, the [sacrifice}, and the world, and by the horizontal beam, including the heads of the Father and the Spirit. There is indeed no [house of love] without a cross, no life eternal without death, no gaining life without losing it, no heavenly kingdom without Calvary…”

Perhaps one more used to our fast-paced world might say, “Well, this is all well and good – but we are talking about a time before the New Testament. What about the Old Testament story without the art history?”

Fair enough.

Earlier I had said that I had been reading this passage from Genesis and then reading about this passage from Genesis from a commentary – and then I dozed off.

The commentary from which I had “dozed off” is Walter Bruggeman’s commentary on Genesis from the “Interpretation” series.  Bruggeman suggests that this story is important enough on its own without any talk of “prefiguration of the Trinity.” It is about “faith.” And it asks question testing our faith, “Is anything impossible for the Lord?”

And the story is revelation.” to which he adds, “That is enough.”

The first eight verses set the stage for the story. The Lord appears to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat by the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looks up and sees three men standing near him. Then he scrambles around to provide hospitality for them enlisting Sarah to make some cakes, runs to the herd and takes a calf, “tender and good,” and gives it to a servant to prepare. And then the meal is set before the three, and Abraham stands by them while they eat. A very important guest.

And then the announcement to which all of this is leading – and is presumably the purpose of this visit by the Visitors. It is a birth announcement.

“Where is your wife, Sarah?” “There, in the tent.”

Then one says. “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife, Sarah shall have a son.”

And as to emphasize the unusualness of this announcement the storyteller provides more information. “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age.”

So, Sarah laughs. At which the visitor – the Lord – asks why did Sarah laugh and then she says,” Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?”

To which the Lord replies, “Is anything impossible for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.

Is anything impossible for the Lord?

Sarah’s answer – her laugh at the thought of her bearing a child at her advanced age -is a measure of her faith. The thought violates her knowledge, her reason in these ancient days. To her it is impossible and laughable.

Yet she did bear a child, God’s purposes were served, the old story tells us.

What is our answer?

If the answer were to be given by someone today responding “none” to survey questions about faith or religious affiliation, that person’s answer would probably be equivalent to Sarah’s laugh.

What is our answer?

In his commentary Bruggeman discusses a possible response of one of faith: “No, nothing is impossible for God, … the self and the world are fully entrusted to God and to no other.”

 I guess my answer would be: I am mindful of the price Jesus paid. I am mindful of the reality of suffering and hurt. I am mindful of the cross.

But He has promised that if we truly love Him, and show that love in our lives that we shall be brothers and sisters of Him in the House of God, the House of Love.

Those of us who are older share a special kinship with Abraham and Sarah. We are all older and have seen much of life – even much tribulation.

Paul spoke of this to those of the church in Rome: “…we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…we also glory in our tribulations, knowing that tribulations produce patience, and patience produces character, and character produces hope…and hope does not disappoint us,

…and hope does not disappoint us,

… because God’s love has been poured into our hearts …





Richard Robertson