What do you see when you look upon the world? In 249 AD, Cyprian of Carthage wrote to his friend Donatus,
Donatus, this is a cheerful world indeed as I see it from my fair garden, under the shadow of my vines. But if I could ascend some high mountain, and look out over the wide lands, you know very well that I should see: brigands on the highways, pirates on the seas, armies fighting, cities burning, in the amphitheaters men murdered to please applauding crowds, selfishness and cruelty and misery and despair under all roofs. It is a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world.
Cyprian saw the atrocities of this world. If he saw the evil in the world in his day, how much more can we see the evil in ours? The growth of global news coverage and instant information to worldwide events compound the reality of evil our world.
We can stand in our backyard and watch our children playing with the neighbors and see joy and happiness, but as soon as we open our newspapers, computers, and phones, cruelty, misery and despair fly towards us as airplane toward the runway. “It is a bad world, an incredibly bad world.” Cyprian continued his letter to Donatus,
But I have discovered in the midst of it a company of quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret. They have found a joy which is a thousand times better than any of the pleasures of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not: they are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians, —and I am one of them.
It was the joy of Christians that softened Cyprian’s heart to believe the gospel and turn to Christ. He said that they are, “masters of their souls.” He saw their joy in the midst of persecution. It makes no rational sense for Cyprian to become a Christian. Christians were despised and rejected by society. They were outcasts and marginalized. Cyprian lived a comfortable life. He had received an inheritance from his family and after pursuing law had become a senator. At 45, when most people are indisposed to change, he left his comfort and wealth to follow Christ. He left his worldly riches because he desired eternal joy. He wanted the joy he saw in Christians.
Beloved, do you have joy? Do people see joy in our community? Would people say of us that we have found a joy which is a thousand times better than any of the pleasures of a sinful life? Would our joy attract people to Christ? Of course, I am assuming that Christians should have joy. Christians should be joyful people. US Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., one of the most influential judges in our nation’s history, remarked of his choice of career, “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers." I pray we would be a people of joy who would draw others to the Lord.
In Genesis 21, we see the birth of Isaac. The birth of a child is a great reason for joy, but the birth of Isaac is especially a reason for joy. In order to understand Abraham and Sarah’s incredible joy in the birth of Isaac, we first must understand their grief.
The Joyless Laugh of Present Grief
Abraham was 75 years old when God called him to leave his father and journey the land of Canaan. God promised to make him a great nation through his own body, but there was a problem. Genesis 11:30, “Sarai (Abraham’s wife) was barren, she had no child.” Abraham and Sarah waited and waited for a child and began to complain and question God’s faithfulness. Genesis 15:2-3, “But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And God reassured Abraham and reminded him of his promise to give him a child of his very own. And Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. And yet, time went on and he was still childless.
Have you ever wanted to something so bad and waited for something so long that each passing day you felt more and more hopeless? Genesis 16:1, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had born him no children.” Now in that culture it was customary if a woman could not bear children, the husband was to produce children with a slave-girl. Sarai gave Hagar to Abram and Genesis 16:15, “And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.” Problem solved, right? Abram now has a son.
God waits thirteen more years until Abraham is 99 years old and reminds him of his promise to make him a multitude of nations by giving him offspring through Sarah. Abraham and Sarah have been waiting for 24 years for God to fulfill his promise. They have been waiting for over 60 years for a child. At this point, they did not have a lot of hope of ever have a child. Their present grief constrained their joy. God has not changed his mind. He has not shifted from his promise. God is the same yesterday, today and forever, but Abraham laughed at God. Genesis 17:15-18,
And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!”
Abraham laughed at God. It is the laughter of disbelief. He begged that Ishmael would be the heir. Abraham loved Ishmael. He had watched him grow into a young man who was 13 years old at this point. God replayed to Abraham, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” (Gen. 17:19)
God visits Abraham and Sarah again in the next chapter and we see further disbelief, this time in Sarah, Genesis 18:9-15,
They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” The LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 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?” 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.” But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”
Abraham laughs in disbelief. Sarah laughs in disbelief. Oh, how many times have we laughed in disbelief?
They were longing for a child and they waited for years, but nothing had changed. When we look at our present grief it is easy for it to create a joyless, disbelieving laugh. The joyless laugh of a wife waiting for a husband would change. The joyless laugh of a mother waiting for a child to come back to God. The joyless laugh of a man waiting for a job to provide for his family. The joyless laugh of a young woman waiting for relationship and to start a family. The joyless laugh of chronic pain to cease. The joyless laugh of depression to lift. The joyless laugh of overcoming sin. The joyless laugh of disbelief comes for many reasons, but its root is exposed with a question from God, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
Remember that this book would have been written to Israel as they were in the desert about to enter the promise land. They had been wandering for 40 years waiting. Waiting to enter a land of giants. Waiting to enter a land of strong armies. Waiting to enter a land of pagan gods. Waiting and waiting. And God tells them as he tells us, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Is God able to save? Is God able to deliver his people? That question would have resonated with Israel as that question should resonate with us. After the rich young ruler turned away from Jesus because he did not want to give up his wealth, Jesus said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” Is it possible for God to give a child to old man and a “worn-out” woman? Is it possible for God to save a sinner? “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
I believe that God has given this long story of waiting and disbelief to teach us of our inability to solve our greatest need. The greatest problem of man is their separation from God. Man is dispelled from the garden in Genesis 3. They were cut off from God unable to enter His presence. And we know why. It is their sin. We know sin. We know how our hearts condemn us and convict us of how unrighteous we are before God. We want to justify ourselves before God, but we know in our heart of hearts, the depth of our depravity. We are depraved. The question of the disciples, “Then who can be saved?” If God will not accept the rich and powerful, then there must be no hope for the rest of us. Have you ever been there? How could God save me? I am an unrighteous, unworthy, desperate sinner. And God says, “Is there anything too hard for the Lord?” He wants to turn our joyless laugh of disbelief to a joyful laugh as we trust in his promised grace.
The Joyful Laugh of Promised Grace
The Lord always keeps his word. He had promised Abram a child at 75, and now, 25 years later, God fulfills His Word. Genesis 21:1-2 says, “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him.” Notice the repetition, “as he had said,” “as he had promised,” and “at the time of which God had spoken to him.” God keeps his Word. John Sailhammer notes, “The plan not only came about, but, more importantly, it happened as it was announced. Thus the narrative calls attention to God’s faithfulness to his word and to his careful attention to the details of his plan.” God will keep His Word.
How do we need to be reminded that keeps His Word? The entire story of God’s people rests on His Word. Will we trust him? Again and again he has shown Himself faithful to his people throughout history and throughout our own lives. He causes the sun to rise each day. He will never leave us nor forsake us. The promise of God is a true as the completion of that promise. The Old Testament is full of promises made to God’s people while the New Testament is full of promises kept. God was faithful to Abraham and Sarah. God was faithful to Israel entering the promised land. God was faithful to David. God was faithful to Nehemiah. God was faithful in sending forth his Son.
The name of Isaac, the son of the promise, means laughter. Isaac would forever be a reminder of Abraham and Sarah’s disbelieving laughter as well as the joyful laughter of promised grace. “And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” (Genesis 21:4-6) Israel would have been reminded to laugh with Sarah at God’s faithfulness. They would have been reminded to trust God in the days ahead. Psalm 126:1-3,
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad.
Israel was called to be a joyful people as they lived in trust of God. As Israel has been called to live in joy, how much more are we?
Beloved, we live after the coming of the promised Messiah. God promised to send another child to a virgin whose name is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God and Prince of Peace. If the birth of Isaac was a miracle, how much more the birth of Jesus Christ to the virgin Mary. Mary exclaimed,
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation…He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:46-50; 54-55)
God gave a Son to Israel, a Savior in whom we can now rejoice. Jesus is the Savior of the world. He was born of God so that he is without sin. He was born of woman so that he could become sin. Jesus died on the cross bearing the sin of the world. He was crucified, dead and buried, but God raised him from the dead. He now sits at the right hand of the majesty on high to ever live to make intercession for his people. God did the impossible by sending the promised Son to be the Savior of the world. Isaac was the first fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and Jesus Christ was the final fulfillment of that promise.
Christians should live in joy because of the redemption that has been purchased through the death of Christ. We have been bought with a price. We are redeemed. We are saved, not because of anything we have done, but only of his mercy. Christians live in joy. Christians should want to bring that joy to the world. Listen to the description of Philip in the city of Samaria in Acts 8:4-8,
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.
I love that last line. “There was much joy in that city.” As Christians live and share the glory of God, the city should experience joy. Heaven will experience joy as sinners repent and are filled with the joyful promise of grace.
The Joyful Laugh of a Powerful God
God asked, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” We can almost hear that question being answered in Genesis 21:7, “And Sarah said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” Who would have said it? And yet, God did it. There is nothing that was too hard for the Lord. The Lord is a God of power. The birth of Isaac is just an example of the power of God. The ultimate display of his power is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, the power that conquered the grave and left an empty tomb. His resurrection power is displayed throughout all eternity as scores of Christians have trusted Christ even in the face of execution and martyrdom. Christians can live in joy because, regardless, of our circumstances here, we know that we are but are strangers and exiles on earth. Our hearts long for a better country, a heavenly one. We are looking forward to that great city whose designer and builder is God.
Cyprian of Carthage saw the joy of the early Christians and turned from his sins and followed Christ. He believed in the promised grace of God because he believed in the power of God displayed in the resurrection of Christ. The joy he saw in Christians became his joy. On the 14th of September, 258 AD, he was sentenced to death. As he was led to the execution, no pagan was shouting, for he had won their respect with the grace of his life. He lived with joy in the midst of despair. Here is the account of his death.
Cyprian took off his cloak and knelt silently in prayer. After a few moments he got back on his feet and took off his tunic, handing it to his friend (Pontius). “Bring out the executioner.” A tall, muscular soldier stepped forward with a heavy sword and guided Cyprian, clad only in his linen garments, to his last seat as bishop. Cyprian turned to the crowd of supporters. “Please show some kindness to this man and pay him for his services,” he cried. The assembly murmured, but several hands came forward. Pontius collected the money and gave the executioner twenty-five gold pieces. Then he embraced the bishop and tied a bandage over Cyprian’s eyes.
The executioner guided his victim to position…The experienced hands that held the sword began to tremble. Never had the executioner seen such resoluteness in a condemned man, or such generosity of the witnesses. He aligned his sword with the outstretched neck before him, but he couldn’t swing. Instead he nudged the blade into the dirt and drew back to steady himself. “Executioner!” shouted the centurion. “You will follow through.” “Yes sir,” was the reply. But he didn’t move. The centurion grabbed the sword and glared at the executioner and said, “It is an honor to serve the emperor.” Cyprian whispered, “It is an honor to serve the king.” With a single decisive swing, the bishop’s head fell from his body, preaching his last sermon.
Cyprian died for Christ and experienced the joyful laughter of the resurrection as he entered the Lord’s presence. Cyprian’s martyrdom, reminds me of the words of another martyr, Philippians 1:19-21, “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:18-21).
Beloved, I pray you would find joy in the resurrection of Christ. God has promised grace and he has the power to give it. We can rejoice in life and in death. Rejoice in Christ in the trials of today for you know you will rejoice in Christ in triumph of eternal tomorrow.
 Mindy and Brandon Withrow. Perils and Peace: Chronicles of the Early Church. Scotland, Christian Focus; 2015 85-86