Years ago, I attended a weekend retreat where the speakers invited everyone to line up and receive a prophetic word from the Lord. I hadn’t grown up in that kind of church, and I was feeling a bit skeptical as I shuffled toward the front of the room with a bunch of other women in Saturday-afternoon sweatsuits and sneakers. When I got to the head of the line, the conference speaker glanced at my nametag.
“Sarah!” Her eyes lit up. “Genesis 21:1!”
“Genesis 21:1?” I wasn’t familiar with it.
“The Lord did for Sarah exactly what He had promised!” She smiled and nodded, as if to move me along.
That was it? That was my word from the Lord? It kind of felt like she had only said that because my name was Sarah. Did I really get to just pull a verse about Sarah out from the Bible and claim it as my own?
“But…” I stammered. “I don’t know what the Lord has promised me.”
She smiled even wider. “Ask Him.”
Sarah in the Bible didn’t quite know what God had promised her either; at least, she got confused about how and when it was supposed to arrive. At sixty-five years old, Sarah follows her husband Abraham on a long journey to a distant land, which God promises to give to Abraham’s “offspring.” What does that mean, exactly, since they are old and childless? Abraham and Sarah don’t know.
Sometime later, God clarifies the promise for Abraham: “a son who is your own flesh and blood.” But He doesn’t speak directly to Sarah. Maybe the son is supposed to be Abraham’s flesh and blood, not Sarah’s? Sarah concocts a plan of her own: maybe Abraham should just try to conceive a child with her servant girl, Hagar. Maybe that’s what God meant. But the execution of Sarah’s plan only leads to misery and heartache.
Twenty-four years after Abraham first heard the promise of God, God reiterates the promise of a son again, and this time he draws Sarah into it directly. “I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her,” God says to Abraham about his wife. At this point, Sarah is almost ninety years old. She has probably been waiting for a son all her married life; she’s been waiting on God’s promise to Abraham for almost a quarter-century. Now is the time that God chooses to name Sarah as a co-inheritor of the promise?
Sarah is so skeptical that when an angel of the Lord visits them shortly afterward and repeats the news of her inclusion in the promise, she listens from behind the flap of her tent and laughs. Not a happy laugh, either. A good-grief-that’s-ridiculous laugh. But the following year, when “the Lord did for Sarah exactly what He had promised,” her skepticism gives way to joy. “God has brought me laughter,” she chortles over her son, whom she names He laughs.
When I did as the conference speaker suggested and asked God to remind me what He had promised me, one particular memory came to mind. At the age of nineteen, I had walked into a church sanctuary for an evening Bible study and glanced up at the leader standing in the pulpit. Suddenly, a set of unexpected words had flown into my mind: that’s going to be you someday. What did it mean? I didn’t know.
Over the years, both before and after I received Genesis 21:1 in the walk-up prophecy line, I’ve been trying to figure out the meaning of those words in my teenage head. That’s going to be you someday. Was it a calling? Was it a promise? Was it even from God? Like the Biblical Sarah, I have wandered through seasons of confusion, of skepticism, of trying to fashion my own version of the vision on my own terms. I have even, occasionally, stood behind a real pulpit. But I don’t feel like I have yet received… whatever it is God promised me that day. If it was God. If it was a promise.
The truth is, just as my eponym longed for a baby, I long for a sense of purpose. I’ve recently emerged from years as a stay-at-home mom with questions about the next chapter of my life. Yes, my kids still need me, and yes, motherhood is a noble calling. But they won’t need me forever, and they need me less and less each day. Right now, I’m cobbling together a sort of career from a part-time teaching job and a tiny handful of published articles. I wrote a book that I can’t seem to get published. I’m thinking about writing another one, but it’s hard to find the motivation to begin. I feel like Sarah, eavesdropping from behind the tent flap with a bitter chuckle. Promise? Calling? Purpose? Yeah, right.
But Bible Sarah had to wait until she was 90 before it all made sense. Maybe the same is true for me. Maybe someday I’ll arrive at someplace in this earthly life and say, oh, yes, this is what God meant. Or maybe I’ll have to wait until I get to heaven, where I’ll discover that my humble little offerings—a child’s shoelace here, a blog post there—were the only pulpit God ever intended for me to have. And it will be enough. And I will laugh, the laugh of the satisfied.
All I know is, I was recently reminded of another word given to another Biblical woman. When the angel of the Lord appears to Mary to inform her that she will carry the Child of the Promise, he says to her, “No word from God shall ever fail.”
Now that’s a promise.
Sarah L Sanderson is a writer, speaker, pastor’s wife, and mom of four. Find more of her work—including updates on the memoir she is currently writing about abuse, mental illness, faith, and her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother—on www.sarahlsanderson.com, or follow her on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.