A Laughing Matter

28 Jul

genesis-18(a sermon for July 28, 2013, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7)

We’ve all been there…

At first it was a cough, a stifled gasp; then the nose and eyes began to water, followed by a rasping, wheezing, rattling noise that might easily have signaled a full-blown case of asthma or some other ailment.   But this was different; and to her credit, she’d tried to hold it in, for fear that her husband and the three bright-eyed strangers standing with him might hear her. But it was to no avail; in fact, the harder she tried to stifle it, the worse it got, like an itch that can’t be scratched!  It was so bad she started shaking, and she reached to pull the tent flap tight across her mouth, in one last desperate attempt to keep it from bursting forth.  But in the end, it was all too much… and Sarah laughed!  From the grey and thinning hair atop her head down to the tips of her arthritic toes, Sarah fairly well erupted in laughter!

And who could blame her?  A baby?!!  The very idea was hilarious!  By her own reckoning, Sarah was old – 90 years old, way past her child bearing years – not to mention suffering with a bent back, no teeth, and chronic digestive problems!  But now, here’s God, promising that Sarah and her 99 year-old husband – a man “as good as dead,” as the Apostle Paul would later describe him (Hebrews 11:11-12) – these two were about to become parents; to have a son!  Now, earlier in this part of Genesis, we read that Abraham had already had a good “fall on your face, roll on the floor” fit of laughter regarding this particular piece of news; but now, as she’s hiding behind the tent flap, eavesdropping on talk of babies being born in the geriatric ward, it’s Sarah’s turn.

I’ve always loved this story because there’s a certain giddy silliness about it; in fact, I’ve heard it said that this particular passage from Genesis is one of the most “sublimely ridiculous moments” of the Old Testament!  And in truth, it’s also one of the most telling; for I suspect that Sarah’s laughter erupted less out of mirth than out of disbelief; a way of masking cynicism, anger and certainly a whole lot of fear, which would explain why she tried so hard first to hide the laughter, and then later to deny it.  Remember, she’d heard this promise before; in fact, she’d heard it over and over again for years now: about how she and Abraham would have a family by which all the families of the earth would be blessed.  And yet all this time had passed and nothing had happened; and so Sarah had just come to assume that God had changed his mind, or worse, simply and cruelly forgotten what he’d promised. In fact, if you know the story, you’ll remember that Sarah, in her desperation, had already gone so far to bring in Hagar, her Egyptian slave-girl, to be a surrogate mother.  So give all that,  to hear these three messengers of God talking about how now she’s going to have this child; well, that was beyond ridiculous!

And so Sarah laughed; laughed at the utter absurdity of it; laughed at God’s great joke.  But of course, as anyone can tell you who has gotten caught laughing at the wrong time, Sarah soon found out that the joke – God’s wonderful, glorious practical joke – was on her!  “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” the Lord had said to Abraham. “At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”  

Improbable?  Certainly.  Illogical?  Absolutely!  Also unrealistic, unexpected and more than a little bit crazy!  And yet, nine months and three chapters later, Sarah gives birth to Isaac.  And Sarah laughs again; but this time, the laughter of disbelief becomes the astonished, stupefied, awe-struck laughter that is the first and best response to the unexpected intrusions of a loving, living God.   The joke was on her, after all, for despite all appearances to the contrary, God’s promises were coming true!  And this time Sarah’s the first to admit it: “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”  I mean, who’da thunk it (!); that Sarah would be nursing children or that Abraham would be changing diapers at this point of their lives?  Preposterous!  But then, that’s what happens when God makes laughter.

You see, when God’s involved faith is, in fact, a laughing matter!  And ultimately, our faith in God is not reasoned, nor reasonable, but playful… shattering… intrusive.  When God works his will and pleasure, the parameters of everything we expect in this life are broken as the improbable and the impossible come to pass.  God makes the illogical part of the plan, and the unthinkable commonplace.  So what better response is there than to laugh, for as the Lord asked Abraham, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”

And of course, there’s great precedent for a divine sense of humor all thru the biblical story; from Moses leading a people across a suddenly parted (and, one would imagine, very muddy) sea, to young David striking down the mighty Goliath with nothing more than God and a slingshot!  Even in the coming of Christ, God gives us a bit of wink; I mean, Israel’s long-expected Messiah born in a stable amongst farm animals and shepherds!   And even that was typical, considering that Jesus’ whole life and ministry turned the expectations of the world upside down and inside out, from his dealings with the religious and governmental status-quo to the ways that he brought welcome and acceptance to those whom society had shunned.   Truly, if humor can accurately be defined as the shattering of the usual and commonplace, then I think it can be said that our Lord has always been the ultimate “comedian!”

And it’s still the case; so many moments when we stand in awed wonder at the “divine absurdity” of what God is doing in our lives.  As a pastor, friends, I’ve been privileged to witness God’s sense of humor on countless occasions:  I’ve seen in the brides and grooms who giggle their way through the marriage vows, so filled they are with love and hope for the future.  It’s there with the new parents who struggle to figure out exactly how they’re supposed to hold this wiggly, crying baby that’s just been born, much less take it home and raise it!  It’s even there, sometimes, in the midst of life’s tragedy and loss, when a tiny bit of laughter at the right moment provides an avenue for God’s healing to enter in.   Whatever it is, however it happens, in that instant you smile… and God makes laughter for us; we catch a glimpse of God’s graceful surprises; we feel the joy and wonder of it bubbling up within ourselves, and we find out that the promises God makes are real and will come to pass. 

And in the face of such blessed assurance, what else will do except laughter?

Of course, it’s also true what is often said about God: that He’s got a great sense of humor; the only problem is that sometimes people are afraid to laugh at God’s jokes!  The renowned biblical commentator and southern preacher Fred Craddock tells the wonderful story of a young preacher visiting an elderly woman spending her dying days in a hospital bed.  It was a scene that ministers know all-too-well: the woman, who was very sick, lying with her head back on the pillow, her mouth gaping open as she gasped for breath.  And this particular minister knew not to stay too long, but before he got up to leave, he asked the woman if she would like him to pray.

She nodded weakly, and so the pastor asked her quietly, “What would you like me to pray for?”  And the woman replied, weakly but very firmly, “I want you to pray that I will be healed, of course!”   So the minister drew a breath and began to pray something to the effect that “Lord, if it be your will, we pray that this sick sister might be restored to health and your service, but if it is not your will, that she might be able to accept her situation and place herself in your keeping.  Amen.”

With that having been said, the pastor opened his eyes to see that the old lady had sat straight up in her bed, like someone had given her a shock.  Her eyes opened wide, she threw her feet over the side of the bed, stood up, and before the minister could even speak, the woman was right out the door!  She’s fairly well running down the hall to the nurses’ station, calling out again and again, “I’m healed!  I really think I’ve been healed!”

Well, that was quite something!  And after a few moments to catch his breath, the young pastor staggered out the door, went down the steps, out to the parking lot to his car.  But before he opened the door to drive home, he looked heavenward and said aloud with a sigh, “Don’t you ever do that to me again!”

The fact is that God makes laughter; God shakes up our expectations that we might be made newly aware of God’s promises and God’s blessing, and thus embrace true faith in all its wonder and challenge.  The story of Sarah’s laughter reminds us to never become so complacent nor defeatist in this life that we miss God’s best jokes; , because it’s precisely in the moments of such complacency that God will surely surprise us.  God’s promises are real; God’s kingdom will come; God’s amazing providence will unfold in glorious and unexpected ways, perhaps even in and through you and me! 

Sarah laughed, and God asked her why.  Of course, Sarah denied it, but God simply said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”  But you’ll notice that God didn’t tell Sarah to stop laughing.  And that’s because, as the Rev. Jonathan Currier has written, in this crazy world God has made, “it is good and right to laugh.  Laughter holds the promise of the future, a foretaste of the joy of the kingdom of heaven.”  And that’s why Sarah’s child, the bearer of God’s promise to all the world, would be named Isaac, whose very name means “laughter.”

It’s true: where God is concerned, life is a laughing matter; and when God makes laughter, incredible things start to happen!

So let’s laugh, beloved, long and loud and clear; with giggles and guffaws and maybe even a few snorts.  Let the laughter be bold and full-throated and all-encompassing; for God’s promises are real, and God’s kingdom is coming in its fullness!

And as we do, may our thanks and praise be unto the one who makes the laughter.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2013  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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