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June 18, 2017
Oh Yes, You Did Laugh
It had been about 25 years since Sarah first heard the promise. Her 75 years young husband came home recounting a vision of the Lord: “Our ancestors will be numbered as the stars.”
It was an incredible promise then—and it only increased in incredulity over the years.
When the three men Abraham referred to collectively as “Lord” sat by the tree eating cakes made of her best flour, Sarah was pushing 90. And just inside the tent, she hears the promise again.
The promise of her own son.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she muttered with a laugh.
Now one of the three heard her laugh and confronted her, “What, Sarah? Is anything too difficult, too wonderful for the Lord?”
Sarah sputtered: “But I didn’t laugh.” Her eyes shifted, a bead of sweat escaped her temple.
“Deny it all you want, Sarah,” said one of the Lord, “but oh yes, you did laugh.”
Sarah owned up to it, eventually. The ridiculous promise came true. When a son was born to her, he was named Yitschaq a riff on the word tsachaq, meaning “to laugh.” Isaac. Her son was to be a living reminder that she laughed at the promise of her son.
But this reminder was not to shame her for laughing at God’s word. Sarah’s laughter, in the end, is not scorning. It is her honest response to the impossible becoming possible.
As she held her cooing baby boy in her arthritic hands, she whispers with a broad smile, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
When we hear this story, and the many like it in the Bible, do we laugh with Sarah?
The critics certainly laugh. They scoff at this story and those like it in the Bible. People who think this story is impossible mock those who believe it is possible still. But many Christians, taking themselves too seriously, get defensive. They double down and try to prove the veracity of the Bible and in return mock the cold and unrepentant hearts of “unbelievers.”
Maybe there is a better response to being laughed at. It’s an elementary tactic, actually. When you are laughed at, join in on the laughter. Because really, if we own up to it, like Sarah, this story is laughable.
The Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, once wrote: “Having a sense of humor means not being stiff but flexible…Those who laugh at themselves are also allowed to laugh at others and will joyfully also pass the ultimate test of being laughed at themselves—a test that much alleged humor usually fails miserably.”
Sarah laughs. At God, at the promise, at her age, and finally at her baby boy. Perhaps, as some suggest, she has used up all her tears in her barren decades—and so now she can only laugh. But it is also the case that when the Three-Person’d God interrupts our predictable lives, the best response is laughter. Sarah laughs at herself and her circumstances and hopes that we laugh along with her.
So why aren’t we laughing?
Is it the case that we know this story too well? If you’re like me, you saw the bulletin cover and you heard the first verses of Genesis 18 and you went on auto-pilot. The Lord appeared…and promised…and yada, yada, yada heard it all before. It is so familiar that it is no longer absurd, incredible, or ridiculous!
Or maybe it’s the case that you’re hearing the story for the first time. Still, the Bible has such weight in our society that we often think we can’t read it lightheartedly. Think of the Bible’s place in our culture: People who’ve never read it swear over it that they’ll tell the truth. Many Christians are more concerned with arguing over what Scripture is than actually reading it. And I can remember being told in the church I was raised that you never set the Bible on the floor or under another book out of respect for it.
It’s no wonder we are not laughing with Sarah!
But Sarah teaches us to respond to the impossible possibilities of God with a playful wonder. And maybe that’s how we should read the incredible acts of God in the Bible: with awe-inspired joy.
Before Sarah, we’re told that two of every living thing are put aboard an ark destined to reboot earth. After Isaac, Jacob gets his hip knocked out of joint in a wrestling match with God. Then there’s Jacob, sold into slavery only to become a powerful governor in Egypt. And that’s only a taste from Genesis.
If we skip all the way to the first teachings of Christianity, we hear Paul saying that the One who was crucified by the Romans is now Lord of all. Paul at least admits this is folly to some. “We are fools for the sake of Christ,” he says of the earliest apostles. When preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, Paul says the first evangelists were like clowns.
These stories and teachings have been used and reused so much they’ve lost their bright color. So much baggage has been added to the Bible that it’s burdensome to read. We take everything so seriously we can’t see the wonder in it all. It’s time we let our Bible fill us with so much awe that we can’t help but laugh.
When is the last time you were so surprised you responded in laughter, “You’re kidding me!? Are you joking? Seriously?!”
Was it when you couldn’t believe the bad news could get worse and you scoffed?
Was it in those first awkward moments of your surprise birthday party?
Was it at the end of a 51st Super Bowl when an amazing football team overcame an astounding deficit to win in overtime?
Was it when you heard of someone overcoming great odds?
Was it in rejoicing over the great news of a long-suffering friend?
Was it at the shocking punchline of a good joke?
Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner says that the comic is the unforeseeable. We are moved to laughter when something unexpected happens—mundane or extraordinary.
When did the unexpected and unbelievable make you laugh?
Did it make you snicker with scorn—like Sarah at the entrance of the tent?
Or did it make you laugh with joy—like Sarah holding her newborn boy?
In Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel, “The Wonder,” a 19th century English nurse is sent to central Ireland to serve a family for two weeks. Lib knows nothing of the circumstances. She expects to care for a cosmopolitan family—or at least a family able enough to pay for a nurse of her expertise.
But when she arrives, Lib discovers that her charge is an 11 year old girl of a poor farming family. A committee has hired Lib to provide a 24-hour watch over little Anna O’Donnell.
“What ails Anna?” Lib inquires.
Well, Lib is told, she has refused to eat for four months. Anna has taken to a fast since taking her first communion. Since that day, Anna asserts that she’s being nourished by manna from heaven alone.
“Lib would have laughed aloud if it weren’t for her training.”
Throughout the novel, Lib stifles laughter at what she sees as the absurdity of Irish Catholic piety. The unexpected makes her snicker with scorn—that is, until it changed her life.
Last July, I was in West Virginia on the first day of the GenOn Youth Summit. I was expecting a call from my wife Christina. I picked up as soon as I felt the vibration of my phone.
“Hiiii…guess what?!” Christina said in a joyful, playful way. “I’m pregnant.”
“Seriously?!” I responded. Then, I laughed.
I laughed because we had been wanting a baby for over six years. I laughed because this was unbelievable, unforeseen news. At the time, I was starting to imagine a future without children of my own. 6 years of waiting to have a child made the sorrow of every month ordinary and predictable. It is what I expected.
But then what seemed impossible became possible…and it made me laugh, laugh with joy.
Seeing is believing, we’ve come to believe. Things are often the way we expect them to be. We are accustomed to a mechanical world. We think we know how things work and so we expect them to work accordingly. We rely on laws of nature to keep us grounded and in motion. People, for the most part, live up to our expectations—whether good or bad. At a certain age in life, we have a relative grasp on what is possible for the rest of our lives. And God is whatever sustains the status quo. In our predictable lives, we take ourselves too seriously.
Lib, trained in the logistics of 19th century nursing, approaches Anna O’Donnell with cold rationalism at best and dark cynicism at worst.
I, grieved by too many months of disappointment, came to expect a future without a child of my own.
Sarah, grieved by too many years of disappointment, came to accept a future without a child of her own.
But then God steps into our seemingly set circumstances. A God of Three who speaks as One enters our possible worlds and breaks them open. The God of creation comes to our present and creates a future.
And it makes us laugh.
Pastor Tim and I are going to spend the bulk of the summer preaching from the book of Genesis. Genesis is filled with ordinary people with problems and praises much like our own. Its narrative is framed by how God acts towards these people. When we read the story of Genesis, we are invited to reframe our stories according to how God acts towards us.
Now, the God of Genesis is radically free, unpredictable, and surprising. This God creates all things out of nothing, reveals himself in Three, makes many ways out of no way and renders the impossible possible.
The God of Genesis comes into the lives of everyday people and shatters their assumptions of what they understand is normal and possible. Like a good comedian, this God exposes the hilarity of our small worlds. The God of the Bible enters the lives of those who are sorrowful, solemn, and all too serious and fills them with laughter.
In closing, a parable:
Two prime ministers are sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him: “Peter,” he says, “kindly remember Rule Number 6,” whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes, and withdraws. The politicians return to their conversation, only to be interrupted yet again twenty minutes later by an hysterical woman gesticulating wildly, her hair flying. Again the intruder is greeted with the words: “Marie, please remember Rule Number 6.” Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology. When the scene is repeated a third time, the visiting prime minister addresses his colleague: “My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?” “Very simple,” replies the resident prime minister. “Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so seriously.’” “Ah,” says his visitor, “that is a fine rule.” After a moment of pondering, he inquires, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?”
“There aren’t any.”
Remember Rule Number 6.
Don’t take yourself so seriously that you become hardened and stiff.
Don’t take yourself so seriously that you can’t see what is possible with God.
Don’t take yourself so seriously that you don’t get God’s sense of humor.
Don’t take yourself so seriously that you can’t laugh with Sarah.
Remember Rule Number 6, but also remember Promise Number 3.
What is the secret of Promise Number 3?
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
~ Pastor Jon