David A. Davis
June 18, 2017
Abraham laughed too, you know. Just before, just a chapter before, in Genesis. “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between you and me, and will make you exceedingly numerous’” (Gen. 17). Abram didn’t laugh then. The scriptures tells that he fell on his face before the Lord and the conversation continued. This is the conversation where God changes Abram’s name to Abraham telling him, “I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.” God extends the covenant to generations, an everlasting covenant. God promises the land of Canaan and tells Abraham that circumcision shall be the sign of the covenant. Then God tells Abraham about Sarah.
“As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her 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 give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” That’s when Abraham laughed. As it says in Genesis, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah who is ninety years old bear a child?’” Abraham goes on to ask God to watch over his son Ishmael. Ishmael is the son he had with Hagar, Sarah’s slave girl. But God says, “No, your wife Sarah shall bear a son and you shall name him Isaac.”
Sarah wasn’t the first one to laugh. God had already told Abraham that Sarah was going to have a baby when the three visitors came to Abraham under the oak trees, when the Lord appeared to Abraham. It was a wicked hot afternoon and Abraham was seeking relief by doing nothing, sitting in some shade. As the three appear, Abraham’s hospitality shines. It’s not clear whether Abraham knows the divine nature of the visit or whether he is “entertaining angels unaware” as it says in the Book of Hebrews. But in all that heat, the old man does run to meet them. He entreats them to stay, offering them just a bit of refreshment. In what must have been the foreshadowing of the cultural practice to this day in the Middle East, and something like your Aunt Stella used to do when she promised you just a light supper and then prepared a feast, Abraham and Sarah prepared a whole lot more than a little water to wash and a little bread to eat. Sarah made the cakes. Abraham ran out to get a calf. The servant prepared the calf and the curds and the milk and the three ate like kings and queens. Sort of like that party the father threw when his wayward son came home again.
As they ate, Abraham was asked about Sarah. He told them she was there in the tent. Sarah was just inside the tent listening to Abraham and the visitors. So when one of them told Abraham, “I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” When Sarah heard that, she laughed to herself. At least she thought she laughed to herself. Tent walls aren’t all that thick. They heard her laugh and what she said to herself, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” They wanted to know why, why she laughed. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord,” the visitor said, now to both Abraham and Sarah. And he repeated that he would come back in due season and Sarah would have a son. Sarah then said, “I didn’t laugh.” And the Lord, the visitor, with what must have been a wag of the finger and a tone of voice, replied, “Oh, yes, you did.”
Abraham laughed and no one wagged a finger in his face. Sarah wasn’t the first to laugh and wasn’t the last. Think of Moses. When God called Moses from the burning bush, Moses didn’t laugh but he tried every which way to get out of it. God was mad. Sarah just laughed. The prophet Jeremiah, when God called him, Jeremiah pretty much laughed. Maybe not “haha” but he said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, I am only a boy.” When the angel Gabriel came to Mary in the beginning of Luke’s gospel and told her she was going to have a baby, maybe laughter wasn’t her first reaction but she did say, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” Gabriel didn’t give her attitude. He told her about the Holy Spirit and said, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” The Bible is full of folks who didn’t just drop their nets and follow immediately. Sarah just laughed. Oh, yes, she did.
Notice how the story wavers a bit when it comes to the visitors. “The Lord appeared to Abraham,” that’s how it starts. Then it was three men standing near him. It is “they said” and “they ate.” They asked Abraham where Sarah was. It was “One” who told Abraham Sarah was going to have a son. But it was “the Lord” who said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh?” The pronoun trajectory indicates it was the Lord who said, “Oh, yes, you did laugh.”
Sarah denied laughing. Can’t say that I blame her. She was laughing to herself. She thought she was laughing to herself. And Abraham laughed too. That’s how you know the ancient scribes putting words to scrolls were men. Because Sarah’s the one getting the scolding, not Abraham. They both laughed.
The text offers no interpretation of the laugh. Some will remember that Isaac’s name in Hebrew means “he laughs.” Most readers of Genesis would likely consider it a laugh of disbelief. If not disbelief in the promise of God, then perhaps disbelief about what was possible for the human body. Some suggest a laugh of joy that comes when pondering an unimaginable, divinely promised future. She laughed at the thought of a child. The laugh clearly connotes some meaning. It’s not like Sarah has a nervous laugh, like someone who laughs her way through wedding vows or laughs at other inappropriate times. The truth is there’s not a lot of laughter in the Bible. A few psalms. A bit in Job. There’s Ecclesiastes: “a time to weep and a time to laugh.” And Jesus in Luke, the Sermon on the Plain: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” There’s a lot more humor in the Bible than there is laughter. Sarah and Abraham, they laughed. Our forebears of faith, they laughed. In just the first few measures of the covenant, they laughed. Oh, yes, they did.
It’s part of our DNA. Humanity’s DNA. It’s in the gene pool for the people of God. A knee-jerk response to the promise of God. Almost an instinct that sort of combines the life-draining reality of human nature and the absurd wonder of God’s love. That our first and most natural move in the face of God’s presence and God’s future is to question, to doubt, to disbelieve, to laugh. That laugh, to borrow from John Calvin’s terms, it’s what happens when total depravity meets prevenient grace. They laughed for all of us and we laugh too.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord,” through the prophet Isaiah. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55). Yeah, that’s right. That’s why we laugh. Paul writes to the Ephesians: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved… For by grace you have been saved through faith and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2). You have to laugh! God’s promise is always greater than our craving to have to know, or to be right, or to figure it all out, or to stomp on mystery, or to win, or to earn, or to deserve, or that arrogance that thinks that God’s promise depends on whether we believe it or not. God’s promise is always greater than our humanity, greater than us. “God is greater than our hearts and God knows everything” (I John 3:20).
Too many couples struggle trying to have a child for me to stand up her and tell you that Genesis 17 and 18 is about God answering every prayer. Those who preach the prosperity gospel of health and wealth are too offensive and contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ for me to suggest that it is about God providing for every need and every want. But try to fathom the steadfast mercy of God that flows ever stronger in a world that is plastered with our humanity, try to wrap your heart around the notion that the Living God’s love for you only grows deeper in response to your own sinfulness, try to accept that it is true that nothing is too wonderful for the Lord, and that nothing will be impossible with God, and that you can do all things through the One who strengthens you. Well, you sort of can’t help but laugh. Laugh with Abraham and Sarah. Their laugh only makes their faith more genuine, more authentic, more real, more human.
My father taught me how extraordinary things can come from ordinary faith and the presence of God. During my high school days my father was an alcoholic. There was a bar at the bus stop where he would get off at the end of his commute each day. Every day. One fall Friday night he missed one of my high school football games. The next Sunday morning in worship, our pastor gave what can sometimes be described as a Presbyterian altar call. At the end of the sermon, he gave an invitation. “With every eye closed and every head bowed,” he would say. Then the invitation was to recommit your life and to raise your hand so he could pray for you and you could make a gesture, a symbol of your commitment, your recommitment. It was years later in my father’s sobriety that he told me that he raised his hand that Sunday morning. Then on Monday he went to his first AA meeting. It was in that conversation years later that he also told me the Bible verse he said to himself every day. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).
Instead of that Friday night when he missed a game, I choose to think more often of the only college game he ever saw me play. It was a freshman game on a Saturday morning here against Princeton. Of course they didn’t let the freshman play in Palmer Stadium. We were on the practice field. It was pouring rain, like it was yesterday morning. In time I was on the bottom of the pile on a kickoff. My face was under water. My parents didn’t tell me they were coming. At one point during the game, I looked over the sideline and saw my dad wearing a trash bag, standing in the rain. I bet he was the only spectator at that game. Mom was in the car.
It’s funny how often people asked me if my dad was pastor. Like the only way you get into this profession is if it’s the family business. My dad sold life insurance. We weren’t every-Sunday church-goers. Other than that one conversation, I’m not sure he and I ever talked again about his faith. I never heard him talk to anyone else about his faith, though I bet he did at AA meetings. But that Sunday morning, when he raised his hand? That Sunday morning when God changed his life and mine, that Sunday morning before he raised his hand, somewhere deep inside, before he raised his hand, I can only imagined that he laughed to himself.
Oh, yes, he did. Oh, yes, she did. Oh, yes, they did.
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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