Laughter is good medicine.
There are areas of my life where laughter abounds:
- At home – we laugh. A lot.
- With friends – we laugh. A lot.
- At Nassau – we laugh. A lot. And especially when Noel Werner is in the building.
Laughter is good medicine – in good times and in terrible times.
There’s a passage in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning where he tells about an afternoon in the Nazi camp at Terezin. Frankl says he and the other prisoners had tramped back several miles from their work site and were lying exhausted and sick and hungry in their barracks. It was winter; the days were endlessly dark, and they had marched through freezing rain.
Suddenly one of the men burst into the barracks and shouted for the others to come outside. Reluctantly they got up and staggered into the courtyard. The rain had stopped, but a bit; a little bit of sunlight was breaking through the clouds and reflecting off little pools of water on the concrete floor. And there in the midst of their horrifying days was a shimmering pool of light.
“We stood there,” Frankl says, “marveling at the goodness of the creation. We were tired and cold and sick, we were starving to death, we had lost our loved ones and would never see them again, yet there we stood, feeling a sense of reverence as old and formidable as the world itself!” [ii] And we laughed.
Today we meet laughter.
You don’t find all that much laughter in the Bible, but, when it happens, there’s nothing quite like it. Our text lands us in the desert, at the tents of Abraham and Sarah. You remember the story: God has said to them:
Go! I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God. [iii]
So they journey to the desert and they face difficult days of intrigue and mischief:
- Abraham tells Sarah to pretend to be his sister;
- Plagues arrive;
- Ishmael is born;
- There’s so much marital conflict and maneuvering Abraham and Sarah almost forfeit God’s call and fumble the promise. [iv]
You might expect the writer of Genesis to paint the First Family ten feet tall with several coats of gold leaf. But the more we get to know them, the more inelegantly their humanity shows. [v]
So today we meet a man and a woman being unnervingly human. We’re dropped into the text just as Abraham’s nap is interrupted by God who makes a visit with a couple of angel friends. Abraham runs to them, bows before them, extends hospitality in a way that only a Bedouin sheik can: everyone gets a wash-up, takes a rest, and platters of food are brought forth – fantastic breads, luxurious meats, and out-of-this-world yogurt smoothies.
With the preliminaries out of the way, God makes a big announcement; a new promise: Sarah will have a baby. God insists they’d better:
- dip into their pensions to build a nursery;
- pick some new paint colors;
- plan a baby shower;
- purchase a Pack ‘n Play.
And then they can’t help themselves, Abraham falls on his face; Sarah stands cackling behind the tent door. What could be more comical? [vi]
God says a baby is to be born. “Really,” Sarah thinks; “me, a postmenopausal woman – by three and a half decades – giving birth to a son?” Unless ninety is the new thirty it’s never going to happen – so she hoots and snorts, she giggles and chuckles because nothing could be more preposterous. It’s a joke.
But here’s what’s laughable.
When all the future generations of Israel rest on Sarah and Abraham having a baby, these two are not offered as examples of faith – they’re offered, as examples of disbelief. They have an incapacity to accept God’s covenant. Our text lays out the difficulties of a life of faith.
- The life of faith is a roller-coaster ride.
- The life of faith is not a reasonable act which fits into a quiet, sturdy life.
- The life of faith does not bring us a noiseless and stable life.
- The life of faith requires the shattering and crushing of what we assume is God’s will for us.
- The life of faith requires an acceptance, that as people of God, we hand God over our will and our living.
Abraham and Sarah might think they know what’s ahead, but they have no idea. They have given up on the dream to become parents. They are resigned. Laughing at the ludicrous seems the only response. In the loss of their dream: crying hasn’t worked; shouting hasn’t helped, desperation’s old school. So God meets them with a question: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
Is there anything too wonderful for the Lord? Anything too hard, too tough, too daunting, too difficult?
Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: God doesn’t offer a proposition, a proposal, a bargain. In the midst of the laughter, God offers a question, because, God requires a decision. And that decision cannot be given from above. It must come from Abraham and Sarah themselves.
“Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” It’s a question each of us has to answer. And how it’s answered determines everything else.
Is anything too wonderful? I hope not.
This God of ours opens our futures and it does not depend on our readiness, or willingness, or strength of faith. God’s decision to open the future has to do with a choice:
- do I surrender myself and my will and become obedient, OR
- do I clutch to myself one more day to hold-out, to withdraw, to resist, and not fully surrender to the God who loves us. [vii]
One day, a long time ago, two people surrendered to God’s will and it changed the course of all of our lives.
And of course, in the end, Isaac’s birth requires Abraham and Sarah to act. Can’t you see them?
- old beyond their years,
- getting undressed as the stars begin to twinkle;
- slipping into bed, they kiss; they hold each other,
- they find passion –
- and guess what happened next, I bet they laughed,
- a laughter of healing,
- a laughter of what on earth are we doing,
- a laughter of wonder,
- a laughter that pours forth when you trust that nothing is too wonderful for God. [viii]
Our passage has a post-script; an endnote if you will:
The Lord dealt with Sarah as the Lord had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as the Lord had promised. Sarah conceived and bore a son. When the baby finally came, they named him Laughter —which is what Isaac means in Hebrew— Laughter,because obviously no other name would do. Abraham was a hundred years old; Sarah ninety. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with and for me. Who would ever have said that I, Sarah, would nurse a child? Yet I have borne a son.” [ix] And I laugh. Laugh with me. Laugh.
[i] Scripture Lesson: Genesis 18:1-15. The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, Abraham ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. Abraham said, “My LORD, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. They said to Abraham, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband 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 wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. God said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” This is the Word of our Lord. Thanks be to God.
[ii] John Killinger. Sermon: “Of Rainbows, Geese and Wildflowers.” 30 Good Minutes ~ The Chicago Sunday Evening Club, Program 3816, January 22, 1995. Quoting Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press, 1959.
[iii] Genesis 17: 7-8
[iv] Frederick Buechner. Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1979, 152-153.
[v] Bill Moyers’ Genesis: A Living Conversation. Produced by Public Affairs Television, Inc., and presented on PBS by Thirteen/WNET New York. Producer/Director: Catherine Tatge, 1997.
[vi] Frederick Buechner. Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1979, 152-153.
[vii] Walter Brueggemann. Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, 158-162.
[viii] Terry Thomas Primer. “Aging with Hope and Wonder” in Aging: Christian Reflection. The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2003, 65-69. And quoting Nahum M. Sarna, ed., Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989, 130.
[ix] Genesis 21:1-7
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