The Theology of Laughter
We begin with two depictions of laughter: one from a space cowboy fantasy called Guardians of the Galaxy, where we witness sarcastic laughter about what is truly possible…and the next is the laughter of celebration, when in “The Return of the King,” Frodo and his friends rejoice over an improbable victory.
Both kinds of laughter are in our text today, one signaling despair, the other hope. Let’s look at the story.
It says that Sarah laughed to herself.
She and her husband, Abraham, had been going about their business in their tent home, when three visitors stopped by. Turns out, this was the Lord in disguise. And as Sarah stayed behind the scenes making bread, the three visitors were being hosted by Abraham. It was probably not the case that Abraham knew these three visitors were divine until, one of them asked, “Where is Sarah?”
So, these visitors who have not yet met Sarah, ask where “Sarah” is. Oh. These are not just any visitors. They know about Sarah. They are sent by God.
Well, in this case they are God. Interesting they are three, isn’t it?
So, they have Abraham’s attention, who tells the visitors that Sarah is in the tent. One of the guests says, “I will return in due season, and when I do, your wife Sarah will have a son.”
And now we learn that Sarah is eavesdropping. She has heard the pronouncement and laughs to herself. “At my age, and my husband’s age, we will conceive and have a son?” Translated into a modern idiom, it might sound more like this: “Abraham and I are going to make a baby? Yeah, right!”
There is laughter here, but not joyous laughter. Rather, the laughter of lifelong heartbreak. They had no children in a time when having children was everything. So, Sarah’s laughter was also the laughter of cynicism or, you might say, the laughter of realism. What would make her think she could conceive at age 90?
And now begins one of the oddest dialogues in scripture. Unbeknownst to Sarah, the visitor overheard her laughing, and said to Abraham, “why did Sarah laugh and say to herself, ‘Oh right, I’m going to have a baby?’… Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the time I declare, she will have a son.”
Oh no, Sarah’s busted! She didn’t know the visitor could hear her. So, Sarah says, “I didn’t laugh.” She was afraid, you see.
And the Lord said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
Sounds like a family with two teenagers and dad makes some sort of pronouncement: “from now on, we’re going to go to church every week as a family.” And then one of the kids snickers.
Dad says, “Why did you laugh?” “I didn’t laugh.”
“Yes, you did. I heard you.”
Now, we might think that Sarah is the spiritual slacker here who doesn’t believe, while Father Abraham, the father of our faith is holding fast with his conviction about what God is going to do. And you would be wrong.
For only a few days earlier, in the narrative covered in chapter 17 right before our text today, God reminds Abraham of something God had said earlier, that he will be the father of a son that Sarah will bear, and Abraham’s reaction? Abraham laughs, but not privately to himself; Abraham literally falls on his face laughing! Not very nice.
So, Abraham’s faith wasn’t perfect.
Then again, consider Abraham’s plight. 25 years earlier, God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, that he would have many descendants, that he would be blessed to be a blessing to the world. Just believe and pick up and follow me to an undisclosed location, said God. Even then, this seemed improbable as Abraham and Sarah were getting a little long in the tooth. But, hey, if this is God who is making the promise, who knows?
Well, Abraham and Sarah, picked up stakes in the land of Ur and lived a nomadic lifestyle for 25 years. All along, Abraham had wondered, no doubt, when God was going to deliver on his promise and give to him and Sarah a son, perhaps concluding that it had all been a dream.
And then, 25 years later, he’s 99 an she’s 90, and God says Sarah will have Abraham’s son. Are you kidding? That promise is still being made? Do you blame Abraham for falling on his face in laughter?
For both Abraham and Sarah, they have been waiting for decades. Their laughter now has become a way of dealing with the absurd. Laugh or cry. These two are close. Cynical laughter diminishes life, lowers the ceiling on what you can expect because part of you has given up.
But, oh, the laughter is not done yet!
Skip ahead to chapter 21. Sarah indeed conceived and bore a son to Abraham, and they named him “Isaac,” which means in Hebrew, “he laughed.” Yes, Abraham is now 100 years old and Sarah 91. And Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” God has transformed laughter from cynicism to joy, from diminishing life to affirming it together in celebration.
One thinks immediately of the verse from our Gospel text today, where Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
What does it mean for us in our life of faith? We all live with heartbreak and sorrow, despair and cynical laughter on some level. And usually it has to do with seeing a future where the possibilities are diminishing, where life is being closed off – whether it’s a relationship that’s not working, or an illness someone has, a career that has flatlined. There could be many things.
And into the fragile reality of a fallen world, where there are so many limitations on our lives and imaginations, God says to us, “Behold, I do a new thing.” “I will create a future for you with new possibilities.” Whatever that future holds for you, this is something you can count on: God will provide; your life will not be diminished, but enriched. Oh yes, in heaven, to be sure, but even here on earth.
One might say, “Well, having a child at 91 is pretty dramatic. Is this the sort of thing we can count on?” Well, no, but a miracle birth is not the only reason for the joyful laughter.
When the Lord asks Abraham, “Where is Sarah?” it echoes other inquiries by God in scripture where relationships are not as they should be. “Where is your brother Abel?” asked God of the murderous Cain. “Where are you?” asked God of Adam in the garden, after Adam had hidden in shame.
“Where is Sarah?” These are questions not just about location, but existential situations.
“There in the tent,” says Abraham. No, he hasn’t even introduced his wife to his visitors! This is, after all, the husband who has already passed his wife off as his sister and will do so again even after this promise of a son. Meanwhile, when Sarah laughs and says, “In my old age, shall I have pleasure?” suggests more than just being past childbearing age. There is something else lacking here in her relationship with Abraham, namely, pleasure.
And so, God’s promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah is not simply a promise of a miraculous birth. It will take divine intervention to reverse the long history of Abraham and Sarah’s marriage, and the miracle is that this promise brings Sarah and Abraham back together again. And so, God’s promise to them was not just unrealistic fantasy, but God calling them out of their death spiral.
In closing, what does this mean for Mt Carmel? Sarah and Abraham were in their 90’s when they laughed. So, too, is this congregation.
Abraham and Sarah were somewhat despairing and cynical about their future, largely because they had no children. For Mt Carmel, too, there is anxiety about not having enough heirs to Mt Carmel’s legacy. Perhaps we feel a bit barren. We are not alone, by any means.
Do we believe that God can produce new life from our somewhat barren landscape? The truth is, God promises new life for this 93-year old congregation, but it will be new life that brings change and new possibilities. It will not simply be a reboot of the old.
It is tempting for any of us to try and turn back the clock to the way things used to be, but that’s not the way God works. God works in real time. When God fulfilled his promise to Abraham and Sarah, they didn’t become younger again. From a restored relationship and the life-giving presence of God, God brought forth new life out of those old folks.
May we learn to be ever open to the new life that God will bring forth among us!
And when it happens, may we be gifted with the joy of laughter! Amen.