June 18, 2017 Pentecost 2 Sermon
A Son Named Laughter
One of the things I love about the Bible is that it is so very much like a storybook … and some of the stories are real doozies! They were written by different authors at different periods in history. The stories are not so much eyewitness accounts or history. Rather, they were written as a way of trying to figure out where God is present in life.
Actually, they first sprang to life as oral stories, told over and over again. Years, centuries later, they were written down long after they first came to life. If you can imagine our ancient ancestors in the faith sitting around their fires at night, telling stories about what their life was all about—then you get a sense of what these stories are like.
They’re playful. Many of these stories are told in several different ways. They change a little bit over time. They’re based in a memory of history, to be sure, but like any good story they reflect the times in which they are told and retold as much as they reflect the time the story was born.
As I mentioned, these stories are a way in which our ancestors in the faith tried to describe how they saw God present in their lives. As God created the world, so God was creating them. As God called their ancestors, so God was calling them. As God was involved in the lives of those who went before them, so God is involved in our life.
In other words, these are not just stories about way back then. They are stories about now. This is who we are. This is our God. We are people who belong to this God.
Like any good stories, they tell the good and the bad. They don’t gloss over the bad, and paint our ancestors as if they were some goody–two shoes plaster saints. The people in these stories struggled with faith and doubt, just like us. They fought with God, just like us. They weren’t sure whether God was really present or not, just like us.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to take a look at some of the stories about Abraham and Sarah. Our reading from Genesis jumps into the middle of the story, so here’s the back story.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis tell the story of creation and flood, or God’s incredible goodness and the disappointment of a creation gone terribly wrong. These stories are a way of trying to figure out why the world is the way it is. It ends on a note of hopelessness … the story ends with a single family, but “Sarah was barren; she had no child.”
There is no future for this family. There is no future for the human family which began in creation.
Then, out of the blue, God speaks again to this family. In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham: “Leave everything you know: leave your homeland, leave your kin, leave your family; go to a land you’ve never seen. Don’t worry, I’ll lead you.
“And here’s my promise to you Abraham. You’re going to have many descendants and be a great nation. You and your descendants will inherit the land of Canaan. You will be a blessing to the whole world.”
There’s only one problem with this scenario—Abraham and Sarah have no children. Remember? Sarah is barren. And as someone once said, “Infertility is hereditary; if your parents didn’t have any kids, you’re not likely to have any either.”
You can imagine the laughter and rollicking good fun people would have as they told this story. It’s hard to be the ancestor of a great nation if you don’t have any kids.
There’s another story about the promise again in Genesis 17 … “I’m going to give you and Sarah a son; I will bless her, and she will give rise to nations.”
Except that this time, the problem is that Sarah is 90 years old. At the thought of Sarah giving birth, Abraham falls on his face laughing. In Hebrew, the word is tsahak … and God responds, “No, you will have a son. Name him Isaac,” which in Hebrew is yitshak … which means, “He laughs.”
Isaac forever after is a reminder of Abraham and Sarah’s laughter in the face of the promise.
Then we get to Genesis 18.
Abraham is sitting by the oaks of Mamre. He sees three men approaching in the heat of the day. In that semi–arid climate, hospitality is a matter of life and death, so he jumps up and offers water and food. Moving as fast as his 100–year–old legs will carry him, he runs to the tent to tell Sarah to whip up a good dinner, and he rustles about some good veal from the herd.
After they have eaten, the strangers ask after the missus—“Where is your wife Sarah?”
As it turns out, Sarah is eavesdropping on them just inside the tent. When one of the visitors promises that she will bear a son in her post–menopausal years, Sarah, like Abraham before her, laughs (tsahak) and says to herself, “An old woman like me? Pregnant? With this old man of a husband?” She snorts.
And the way they tell the story is that it turns out that one of these strangers is the Lord. God asks Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Me? Pregnant in my old age?’”
Then comes the point—the whole story hinges on this question: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
We can understand why Sarah and Abraham would have given up hope. They’ve got one foot in the grave … and the promise that they’re going to have the other foot in the nursery is simply unbelievable. Impossible! Life doesn’t happen that way.
We can see why our ancestors in the faith loved this story, why they would have told and retold it.
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Can God fulfill these promises, despite the facts on the ground? Sarah and Abraham don’t believe it. In fact, Sarah, forgetting that she’s not supposed to be listening to the conversation, says from behind the tent entrance, “I did not laugh.”
And I imagine the Lord with a twinkle in the eye and a chuckle at the divine absurdity of it all, says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” And then joins in the laughter.
This is the humour in this story. It’s not stand–up comedy. Rather, it is what Frederick Buechner calls “high comedy” … something so extraordinarily good, something so wonderful, that it’s hard to believe, something so out–of–the–ordinary that we laugh until the tears stream down our faces. Buechner tells us that these are “glad tears, not sad tears, tears at the hilarious unexpectedness of things rather than at their tragic expectedness.”
Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? Can God bring life even out of the dry husk that is Sarah, not to mention 100–year–old Abraham—the one whom the writer of the Book of Hebrews calls “as good as dead”?
These stories elicit laughter and faith. Forever after, their descendants would remember that they came from a son who was named laughter—Isaac, Yitschak, “He laughs”.
It’s a good story for us to remember. The word “gospel” comes from an Old English word which means glad tidings. Our faith is good news. In this story, in all of our stories, is a God who speaks a word of hope into hopelessness, a word of life into barrenness.
This child named Laughter becomes a living symbol that God can transform the depths of hopelessness into hope. We confess our trust that God takes the worst and bleakest in our world and brings new life just when we had given up. We worship a God who transforms the laughter of hopelessness into the laughter of joy.
Abraham falls on his face in a fit of laughter. Sarah laughs behind the tent door. And I dare to believe that God laughs with them, and with us, at the divine, wonderful absurdity of it all. We are descendants of a child of the promise—and the kid’s name is “Laughter.”
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
June 18, 2017 (2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11)
Genesis 18: 1–15
Romans 5: 1–8
Matthew 9:35 – 10:8