In On the Joke
First in the series: Family, Failure and Faith:
A Walk With Our Spiritual Ancestors
First Lesson: Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
Second Lesson: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Rev. Scott Dickison
This summer in worship we’re going to work our way through some of the middle chapters in the book of Genesis and trace through the lives of some of our earliest spiritual ancestors. And we’re going to do so under the theme of “Family, Failure and Faith.”
A reasonable person might expect the lives of those early people called by God to carry out divine purpose in the world to be blessed in every way, or without hardship or loss or suffering. But instead we find all of these things, in what at times appears to be in disproportionate measures. We might also expect lives that are exemplary models of faithfulness, justice and morality. But, again, this is far from the case. Their stories run the gamut of human weakness, indiscretion, and even recklessness.
In short, what we find in these stories are people. People, with all their complexities. People trying to find their way through life, being led by a God who was still quite new to them. People who make up families, modeling all the blessings and curses, the joys and disappointments, the laughter and frustration—the many different seasons that come with living within those bonds.
What we find in these stories, it turns out, is us. And right there with us, we find God: moving and mixing and working and watching. God appearing in our lives as an unexpected guest. God at times interjecting miracles and wonder, even challenging us in ways we can’t fully understand. Other times, God gently nudging, urging us forward. And at other times still, God simply sitting there with us in our pain and sorrow. This is what we find in these stories: not godly lives, but lives lived with God.
And when we read them and study or consider them, the invitation is not always to imitate. It’s more often to observe; to pay attention, and see how God moves in these lives to open our senses to how God might be moving in our own—even through our mess, even through our mistakes. Or in the case of Abraham and Sarah, even despite our age, our disbelief and sense of humor.
Abraham and Sarah were “advanced in years” when all of this happens—we know this. It’s a significant detail in the story. It’s quite rare for a couple to conceive and have a child for the first time in their 90s. In fact, rare is not quite strong enough a word. It’s nothing short of miraculous. Some would say terrifying. Their old age is not too much for God to overcome, but maybe just as unexpected, neither is their unbelief. And this is something we don’t usually associate with Abraham and Sarah. In fact, they’re usually remembered for the opposite: as models of faith and perseverance. And they certainly are that, in many ways. But here, they—and Sarah in particular—are rightly suspicious of these wild promises of God.
When Sarah hears through the tent as these mysterious travelers tell Abraham that she will give birth, she laughs to herself and says, “Here I am, and old woman, married to an old man, and now all of this will happen!” Now the exact “spirit” of this laughter is up for debate. A case could be made that it was an innocent laught, an entirely faithful response to a wild promise of God—and if your faith rests on believing that then by all means. But it’s also possible that this laughter is coming from a different place.
There’s an edge to her laughter. For instance, it’s not clear if when Sarah says, “As old as I am and as old as he is, now I’ll have pleasure,” if she’s referring to the pleasure of having a child or the pleasure of, well, you know. And God seems to pick up on this edge. God asks Abraham, Why did Sarah laugh? And then asks one in the great questions of all of scripture: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
This is really a question the Bible attempts to answer over and over: is there anything God can’t do? Are some things simply out of bounds for God?
Sarah, then, seems to be a little embarrassed that this private, just-a-touch-risqué, joke of hers was heard by her guest. Embarrassed she protests: Oh no, I didn’t laugh!—
Oh yes, you did laugh, the Lord says. Not letting her off the hook. God, it seems, is not in on the joke. God doesn’t seem to get why she would laugh at this wild promise—but we do.
You do. You’ve almost certainly laughed in a similar way about someone our something:
Zero-down, no payments? Ha!
Bipartisan effort? Ha!
Justice for all?
It may be that you’ve even laughed in a similar way to God, out of your own barrenness. And I don’t mean just the inability to have children, though we must lift that experience up when we read these stories in the Bible. We must honor the tears of others even as we lift up Sarah’s laughter. But each of us has our own places of barrenness. Our experiences of crushing disappointment. Of crippling shame. Of waiting and waiting for fulfillment, for direction, for justice. Of promises that have gone unfulfilled and prayers that have gone unanswered. And so it may be that we’ve laughed to ourselves about God, so that we wouldn’t cry anymore.
And while we must say there’s surely barrenness in our lives and in the world that will not be answered in the way that Sarah’s was—to say anything less would be dishonest—the testimony of this story is that while Sarah thought she was laughing at God, it turns out that she was instead laughing with God. God—it turns out—was in on the joke.
God knew of her pain that through the years had frozen into a kind of bitterness. God has seen the look in her eye and felt the piercing of her heart when others around her would conceive. God knew how it broke her to celebrate with them. God had seen what it did to their marriage, how the pressure mounted, how it consumed everything, until eventually, through many tears and restless nights, they grew to accept their lot. God knew this. But God also knew there was more to the story of their lives yet to unfold. There was something else on the horizon—something unexpected. Something, truth be told, Sarah may not have even wanted anymore—something that in her own mind may have already passed her by. And this is an important truth we don’t lift up enough, which is that not everything that God is up to in the world depends on our willingness to cooperate.
We hinted at this a few weeks ago when we said, “live as if it all depends on you and sleep as if it all depends on God.” Not everything depends on us. Not everything that God will do in our life depends on our “compliance” as Walter Brueggemann puts it.(1) Sure, God would prefer if we would play along, that we keep our minds and hearts open and ready to receive whatever God has in mind, but I hate to think where we would be if God waited for us to be ready every time God moved in our lives or in the world. More times than not, I believe, God acts and we’re forced to respond. God sends new light into our lives, often in the form of new people, and it’s up to us catch up. To figure out what God is up to and where we fit in—God doesn’t wait for us to be ready.
And while she may not have been ready for it, give Sarah credit that when the time came, and her long-awaited son was born, she knew how to respond. She named the boy Isaac, which means laughter, saying, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Now she’s in on the joke. The private laugh of bitterness and buried dreams has been transformed into the outward laughter of “come and see what God has done.” Now she’s able to laugh at herself—but even more, now she’s able to laugh with God.
There are few things more close to the heart than laughter. And when it’s shared with others, it almost becomes its own language.
There have been studies done looking at the language that twins seem to share. How they seem to communicate with each other without speaking; how they simply know each other on such a deep level that words aren’t necessary—just glances or gestures, or who knows what. There’s even a word for it: cryptophasia, literally “secret speech.” Some have suggested that for the rest of us, the closest we will ever get to this kind of deep communication is through laughter.(2)
In laughter we share in this kind of secret language, where we connect with another on a deeper level, where we understand each other below the level of words. You’ve experienced this before. Does anything break down walls between two people more effectively than laughter—when you’re both in on the joke? In laughter the distance between two people collapses.
When you know each other very well, laughter can happen without even a prompt. This happens between Audrey and her mother all the time. One of them will just start laughing for no reason and then the other will start and then it just feeds on itself and before long they’re laughing uncontrollably, trying to pull themselves together. This usually happens, by the way, when they sit together in church. We have to separate them.
Of all the definitions of family, one could be that family is whomever you can laugh with. Cry with, yes, but laughter isn’t so far from tears, and I believe it’s even closer to the heart.
This past Wednesday after vacation Bible school, Audrey and I loaded up the car and headed out to the South Carolina coast to meet my side of the family at the beach. This of course is the season to so such things, but we gathered especially to celebrate my mother’s retirement.
It was a quick trip but we had a great time. The weather was beautiful, all the cousins played together reasonably well. It also occurred to me that this was the first vacation we’ve all been on together since my mother was remarried last fall. Her husband, Dennis, who we love, of course was there, and he’s fitting in great. But all the same, we were all a little awkward with each other when he first arrived. Moving with just the slightest bit of caution, treading lightly, over apologizing for little things, saying “excuse me” in the kitchen, struggling to make smalltalk—stuff that family shouldn’t need to do. It was like that for a full day until supper on Thursday, which my sister had planned to have a luau theme. We all put on Hawaiian shirts and leis, played luau music. The kids danced with each other in grass shirts and sea-shell bras.
We finally sat down to eat after putting the kids to bed. All six of us, there around the table, looking at each other face to face, seeing who was there and who wasn’t, and before long we were laughing until we cried. For the life of me I can’t even remember what we were laughing about. But we did. And suddenly there we were: a family.
This kind of feast of laughter is one of Scriptures most potent images for the end of days. A time when “our mouths will be filled with laughter,” it says in the Psalms—when we will feast on it like rich food. The distance between all people will collapse not only in the breaking of bread, but the sharing of laughter. Until that time we get glimpses of it—tastes of it.
Living a life of faith, I think, is getting to the point where we can laugh with God. Which is preceded by the point of realizing that God is not laughing at us, but longs to laugh with us. It’s laughing not the silent laughter of bitterness, or the nervous laughter of first dates or first family vacations, but the deep, hearty laughter that sounds just like the breaking down of walls. Laughing that sounds like wounds healing and flowers growing over cold earth. Laughing that sounds like new possibilities, like wombs filling and hearts warming. Laughing, I’m told, that can even raise the dead. Amen.
(1) Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation series, 160-161.
(2) Michel Tournier, found in Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of the Desire: Reflections on Genesis, 100-101.