March 10, 2019
Laughter is Born
Genesis 17:15-19; 18:9-15, 21:1-6
Abram left the warmth of his tent, walked out into the coolness of the night, and looked up at the stars. It was a clear, still night. It was the kind of night that causes one to be reflective, to think, and ponder. Abram
had a lot on his mind. Many years had passed since he and Sarai and their nephew Lot pulled up their tent stakes in Haran and faithfully traveled to a new land that God he would give them and their descendants.
Land and descendants were the two key elements of God’s promise. Can’t you hear Abram questioning God as he looked up at the stars? “Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of the land? How is it possible that my descendants will be as numerous as the stars since I haven’t the first son?” Abram and Sarai were becoming older by the day.
As it stood, Eliezer of Damascus, Abram’s servant, was his only heir. If Abram died, Eliezer would be a rich man, and God’s promise would go unfulfilled. It was enough to make Abram anxious. After all, in his old age, he had left the comfort of Haran to follow God’s call. Abram still believed God, but his belief did not keep him from wondering and questioning.
Faith can be difficult in the absence of evidence. When we cannot see our way through to the other side that is when we need faith. When he looked into the aging face of his wife Sarai, Abram had reason to wonder about evidence. Sarai’s age alone, not to mention his own, was reason enough for Abram to question about God and God’s promises.
Abram’s condition is much like our own. Faith is not a condition of having all the answers. Faith is believing in the midst of doubts and questions and counting on God in spite of them.
One day the famous Methodist minister John Wesley was walking with a troubled man who expressed his doubt as to the goodness of God. The man said, “I do not know what I shall do with all this worry and trouble.” At the same moment, Wesley saw a cow looking over a stone wall. Wesley asked, “Do you know why that cow is looking over the wall?”
“No” was the reply. “The cow is looking over the wall because she cannot see through it. That is what you must do with your wall of trouble–look over it because you cannot see through it” (Walter Knight, “Master Book of New Illustrations,” Eerdmans Publishing, P. 184).
To that advice, Abram would probably have said, “Good advice, preacher. I can look and see the land I am to inherit, but under no circumstances can I look beyond the fact that Sarai and I are childless. Now we are old. Her childbearing years are over. God had his chance years ago to fulfill the promise. Now it’s too late for Sarai.”
Like Abram, Sarai also knew that her biological clock had stopped ticking. God’s promise had once stirred within her the hope which she had most of her life, the hope that she and Abram would be parents. The nursery had been set up for years.
There was a special place in the tent complete with a bassinet already decorated in blue, supplies of pampers, a special teddy bear, a rocking chair; it was all there, waiting. But with each passing year, ten to be exact, Sarai had finally stopped dusting the bassinet and fluffing the pillow. For Sarai, her time was up. She felt betrayed. “The Lord,” she said, “has kept me from having children.”
But what about the promise. Had she given up on the promise? No, not exactly. God’s promise could still be fulfilled, but it was now apparent that God was going to need some help. Have you ever felt that God needed help in solving your problems? Have you ever jumped in and tried to repair a problem your way instead of God’s way?
Well, that’s what this couple did. They no longer believed God could keep His promise, so Sarai gave Abram permission to sleep with her maidservant Hagar, a common custom during that time, so that, in her words, “I might build a family through her.”
Was she excited about this? No. Apparently, Abram didn’t complain, but he was careful not to act too excited about the proposition either.
Abram and Sarai could not see through their wall of trouble. They tried to look over it. What they failed to realize was that God was present in their wall of trouble and by looking over it they also looked over God.
The papers carried the announcement: “Born to the proud parents Abram and Hagar, the maidservant of Sarai, a wild, but healthy boy. He has been given the name, Ishmael, which means, ‘God hears.'”
But what God heard was Sarai’s anger and jealousy toward Hagar following the birth of Ishmael. God heard of the marital problems the birth created between Abram and Sarai as anger kindled against her husband as well.
God heard Hagar’s cry in the wilderness after Sarai sent both mother and son there to die.
God heard the cries of a newborn baby, a baby which gave Abram confidence that now God’s promise would be fulfilled because he had a son.
Much more was heard than Abram and Sarai gave God credit for hearing. Their mistake is common. When God is silent, it’s easy to think that God’s hearing is deficient. What is God hearing in your life today?
According to the scripture, Abram did not hear from God again until Ishmael was a teenager. Abram was pushing the century mark in age. It had been twenty-four years since Abram and Sarai had left Haran, twenty-four years since God had promised land and descendants. Living in Canaan with a son who now was a young teenager, Abram and Sarai felt content that they had helped God out of a tough situation. Ishmael would soon be fathering children himself. The promise was alive and well, thanks to their help, or so they thought.
How many nights must Abram have gazed at the stars, thinking of the promise, feeling proud of himself for helping God out? The thought of the promise had once caused concern and doubt, but now Abram had evidence in his son Ishmael.
After waiting and waiting for God to fulfill the promise, and taking matters into their own hands, Abram’s and Sarai’s opinion of God had shifted. God didn’t seem to be as powerful as before.
Now, thirteen years after Ishmael was born, Abram hears again from God, and once again God was talking about the promise. As an indication that God would keep the promise, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, which means “father of many.”
Abraham fell on the ground facedown before God, a sign of reverence. But there is no better word than “surprise” to describe his reaction when God said, “Sarah is going to have a baby boy.”
To quote Gomer Pile, God was saying to Abraham, “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!”
The idea was so absurd, so ridiculous, that Abraham rolled on the ground with laughter.
You’ve heard people say, “If we had known that grandchildren were so much fun, we would have had them first.” Well, Abraham and Sarah came close to doing that.”
Abraham laughed at God for thinking Sarah at ninety years of age could conceive a child. He laughed at God for not recognizing that Ishmael had been born and that all of this wasn’t necessary.
Abraham gave God’s suggestion such little credence that he did not even bother to tell Sarah. So God sent three messengers to their tent to share the news once again.
Sarah was in the entrance of the tent when she overheard the news of the messengers as they talked to Abraham. At hearing the news Sarah also laughed as she thought, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
Of Sarah’s laughter, Frederick Buechner writes:
“She is laughing because she is pushing ninety-one hard and has just been told she is going to have a baby. Even though it was an angel who told her, she can’t control herself, and her husband cannot control himself either. He keeps a straight face a few seconds longer than she does, but he ends up cracking up too. Even the angel is not unaffected.”
“They are laughing because the angel not only seems to believe it but seems to expect them to believe it too. They are laughing because with part of themselves they do believe it. They are laughing because with another part of themselves they know it would take a fool to believe it. They are laughing because laughing is better than crying and maybe not even all that different. They are laughing because if by some crazy chance it should just happen to come true, then they would really have something to laugh about. (Frederick Buechner, “Telling The Truth,” Harper and Row Publishers, 1977, P. 49-50)
Keep in mind that God was responsible for setting the stage of events. The timing was God’s timing. It was God who waited till Abraham and Sarah were so old that the thought of them becoming parents was so ridiculous that they had to laugh. God set the stage for the incongruities. But Abraham and Sarah were laughing, not at the situation but at God because they felt God’s words were ridiculous.
Thomas Edison, who is recognized as one of the greatest inventors in history, was laughed at during his lifetime, sometimes deservingly so. As a six-year-old boy, his parents caught him sitting on a number of eggs. He had seen a goose hatch eggs by sitting on them and figured he could too (J.Cot, Thomas Alva Edison, “The World Book Encyclopedia,” P. 2192).
Once after reading a book, he found out that balloons fly because they are filled with gas. He then persuaded another boy to take a triple dose of Seidlitz powders because he was sure that as the boy’s stomach filled with gas he, too, would start flying. Instead, his friend lay down on the ground, ill, while the world seemed to whirl around him (Ibid).
People laughed at young Tom. They laughed at him later in life when he suggested that light was possible without wax or wick, or that a machine could record the human voice, or that moving images could be recorded and cast upon a wall. His ideas were ridiculous, so people laughed at him until he proved that his ideas were possible. Then no one laughed at Thomas Edison but with him. People’s laughter turned to the laughter of surprise and delight.
People were delighted that they were wrong and he was right. Their laughter was the laughter of joy.
God, the inventor of humankind, knew that Sarah would have a baby. Unwisely, Abraham and Sarah laughed at God. It was this kind of laughter which God questioned Abraham and Sarah about: “Why did Sarah laugh? Why does Sarah doubt me? I am the Great Inventor. Is there anything too difficult for the Lord?”
Sarah tried to deny her laughter. Yet, God would not let her, for God did not want Sarah’s laughter to stop, but only to be transformed. When someone sees the way of God as being foolish and, consequently, refuses to obey, that person is laughing at God, scoffing at God, making fun of God’s promise.
However, when one sees the way of God as appearing to be foolish but accepts it anyway, knowing that because it is from God it could never be foolish, then laughter is truly born.
It is the laughter of joy, celebration, the laughter of faith. It is laughter that the inventor has once again made a great discovery. It is laughter with God and not at God. It is laughter which is pleasing to God. Abraham and Sarah learned to experience such laughter.
Once again, the papers carried the birth announcement. This time it made the front page as the feature story. The caption read: “LAUGHTER IS BORN.” The paper quoted Sarah as saying, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
Abraham named the son Isaac, which means, “he laughs.”
What about you? What are you doing to take life in your own hands and in the process you think you have the answers but you end up creating more problems. Instead, if you’d waited on God and done things God’s way, you would have created less pain and much more joy.
What are you doing right now to welcome the surprising goodness of God? What are you doing to entertain the sometimes seeming foolish ways that God chooses to enter our lives to free us from the past and produce life-giving joy and celebration?
Because of our unbelief in the power of God, we are constantly surprised by God’s grace. Despite all that happens in our lives that seem to be obstacles which God cannot overcome, God invites us to trust anyway.
Despite all our limitations and shortcomings which make us feel that God could not possibly reach down to us in our situation, God invites us to believe anyway. Such a belief will cause many to label us as fools. If so, we are God’s fools. It is God’s fools who will have the laughter of joy because God’s fools are the recipients of God’s grace and God’s promises.
Today you are invited to laugh with God. When we become recipients of God’s grace and God’s promises, laughter can be born in our lives. Just as the joyous laughter of belief in God changed the perspectives of Abraham and Sarah, it can ours too.
God’s grace is free to all who will accept it. Today, will you accept that grace and laugh with God?
photo credit: jw.org