Lent II; March 1, 2015
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17
Abraham fell on his face and laughed. At the beginning of what I read you, he fell on his face out of reverence, in awe of God. At the end of what I read you, he fell on his face because he was laughing so hard. You can picture God standing by, tapping a foot and waiting, and when Abraham gets up again, God says, “Do you feel better now?”
In Genesis 18 the story gets told a little differently, and this time it’s Sarah who laughs. Either way, someone finds the whole notion of a baby born in the geriatric ward to be awfully funny, and laughs. Incidentally, when the kid is born, he is named “Isaac:” “He laughs.”
There is the laughter of scorn. From Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Your father was a hamster and your mother smelt of elderberries.” I have no idea what that means, but it’s one of the few lines from the French knight taunting King Arthur that I can actually say in church. This sort of laughter is in the Bible, too:
The One who sits in the heavens laughs;
The LORD has them in derision. (Psalm 2:4)
The one who has an edge over others laughs at them in scorn, taunting them, teasing them, maybe bullying them. It’s not a good kind of laughter.
There is the laughter of surprise, when someone uses a good play on words, or drops in words that are unexpected. When I was a teenager I thought that swear words were awfully funny. A clever pun or a shaggy dog story can still be a delight. The marvelous turn-about at the end of the book of Jonah, when God pretends to misunderstand what the prophet is upset about, always makes me laugh.
There is the laughter of self-recognition. How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? Five: one to change the bulb, and four to reminisce about how great the old bulb was. If you are ever moved to laugh at one of Jesus’ parables, it may be because you recognize yourself in it.
Why did Abraham laugh? In his comments on Abraham, Paul says that “no distrust made him waver” (Romans 4:20), but Abe’s own words – “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” – sure sound as though he doesn’t quite believe it.
Trying to save Abraham’s reputation, the interpreters over the years have generally said that Abraham’s laughter is the laughter of joy (Ambrose of Milan, among many!). It isn’t that he doesn’t quite believe it, but rather that it is so amazing that he cannot help but laugh. Maybe. Or maybe we should stop trying to protect his reputation and simply let him be a guy who has been through way too many sorrows and had many wonderful successes and is ready to sit in his rocking chair and watch the world go by. Maybe yell at the neighbor kids to get off his lawn. And he has a thirteen year-old son whom he loves and doesn’t see the need to go into this just now. And then God comes along, presses the “restart” button with this business of changing his and his wife’s names (in the Bible, a change of names signifies a new beginning), and says another kid is on the way. They’re going to need a crib in their room in the nursing home.
Maybe Abraham’s laughter is the laughter of life. Here he is, at a stage of life when he’s attending more funerals than weddings and God says not to give up yet. There is life to be born yet. A baby is coming your way, a baby whose own name will always remind you of the laughter of life: Isaac, “he laughs.”
As with every story that really matters, the rest of the story is not easy. A lot happens over the next decades in the story, and much of it is not very nice. But life does win out, the boy is born, grows, receives the promise of God, and passes it on to his own children in time. Some of the story is funny, much of it is very sad, but always echoing behind it is the laughter of life, his parents’ laughter as they contemplate having to buy both baby formula and Ensure at the grocery store.
It’s worth remembering during Lent that the laughter of life always echoes in the background of our days. Some of our story is funny, much of it is very sad, but always echoing behind it is the laughter of life, the laughter of our God who has in derision the power of death. The wonderful show Cotton Patch Gospel has a scene that can make a person weep and laugh at the same time. Jesus has been killed, the tomb is reported empty, the disciples gather on the hilltop and Jesus appears among them. They wait, expectantly, for his first words; he says, “It worked.”
It worked. The laughter of life, the laughter of the One who led us, taught us, loved us into his Kingdom, and then suffered with us, died with us, and was raised for us: It worked. Indeed it did, for the One who sits in heaven laughs, the LORD has death in derision. You may wonder why I’m preaching this on the second Sunday in Lent rather than on Easter, and I’ll tell you: because you and I don’t have to go through Lent pretending we don’t know how the story ends. Suffering is real, sorrow is real, sin is real and powerful, and death hangs over us all – it’s Lent, we know that very well – but behind it all is the laughter of life, the laughter of Christ’s resurrection.
So, I ask you to face your days with the laughter of life, with confident hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whether you are facing a tough time at school or major decisions about your work or your family, whether you’re dealing with a debilitating disease or feeling adrift in your life, remember the laughter of life. When we awake every morning, the risen Christ is already out of the tomb before you and I are out of bed. When the day gets overwhelming, his voice is in the background: “It worked.” And when you and I “lay me down to sleep,” our Savior prays for us. He is the child of Abraham; he laughs with the laughter of life.
My friend asked me this week, “What would you do if you were not afraid of dying?” We were talking about my sermon for you from last week, and our thinking about what God is saving us from. She reminded me that the power of God to give life to the dead saves us from the fear of death. That works for me not only as I think about mortality – as a congregation, we have been through so much death lately – but it works for me every time I slip on a banana peel, real or metaphorical, and do not die. I fall, but do not die. I mess up, but do not die. I sin, but do not die.
What would you do if you were not afraid of dying? What would you do if you knew that even at ninety-nine, God still gives you the power of life? What would you do if you knew that taking that risk in mission or relationship or business might make you slip or fall, but God will pick you up again? What would you do if you knew that getting out front and taking a stand might make you look silly, but will not kill you? God will give you life, whether you look silly or somber.
Even if you fall on your face, laughing. Things never got easy for Abraham and Sarah, but they always had a reminder of the laughter of life, a reminder that God came through for them. The reminder’s playpen was near where they kept their walkers. His name was Isaac, “he laughs.”
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master