Laughing with God

Text: Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

Laughter is good for the heart… and not just metaphorically either… there have apparently been some studies done that being able to laugh can improve our quality of life, and even extend our lifespan. There is a real genuine benefit in life for having a good sense of humour.

And yet, here in the church, somewhere along the way we’ve gotten the wrong message… that somehow laughter isn’t holy… that if anything, it’s disrespectful. Those of us in the church over time gained a reputation that irreverence and humour was sinful, because it’s disrespectful to God… and therefore we shouldn’t laugh… or rather if we do, God will smite us where we sit. So we cower away in our pews, unsmiling, trying to be as serious as possible.

But then again, contrast this attitude of ours with the story of Sarah in Genesis this morning.

The story itself starts off by saying that the Lord appeared to Abraham… We normally expect this to be something pretty grand and spectacular… but not in this story. It actually starts off quite bland. In the midst of their travels, Abraham, Sarah and their entourage are encamped at a place called Mamre.

While they are staying there, three visitors show up. They’re not particularly well described at all, but Abraham wants to be a good host. It’s a hot day, and these visitors show up from nowhere… without any of their own supplies. Out in the midst of the desert, it’s not good that they should be travelling alone.

We’re not told that Abraham truly understands who they are… but immediately sets about to make them feel welcome. He plays the good host by calling himself a servant in order to meet the needs of these travellers. He offers them water to wash their feet, and a good shady spot to rest from the heat of the day. He goes to Sarah and tells her to get some flour and make some bread and cakes, while he runs off to set up the BBQ.

So while all this is going on, the travellers ask Abraham about Sarah… and then proceed to inform him that in a year’s time Sarah will have a baby boy of her own.

Sarah’s been eavesdropping on the conversation from behind the curtain tent, and bursts out laughing because of the ridiculous prospect. After all, menopause had come and gone… Abraham’s name being changed to “the Father of Many” seemed to be some sort of cruel joke… and now these travellers were adding insult to injury by making the outlandish claim that Sarah herself will have a child. Sarah laughs because the whole thing sounds totally ridiculous. Her laughter is one of disbelief.

But then suddenly, Sarah is caught in the act… “Why did you laugh?” one of them asks. Sarah immediately denies it, “No I didn’t!” She’s embarrassed about being caught in the act. Of course, the last line in the story is him replying with a smile and a wink… “Yes you did.”

Three chapters later, of course, Sarah’s laughter of disbelief turns to a joyful laugher with the birth of their son. A boy whom they name Isaac… a boy whose given name is the Hebrew word for laughter. The laughter of disbelief becomes the laughter of joy, –a Biblical reminder that God really does have a sense of humour… and if often emerges in those places that we never expect… and most often God’s laughter erupts out of confounding our own expectations of what should be, giving new hope when all hope seemed lost.

In that sense, God’s laughter echoes all the way through the Bible.

Scripture is full of stories that bring hope to the hopeless, a promise and deliverance to a bright living future when by all earthly standards there is nothing but doom. We often forget that in the Bible, it’s all about new life springing up from places that everyone else saw dead and barren ground. This isn’t just with Isaac like we heard this morning… this theme runs throughout the entirety of Hebrew Scripture… the Exodus… the period of the judges… the Exile… and it continues right through into the New Testament… In the face of death on a cross on Good Friday, God gets the last laugh with the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning.

But we’re not laughing with God. We take ourselves far too seriously. As I said earlier, the fastest way to get Christians to laugh is to comment as to how unfunny or serious we are. Yet I think we laugh because of a nervous recognition of truth… and we really do come by it honestly. There was a time in our history where we developed these traditions of being sincere and earnest about the things of God… and that laughter and humour had no place in faith. This isn’t just ancient history, this is within our living memory! When I was a student doing my internship, I managed to have some conversations with a long-retired minister. He was fine with people having a sense of humour, but he genuinely believed that humour had no place within the context of a sermon. “Jocularity” was the rather serious term he used… I actually had to go and look it up. Granted, his ideal sermon length was also forty-five minutes long!

The world has changed… and maybe in the midst of that we are also hearing a bit of God’s laughter too. Maybe, at least one some level, God is telling us to lighten up when we take ourselves too seriously… and remember that ultimately God is the one who is in control. On a day like today with it being our church picnic, it’s an ideal time to relax a bit and appreciate what God really has done for us. Life is a gift from God, enjoy it, don’t be afraid to laugh a bit, and look for those signs of hope rather than focusing on the negative. God may well surprise us. It may not be what we expect… but the message is new life, new hope, in those times where all seems hopeless. God’s answer to the genuine challenge of life can be see in the eyes of a small boy who goes by the name of “laughter.”

Amen.

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