June 14, 2020


Genesis 18:1-5; 21:1-7

“The Gift of Laughter”

A humorous comment from George Burns: “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.”

This week’s story from Genesis is a turning point in the story of Abraham and Sarah. God has promised to make them ancestors “of a multitude of nations,” even though Sarah is childless and ninety years old. Abraham initially finds this unimaginable, even laughable – and in this week’s story, so does Sarah.

The couple show hospitality to three strangers who stop by. The strangers are either angels with an important message for them, or perhaps even God in disguise, and Abraham seems to recognize this right away, and receives them warmly and takes very good care of them.

After showing the strangers some extravagant hospitality, Abraham and Sarah stand by – and from inside the tent, Sarah overhears the visitors tell Abraham that she “shall have a son.” Sarah laughs to herself in disbelief – she’s ninety, after all!

But not only does she eventually have a son, (she calls him, “Isaac” which actually means “laughter”) and she declares, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” The SALT Lectionary Commentary expresses what has happened here nicely: “By God’s graceful, astonishing gift, Sarah’s private laughter of disbelief is transformed into shared laughter of astonishment, joy, and delight.”

Did you notice that there were two different kinds of laughter in the story? First there’s the laughter of disbelief and doubt. It’s the laughter that says, “It’s not possible. There’s no way. There’s no hope.” God says that something amazing is going to happen, and you laugh because you just can’t believe it’s possible.

Like when you’ve been out of work for months, and no one is hiring and your debts are piling up, and you can’t imagine finding a solution at this point… Like when you’re overwhelmed with your course load in school, you feel like you’re going to end up failing everything if you don’t drop something. There just doesn’t seem to be any way to make it through successfully… Like when a relationship has been broken for so long, with so many remembered arguments and deep wounds, and you just don’t think it can be mended again…

We’ve all been in situations like those, where we’re out of possibilities, out of hope, and ready to give up. And if someone says to us, “Just hold on. It’s going to be okay. We’ll find a way,” we laugh: “Yah right! We’ll find a way. I may be already 90 years old, but I’m going to have a baby!”

Of course, Sarah tried to deny the fact that she laughed, that she didn’t believe the message of hope coming from God through the strange visitors that day. The Lord said, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” and she soon discovered that the answer to that was “no,” God could work wonders beyond her wildest dreams.

Soon Sarah would laugh again, but this time it would be laughter filled with joy and gladness, rather than doubt and disbelief, when God’s promise was fulfilled and she gave birth to a son.

Although God does an amazing thing for Abraham and Sarah in this story, it’s not that unusual in Scripture. It’s actually one of God’s signature moves: gracefully making possible what initially seems impossible, and doing so through unexpected, ordinary, even downright unlikely suspects.

A nonagenarian as a new mother? A small, motley crew of uneducated, unreliable disciples carrying on Jesus’ mission? A persecutor of the earliest Christians becoming one himself and turning into one of the great Apostles bringing the good news to the Gentiles?

Again, the SALT Commentary explains it well: “If God’s grace often works through unlikely means and unexpected people, then in situations of difficulty, even when the likeliest remedies are exhausted and the expected champions falter, we can still be hopeful. Tenaciously hopeful.”

I wonder what problems and situations are feeling most impossible in our lives today? For some of us it may be the personal impacts of the pandemic on our work, on our families, or on our finances.

For others it may be worry about the pandemic itself and the possibility of a second wave, or the terrible effects of racism and inequality making life so much more challenging and dangerous for some among us.

For our congregation, one of the biggest challenges we’ve had recently was the “bad news” report about the church’s unstable foundation wall. We shared the details in the 2020 Annual Report that the proposed full repair of the foundation problem was estimated to cost 3.5 million dollars.

Some of us laughed when we first heard that – laughing at the unlikelihood of raising such a sum, laughing at the idea that we would want to sink that much money into a building, laughing because we wanted to avoid crying, which might otherwise have been our response.

But instead of crying or giving up, we held on and looked for possibilities. More investigation, more research, exploring our options, and hoping that God would reveal a way where there seemed to be no way.

I suppose it would be more like the biblical story if we suddenly received a gift of 3 or 4 million dollars that we could use for fixing the building so well that it would last for another century and be equipped with all the things we need to engage in a vibrant and vital ministry and mission in our neighbourhood.

“Is anything too wonderful for God?” No, of course not. But in this case, we just received a way forward that is manageable and reasonable so that we can continue our ministries and not sink all our resources into the building. The members of the Session and Board were both surprised and joyful about this possibility, and consider it to be very good news.

Some of us laughed with disbelief and doubt and worry a few months ago, wondering if there could be a solution to this problem. We mostly kept that laughter to ourselves, and some might even deny that we laughed. But I think God wants to transform our private laughter of disbelief into shared laughter of astonishment, joy, and delight.

And I don’t just mean laughter that is shared by members of our congregation because we won’t need to raise millions of dollars just to keep going. But laughter that is shared both within and beyond our church community as we engage courageously in ministry and mission in our neighbourhood.

Because we know that nothing is impossible for God, and so we can try, and be creative, and give generously, and love selflessly, and reach out courageously to those who need to know of the goodness and love and faithfulness of our God to them, no matter what challenges and difficulties they may be facing in their lives.

There are people all around us in our neighbourhoods and in our circles of friends and colleagues whose only laughter is that laugh of doubt and disbelief that anything good can happen in their lives. Joy and peace and love seem elusive, illusory, laughable, impossible. But the good news of the Gospel is that anywhere love or justice seem laughable, the Spirit is already at work, and calling the church to join her.

In a blog about faith and laughter, one Christian author suggests that the ability to laugh during difficult situations is a sign of maturity of faith. She quotes from Psalm 37:12-13 where it says, “The wicked plot against the godly; they snarl at them in defiance. But the Lord just laughs, for he sees their day of judgement coming.” She explains that “the Lord laughs because [God] sees the end, not just the beginning or the middle. As we grow in perspective through the word and prayer, we also can laugh because we know everything is going to be ‘all right.’”

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with experiencing some joy and sharing some laughter, perhaps especially in times of trouble and difficulty when we can’t yet see the end of the story or imagine how God is going to help us through. But as people of faith, we can laugh together because we trust that God is faithful and that “nothing is too wonderful for God.”

I want to close today with the prayer from the conclusion of that blog about faith and laughter:

“Father, I ask that you help us learn to laugh more. To see you in our difficult places and understand that as we seek you, you are laughing because you know all the good you are going to get from our hard places. Like Abraham and Sarah, help us to move from mixed laughter to true joy and rejoicing laughter when our Isaacs are born. I call forth hope and joy into the lives of those who are reading or hearing these words. I thank you for walking us through every mourning situation into your life and joy and laughter. In Jesus’ name, Amen.