- Genesis 18:1-15
- Psalm 116:1-2,12-19
- Romans 5:1-8
- Matthew 9:35-10:8
You can find the readings, in the CEB and NRSV translation, by clicking this link.
Laughter has many voices that reveal different things about us.
Some laughter comes as a result of poking fun at our foibles. Some laughter comes sarcastically alongside derision and scorn that seeks to humiliate. Some laughter bubbles up and out of us helplessly when we are tickled or amused. Some laughter, like the giggles and squeals of small children, entirely unselfconscious, hearten us with their unfettered joy. Some laughter is hearty and loud and full of feeling – a sign of immense pleasure. Some laughter is accompanied with tears and snerks and snorts has the tendency to keep everyone laughing even more.
Laughter can be nervous, dismissive, earnest, and loving.
I love laughter.
And I particularly love that the sound of a laugh in the face of God is what pulls us into today’s story.
It could have been the hottest part of the day that day. That time when work is an impossibility, and rest the only respite. Abraham sits in the shade at the entrance to his tent, drowsily watching the heat waves rise from the horizon.
In the year that Abram was to be ninety-nine, God gave him a new name: Abraham. God does that sometimes – changes people’s names. It’s always something significant: a name signified a particular identity, a destiny perhaps, certainly a path. For God to change a name was to create a change in who that person was and in what he or she would do and become. Abraham means “father of many.” God did the same with Sarai – who became Sarah.
And the promise of God to Abraham and Sarah was: that they would have many descendants, that those descendants would inherit the land of Canaan, and that they would all be a blessing to the world. Big promises.
So Abraham sits, perhaps nodding off, when three men appear. “They seem to have appeared out of nowhere, and something strange stirs deep inside Abraham when he sees them, something like fear, but not quite. It’s more like excitement and anticipation.”
And he rises with haste to greet these travellers and be the hospitable host for the travelling three. “Because, while hospitality is quite literally a matter of life and death in that semi-arid climate, Abraham goes above and beyond the call of duty in his hosting of these guests. He moves as fast as his 100-year-old legs will carry him. He runs to meet them, bows down to the ground, runs to the tent to tell Sarah to whip up a good dinner, and runs to the herd to rustle up some good veal.”
9 They said to him, “Where’s your wife Sarah?”
And he said, “Right here in the tent.”
10 Then one of the men said, “I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!”
And, Sarah, standing in the door of the tent, keeping watch to make sure all the guests had all that was needed, overheard, and laughed.
Sarah laughed, because at the age of 90 she had long ago finished crying.
How many years was it?
Probably not long after they were married she began to be afraid that something was wrong. Month after month, year after year she and Abraham loved and were loved and in the morning she would wonder, “Could it be that God is answering our prayers? Maybe this year (just maybe) God’s promise will come true. Perhaps now is the time when I will bear the promised child.”
But it never was.
And then came midlife and Sarah didn’t wonder any more.
She knew then that she would never have a son.
And we can imagine Sarah as she would go about her work as usual as if nothing were the matter, but inside she was crying, and sometimes, if you looked closely, you might notice her eyes filling with tears. But those days were long past.
Sarah didn’t cry anymore.
So when the Lord came again to renew the promise that she would have a son, Sarah only laughed.
Actually, the previous chapter tells us that Abraham laughed too, only he covered up a little better so that he said one thing to God while he was saying something else to himself.
Sarah and Abraham laughed because God’s timing was all off.
Abraham falls on his face in a fit of laughter. Sarah laughs behind the tent door. Their response was entirely human, and really not at all surprising. From a human perspective, their disbelief was warranted, even appropriate. People do not procreate in old age.
We live into a world that teaches us to be prepared for everything. To have everything under control. At least, that seems to be the expectation.
It makes me think that we are all like ducks: gracefully gliding across the glassy surface, everyone unaware of the feet paddling like crazy below the surface.
My sadness is that this is sort of true even in church. We have a general tendency to live the sort of religious life “that has a firm and unwavering belief in a tame and innocuous divinity, faith which does not have any expectation that God will meddle in human affairs, intercede in your life, providentially guide human history, care for a loved one, heal the hurts we suffer, or—God forbid—do the impossible.”
And we Abrahams and Sarahs too live with barrenness, and wonder why God has not heard our prayers! We too have made our deals with life, our little compromises. We too have learned to live with less and to be satisfied with what we have managed to prepare for ourselves – the best laid plans. We doubt, we laugh, and we deny laughing.
But it’s not this human reality that I want you to focus on. I want you to pay attention to this amazing punchline that comes from Sarah’s unbelief in the story:
God asks “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?”
If you listen carefully to this story, there is another laugh that you can hear. It begins here and continues a little bit further along Abraham and Sarah’s path.
From the humour of the scene under the oaks of Mamre, and the comedy of a God who acts in unexpected ways to fulfill God’s promises, one year later, Sarah bears a son.
When Abraham and Sarah see the promise of God fulfilled in their lives, they name their son Isaac, meaning “he laughs.” And we are invited to remember the somewhat cynical “laughter” of them both at the time of God’s promises.
But there is no longer cynicism in Isaac’s namesake, because this time “God has brought laughter” in the form of a growing family. Promises that they would have many descendants, that those descendants would inherit the land of Canaan, and that they would all be a blessing to the world.
And the thing that I want you to hear is that in spite of all the evidence that points otherwise, in spite of all our laughs and denials, bargains or doubts, in a little while Christ will come to us and in him all God’s promises will be “Yes!” Fulfillment beyond our highest dreams and deepest prayers.
Let us pray:
Holy Friend, because we did not create ourselves, because we do not understand ourselves, because we cannot reconcile ourselves, we come to you for Divine help.
You know us completely and love us utterly.
There is not a thought or feeling, word, action, memory or hope that you do not see and understand. Help us to find our laughter and reinforce our faith to trust in your promises. Let all that is true, beautiful, and compassionate find space in each of our hearts shining light into whatever darkness we face. For your name’s sake. Amen.
- Daniel B. Clendenin. “Sarah: On Laughter and Lying” Lectionary Essay for June 12, 2005. Journey with Jesus.
- Ben Patterson. “Keep On Laughing, Genesis 18 (Sermon)” Ministers in the Church. Direction: A Mennonite Brethren Forum. Fall 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 2 · pp. 86-94.
- Barry J. Robinson. “Something Too Wonderful” Ordinary 11 – Proper 6 – Year A: Keeping the Faith in Babylon: A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile. Accessed on June 16, 2017.
- Kathryn M. Schifferdecker. “Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7] – June 18, 2017.” Preach This Week: Alternate 1st Working Preacher.
- Mark Throntveit. “Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7] – June 15, 2008.” Preach This Week: Alternate 1st Working Preacher.
- John Unger. “Faith in the Face of Doubt, Genesis 18 (Sermon)” Ministers in the Church. Direction: A Mennonite Brethren Forum. Fall 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 2 · pp. 95–102.
This week’s image is entitled, “Lachende Weiber [Laughing Women],” created by Károly Kotász, in 1941. The image is public domain. You can find out more about the painting here. The image has been modified for the purposes of this blog.
 Ben Patterson. “Keep On Laughing, Genesis 18 (Sermon)” Ministers in the Church. Direction: A Mennonite Brethren Forum. Fall 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 2 · pp. 86-94.
 Kathryn M. Schifferdecker. “Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7] – June 18, 2017.” Preach This Week: Alternate 1st Reading. Working Preacher.
 John Unger. “Faith in the Face of Doubt, Genesis 18 (Sermon)” Ministers in the Church. Direction: A Mennonite Brethren Forum. Fall 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 2 · pp. 95–102.
 Daniel B. Clendenin. “Sarah: On Laughter and Lying” Lectionary Essay for June 12, 2005. Journey with Jesus.
 Kathryn M. Schifferdecker. “Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7] – June 18, 2017.”
 Mark Throntveit. “Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7] – June 15, 2008.” Preach This Week: Alternate 1st Reading. Working Preacher
 John Unger. “Faith in the Face of Doubt, Genesis 18 (Sermon)”