The Proof is in the LaughterJune 15, 2008, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Laughter; it can be a response to good news, or, it can be a response to the absurd. We get a taste of both in today's Old Testament lesson, where the proof is in the laughter.
Much has happened since last week's lesson when God told Abram to pull up tent and tent peg, pack up bag and baggage, kith and kin, and head for a land that the Lord would show him. There was, of course, the promise that Abram would become the father of a great nation as well as a source of great blessing. And Abram did as he was told. But between then and now, much has gone wrong, and the promise has been subject to threat. They seem to have laughed at it at every step.
No sooner is the promise out of God's mouth than it is at risk. Moving to Egypt to escape a famine, Abram and Sarai indulge in a half-truth, and say she is only Abram's sister.1 Pharaoh's people, struck with Sarai's beauty, take her into Pharaoh's household. Had not God intervened, afflicting Pharaoh, she would have become his wife and the promise would have been destroyed.2 God reaffirms the covenant in a vision, but Abram complains he has no heir. God promises Abram descendents more that the stars in heaven. But soon the pair is conspiring to force the promise once again. Unable to conceive, Sarai tries to gain a child through her slave Hagar.3 And we know the trouble that comes from that.4 Forcing God's promise always brings its consequences. Now, at ninety-nine, the Lord appears to Abram again, declares the covenant promise as everlasting, changes Abram's name to Abraham, Sarai's to Sarah, and promises not only nations and kings to emerge from them, but that Sarah will bear for Abram a son.5 Abraham doubles over in laughter. Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred and a woman who is ninety? "Let Ishmael be the one through whom the promise is fulfilled," pleads Abraham. "No," says God, "through a son from Sarah you will name Isaac--he laughs."6 Think of it, each time he called Isaac by name, Abraham was forced to remember his own doubting laughter.
Perhaps that is why only Sarah laughed, when three strangers arrive--one of them being the Lord--and announce the impending birth.7 Sarah, keeping herself modestly out of sight is listening in from the tent. When one of the three says, "I will return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah will have a son," she all but laughs out loud, thinking "After I have grown too old for children, shall I have the pleasure of a child."8 Then, the narrator reveals the identity of one of the three strangers: "The Lord said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh....? Is anything too wonderfully difficult for the Lord?'" 9
Is that a rebuke, a rhetorical question, or a universal promise--a general proclamation of God's power to do the difficult to impossible for us anytime we ask?10 Is anything too wonderfully difficult for the Lord, is not only at the very center of this story, but the question the Bible asks us to ponder again and again in our lives. The conditions are absurd. Why should they not laugh? Having a child at their ages is as preposterous as so many other circumstances in the Bible: being released as Pharaoh's slaves, parting the Red Sea, David defeating Goliath, a virgin conceiving a son who will raise the dead. So, who of us can blame them for saying, "How can this be," and laughing, whether silently or aloud, at the inconceivable nature of the promise?
Suddenly, Sarah's laugher subsides into wonder as she realizes that this unseen stranger knows what she has just done. In a mixture of awe and fear, Sarah abandons the cover of her tent to see this man and deny his allegation. "I did not laugh," she says. "Oh yes," says the Lord, "you did laugh," and leaves Sarah pondering the consequences of her denial.
What should Sarah do? At one level, her response will make all the difference in the world. If she welcomes and accepts the word that "nothing is impossible for God," she will be able fully to embrace life and all of its vicissitudes with confidence, knowing that regardless of the ups or the downs, the challenges and set-backs, the life-giving and life-threatening moments, she is in the hands of One who not only has the freedom and ability to do for her what has been promised, but will do it! On the other hand, if she rejects that word, all of those challenges, all of those wrong turns, all of those moments of crisis and despair must be borne alone.
Yet, at another level, whether or not she believes the promise makes no difference whatsoever. For the promise is going to come to be regardless of what Sarah and Abraham think of it, regardless of whether or not they embrace it, and regardless of how hard they might laugh about its impossibility. The promise is going to come to be because it is God's, and God is free to do as God pleases. This is, after all, God's world. And though God works through its systems and laws, God is not constrained by them, but free to do as God pleases. The crucial difference to be made by their acceptance or rejection, has to do with the way in which she and Abraham can, the way you and I can, walk into the future of our days. Will we be equipped with the confidence of faith that knows God is our life-partner and not simply out there calling us to this or that ideal or purpose, but right here beside and in us, working in and through us God's purposes? Or, will we walk into the unforeseen challenges of life equipped with nothing more than what this world's systems of politics, science, economics, medicine and the slippery, ever-changing system of ethics has to offer us in the otherwise meaningless shifts and shocks that come to us in life? Where are the places we laugh at the promises of the Gospel?
Where is it we fold into disbelieving laugher? For life, even life lived out of faith, has it devastations. A child is born less than perfect, our health too quickly abandons us, a loved one dies too soon, the length and expectations of our own lives are radically altered by devastating prognosis. One in whom we had placed our trust betrays us, we find ourselves burdened in quagmires not of our own making: floods, tornadoes, earthquakes that unexpectedly change our lives. What does the Lord's question mean then?
Is anything too difficult for the Lord? Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann warns us not to misunderstand these words, as though faith is a talisman that makes every one of our heart's desires God's promise to us. He reminds us that "not everything is promised." What is wondrously possible is everything that corresponds to God's good purposes for us and for the world.11 And what is that? God has promised us life in abundance, meaning and purpose if, in faith, we will walk through it with him, following his Son. That does not mean we will escape hardships, losses, sufferings and hurts. But it means we face them with the One who has been through them before us. Refusing to turn away from a cross, he bore it on our behalf so that in and through his death, the power of evil could be shown defeated by God, once and for all. He did it to reveal the wondrous news that God gives us new life on the other side of death--new life in the deaths we face daily, and new and eternal life at the death each one of us must finally experience. How is that for something laughable? But because God has walked through that suffering, because God has faced the worst evil has to offer, because God has triumphed over death and the grave, you and I can face each of them in trust, knowing that we will not be abandoned in our moments of need, or, even in our moments of faithlessness. Justifying faith is, at the end of the day, what it is because of who God is.
The promise did come to be, not because Abraham embraced it, nor because Sarah believed it, but because God had promised it. And the proof is in the laughter--Abraham, a father at 100, pushing Sarah's wheelchair out of the maternity ward, babe in arms, at 90, and paying their hospital bill with a Medicare card.12 His name is Isaac--"he laughs"--a name that will ever after remind him of God's faithfulness in the face of impossible circumstances and disbelief.
But another is laughing as well--the One who always has the last laugh in life--whether the story is theirs, or yours or mine. God delights in keeping promises. God laughs at us when we doubt them, but laughs harder still with us, when they come to be. You see, the proof is not in our laughter, but in God's.
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
- Which, of course, she was--his half sister. This happens not once, but twice! Gen. 20:1-18, especially vs. 21.
- Genesis 12:10-29
- Because Hagar was Sarai's possession, Hagar's child would legally be Sarai's, see Genesis 17:16, see footnote 16:2, Interpreter's Study Bible, NRSV, (Nashville, TN: 2003), p. 33. See also Genesis 30:1-13.
- Genesis 21:8-21; and, of course, since Arabs trace their lineage back to Ishmael, this becomes pivotal in the antipathy between Jews and Muslims, who believe God's promise to Abram was really meant to be fulfilled to Ishmael, his firstborn son.
- Genesis 17:1-27; especially 17:16-17
- Genesis 17:19
- As tempting as it might be to try and see this as a prefiguring of God as Triune, if violates all sorts of principles of good Biblical context and interpretation. The other two with the Lord are from God's court accompanying him on his way to Sodom. See Genesis 18:16-22
- The "delight" or "pleasure" Sarah is thinking of has to do with motherhood, not sexual relations with Abraham.
- The word the NRSV renders "wondrous," pala, is more often translated "difficult" (Ex. 18:21; Lev. 27:2; Deut. 18:8, 30:11; Psa 131:1; Jer 32:17, 27; Zech 8:6). It means "to be surpassing or extraordinary, to do the difficult, to deal marvelously."
- Walter Brueggemann, Genesis,.... P. 159. I am grateful; not only for Brueggemann's scholarship, but also for the powerful way he claims these texts for faith and life, and his insights that have been so helpful in the preparation of this text.
- Brueggemann, p. 161.
- The image is that of Frederick Beeckners, in a little book I can no longer find called Theological ABCs. Published in the 1970s.
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