Gladness and Laughter
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”
Genesis 21: 6
Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
Tradition tells us that Moses wrote the book of Genesis. If so, we know that he could have begun chapter 17 this way: “Did you hear the one about the 90 year-old pregnant woman, and how she and her husband packed up and hit the road?”
Reading this story today, and reading where God gives Abraham and Sarah this news, it is not difficult to imagine their first reaction being “You’re kidding, right?” Yet when they realized God wasn’t kidding, the old couple laughed. Maybe at first, as the saying goes, they laughed to keep from crying. And it appears that God laughed also. In the language of today, it could all be described this way: “Pretty crazy, right?”
When I was a senior in high school, on graduate Sunday in our church, Rev. Bill Kinnett preached a sermon that I remember to this day. In his sermon he advised us graduates: “Take your life seriously. Take your work and your faith seriously. But don’t take yourself too seriously.”
In other words, learn to laugh at yourself. Your life will not always be a bed of roses, and if you can laugh in the hard times, it will help you.
Nowadays it is what we sometimes call “a healthy coping mechanism.”
In his book, The Laugh Shall Be First, Will Willimon writes that, “among all of God’s creatures, human beings are the only animals who both laugh and weep – for we are the animals who are struck with the difference between the way things are and the way things ought to be.”
But there is more to it than that. We have the mildly humorous fact that a 90 year-old woman and her 100 year-old husband would be picked by God to have a child. It is all wildly improbable, including the fact that they would be picked not only to make a new start for themselves, but to make a new start for the many, many people that would follow. “Like stars in the sky and sands on the seashore” is how the descendants are described.
And we have the realization that ‘wildly improbable’ is the nature of God. It is how God operates. We follow a God who, somewhere in the mix of all that God is, has a sense of humor and wants us to laugh. Because laughter is related to gladness, and gladness is at the heart of God.
The text says that Abraham, when given the news about the baby, “fell on his face and laughed” and that Sarah laughed also. They laughed so hard that they even named the baby Isaac, which means laughter.
Indeed, God must have appreciated that Abraham and Sarah embraced this new beginning with all of the possibilities it offered. No doubt God also appreciated that they greeted this surprise with a sense of gladness and with rip-roaring laughter.
We know there is real pain and sadness in the world, particularly right now. We don’t minimize it or deny that it exists. We know that to acknowledge pain is generally a required step towards healing.
But we also know that even and perhaps especially in the midst of tears there is the hope of gladness and the possibility of laughter. The gladness comes from knowing that we live under the providence of a loving and wildly improbable God.
A hymn for today, “In Thee Is Gladness” written in 1598, includes these words:
In thee is gladness, amid all the sadness Jesus, sunshine of my heart.
Our souls thou makest, our bonds thou breakest; who trusts thee surely hath built securely, and stands forever, Alleluia!
If God be ours, we fear no powers, not of earth or sin or death. We shout for gladness, triumph o’er sadness, loving and praising, voices still raising glad hymns forever, Alleluia!
For us, our great good news is that we live under the providence of a God who continually offers us the possibility of new life. Where we find that new life, may we greet it with gladness and laughter. Thanks be to God. Amen.