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Laughing and Crying

by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts
October 18, 1998


Genesis 17:1-5, 15-19; 18:1, 2, 9-15 Laughter for Isaac

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you, and will greatly increase your numbers."

Abram fell face down, and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations....

God also said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her."

Abraham fell face down and laughed, and said to himself, "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?" And Abraham said to God, "If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!"

Then God said, "Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him....

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground....

"Where is your wife Sarah?" they asked him.

"There, in the tent," he said.

Then the Lord said, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son."

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, "After I have grown old and my husband is old, will I now have this pleasure?"

Then the Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?' Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son."

Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, "I did not laugh."

But he said, "Yes, you did laugh."

Luke 6:20-26 Blessings and woes

Looking at his disciples, Jesus said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. "Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

"But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your consolation. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

Arcana Coelestia #2072 The source of laughter

Laughter comes from a love for truth or a love for falsity. These give rise to the cheerfulness and pleasure which we express with our face through laughter.


Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, "After I have grown old and my husband is old, will I now have this pleasure?" (Genesis 18:12)

There are so many different things that make us laugh. What causes some people to go into hysterics leaves others scratching their heads. There are as many different types of humor as there are different types of people.

Many people find humor in seeing people get a bucket of paint spilled over their heads or a pie squished in their face, or even getting whacked by boards and falling over a lot. The Three Stooges and other slapstick teams have always found a big audience. Others find it hilarious to see public figures and institutions satirized--and the more irreverent, the better. Others find humor in puns and word play. And then there are situations where something strikes us as absurd or incongruous, and that sets us off.

About a month ago I was driving down Summer Street from Bridgewater to Middleboro. My two boys Chris (3) and Caleb (1 3/4) were with me, snugly belted into their car seats in the back seat of the car. As we approached the bridge that goes over the railroad tracks, I said to them, "Look at the train tracks!" Soon Caleb was happily announcing, "Day dats! Day dats! Day dats!" Then I heard Chris's voice chiming in. He said to Caleb, "Are you tying to say 'dain dats'?" Caleb said, "Yah," and paused a moment to digest this new bit of information from his older brother. Then he was off again with the correct pronunciation: "Dain dats! Dain dats! Dain dats!"

As pervasive as humor is in our society, though, we usually do not associate laughter with God and religion and the Bible. Historically, church services have tended more toward the solemn and reverent. It is okay to cry in church--especially at weddings and funerals. But we are not so sure about laughing in church. After all, religion is all about our eternal salvation, and surely that is no laughing matter!

Yet when we actually start looking at the Bible, we find that even though there is indeed much there to be solemn about and even to cry about, there is also plenty of joy and laughter in the Bible. And the laughter in the Bible covers the whole gamut, from mocking and derision to simple pleasure in the delightful surprises of life.

Our story today has some of each. Those of us who are familiar with the Bible can get so used to it that it is not easy to see either the humor or the grief in its pages. But consider the situation of Abram and Sarai as our story begins. He is ninety nine years old, and she pushing ninety. God has promised Abram that he will be the father of a great nation, and yet he and Sarai, his rightful wife, have no children of their own. For Abram, there was some consolation, since he had a teenage son named Ishmael, by his wife's female servant. But this only added to Sarai's grief at not having any children of her own.

For women in her culture, having children--especially sons--was the greatest hope, the greatest pleasure, and the greatest pride. It was considered shameful for a woman not to have children, and when Sarai's servant had a son of her own, she began looking down on her own mistress. Childlessness was a shame and a grief that Sarai carried with her not only throughout what should have been her childbearing years, but through many more decades of her very long life. We can only imagine the tears she must have shed.

This is the setting into which the Lord's angel came one day, and made both Abram and Sarai laugh. Imagine it. A couple in which the husband is ninety nine and the wife eighty nine, and someone with the aura of an angel comes along and tells them they are going to have a child! What would you or I do? Confronted by such an angelic being bearing such a ridiculously unbelievable message, we might do the same thing Abram did: he "fell on his face and laughed." Now there is a phrase that is pregnant with meaning! I love the image of Abram, feeling that he must honor this angelic message by bowing low to the ground before him, but all the while he is laughing at the silly thing the angel just said to him.

And then, a little later, we read of Sarai listening, from the door of the tent, to Abram's conversation with the Lord through several angelic messengers. She can't restrain herself either. "Here I am, ninety years old, and these guys are telling me I'm going to get pregnant? Come on!" She laughs to herself. But she is overheard--whether with physical or spiritual ears we do not know. She beats a hasty retreat, denying that she had laughed, afraid of the consequences of having committed the serious social blunder of laughing at their honored guests. But she is told quite firmly, "Yes, you did laugh."

Up to this point in her life story, Sarai has gone from the hope and idealism of her marriage to Abram as a young woman, through grief, shame, and tears at her inability to have children, into resignation and acceptance of her fate as a childless woman. So her first reaction to being told that she will have a child is the laughter of disbelief and derision.

But Sarai's story does not stop there. A few chapters later we find that Sarai, now renamed Sarah, did indeed conceive and bear a son. And she named him . . . Laughter! That is the meaning of the Hebrew name Isaac. By this time another shift has taken place in Sarah's consciousness. She no longer laughs in derision at the thought of bearing a child when she is ninety, for it has actually happened to her. And when she names her child Isaac, she gives a new meaning to the name besides its original source in her own and her husband's laughter at the ridiculous prospect of having a child at their advanced age. We read:

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name "Isaac" to the son Sarah bore him. . . . Sarah said, "God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me." (Genesis 21:1-3, 6)

Yet Sarah is still mindful of her original skepticism when she adds:

Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age. (Genesis 21:7)

And so, as Sarah comes full circle back to joy in the fulfillment of her youthful hopes and dreams, she carries with her into that new joy and laughter all the experience that she had gained over a lifetime of disappointment, pain, and struggle, and also of satisfaction in other accomplishments over that great span of years. In this new and entirely unexpected blessing that the Lord has given her, she reinterprets and reintegrates the flow of her lifetime's experience, and she finds reason to laugh, not with derision, but with joy.

We go through similar cycles of our own. In our youthful years, when the whole world is before us and our whole ahead of us, we may look idealistically into the future, full of hopes and dreams for what we will accomplish.

Then, for most of us, the realities of life intervene, and we find ourselves struggling simply to satisfy the physical needs for food, housing, clothing, and other necessities for ourselves and our families. All too often, our youthful dreams begin to fade, and we find ourselves looking backward with envy at our younger selves, wishing we could recapture that spark of idealism and joy at the prospect of living. This regret and this envy of our younger selves is behind much of our culture's chasing after the fabled Fountain of Eternal Youth. So many of us in this culture try to recapture what we have "lost" through various tonics and regimens that promise to restore us to our youthful beauty--and hint that the feelings of our youth will come back along with the promised physical recapturing of youth.

I suspect many of us have had our bouts of tears and depression, our agonized nights of wondering where our lives went, and how we lost what had seemed so real to us as young people. We have had our times of crying and pain--and our spiritual pain is much worse than any physical pain we may have had to endure. And many of us have moved through the same stages Sarah went through, becoming resigned to our life as it is, and finally coming to an acceptance of what we have become as people. Even if we have not done everything we envisioned in our younger years, we have accomplished some good things with our lives--things in which we can take satisfaction and pleasure. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

And yet, the Lord is telling us that we have more than resignation ahead of us--more, even, than acceptance and satisfaction. No matter how "old" we may feel spiritually, the Lord is telling us that we are not only going to smile with satisfaction; we are going to laugh with joy at the things the Lord has in store for us! If we have had an especially difficult life, as Sarah did in some ways, our first reaction to this sort of prediction may be to laugh it off. "I've seen it all," we may say, "and the Lord has nothing new to show me."

But the Lord does have new things to show to each one of us. The Lord is just waiting for the right moment to bring each of us new births of understanding and sharing and compassion for those around us. And if we have our eyes and ears open for it, the Lord's sense of humor is one that brings us unexpected pleasure at the time we least expect it. Yes, the Lord has many more good practical jokes to play on us--ones that will leave us, not laughing at anyone, but laughing with each other, and with the Lord. Amen.


Music: On a Distant Shore
1999 Bruce DeBoer

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