Laughter makes the world go round – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 7 – June 25, 2023

Preacher: Rev. Phil Schmidt

Old Testament: Genesis 21:8-21

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

When I was 10 years old, I had an embarrassing experience. I was visiting a friend, and we were chatting on the lawn in his backyard. He said something which I thought was hysterical, so I started giggling. I could not stop, and after a while I was laughing so convulsively that I could no longer remain standing on my feet. I collapsed onto the lawn, helpless to get up. I started to emit sounds, which I had never produced before: snorting and gasping noises. My friend’s father was looking at us from the kitchen window and came out to see what was going on. As father and son looked down at me, I could see that they could not believe what they were seeing. As I looked at their faces, my hysteria got even worse. Eventually, I calmed down and was able to stand on my feet again. I felt absolutely humiliated, because I had completely lost my poise and dignity. I still feel embarrassed when I think of this incident.

However, I have found comfort in the Bible, because there is a prototype for my laugh spasms, namely Abraham. Abraham once had to laugh so convulsively, that he fell helplessly to the ground face downwards. He had heard what he considered to be an outrageous joke and fell to the ground

And who was the comedian who knocked Abraham off his feet? It was none other than the Lord God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would be parents of a son, from whom a great nation would arise. Initially, Sarah did not believe God because she was old and barren, so she offered her handmaiden Hagar as a surrogate mother to Abraham. The scheme worked and Hagar bore a son called Ismael. After the birth of Ismael, Abraham figured that he now had his promised son. But God told him that Ismael was not the chosen son. In one year, God said, Sarah would bear Isaac. Isaac, not Ismael, would carry out the covenant made to Abraham.

At this time Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90. In response to this apparently ridiculous promise, Abraham “fell on his face and laughed”. Sarah also laughed when she overheard a repeat of this promise while hiding behind a tent wall. This led to one of the most bizarre dialogues in the Bible. God asked Abraham: Why did Sarah laugh! Sarah butted into the conversation by saying: No, I did not laugh!  God contradicted her: Oh yes, you did laugh!

The Hebrew word for “laugh” occurs 7 times in the Abraham story. It is the word which ties the story together. When Isaac was born, Sarah said,” God has given me laughter, and everyone who hears this will laugh with me”. The name Isaak means,” He will laugh”. 

This brings us to the OT reading for today. As we heard in the reading, Sarah became outraged when she saw Ismael “playing with her son Isaac”.  The translators have invented words which are not in the Hebrew text. What offended Sarah was that she saw Ismael “laughing”. This is the 7th and final time that the word laughter occurs in the Abraham story. This laughter of Ismael is ambiguous; it is not defined in the text. It might have been derisive laughter or it might have been joyful. In any case, Sarah saw Ismael laughing and she exploded emotionally. She said to Abraham:

“Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”

Sarah is so infuriated that she cannot even speak the names of the people she is sending away into exile. She degrades Hagar by twice calling her a slave woman. Abraham does not want to send away his son Ismael, but God tells him to do what Sarah says.

This story is written in such a way that the reader’s sympathy is entirely with Hagar and Ismael. They were sent into the desert to die of thirst and hunger. The Biblical narrative describes their anguish vividly. Hagar cannot bear to watch her son die, so she puts him under a bush and goes far enough away so that she cannot watch his final moments. She is weeping loudly, and her son is crying out. As we heard in the reading:

And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her,

“What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”

This narrative contains a surprising message, namely, that the people who are chosen by God to change the world, are not necessarily nice people. They can be ordinary human beings.  They do not have to be ethical athletes. They are not necessarily superstars of faith. When they hear God making outrageous promises to them, they can laugh hysterically or sarcastically. They can be just as petty and nasty as your next-door neighbor. They are capable of incredible cruelty and stupidity.

Abraham was the patriarch of Israel. Three religions regard themselves as offspring of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which accounts for about 4 billion people today. Christians refer to Abraham as the “father of faith”. This father of faith has no moral fiber: he sent his son, Ismael, and the mother who bore him into the desert to die, because he could not stand up to Sarah. This father of faith falls on his face in laughter when God promises him great things. This father of faith resembles a lunatic cult leader, who is ready to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering because he hears the voice of God telling him to do so.

Just because Abraham and Sarah are the parents of God’s chosen people, that does not mean that they are the good people and that the non-chosen are the bad people. When God selects individuals to carry out his purposes, that does not mean that the non-chosen are being rejected. God was also with Ismael and his mother. Ismael also became the father of a great nation. Arabs and Moslems regard Ismael as their forefather.

There is a message here for us, namely: do not be pretentious. Do not pretend that you are better than you are. Do not consider yourself a know-it-all. Do not pretend to have more faith or knowledge than you have. Do not be judgmental, as though you know what is hidden in the hearts of other people. God does not need or want moral giants to accomplish his purposes. He does need real human beings, people who have no illusions about themselves, people who recognize the ambiguities of this world.

A Biblical scholar (Jonathan Sacks) has summed up what faith is all about with the following words:

Faith is not certainty. It is the courage to live with uncertainty. It is not knowing all the answers. It is often the strength to live with the questions. It is not a sense of invulnerability. It is the knowledge that we are utterly vulnerable, but that it is precisely in our vulnerability that we reach out to God, and through this learn to reach out to others, able to understand their fears and doubts.

Abraham has become a model of faith, not because he is a superior person, but because of his frailty. God used his frailty to reveal the future which he has in store for all of humanity.

Let’s go back to the moment when Abraham fell to the ground. As already mentioned, when God told him that Sarah would bear a son, he “fell on his face and laughed”. Then he said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

There is something ambiguous about Abraham’s body language. According to my personal experience, the body language should read: “he laughed and fell down”. But Abraham fell down first and then he laughed. Falling face down is actually the body language of worship in the Biblical world. He fell down as though he were prostrating himself before God and then he laughed. Could it be that his laughter was not merely derisive, but the laughter of joy, as he contemplated the miracle which God intended for him and Sarah? The Genesis text leaves this question open. But according to the apostle Paul in today’s epistle reading, Abraham believed in God’s power to raise life out of death. Paul referred to the moment when Abraham fell on his face when he wrote:

“He (Abraham) did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.”

In other words: Abraham’s faith was resurrection faith. Abraham was the first to demonstrate Easter faith. Abraham’s laughter is the prototype for Easter laughter. Easter laughter has a long tradition in the church: it is an expression of joy, but it is also sarcastic, mocking death and the devil. Abraham’s laughter points forward to a time when laughter will fill the earth. As indicated in Psalm 126

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.

As the theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote:

“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.”