Weekly Sermon Illustration: Abraham, Sarah, and Laughter

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic. 

Next Sunday, we will celebrate the Second Sunday in Lent. Here is this week’s reading from the book of Genesis:

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous." Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you." God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her." Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?

Frederick Buechner always had a fascination with this event, referring to it numerous times in many of his books.  Here is a passage called "Sarah," originally from Peculiar Treasures and later published in Beyond Words:


QUANTITATIVELY SPEAKING, you don't find all that much laughter in the Bible, but, qualitatively, there's nothing quite like it to be found anywhere else. There are a couple of chapters in the book of Genesis that positively shake with it. Sarah was never going to see ninety again, and Abraham had already hit one hundred, and when the angel told them that the stork was on its way at last, they both of them almost collapsed. Abraham laughed "till he fell on his face" (Genesis 17:17), and Sarah stood cackling behind the tent door so the angel wouldn't think she was being rude as the tears streamed down her cheeks. When the baby finally came, they even called him "Laughter"—which is what Isaac means in Hebrew—because obviously no other name would do.

Laughter gets mixed up with all sorts of things in the Bible and in the world too, things like sneering, irony, making fun of, and beating the competition hollow. It also gets mixed up with things like comedians and slipping on banana peels and having the soles of your feet tickled. There are times when you laugh to keep from crying, like when the old wino staggers home in a party hat, or even in the midst of crying, like when Charlie Chaplin boils his shoe for supper because he's starving to death. But 100 percent, bonded, aged-in-the-wood laughter is something else again.

It's the crazy parrot squawks that issue out of David as he spins like a top in front of the ark (2 Samuel 6:16-21). It's what the Psalms are talking about where they say, "When the Lord had rescued Zion, then our mouth was filled with laughter" (126:1-2), or where they get so excited they yell out, "Let the floods clap their hands, let the hills sing for joy together!" because the Lord has come through at last (98:8). It's what the Lord himself is talking about when he says that on the day he laid the cornerstone of the earth "the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy" (Job 38:7), and it's what the rafters ring with when the Prodigal comes home and his old crock of a father is so glad to see him he almost has a stroke and "they began to make merry" and kept on making merry till the cows came home (Luke 15:24). It's what Jesus means when he stands in that crowd of cripples and loners and oddballs and factory rejects and says, "Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh" (Luke 6:21). Nobody claims there's a chuckle on every page, but laughter's what the whole Bible is really about. Nobody who knows a hat from home plate claims that getting mixed up with God is all sweetness and light, but ultimately it's what that's all about too.

Sarah and her husband had had plenty of hard knocks in their time, and there were plenty more of them still to come, but at that moment when the angel told them they'd better start dipping into their old-age pensions for cash to build a nursery, the reason they laughed was that it suddenly dawned on them that the wildest dreams they'd ever had hadn't been half wild enough.