Laughing with God

Preached at St Peter's Chaplaincy, Manchester, on 4th March 2012 [Second Sunday in Lent]
Gen 17:1–17

We are in the Second Sunday in Lent. Not necessarily! For those of us who come from some of the Eastern Orthodox traditions, this is Third Sunday in Lent. Are we not almost instantly faced with a variety of responses to one special period in the life of Jesus? In a similar fashion, the city of Manchester throws at us rich varieties of faiths, denominations, ethnic and linguistic groups, and therefore with a variety of responses to a single event. We are truly blessed to be encircled with a host of ways of knowing and understanding a situation.

One of the finest lessons that I have learnt is to laugh at myself! More importantly, to be the first one to laugh at myself! Remember, I said I have ‘learnt’ it? Doing it is the toughest thing! However easy or difficult it is to laugh at ourselves, in God's providence “There is a time to laugh” just as “there is a time to weep” (Ecclesiastes 3:4), as the good preacher says. The best bet is to laugh at ourselves!

When I was asked to choose either Genesis 17:1–17 or Romans 4:13–25 as a key text for our meditation today, I wrote to Terry saying that I wish to preach from Genesis 17 just because of Abraham's responses to God's promise of a son to him and Sarah at a ripe old age. My first instinct in choosing this text was in the form of question: Why is Abraham's response not criticized as much as Sarah's response while they both responded to God's promise in a similar fashion? They laughed! But my meditation today is beyond just that question. Therefore, I wish to call my meditation: “Laughing with God!” Therefore, I will also be drawing thoughts from chapter 18 and a few verses from chapter 21 where the birth of Isaac is recorded so that I am able to place my meditation in a clear context.

The story in Genesis 17 (as well as in chapter 18) is a story of instinctive or spontaneous human responses to God devoid of pretentions. Abraham responded to God's promise in two ways: As a first response, Abraham fell on his face (vs. 3), which is a typical response of the time to fall on one's face and hide the face in awe for one's existential inadequacy even to have a glimpse of God’s glory.

As a second response, after God had promised a son as a sign of a covenant, Abraham fell on his face and this time laughed. Quite instinctive I guess because he is responding to the same God but his time probably with his senses completely awake. Reading the reasons for his laughter — how can a couple have a child in its old age — I am reminded of the emoticon “Rolling on the ground laughing his/her whatever off!” Abraham's laughter comes along after he consideres his agential inability and Sarah's equally frail body to carry a child for nine months and to nurse it for the next few years. I guess we empathize with Abraham on this issue!

Our faith pulls us back to ask us whether are we empathizing too much with Abraham and Sarah to see God's greater plans in his economy? In her book We Plan, God Laughs, Rabbi Sherre Hirsch argues that too often our plans are limited to ones we think up at bedtime, or are devised by our parents, or by what looks good on a résumé. We look at other's plans with our perspective. While we attempt to see God's larger canvas of plans, I do not want to take our attention away from our own spontaneous critical responses to God's call and actions. As limited as we are in our rationale and physique, we respond to the best of our abilities and in our own instinctive and critical ways, which I think God honours. In chapter 18, in response to the incredible news to Sarah, we are told, Sarah laughed… to herself — or at herself (Genesis 18:12). Apparently, Sarah's laughter expresses a child-like astonishment and joy, just like the laughter of Abraham in the preceding chapter (17:17) when he is told, after his circumcision and change of name, that Sarah will bear his son. This is not necessarily because God was over-ambitious.

Many, including myself, have interrogated God's intentions in questioning Sarah's laughter specially when God did not reproach Abraham for the same response — laughter. How then did Abraham become the “Father of our Faith” while Sarah is not bestowed with the honour of the “Mother of our faith”? Superficial readers of the scripture say that Sarah lied that she did not laugh and that cost her the honor. Well, did not Abraham lie on a few occasions? Then, what brought him that honour? While my reading of the text is clear by now, I wish to move to what could be another way of looking at the event.

I wish to join the bandwagon that joins Abraham and Sarah in laughing. At least pondering on “Why Sarah laughed”, Sarah took the risk of being misunderstood! A risk to correct the misunderstanding that ‘you cannot respond to God in a way spontaneous’! Shall we then call Sarah's response ‘a respectful disbelief’ that closes the door on a possible birth of a son? Or, a laughter that opens up to a promising future? It is often said that weak can laugh, although withdraw the act at times fearing criticism. But laughing at someone who is more powerful than you or above you is to resist stereotypes of subjugation and to open up multiple ways of understanding and bringing to realization God’s plans meant through all of us. By laughing, Sarah increases the suspense of the plot to see how God works.

In moments of complacency or cluenessness, God wants us to respond, at least with laughter! Perhaps the point is that God keeps promises in his grace when we have responded to them in our ways. We are also called to hope for things beyond our belief systems. Both Abraham and Sarah present to us a few patterns of responses when we are called out of our routine ways of living into new faith adventures, new life, and new aspirations. “They help us to understand what it means to let go of our expectations and trust in God as we are thrust into the uncertainty of a new future. What is wonderful about this story is that for Sarah and Abraham, life changed dramatically, just as they hoped they could settle in… and when it changed, God gave them a laughing hope”. Then, does God have a sense of humor? He does! A wife told her husband that God does have a sense of humor because He made men and women so different, then told them to live together! With Abraham and Sarah, God's humor extends to seeing them having a son in the midst of anxieties filled with laughter in their ripe old age.

Now Sarah and Abraham are blessed with a son, whose name Isaac means ‘laughter’. As a matter of celebrating Isaac's birth Sarah calls us to join her and Abraham in laughter because, as Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” (Gen 21:6–7)

Rohan Gideon

Rohan Gideon is a Deacon of the Church of South India and is presently a PhD student of Theology in the University of Manchester.