THAT”S A LAUGH
Genesis 18:1-15, Psalm 116 (#69 Matthew 9:35-38
June 16, 1996, by Tad Mitsui
A God”s messenger told Abraham that his wife, Sarah, would give birth to a child. She overheard this inside of the tent. At first, she giggled a little at the thought of it, but soon she started to laugh harder. She could not help it, because both she and her husband were old. When the child was indeed born, they named him laughter – Isaac in Hebrew. This story intrigues me. First of all, being a man I don”t quite understand why Sarah”s situation should be so funny. And furthermore I hadn”t known that there was a story in the Bible which puts so much importance on laughter. I was brought up to think that somehow laughing is something you are not supposed to do in the church.
On the other hand, laughing is known as something only human beings do. No other animals are known to laugh. This is why the word "humour" comes from the word human. Laughing is an uniquely human activity. The knowledge of inevitable death is another thing that makes us human unique. I think we laugh because we need to ease the unbearable pain of knowing of our own future. I remember one very sick man who asked me a few days before he died, "Tad, will you say something funny about me at my funeral?" Laughter is not only contagious but also empowering. Do you remember an old Gary Cooper movie, "Beau geste"? A platoon of French Foreign Legionnaires were besieged by thousands of desert nomads in a fortress. Only a few men survived the first few onslaughts. And now they were waiting for the final attack that would surely decimate them. The situation was absolutely hopeless. Then a tough old sergeant told men to laugh. Just laugh. They were so exhausted, thirsty, scared and tense that no one could even move a muscle in their face. First someone made a hissing sound trying hard to obey the Sergeant”s order. The second man began his feeble attempt. It was only the third man who was successful making a credible laughing sound. And then it was contagious. Soon the whole platoon of survivors were laughing their heads off. The enemies were frightened by the strength of tough survivors who could laugh so hard. The last few legionnaires gained enough courage to withstand the final onslaught.
Sarah had everything a woman of her time could want. She was a beautiful woman. She was so beautiful, in fact, that Abraham had difficult time keeping her away from lustful eyes of kings and other local bullies. As they journeyed through many countries, he had to tell all sorts of lies in order to protect his wife from being taken to the harems of clan chieftains and kings. She, however, was basically a happy woman, married to a faithful, God fearing, and hard-working man. Abraham was also a rich man, with thousands of animals and hundreds of servants. She loved him dearly. She had everything except one thing. She could bear no child. This is despite the fact that God promised that their offspring would be as numerous as the number of stars in the sky. Yet no child had come. Now they were old, beyond child bearing age.
As Sarah got older, she became convinced she would never have a child. So she told her husband to go to her Egyptian slave woman Hagar, and have a baby with her. That was considered quite acceptable at the time. Hagar of course had no say in the matter. She bore him a child. They named him Ishmael. It was important for a family to have a boy child in those old times. A wife who could not bear an heir was often humiliated. So, Sarah was going to adopt Ishmael as her own in order to have a child who would carry the family name. Irony is that soon after Ishmael”s birth, Sarah was promised of her own child, which came true.
Anyhow, when Sarah heard that someone was predicting her impending pregnancy, at first the thought of having a baby seemed ridiculous. She had way passed menopause, and her husband was too old. Sharing pleasure at their age might be still possible, but having a baby? The idea was wonderful but impossible. She giggled at the thought of it remembering how it was when they were young. It was not a bad feeling to remember those good old days, the days when anything seemed possible. As she began to feel happier, so started to laugh a little louder. The visitors who were speaking with her husband outside of the tent heard the muffled laughter and asked her why she was laughing. She first denied that she laughed, because it was the kind of secret joy old people were not expected to harbour. We often deny the joy of life to senior citizens. After my mother lost my step-father, at the age of seventy-six, she became a good friend of a man a few years younger than she was, who lived in the same seniors” apartment building. My siblings and I were horrified. It was not money. It was the thought of seniors, especially one”s own mother, having a romantic relationship, that was unacceptable in our mind. But of course, that was our problem, not my mother”s. Neither was it a moral problem. God makes many things possible to make our life joyful.
It was such a wonderful thing for Sarah to remember how it had been between her and her husband, especially how the thought of having a child had always been present. But now it was an impossible dream, though a wonderful one. So she laughed and laughed at herself that she could still think of those things. She was happy to realize that she was still capable of such youthful dreams. When some idea occurs to you which is wonderfully pleasurable though absolutely impossible, what do you do? You laugh at yourself. It is a healthy kind of laughter. When you can laugh at yourself, you are fine. You have no problem. But when you are insecure or ill at ease, you can not laugh at yourself. It is too scary to look at your own reality. You avoid looking at yourself at all costs.
So what happens to a person”s laughter in this case – when you don”t like yourself too much and feel too insecure to look at yourself? Instead of laughing at yourself, you laugh at others in their disability or at their misfortune. Those are nasty laughs. You put down others to feel good. A lot of ethnic jokes and sexist jokes are said for that reason. Because you don”t feel good about yourself, you make others targets of your ridicule.
It is good to see Sarah had capacity to laugh at herself for, in those days, women had many reasons to feel insecure in their social positions. Women did not enjoy freedom and independence as men did in those days. Women were basically men”s property at that time. Powerful men stole other people”s wives and kept them in harems. Women were not allowed to possess any means to protect themselves. So they had to be dependent on men for their protection. Men took concubines when their wives could not bear children without ever considering that it might the men who were sterile. Sarah should have been an insecure person, like other women were, but she wasn”t. She could laught at herself. Why?
It must have been a wonderful dream for Sarah to be able to achieve the impossible and to bear an heir. But her laughter had a hint of defiance. When she heard the prediction of her pregnancy, she thought it was ridiculous. It was biologically impossible. So she giggled at the thought. But it might just be possible, it just might, one chance in a million kind of possibility. As the thought began to sink in, she must have realized that other people would also think such an idea ridiculous. How can one defy the laws of nature? Yet the thought pleased her. "Old age can not beat me. I will defy people”s idea of possibility. I believe in God”s promise no matter how that sounds impossible. I believe in God. I don”t care what people say." She could win in an unfair game. Then the laughter became deep and hearty.
So what was God trying to tell us in Sarah”s laughter? It is impossible to tell. The story is pregnant with a whole world of meaning. I am sure I haven”t even touched the surface of the story. At least we know that God makes us laugh at a thought of making impossible possible. Sometimes God”s message is so wonderfully incredible, and so incredibly wonderful, that the only way we can react to it is to laugh. And laughter also makes the burden of life”s reality bearable. But isn”t it wonderful to think that a nation which brought Jesus Christ into our world was begun by a man, Isaac, whose name meant Laughter? And that it was his mother”s laughter at God”s incredible promise for whom he was named.