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Genesis 17: Laughing With

Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Genesis, and we’re in chapter 17 this morning. If you don’t have a bible and want to use one of ours, you can just raise your hand and someone will bring one to you.

This is the last sermon in a miniseries on humility through the season of lent, so I’d like you to ask yourself, are you more humble today than you were four weeks ago? Just kidding, sort of. Talking about how humble you are is always dangerous, never feels right. Just to give a little preview of where we’re headed in discipleship in our church: in the sermons, we’re going to switch to the lectionary readings for palm Sunday, good Friday, and Easter to help us focus on the liturgy and church calendar, then we are launching into a series through the psalms focused on prayer through the summer: the prayerbook of the Bible. The Tuesday night small group and residency program on Friday will be mostly centered on prayer, but also going through the book When Helping Hurts as we transition our ministries more towards what those authors would call rehabilitation, and Wednesday night is a dose of something different as we walk through 1 Corinthians verse by verse, and really dive deeply into that beautiful book.

This morning, closing this miniseries on humility, as we’ve been going through St. Benedict of Nursia’s twelve steps toward humility, we’ve been talking about how much of humility is just understanding yourself rightly. I was arguing last week that understanding yourself rightly really is not an inward discipline, because it makes you realize you are not the most important thing you need to understand. In seeing ourselves rightly, we learn to focus on God and his creation.

You aren’t the hero of the story, even of your own story. Humility is learning your role as the one being rescued and invited into the work of the Lord. We talked specifically about the role of silence and self-abasement in the pursuit of humility in our lives; silence as a default, silence as a lifestyle. The noise of our lives is a kind of poverty. Noise robs us of the richness of the moment we’re in by stealing our attention away from the people and tasks in front of us.

And self-abasement leads us to humility, not by asking us to hate ourselves or anyone else, but by asking us to consider how dark our lives and souls would be without his grace. Self-abasement in Christianity doesn’t lead to hatred of anything besides your sin—and your sin isn’t part of you. Your mistakes and the evil things done to you are not who you are. So far from hatred, rightly understanding self-abasement in Christianity leads us to gratitude. I’m grateful for what God has done in my life, all the foolish things from which he’s kept me, all the good things he’s drawn me towards. The conviction of the Lord both wounds and heals.

Last week, we looked at prudence and discretion, prudence which can almost tell the future, because it looks so carefully inward and at the past that next steps can seem almost obvious. Discretion, which tames the tongue, which speaks only what is necessary to build up the people around you. This morning, we’re looking at Dignity and reverence, but with a great respect to St. Benedict, I’m going to add one more wrung to the ladder here to close, and we’re going to talk about dignity, reverence, and laughter.

Go with me, Genesis, chapter 17, and we’re going to start reading in v.15. [Genesis 17:15-18:15]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.

Dignity, reverence, and laughter are all deeply important steps to take if you’re walking toward humility following in the steps of Jesus who humbled himself even to the point of death in our place on a cross. Dignity and reverence are both mentioned in Benedict of Nursia’s ladder of humility, laughter is one I’m adding in, because I’m not sure how to even discuss human dignity without talking about humor and laughter, the two are so intertwined.

Beuchner’s book Telling the Truth made me fall in love with this passage. Imagine a woman in her nineties. She was beautiful, the envy of kings when she was young, and Abram was proud to make such a match. When she was young, she followed her husband away from everything she’d ever known to follow the word of a God she was only beginning to know. Her husband became a great man, the chief of a large tribe. She probably was the envy of her friends, except as she aged, and all the women in her household began having children and starting families, she never could. In our culture, there are people who choose not to have children, people who wait and carefully plan their families. In Sarah’s culture there were mothers and then there were barren women.

Just like today, there were whole industries built around helping people who are struggling to have a child. And as with every mom who’s felt the pain of longing for a child, there were prayers, sacrifices you could make to beg God for a child, and Sarai did everything. As a woman in that culture not to have a child in your twenties would have been like a man in our culture not having a job in his twenties—parents anxious, friends concerned, and the worst of all is pity from the people who love you.

Most men in that time and culture would have divorced a barren woman, sent her back to her father’s house in shame, so of all the things we can say about Abram we have to say he loved Sarai enough that he kept her as his wife. But another thing we have to say about him is that he had a child with his servant. Eventually in her desperation, Sarai asked Abram to have a child with another woman so she could raise him as her own, but it wasn’t her child, and as much as she tried to forget this is her husband’s child with another woman, she couldn’t. Abram means father of a nation, and both Sarai and Sarah mean princess. He was meant to be the father of a nation, and she was meant to be by his side, honored, the mother of children who would change the world.

Menopause for her probably felt like a kind of death, both in the mourning of it and in the relief, the letting go of hope and responsibility. I want you to notice in the passage, Abram receives the promise that he will have a child with Sarah in chapter 17, but she doesn’t hear about it until the Lord and his angels return. It doesn’t say how much time had passed but it’s enough for Abraham to be circumcised along with his whole household, and then in the next chapter be running from tent to tent preparing a feast. That’s at least several weeks that he didn’t tell her the Lord’s promise. He was probably trying to spare her the pain of reopening a dream deferred that had once festered and finally was healed over, but still tender.

Now imagine the moment Abraham runs into her tent—a hundred year-old king, and running. He bursts into her tent and shouts, “Quick!” Whatever it was, it was an emergency. He tells her to prepare a feast then runs out again, so of course we find Sarah later in the passage, decidedly not in the kitchen and instead listening at the door to find out what kind of visitor could make a hundred-year-old king run through his own camp. And what she hears is a prophecy, spoken as though it’s a fact: after nine decades of longing, after it’s impossible, she will bear a son, a single child.

Imagine her smile, the smile of something lost and searched-for for a lifetime being found. Imagine her laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, at the joy of it all. Rolling laughter, bowled over, involuntary and so loud she gave herself away at the door of the important feast to which she was not invited. So loud the conversation was interrupted and she was brought into the room before her husband who didn’t tell her the promise he knew because he didn’t want her hopes dashed again, because he knew she couldn’t bear it.

I love that she denies it, her laugh. She gets scared, because a hundred-year-old king ran to impress these men, and she laughed at them. Even though everyone heard her, she lies and tells them it wasn’t her. I love this passage because it is so human, and so humble, and I love this passage because of her laugh. When the word of the Lord stands and they do miraculously give birth to a son a year later, they name him Isaac, which means laughter.

The Lord gave them the name. There’s a way to read this passage, in all of the woodenness of a carefully translated ancient text, where the Lord is upset about Abraham and Sarah’s laughter. I don’t think he is, though. The doubt they bring of believing this thing would be impossible for God, that seems to wound him a bit—this God who is so humble as to allow himself to be emotionally swayed by this precious elderly couple.

The laughter, though—the laughter our God celebrates. He tells them, you should name your child laughter, and he gives them all new names, which is something you would do in an adoption, this redemption God is working for everyone who will trust in him. Abram means father of a nation, and he redeems that name by calling him a name that means “the father of every nation,” including the rest of the world in the scope of the redemption the Lord is working. He changes Sarai’s name, just as he would change her life and legacy over the coming year. In the end, God unfolds his plan of redemption through the father of every nation, his princess, and their laughter together.

Dignity, reverence, and laughter. Being able to laugh at yourself is important to humility, because humility is about knowing yourself, and we humans are ridiculous creatures. We have to know that. We are the very image of God, and glorious in that respect, but we’re also creatures, and creatures are hilarious. We make mistakes and burp and do stupid things. We fall over and say things we don’t mean. You see it most when our guards are down, or when we’re very young or very old, but it’s true of all of us. We humans are glory and hilarity combined.

To laugh with someone is to connect with them, to put yourself on their level if only for a moment. I imagine v.15 as a playful back and forth, with Sarah scared she had offended a great king. She lies and denies laughing, which is absurd—and the Lord insists, you did laugh though, and in my mind he chuckles. I don’t know why it’s so hard for us to see the more human side of God, even when he crosses from heaven to earth, miraculously, mysteriously in this story, to show us his humanity, to connect with us on that level. I think the Lord enjoys a good laugh. He is the one who created baby animals and butts in the first place.

I remember when I was teaching high school, oftentimes when I walked up to a group of kids, they would be laughing, and then when they saw me, they would stop. Like they couldn’t see the human part of me who would want to be in on the joke, even though for some of them I was only three years older than they were. I knew as their teacher I needed their respect, I needed dignity, but my good days teaching were the days when we could figure out how to laugh and play together, too.

At first, you might think dignity and laughter would be at odds, or at least wouldn’t move you in the same direction. I would forgive you if you thought laughter to be the opposite of dignity. To dignify someone is to do them honor, give them glory. To laugh at someone is to make them ridiculous. Working here, though, has taught me a lot about laughter and dignity. We work with poor folks here, often, and the very definition of poverty is to lack dignity, and lack the power to change your situation. After years of research about what people really need to reach dignity out of poverty, my answers all involve play, touch, and choice. Dignity is filled with laughter; it’s just a laughing-with, not a laughing-at. There’s a big difference. Laughing at a person does degrade their dignity, but laughing with them builds them up, not in a prideful way, but in a human way that recognizes and honors what is holy in them.

If humility is understanding ourselves rightly, dignity is the part of that process which looks at both ourselves and other people and sees the image of God. Dignity looks at each individual person, and sees a person God would die to save. We may be ridiculous creatures, but we are also glorious image-bearers of a God who values us immeasurably. It’s a wild, beautiful, baffling both/and.

I chose this passage because it holds dignity and laughter together. God has come to earth to make a covenant with Abraham and Sarah. Through them he is going to redeem and rescue humanity. This is a holy moment. It wouldn’t be out of place for Abraham to shout woe is me, or for the Lord to tell him to take off his shoes because he stands on holy ground. All of that would fit. The fate of humanity in many ways hinges on this moment, but instead of any of that we have Sarah belly-laughing just outside the door, because she’s way too old to have a baby. This moment is holy and ridiculous at once, and so are we.

Dignity leads to humility, because we as Christians are meant to show dignity to everyone. Rulers and servants alike. The very old and the very young. I believe firmly, we can never in this life lose the image of God entirely, meaning there is no human being who is not in some way also holy.

Reverence is the same as dignity, just in a different direction. Reverence is what dignity turns into when, instead of people, you’re interacting with God. It is the honor due God if we are understanding him rightly. We show reverence to the Lord because it is right to do so, and reverence is humble because it acknowledges our place in our relationship to God.

Just like with dignity, you’d be making a mistake to assume reverence means being serious. I remember as a child growing up in church, and still at an age where I would not really clue into the message, but I was old enough that my parents would let me sit with friends instead of right next to them. I remember laughing and giggling with my friends quietly about notes and drawings on the offering cards, and I remember when it got out of hand, friends of my parents would shush or even pinch us. Now, we were acting a fool, but I also learned a lesson then I had to unlearn in adulthood.

Reverence, just like dignity, is filled with laughter. I learned this with my dad, first, before I learned it about God. I started visiting him at work. He was the provost of a college, meaning he was in charge of all of the staff, hiring and firing, what departments to expand and which to close. People at the college treated him with reverence. They took him so seriously, and they should have, but it was strange to me. I knew him as the man I wrestled on the floor of the living room; a goofball who wears socks with sandals un-ironically and who would walk around the house at least once per week with dress socks on and nothing else to grab pants from the laundry room.

Reverence looks different when the person you revere is also your dad. He taught me the difference between laughing at and laughing with. Laughing at him was never tolerated. If he gave me an instruction, or worse yet a correction, and I laughed at him—it was over. As he told me several times, he could and would kill me and make another child who looked just like me. I was, am, expected, in other words, to treat him with dignity. But he loves me and wants me to laugh with him. He loves laughing with me more than anything. We spend whole nights together just laughing on the porch about life and the earth and everything in it.

With God, even more so, he deserves your reverence, but for those of us who are in Christ, we’re adopted as sons, God is our father. He’s a good father; he wants nothing more than to laugh with us, to sit on the porch and laugh about life, and the earth, and everything in it. He created all of these ridiculous, holy creatures that surround us. He wasn’t under any kind of compulsion to create us this way, but he creates us this way out of delight.

In a way, dignity and reverence sanctify laughter. We’re teaching this to our eight-year-old right now. The phrase we repeat over and over again is, “it’s not funny unless everyone is laughing.” Meaning, if the joke is at anyone’s expense, it’s not funny. Regina Spektor, who was born in the Soviet Union and had seen war and loss firsthand, she has a song talking about this where she points out—“no one laughs at God in a hospital. No one laughs at God in a war” or when they lose everything…but God can be funny at a cocktail party listening to a good God-themed joke.” She ends with the same conclusion I drew just a moment ago that the rest of us aren’t laughing at God, we’re trying to laugh with him.

Laughter, dignity, and reverence. Sarah’s laughed that day because what God was going to do in her life went beyond what she would allow herself to hope, and because what God was going to do in the world through her was so wonderful it was beyond her capacity to dream. For each of us this morning, God is promising more than we allow ourselves to hope, and wants to work in us in the world in ways more wonderful than we have the capacity to dream. He promises to save us from our sin and brokenness, to redeem our mistakes, and not just some of them. He’s making all things new.

And through us he is working to draw our communities into hope, into laughter, into the family of God. I asked you earlier to imagine Sarah laughing. Imagine yourself in her place, laughing in spite of yourself, bowled over by the revelation of God’s own work in your life. He’s calling out to us today, and so today we respond.

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