Readings Genesis 21:1-7 and Psalm 126
Image: Vincent van Gogh, Sower with Setting Sun, 1888. Oil on canvas.
The path to Isaac’s birth is paved with laughter. In chapter 17, on hearing that Sarah will bear him a child, Abraham falls on his face with laughter, saying “can a child be born to a man who is 100 years old?” Then in the next chapter, Sarah, overhearing the same promise, laughed to herself and said, “After I have grown old shall I have pleasure?”. And now, in chapter 21, at his birth, Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And then, to top it off, there’s the matter of Isaac’s name, “the one who laughs.” No matter where you look in the story of Isaac, one finds laughter.
Laughter is tied up with impossibility. I’m sure we’ve had the experience of been surprised by something completely bewildering or absurd and responded with laughter – even if what has occurred is not ‘funny’ in the typical sense. We laugh because something has broken the rules of typical, defied the patterns of expectations, burst the banks of possible, and tipped us into the absurd, if you didn’t laugh you’d cry, they often say, because we have passed the limits of what our more mundane responses can handle.
And Isaac is an impossibility. Exactly how we interpret the long-lives of those in Genesis, the point is explicit, there is no expectation, no reasonable reason, no observable and repeatable process through which Sarah should be able to become pregnant. Abraham does not think it possible, Sarah does not think it possible, God simply deems that it will be… and then it is. Isaac, long-awaited, long-hoped for, is born. The promise God made to Abraham when God called him from his father’s house has been fulfilled. The promise God made to Sarah, who has travelled with Abraham these many years (twice surviving been taken into the homes of Kings and Pharaohs after Abraham posed as her brother), has been fulfilled. It is accomplished… in Isaac, God has made Sarah laughter.
Isaac then stands in for all the impossible joy and laughter elicited in response to God’s faithfulness, in response to the strangeness of new life, in response to the great reversal of desperation to abundance, the great deliverance of hope and meaning. Isaac is heard in the laughter of the psalmist rejoicing in the restoration of Israel. Isaac is heard in the song of Miriam when the Israelites are delivered safely across the Red Sea, Isaac is heard in the weeping and rejoicing of the Israelites when Ezra read the law following the exile, Isaac is heard in the leaping of the child in the womb of Elizabeth when she greets the pregnant Mary. For in each of these moments the faithfulness of God is palpably felt, in each of these moments the logics of the everyday is overturned, in each of these moments a promise is kept, in each of these moments the people are overwhelmed by the power and kindness of God who leads us into life.
For this reason, one of the most important postures or practices we, as Christians, can cultivate in our lives and communities, are those which keep us open to joy. Open to this holy laughter. Open to the promise and potential of God, to the rupture of the everyday, the overturning of expectations, the bursting of the possible. This is not about being shiny, happy people day in and day out. It is not about being pristine and prosperous, perpetually happy and wholesome, unbothered and intact. We do not need to (nor should we) hide our woes and worries, our struggles and disappointments. This is about something deeper, truer, and more wondrous than all that.
We are asked to be ready to receive Isaac. The symbolic, theological Isaac… which is not unlike the message of Advent in which we prepare ourselves to receive the coming of Christ. We are asked to help each other live lives that remain open to laughter. Open to the laughter of good humour, yes, this is not to be overlooked, but also the laughter of a much deeper kind. The laughter of Sarah, the laughter that bursts forth almost involuntarily in the face of impossibility, the laughter elicited when we behold the great things (new and old) that God has done for us, the laughter that comes when everyday expectations are overturned by the abundant grace of God, the laughter that bubbles up from the belly and overtakes the entire body as we are lifted into praise for the restoration God has brought and will bring. That laughter we become when the good news of God’s profound and unceasing promise warms our hearts and leads us into life.
If we can do this, supporting each other in our collective practice of remaining open to joy, laughter, and grace, then we will come to behold all manner of things a people of God can be. We are never asked to hide our sorrows, questions, or longing, but we are called to be a people who share these burdens, and encourage one another with love and good deeds. We intercede for and witness to one another so that these sorrows and stresses do not close ourselves off to the abundance of life. For if we can be this to each other, a people who point to the impossible, who point to wonder, who point to the great things God has done, then we, like the community of Israel celebrating their restoration might be one’s who get to sing, May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy, a people, who, like Sarah might say, God has made me laughter!
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