Summary: A meditation on Biblical themes joined by the word laughter.
I had a terrible thing happen a few weeks ago when I was taking a service in a wee church (that shall remain nameless) in the country. I had got to that stage in the service where I was leading people in the prayers of confession and as I was just about to finish a particularly sombre bit about the ways in which we all let God down an old man at the back broke wind really, really loudly. I glanced up to see the wee kid sitting next to him giggling and saying, really quite loudly to his mother, “He just did a fart.”
At this point I was desperately trying to stop myself from laughing and eventually I managed to just sort of cough, move on and finish the prayer. Laughter can be a very dangerous thing, I, like most of my family, have a really loud laugh that is hard to keep in and once laughter starts it can be very difficult to stop. You see it all the time in these programmes of outtakes, such as “It’ll Be Alright on the Night,” or that one that Terry Wogan does, “Auntie’s Bloomers.” You see actors trying to play out very serious or depressing scenes from films or soap operas and they have to keep stopping because when they go to say their lines they end up laughing.
We Presbyterians aren’t exactly renowned for our sense of humour. We are often portrayed as being a very serious group and for many people Christianity and comedy, or Christianity and laughter do not sit too well together. The preacher Martyn Lloyd Jones once commented that the pulpit is not a place for humour, it is a place of battle between heaven and hell for the souls of those who are listening. I heard a preacher a good few years ago who went into great detail about the fact that the Bible states that Jesus wept but never at any point said that he laughed.
I came away from that sermon with a very distorted picture of Jesus as this dour, miserable figure and it took a while for me to realise just how wrong that image was. The Bible contains many examples of humour and comedy. In I Kings Solomon is treated as a comedy figure, set next to descriptions of how excellent he was as a king, the many good things that he did and the palaces that he built are bitingly ironic comments about how he mistreated the poor and showed more concern for his riches than for God, in other words the kind of political comedy that you would expect from Have I Got News For You, or the Hole in the Wall Gang.
In Luke’s Gospel we have the story of Zacchaeus; in John we have Nicodemus, the wise man of Israel, trying to work out how he can be born a second time; in Mark we have Peter making a fool of himself half of the time but especially at the Transfiguration when his tongue runs away with him and he wants to put up a couple of tents for Moses and Elijah; finally in Revelation the great powers and empires of this world are ridiculed as they are compared to prostitutes and shown to be helpless before the power and authority of God.
This leads us on to the three examples of foolishness and laughter that we are going to look at this morning because they deal with the power and the authority of God. We are going to look at the laughter of Sarah, the laughter of the world and finally we are going to look at the laughter of God.
Sarah laughed and no wonder, it was such a crazy notion, how old was she? She was maybe ninety or ninety-one years old, can you imagine how you would react if a lady you knew, maybe your granny, came up to you and said, I’m ninety years old and I’m going to be having a baby. I think after you got over the shock then maybe you would laugh too.
Sarah might have laughed but her words are actually very sad. She describes herself as “worn out,” maybe she feels that God can do no more with her. You don’t have to be ninety-one to feel that you are worn out. To feel that not even God can do anything with you, to feel that you are hopeless.
Sometimes when we laugh its not because we are happy or because we have seen something really funny but it’s because we are feeling cynical or bitter about life. You know the expression, “If you didn’t laugh you’d cry?” That seems to be the sort of laughing that Sarah does here.
What does God say to Sarah in response to her dry cynical laughter? Does he say, “Stop laughing, how dare you criticise me?” Does he say, “You laughed in my face so I’m not going to give you what you have longed for all these years?”