"They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” The Lord said, “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”
--Genesis 18:9-12 (RSV)
By: David Shumate
Laughter and joy are part of a balanced life. Life without laughter is death itself. Laughter is the expression of the joy and pleasure we feel within.
Joy is expressed by the happy laughing sounds of little children at play or the laughter of adults at the absurdities within life and the world around us. But there are kinds of laughter which aren’t joyous. There is the laugh of those who rejoice at the triumph of evil over good. Can any laughter be appropriate, which gloats over the tribulation of another person or nation? We certainly hope not! And there is the laughter of doubt and disbelief, heard in the story of Sarah as found in Genesis 18. To understand why Sarah laughed we must first understand her story, as well as ours, for she is an example for us.
The Lord appears to Abraham in the midst of three men who visit him at the oaks of Mamre. Abraham knew that something special was happening since these strangers knew the name of his wife, Sarah. These were no mere strangers. And the LORD spoke to Abraham and repeated his promise (found in Gen. 17:16) that Sarah would have a child. This time, though, he named the time.
Sarah was listening from behind the doorway of the tent. She heard the promise given, although she didn’t realize that it was the Lord. This promise struck her in an unusual way because Sarah was over ninety-years of age. That is the writer’s way of telling us what we already know. Sarah was too old to have a baby. So Sarah chuckled within herself at this seemingly ridiculous and impossible promise as Abraham had on a previous occasion (17:17).
But Sarah didn’t laugh long, for she heard the Lord say to Abraham, “why did Sarah laugh?” When she heard that she knew it was God, for she had not laughed out loud. Now anyone knows that you shouldn’t laugh at God. So Sarah was afraid. She denied that she had laughed. This story can be summarized by saying that she listened, laughed, and lied (in that order).
“Why did Sarah laugh?” The answer is simple. According to all that Sarah understood about this world the promise she heard uttered seemed impossible. Ninety-year old women do not have children. Sarah laughed because it seemed ridiculous to her that she would have a child. After all, she hadn’t been able to conceive when she was young. Her laughter was the laughter of doubt and disbelief.
She is but one representative of all those who have marveled at the impossibility of God’s promise throughout sacred history. The eyes of human wisdom view God’s promises as ridiculous. How could Sarah conceive? Why had Moses led the children of Israel to the shore of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit and no boats? Could Daniel enter the den of hungry lions and emerge alive? Yet beyond all that there is God for whom nothing is too hard. “For all things are possible with God.”
We, like Sarah, trust more in what we see, feel and know than in God’s ability to perform. In Micah we read of the day when swords are beat into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks. We laugh inside. Isaiah prophesies a reconciliation so complete that a child will be able to lead lions around and play with snakes. We laugh because we can only see this world of war and woe. We humans, to twist Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians, walk by sight and not by faith. Like Sarah we laugh from doubt and disbelief.
We are called by God to walk by faith and not by sight. That means trusting in God in our innermost being and to trust him outwardly in our behavior and relationships. It means committing ourselves to God’s cause of reconciliation in the midst of the brokenness of this world. Faith is the opposite of self-trust. Trust in self can only grasp at fleeting pleasure, while faith participates in the everlasting nature of God. Self-trust is the sound of Sarah’s laughing, faith is heard in the cries of Isaac.
The promise of God is Jesus Christ, which began to be fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, that those things would be conquered which divide humanity from its true self, from our peers, and from the creator, seems more remote now than a baby seemed to Sarah. “Is any thing too hard?’ saith the Lord, who makes wars to cease, breaks the bow, and shatters the spear.”