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"HA HA HA" -- Jeanne Gay -- June 15, 2008 "HA HA HA" -- Jeanne Gay -- June 15, 2008

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   Discussion: "HA HA HA" -- Jeanne Gay -- June 15, 2008
Jeanne Gay · 10 years, 3 months ago


Sermon preached by Jeanne Gay at Summit Presbyterian Church, June 15, 2008

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7           Romans 5:1-8

 (Before beginning, I told the congregation that this would be a participatory sermon and that they would know what they needed to do when it happened.)

 Writer Frederick Buechner has a wonderful description that goes along with our Old Testament reading this morning. “The place to start,” he writes, “is with a woman laughing. She is an old woman, and, after a lifetime in the desert, her face is cracked and rutted like a six-month drought. She hunches her shoulders around her ears and starts to shake. She squinnies her eyes shut, and her laughter is all China teeth and wheeze and tears running down as she rocks back and forth in her kitchen chair. She is laughing because she is pushing ninety-one hard and has just been told she is going to have a baby.”[1]

Isn’t that a great description? Can’t you just see her? Of course Sarah laughed. Wouldn’t you?

It’s not been an uneventful life for Sarah—formerly known as Sarai. She’s spent years on the road with Abraham. When they were in Egypt once he passed her off as his sister instead of his wife, hoping to gain Pharaoh’s favor … and then a few years later he did it again! And all this time she’s been waiting and hoping for a child, but nothing. And God has kept on promising that Abraham would be a father … until finally she suggested that Abraham get together with her servant Hagar, and of course Hagar had little Ishmael … but that whole relationship has been nothing but grief for Sarah.

And here comes an angel from God, once again, and he says she’s going to have a baby. HA HA HA. (Here’s where I asked the congregation to say HA HA HA with me.) Like that’s going to happen!

Why do we laugh at things? Sometimes we laugh because we can see what’s going to happen—it’s expected. We’re watching a comedy sketch and see someone walk down the street and drop a banana peel … and as soon as the top-lofty lady with the big hat comes in view we know what’s going to happen, and we start laughing before she even gets close. HA HA HA.

But more often we laugh because something is unexpected. There’s a twist that we didn’t see coming. My daughter’s favorite joke goes like this: “A man walked into a bar … and he said ‘ouch!’” Wasn’t what you were expecting, was it?

Why is Sarah laughing? Well it’s just so ridiculous—someone saying that she’s going to have a baby. She’s older than any of the women in our congregation except Jean L—how would you ladies who’re over 80 feel if someone told you you’d be delivering a baby in nine months? HA HA HA. Sarah knows the way the world works—she understands natural law. And women her age—women for whom menstruation is merely a memory—those women just don’t get pregnant.

But of course, the joke was on Sarah. Nine months later and here came baby Isaac. And now she was laughing for joy. “God has brought laughter for me”—and wasn’t her child named he laughs?—“everyone who hears will laugh with me.” I imagine that every time Sarah looked at her little son, every time she held him in her arms, every time she saw him lying in the shade of the tent playing with his toes … I imagine then she felt that joy come welling up inside of her, that laughter of pure joy, for hadn’t God done something completely unexpected, completely wonderful … completely miraculous? Ninety-year-old women don’t have babies … but God promised it, and Sarah did.

There are lots of miracles in the Bible. And when you think about them—the burning bush that wasn’t consumed by fire, Jesus walking on water, Lazarus raised from the dead—they’re all violations of natural law. These things “just don’t happen,” the same way 90-year-old women just don’t have babies.

Now, we live in an age of investigative journalism. We live in an age in which we know better than to take something at face value. We live in an age when the “miracles” that we hear about are medical breakthroughs, technological advancements—things that can be “proven” scientifically, which is the yardstick we use these days to determine if something is true or not. And so it’s pretty darned hard to accept these Biblical miracles at face value, and we spend a lot of time trying to come up with scientific explanations for them. In fact, when I did a Google check on the sun standing still in the book of Joshua, the first two screens worth of responses were attempts to determine scientifically whether this really could have happened or not.

Now, we could say that people in Biblical times were a lot more gullible than we are and more willing to believe in these unscientific, contrary-to-rational-thought “miracles” … but didn’t we just see that Sarah was laughing at that very thing? She may not have had a laboratory to run tests in or a computer to analyze data, but she knew the way the world worked—she understood natural law. She knew she was too old to have a baby, but have a baby she did.

And I’m guessing that Sarah’s kind of disbelieving laughter, that laughter at something that is so unexpected as to be impossible … I’m guessing that that’s how people responded to a lot of the miracles in the Bible.

The sea parted—just dried up with a nice path through it—so the Israelites could come across! What? HA HA HA. … Wow.

The sun stopped moving for almost a complete day! What? HA HA HA. … Wow.

Jesus went to a wedding and turned water into wine! What? HA HA HA. … Wow.

Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead! What? HA HA HA. … Wow.

Christ died for us so we will have eternal life! What? HA HA HA.

Wait. There’s something a bit different about that last one, isn’t there? No natural law is violated—this is of a different world entirely. There’s nothing we can see or taste, hear or smell that tells us that even though this isn’t “possible” under natural law, it happens anyway.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been taking a class on the Niebuhr brothers—Reinhold and H. Richard—who were American theologians around the middle of the twentieth century. And H. Richard Niebuhr, in a book called The Meaning of Revelation, said something interesting about this. He talked about how the central miracle of the Scriptures—that Christ died for us and rose again, and that through him we are reconciled to God and have eternal life—this central miracle “is an impenetrable mystery, no matter how much astonishment it calls forth. So miraculous Scriptures were related to miracles in the realm of nature, to a sun that stood still, a virgin-born child, to water turned by a word into wine.”[2]

There’s no way we can touch or hear or taste or see this promised miracle. It can’t be proven in a laboratory or verified with data analysis. But it is so surrounded by the “miracles in the realm of nature” that God has given us that maybe … maybe … yes! we believe it.

And here’s Paul, writing to the church in Rome … Paul, who was miraculously claimed by Jesus after he’d been persecuting the believers. And Paul says, “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” Us, sharing the glory of God? What? HA HA HA. … Wow.

Paul writes, “God proves God’s love for us in that while we were sinners—[while we are sinners]—Christ died for us.” Christ died for us lazy, jealous, angry, greedy, proud jerks? What? HA HA HA. … Wow.

Paul writes, “We are justified by faith.” We don’t have to lead sinless lives but just need to say, yes, we believe, and we’ll be saved from the wrath of God? What? HA HA HA. … Wow.

It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit the world as we know it, the world in which there’s no free lunch, in which you get what you pay for. It’s unexpected. It’s a miracle.

And like old Sarah, rocking herself back and forth, tears streaming down her cheeks, we can only grin and laugh, slap our hands on our knees, and shout with joy. It’s unexpected, it’s impossible, it’s miraculous, it’s grace.

HA HA HA. Wow.  


[1] Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth, qtd. in Don Hoffman, “F. Buechner on Sarah Laughing (Gen. 18), PRCL-L. 12 Jun 2008. 14 Jun 2008.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (Louisville, KY: WJK, 1963), p. 39.

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