In the end, pain and bitter tears and unfulfilled expectations will all be wiped away and laughter will come. Even the tragedies that scar us so deeply will dissolve into joy.
Which is there more of in your life: laughter, or tears? Has the world for you taken on the gray overcast of grief, or is it sunny and bright with good cheer? For most of us, life is a mixture of happiness and sorrow.
Our ancestors, who lived in a time when pain and death were much more a part of everyone’s daily experience, tended to focus on the sorrow. They often characterized the world as “a vale of tears.” In the modern media era we have gone to the opposite extreme of trying to keep any painful reality from intruding on our thoughts by erecting a wall of comic and escapist entertainment around ourselves.
But biblical faith is realistic. It acknowledges the reality of suffering and grief while holding out the promise of deep joy and happiness. Abraham and Sarah are great biblical models of faith. Their lives demonstrate this hope that by faith our tears will someday turn into laughter.
A SON OF LAUGHTER
Faith is usually tested by circumstances. At the beginning of C.S. Lewis’s wonderful Narnia stories, the land is under the spell of an evil witch and is buried under a frozen sheet of ice and snow. Springtime, warmth, the sight of flowers and the sounds of flowing waters and bird-song are all just distant memories. Narnia, under the witch’s rule, is a place where (in Lewis’s memorable phrase), it was always winter and never Christmas.
Life must have seemed like that sometimes to Abraham and Sarah – as if it was always winter and never Christmas. Abraham and Sarah had to wait long years for the fulfilment of their deepest hopes and dreams. The gracious promises of God had come to them again and again and again. Always their hope revolved around the gift of a child, a son that Sarah would bear to Abraham who would become his heir and inherit the land. Through this son Abraham and Sarah would give rise to a nation which would be blessed by God and would also be the means of spreading God’s blessing to all the world’s peoples.
But the years passed and no child came. Sarah’s womb remained empty and barren. Abraham and Sarah resorted to expediency, trying to make the promise come true by their own efforts. Abraham fathered a son through Hagar, Sarah’s maid servant, but all that did was create tension, strife, and unhappiness within the household. And the Lord said to them again that the promised child, the covenant child, would be born through Sarah.
So the couple kept on waiting, believing God somehow but with diminishing expectations. Eventually it appeared to be too late even for God to keep the promise. Time had run out for them. Abraham was a hundred years old. Sarah passed her ninetieth birthday. Still no child, and no more real hope of having one. (We tend to forget that the ancients, though ignorant of many things which modern science and medicine have discovered, were not stupid. They knew the facts of life, including the fact that ninety- year-old women can’t have babies).
But God was moving according to his own sense of timing, waiting until there could be no mistaking how and why this child was born. At last there came the day when it was time for the promise to be fulfilled.
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.
3 He said, “My Lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said. . . .”
9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.”
10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”
And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”
13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”
15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid.
He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
Isn’t that a beautiful picture of Middle Eastern hospitality? It’s also yet another mysterious encounter between Abraham and the Lord. As Abraham is resting in the shade of the entrance of his tent during the midday siesta, he sees what appear to be three men approaching. He hurries to them and begs them to rest and accept refreshment. After the men eat, their leader asks about Sarah, and then adds that he will visit them again within a year, and Sarah will have a son. It is the Lord himself speaking, repeating the covenant promise for the final time, now with a definite fulfillment attached.
And Sarah, eavesdropping inside the tent, bursts into laughter at the absurdity of such a thing. Imagine the two of them at their age leaving the rest home (as would be the case in the USA!) to go to the maternity ward – it was a joke!
I suspect, though, that there was a bitter edge to Sarah’s laughter. Once she had been young and beautiful. The promise of a child had made sense then. She looked forward to it – eagerly at first, and then with increasing desperation. But the years turned into decades of waiting, and her youth slipped away like water from a leaking vessel. Her beauty got lost somewhere among the creases and wrinkles, and her body shriveled and shrank. Then the promise seemed to mock Sarah. It was past absurd; it was downright impossible.
Before we criticize Sarah for doubting God’s word, we should try to imagine how we would have reacted in her place. Even Abraham had laughed at the thought that Sarah would still have a baby at her age. In the previous chapter, Genesis 17, the Lord once more declared that he would give Abraham a son by Sarah. This would be the child through whom the covenant promises would be fulfilled. Abraham reacted this way: “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?’” I think I would have laughed too. After all, we expect that what we’re asked to take on faith will be at least somewhat credible.
The Bible says that both Abraham and Sarah were “as good as dead” as far as having children was concerned (Hebrews 11:12). That is to say, they stood in exactly the same position relative to parenthood as humanity stands relative to pleasing God. Nevertheless, the child did come!
The great Old Testament scholar Walter Breuggemann has said that there are only three fundamental miracles in the Bible: creation out of nothing, justification by faith, and resurrection from the dead. These are the pillars of our eternal hope, and each one of them is on display in the story of Abraham and Sarah.
WHO LAUGHS LAST, LAUGHS BEST
Why do people laugh? Someone has said that man is the only animal that blushes – or needs to. The same thing is true of laughter. I think that both of these responses have to do with our self-awareness as fallen creatures. As far as we know, we’re the only beings who laugh. The angels might, but we can’t be sure. Every time we see them in Scripture, they do seem to be pretty serious.
Animals can’t laugh because they lack self-consciousness – literally, they are not conscious of their own selves. To be capable of laughter, you have to be aware of both yourself and the world around you. You have to be able to recognize absurdity. You have to be conscious of the often ludicrous discrepancy between the actual and the ideal, the way things are and the way we wish they were. We laugh at the ridiculousness of the human condition, and at the surprises life serves up. There was so much laughter around the birth of Abraham and Sarah’s little boy that it was preserved in his name – Isaac, meaning “he laughs.” Isaac was the child of laughter.
Everybody laughed when he was born, this time not with any bitterness or cynicism, but out of sheer, hilarious delight. Genesis tells what happened when the Lord at last kept his promise:
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
6 Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
What a joke God played on everybody! How like him it is, to bring life out of death, hope out of disappointment, joy out of bitterness. Now everyone can laugh with us, says Sarah. Who ever would have thought it? (vv. 6-7).
And of course, that is exactly how it will be for all of us who share in the covenant promises of God some day. The joke is on us. The last laugh is for us. In the end, pain and bitter tears and unfulfilled expectations will all be wiped away, and laughter will come. Even the tragedies that scar us so deeply will dissolve into joy. Not that they will all be forgotten, or that they don’t really matter, but that they won’t hurt anymore. They will be turned over, transformed and taken up into the cosmic celebration. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning,” sang the psalmist. “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever” (Ps. 30:5, 11-12).
The same C. S. Lewis who wrote the Narnia stories titled another book – it happened to be his autobiography – Surprised by Joy. Someday that will be the true life story of everyone who belongs to Jesus Christ.
You see, there is a reason for our laughter. It isn’t just escapism or wishful thinking. Two thousand years after Isaac’s birth God kept another promise by sending an even greater child into the world. God gave his own Son to us, to live, suffer, die and rise again so that everyone who believes in him will live eternally in the joy of heaven.
Someone once asked an old African slave-preacher whether he thought Jesus ever laughed. “I don’t know about that,” he replied, “but he sure fixed me so I could!” I hope he’s done the same for you! And you know something else? He will, if you put your trust in him. The God of life will surprise you with joy, on resurrection morning.