“Jesus, Joy, and Laughter” Genesis 17:15-18:15; 21:1-7 June 14, 2009
SI: We are studying the life of Abraham.
He’s called the father of those who believe in Jesus Christ.
His life demonstrates the fundamental truths and experiences of the Christian life.
The reading this morning is longer than usual, and we’re going to skip ahead
and read from chapter 21 because there is an important theme that is introduced
in chapter 17, developed in chapter 18, and then brought to climax in 21.
It’s the theme of laughter. Look for it as we read.
Isaac is mentioned for the first time. Remember his name means laughter.
INTRO: One of the disappointments of my marriage came very early.
It was the first time after our wedding
when an episode of the Three Stooges came on TV.
I called Allison—Quick, come in here, the Stooges are on!
And it’s Curly, not Shemp!
She came in and sat down with me and I was chuckling and enjoying myself—
but I noticed she was not laughing. And then she said: I don’t get it.
Why is this funny? A man hitting another man with a hammer.
And I said: Come on, it’s the Stooges.
Then she said something that cut me so deep that I’ve remembered it for 20 years:
She said: Slapstick is the lowest form of humor.
Doesn’t it feel good to laugh?
For just a moment, the weight is taken off and you forget yourself.
The old saying is true: Laughter is the best medicine.
And laughter is also profound. It tells you about a person.
What a person will laugh about or not laugh about is a window into their soul.
Sometimes when a person laughs, there is real happiness and pleasure,
and the window opens and you see that this person really is joyful down deep.
But sometimes laugher is different—it’s anxious laugher or cynical laughter—
and it reveals a deep sadness.
This passage of Scripture uses laughter to do just that—to open a window
and let us look into the souls of our father and mother in the faith,
Abraham and Sarah—especially Sarah.
And what we see at this time in her life is that she believes in God—
Yes, Sarah is a believer, there is no doubt about that—but she’s lost her joy.
That’s because even though she believes, she also doesn’t believe.
She doesn’t believe that God is going to come through for her.
She believes and she doesn’t believe at the same time—
so the laughter that comes out of her reveals a deep resignation and cynicism,
Maybe you’ve been there. Maybe that’s where you are right now.
You’re a Christian who’s lost his joy. You believe but you don’t believe.
How do get out of that? How do you regain your joy and laughter.
You don’t, that’s the Lord’s work. And that’s exactly what happens.
He comes to Sarah, and restores her joy—and her joy grows—
and she laughs again.
The Lord will restore your joy too—if you let him—
he gives you everything you need to make your joy complete.
So laughter in this passage is a window into the souls and struggles of Christians—
but it’s also a window into the mind and character of God.
What does it tell us about our God that he names the son of promise Isaac, laughter?
Think about it. There is no other child in all the Old Testament that foreshadows
the birth of Jesus Christ in such a significant way.
This is the son of promise. Through this child the promises of God come true.
Through this child blessings flow to God’s people and salvation to the nations.
That’s serious. Nothing could be more serious and sober than that.
And yet God says: Abraham, name him Isaac. He laughs.
That tells us God is supremely joyful.
He delights in bringing joy to his people when they are cast down.
And he does that through the greater Isaac, Jesus Christ.
That’s who Jesus is—He’s the greater Isaac. He’s the greater child of promise.
And it’s though Jesus alone that you can laugh once again in a supremely
satisfying and self-forgetful way.
So let’s look at this passage under three headings.
1. How your joy is lost
2. How your joy is restored
3. How your joy is experienced
Credit where credit is due: Incredible sermon by Dr. Tim Keller on passage
MP#1 How your joy is lost
Let’s look at the circumstances of Abraham and Sarah.
God had called them to leave their home and go to the Promised Land
and live as strangers and pilgrims. He had promised to give them a son,
and through that son, a great nation and possession of the land.
Abraham was 75 and Sarah was 65 when they followed God’s call.
But 25 years passed and there was still no son.
Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90, and past the age of childbearing.
Lord came to Abraham: I haven’t forgotten. Going to give you and Sarah a son.
Abraham laughed and said: God, I still love you. I’ll follow you.
But let’s be practical. It was a nice concept, a child with Sarah, but didn’t happen.
Here’s this good-looking boy Ishmael. Just bless him.
Lord said: I will take care of him, but the son of promise will be born to Sarah.
And because you have laughed. When born, name him Isaac—he laughs.
Abraham was apparently not convinced, because he didn’t tell Sarah.
This was a bitter subject and he just kept it to himself.
So the Lord made a special appearance to Sarah. He came with two angels
in the form of three visitors. After the meal the Lord said to Abraham,
“Where is Sarah.” That’s the key that this was an appearance for her.
She was in the tent and her ears perked up. This time next year, she will have a son.
And Sarah laughed. Think about that. There are very few people in the history
of the world to whom God made a special appearance. Sarah was one of them.
And when he did, she laughed in his face.
Ha. I’m worn out. I’m useless. My husband is old, will I have this pleasure?
It was a cynical, self-hating laugh.
How did Sarah get to this point? How did she lose her joy?
I think we can assume that in earlier years there was a joy and confidence in her
walk with God. Promise fresh in her mind as a new pilgrim in Promised Land.
The answer that first comes to mind is she lost her joy because of circumstances.
She didn’t get the child she wanted.
But the Lord’s response to her shows that it was deeper than that:
He asked her: Is anything to hard for the Lord? It’s a rhetorical question.
His way of saying: Nothing is too hard for me. Don’t doubt me.
But it also shows us what was going on in Sarah.
If you had asked Sarah: Is anything too hard for the Lord? Would have said, No.
God is God and he can do anything. She would have given the right answer.
So what was her problem? It was not that she didn’t believe God could do hard
things, it was that she didn’t see him doing them in her life.
If you ask a Christian who has lost his joy, Don’t you believe God can do anything?
He’ll say: Of course he can. He’s God. He can do anything.
But I don’t see him doing those things in my life.
If you have good footnotes in your Bible, will see that the sentence:
“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” is literally translated—
“Is anything to wonderful for the Lord?”
That’s a fascinating way of looking at it. Sarah had lost her joy because she
has lost her sense of wonder at God’s presence and activity in her life.
It wasn’t an intellectual problem, it was a perspective problem.
Why do little children laugh so easily? It’s because they have a sense of wonder.
You can say: “Once upon a time . . .” and change tone of voice, and have them.
They listen to you and anything can happen in that story-world you are creating.
The joyful Christian is child-like in faith. Not childish—but child-like.
There is a sense of wonder that God is here and working.
When you have that wonder, delays and setbacks and failures don’t steal your joy,
because you know that God is here and he can do anything.
Beautiful illustration of this in The Hiding Place. The sisters Corrie and Betsy
were in the Nazi concentration camp and read verse, “In everything give thanks.”
So bowed heads and Corrie thought, there is nothing to be thankful for in this place.
But Betsy prayed: Thank you Lord, for the fleas.
Corrie blew up. Why are you praying that? That’s ridiculous.
Later, women wondered why guards weren’t raiding their barracks and breaking
up their prayer meeting. Someone said, don’t you know why they won’t come in? It’s the fleas. And Betsy smiled.
Of course she smiled. She had a sense of wonder at God’s presence in her life.
When you lose the wonder and you lose the joy. Maybe that’s happened to you.
You believe intellectually that nothing is too hard for God—
but you do not believe he’s at work doing the hard things in your life.
The good news is that if joy is lost, it can be restored—
even if circumstances don’t change.
Let’s see how God restored Sarah’s joy and how he can restore your joy.
MP#2 How your joy is restored
At end of chapter 18, Sarah is laughing bitterly about her life and God’s promise.
Her laughter reveals a despondent, joyless heart.
Then, in chapter 21 she is laughing again. But this time it’s completely different.
There is a child in her arms and it’s the laughter of joy.
How did this change happen? Could we say that this is what happened?
Sarah had an impossible dream. She wanted a child, even though she was 90.
But she held on to that impossible dream,
and she asked God for it, and trusted him.
She believed that God could do big, impossible things
and she claimed that and he answered, and gave her her heart’s desire.
And that’s what you have to do.
You have to dream big dreams and hold on to them.
And if you really believe God and trust him for those impossible things,
he will bring them into your life just like Sarah and your joy will be restored.
Is that what this is teaching us?
If you believe like Sarah, God will do incredible things? No.
Sarah didn’t believe. That’s the point.
God came down to her, he appeared to her in human form
and she laughed in his face and then lied about it.
“Why did Sarah laugh?” “I did not laugh.” “O yes, you did laugh.”
The thing that restored her joy was not her faith—she barely had any.
It was the son of promise, born into her life and into the world
by the grace of God who restored her joy.
How does chapter 21 start? “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah.”
And from God’s grace came the son of promise.
There are some amazing parallels between Genesis 18 and Luke 1.
The angel comes to Mary with the message of a Son.
And Mary says: How can this be? It’s similar to Sarah.
Sarah says—It’s impossible, I’m old and worn out.
Mary says—It’s impossible, I’m a virgin.
Do you remember the angel’s answer to Mary?
Nothing is impossible with God.
Why the parallels between these chapters?
Because Jesus is the true Isaac. He’s the ultimate son of promise.
He’s the ultimate one in whom you hear the laugher of God’s grace
triumphing over the impossibility of your situation.
Sarah was 90 years old and barren. So what?
That’s nothing compared to your problem.
That’s nothing compared to the impossibility of your situation.
And I’m not talking about your marriage problem or your money problem
or your health problem or whatever it is that is bothering you.
I’m talking about your really big problem.
You’re estranged from God because of your sin.
There is no way you can ever be good enough or atone for your transgressions.
You are born without hope and without God in the world.
But through Jesus you are adopted into the family,
you become a son or daughter and live under the smile of your heavenly Father.
This is how Jesus did it. He left the place of ultimate laughter.
That’s what the Trinity is. From all eternity, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
delighted in each other in perfect joy and fellowship.
Jesus left that joy, was born into this world, and became the man of sorrows.
He took your place. On the cross he cried out and was forsaken.
He lost the divine laughter and took on himself the weeping and groaning
that come from the guilt and punishment of your sin.
He did that so that you would never be forsaken and so that you would
have a place in that world of perfect joy and laughter.
He took God’s frown so you could get his smile.
He lost his laughter, so that you could have joy.
Jesus Christ brings joy into your life for the first time when you are born again—
and whenever your joy is lost, Jesus is the one who restores your joy.
That’s so important to believe.
Joy is not a matter of re-arranging your circumstances.
It’s not something that you cook up—it’s supernatural.
The Christmas carol nails it: Joy to the world, the Lord is come.
It is through Jesus alone, the greater and true Isaac that joy comes.
You can’t look to anyone or anything else or you will be frustrated.
That brings us to the last point . . .
MP#3 How your joy is experienced
You may be saying: OK, it’s by God’s grace alone that my joy is restored.
It’s through Jesus Christ alone that my joy is restored. It’s God’s work.
So what do I have to do? Certainly I have to do something.
Yes, you do. You have to experience it. You have to laugh.
After Isaac was born, Sarah laughed.
She said: “God has brought me laughter.”
She was laughing earlier—but that was bitter laughter. This is joyful laughter.
Remember how I said at the beginning that what a person laughs at
(or doesn’t laugh at) tells us a lot about them.
Sarah was laughing at things she had never laughed at before—
in fact, she was laughing at things at are impossible to laugh at without Christ.
First, she was laughing at the world’s values.
She said: “Everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”
Is that really what Sarah was saying. Was she saying “with me”?
This preposition is normally translated “at me.”
Robert Alter, great Jewish commentator and Hebrew scholar argues that is
exactly how it should be translated. Sarah says, God has brought me laughter
(she’s laughing) and everyone who hears about this will laugh at me.
Robert Alter goes on to say that the thing that people are laughing at is not
that Sarah had a child, but that she is nursing a child.
“Who would have said that Sarah would nurse children.”
Think about it, what does a 90 year old woman breast feeding look like?
No, don’t think about it! It’s ridiculous. But she doesn’t care.
She’s laughing at their laughter.
Here was a woman who for years had based her value as a human being on her
culture which said—a woman must raise a family or she is worthless.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting children, but Sarah’s enslavement to the
value of her culture robbed her of her joy.
Do you remember how she described herself? Worn out. Useless.
Now here she is again, subjected to ridicule of sorts but she’s laughing.
She doesn’t care. Why not? Because she has the child of promise.
She has Christ. And she knows that in him she has the smile of God.
If you have bought into the world’s values for your sense of worth, approval, and
security—whatever those values may be—they will enslave you.
Money and success, romance and marriage, looks and popularity—whatever.
If you achieve them you will be prideful and if you don’t you’ll be despondent.
In either case, your joy will be gone.
But if you have Jesus, then whether you have those things or don’t—
you can laugh at them, and at the impossible blessings they promise.
Because you know that in the Son you are loved by the Father.
And if God loves you, then who cares what anybody else says.
So Sarah was laughing at the world’s values
And second, she was laughing at her failure.
What was Sarah’s greatest failure? It’s chapter 18.
God appeared to her in visible form and she laughed in his face—
bitter, cynical laughter at the promise of God.
And then God gave her a son anyway, and his name is Laughter.
So every time she looked at her son, and called his name—
Come here, Isaac! Come here, Laughter! She was reminded of her failure,
But it didn’t get her down, it increased her joy.
Because the memory of her failure was consoled by this child.
This child was the embodiment of the grace and goodness of God
to a very undeserving woman—and she knew it.
If you believe that you are saved by your good works,
if you believe that you have to give God a good record and then he owes you,
then the memories of your failures will be a source of never-ending pain.
Your only relief will be to repress them.
But if you believe the Gospel—if you believe that in Jesus Christ you are
accepted and loved by God despite your failures—
then the memory of them increases your gratitude.
And you are able to look at yourself honestly and laugh with amazement
at the grace of God poured out on your life.
The Gospel can turn your failures into gold—the gold of wisdom,
and humility and compassion.
The memory of your failures, consoled by the Gospel, changes you.
Sarah looks at herself and says:
“Who would have said that Sarah would nurse children, yet I have!”
She’s amazed at herself. She’s laughing at herself.
For the first time in her life she’s looking at her failures and at God’s grace,
and she laughing. She’s full of joy.
That’s what you can have too. Take the Gospel, preach it to yourself.
I’m more desperately wicked than I ever dared to admit—
I’ve failed God miserably.
And at the same time, I’m more loved and accepted than I ever dared hope.
He’s given me Jesus, and life, and forgiveness.
As that sinks in, you will experience joy.
CONC: John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, you remember rejected
his mother’s faith, and lived a terrible life as an African slave-trader.
God was gracious to him, he was converted,
and the joy he got when he was born again never left him.
He stayed in the pulpit too long. He preached till he died at age 82.
One time someone suggested that the time had come for him to quit preaching,
He said, “What, shall this old African blasphemer be silent?”
Another time someone commented about his failing memory.
He said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things:
That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior!”
Isn’t that interesting? Decades had passed, but his failures and sins were still vivid.
And rather than burying them, he remembered them and they enhanced his joy.
He wrote many hymns besides Amazing Grace—we sing several of them.
But there’s as short line from one of his little known hymns that goes like this:
“While I am a pilgrim here, Let thy love my spirit cheer.”
And that’s really the heart of the matter, isn’t it?
Cheer, joy, laughter comes when you know God’s love—
and how can you doubt, when you see that he has given you Jesus?