The Bible is God's joke book. We don't often think of the Bible as a funny book, probably because it has for so long been read to us in such pompous, stentorian tones: "And he said unto him...." (Snore!) Now, admittedly, the Bible does deal with a lot of very serious human issues: sex and violence, love and longing, death and human destiny. But if you read it with the eye of a comic, you will have to admit it is filled with some sublimely ridiculous moments.
Consider Abram who, hoping to preserve his skin, ingratiates himself with the Big Cheese, Pharaoh himself, by passing off his gorgeous wife Sarai as his...uh...his sister, knowing full well that Pharaoh has the hots for her. Or how about Rebecca, the original "Jewish mother"? When Esau and Jacob start brawling--in the womb, already!--she looks to heaven and whines, "If this is what I am going to have to put up with, why do I live?" Years later she reprises the same act when she warns Isaac, "If Jacob goes off and marries one of those Hittite women, my life will not be worth living!" Think of the dark slapstick of Ehud slaying King Eglon of Moab, a man so fat he makes Jaba the Hut look like Richard Simmons. Ehud's cubit-long sword goes in, but it doesn't come out. Eglon's blubber swallows it whole, hilt and all. And then there is Saul, who decides to skip out on his appointment with destiny by sneaking off to the luggage depot. When Samuel summons all the people to Mizpah to anoint him king, he hides underneath everyone's baggage, hoping against hope they'll forget about him and choose someone else. And don't forget those nasty Ninevites, who once they got some religion and repented, dress up their cows in clothes of mourning and make them fast along with their human masters.
Frederico Felini could not have come up with a stranger cast than the oddball crew God chooses to star in his story of salvation. Think of Isaiah, who ran around naked in the desert for three years; Jeremiah, the grumpy potter who gamboled about the royal courts wearing an ox-yoke around his neck; Jonah, the reluctant prophet who thought a one-way boat ticket west to Gibraltar would get him out of his commission, only to end up in the belly of what had to be the world's biggest east-bound grouper. Think of Peter, the bumbling, big-talking, backwater fisherman who became first among apostles and bishop of the church at Rome, or Zacchaeus, the pint-sized tax collector, who kept bouncing up and down to get a glimpse of Jesus over the shoulders of the crowd. If you were writing the script, are these the characters you would pick for heroes? Wouldn't it sound a whole lot grander and impressive if the Bible sounded a lot more like the Iliad, with towering warrior figures like Achilles and Odysseus as protagonists? God is, it seems, a much--how should we say it?--a much goofier writer or at least to or at least his ghost writers are.
It is said there are three things that occasion humor: a sense of the incongruous, a relaxed, light-hearted attitude, and suddenness or surprise. Any God who chooses a carpenter from the one-horse town of Nazareth as his redeemer of the universe certainly has a sense of the incongruous. That sense of incongruity is no less evident in what follows today's reading from Genesis, where Sarah guffaws at the notion that her ancient body could ever bear a son, let alone that her centenarian husband could ever get himself sufficiently aroused to make pregnancy possible again.
The Scripture reveals a certain "wink-wink-nudge-nudge" lightheartedness is plain in her focus, not on getting pregnant, but on once again experiencing the thrill and delight of sex. "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" she asks. The English word "pleasure" is a bit too bland and generic to convey fully the vividness of the Hebrew, which connotes a kind of luxurious, expectant voluptuousness. It is way too primly Anglo-Saxon--pleasure. One Jewish translation has Sarah asking, "...shall I gush with pleasure?" It comes a lot closer to capturing the flavor of her words. What's more, the Hebrew syntax implies the issue of Abraham's virility is every bit as much an impediment as Sarah's worn out body. The implication was so readily apparent to the rabbis of the Talmud that they wondered why when God asks Abraham about Sarah's skepticism the Lord gives as Sarai's only reason the fact that she has aged and makes no mention at all of what she said about her husband. The rabbis concluded God didn't want to wound Abraham's ego and kept his mouth shut about it for the sake of peace in the patriarchal household.
God's surprise, of course, is that in spite of Sarah's giggles at the absurdity of his promise, it comes true. She and Abraham, in spite of their wizened bodies, by God's peculiar grace know the delight of being lovers again. Isaac is born, and he becomes the bearer of God's covenant with his father and all of humankind.
God is throughout Scripture upending all our oh-so-reasonable expectations for the world. He is constantly startling us with the peculiar, outlandish ways he chooses to redeem the world. Who would expect a universe out of nothing, created by a Word? Who would expect a wandering sheep herder to bear God's blessing to the world? Who would expect a race of slaves in Egypt to become the chosen people, the people to bear God's promise? Who would expect it? Who would expect the Savior of the world to be born in a barnyard, to first lay his head in a cow's feeding trough? Who would expect salvation to come through death of the Savior or that the Savior was himself God made flesh? After the cross, who would expect resurrection? Really! Who would expect it? In Paul's words, "...God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God." God does not want us to get too cocky, to take ourselves too seriously. He wants us to feel humility, gratitude, awe. He wants us to have enough perspective to step outside ourselves and laugh at our own folly, laugh at the sheer improbability of grace, laugh at the wonder and the strangeness and the beauty of the world in a surprised delight.
So God is always tripping us up, rearranging the furniture on us. "You think you have got the world figured out?" he asks. "Ha! Try this on for size!" Sometimes we are so set in our own way of looking at things we get all flustered when God compels us to take in the new, the strange, the marvelous. Consider the apocryphal tale of the jaded young clergyman who is suddenly summoned to the bedside of one of his sick, elderly parishioners. "What do you want me to prayer for?" he asks the old lady. "Why, that I would get well, of course," she replies. With a sigh, the young preacher begins, "Gracious Lord, if it be thy will, heal this dear woman of her infirmities. And if not, help her to learn to accept her condition with patience and grace; in Christ's name. Amen." At which point the old lady jumps out of bed, lifts her walker with one hand and heaves it out the window, then dances out the door cackling with delight, "I'm cured! I'm cured!" The stunned minister slowly returns to his car, where he sits in silence for several minutes, then looks up to heaven and cries vehemently, "Don't you ever do that to me again!"
Sometimes our world is too small, too filled with cynicism for us to behold God's grace. Sometimes it is too big. We become so taken with our own power, our eloquence, our insight, we lose our sense of whose world it is and who, ultimately, is in control. One Presbyterian minister recalls hearing a homily given by a well known, if self-important, preacher and evangelist. He stood up and held forth at length on the disgraceful state of American morality. As symptomatic of this moral turpitude, he pointed to women's fashions, which he decried as more provocative and indecent with each passing year. "Even my organist," he said, "otherwise a dear young woman, came to choir practice with shorts of scandalous dimensions, better suited to Times Square than a choir loft. Well, I had to do something! And so I took that young woman into my office and I sat her down and I showed her in the Scriptures where such immodest dress is condemned as ungodly. And do you know, within fifteen minutes I had those shorts right off her!" The congregation thereupon erupted in a torrent of hysterical laughter. The preacher struggled mightily to explain himself, but it was too late. With each new attempt, the pews sputtered and guffawed anew. Was it a Freudian slip or a holy gaffe, an embarrassing trip of the tongue or a pratfall staged by God to remind the good reverend minister not to get too enamored of the sound of his own voice? Let it be a warning: Never take yourself too seriously, or you'll miss out on some of God's best lines.
Sarah laughed, and God asked her why. She got scared and denied it, but God only smiled and said, "Oh, yes, you did laugh!" No punishment, no judgment. You just go right on laughing, because this crazy world I've made is a delight. It is good and right to laugh. Laughter holds the promise of the future, a foretaste of the joy of the Kingdom of heaven. That's why we'll name this child you're having, this bearer of my promise to all the world, that's why we'll name him Isaac. That's why we'll call him "Laughter."
Let us pray. Almighty God, fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking. Have compassion on our weakness and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not and for our blindness we cannot ask. With the worthiness of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.