The Joy and Shame of Laughter: What the Bible Has to Say about Our Grins and Giggles

(1 in a Series)(2nd in a Series on Sunday, May 26th)

Several weeks ago I heard a great joke. I traced it back to one of our oldest and most faithful members. If you object to it, just let me know and I will give you her name.

It seems that a Billy Bob was standing in his boat bass fishing when he saw a water moccasin with a frog in his mouth swimming by the boat. Knowing that frogs were great bass bait, Billy Bob reached down and grabbed the moccasin just behind his head, and shook the frog out of his mouth into his bait bucket. Immediately, Billy Bob had an angry snake in his hands. Thankfully, he was nobody’s dummy. He dropped his rod, grabbed an open bottle of Jack Daniels and poured it down the snake’s throat. When the snake was sufficiently drunk to make it docile, Billy Bob tossed it back into the water. Job Bob baited his hook with the frog, and continued fishing. After about a half hour he felt something strike his boat. Looking down at the water, he saw a water moccasin, and this time, he had two frogs in his mouth.

As most of you know W.C. Fields spent 60 years trying to make people laugh. Near the end of his life, Fields said:

We know “what” makes people laugh; we do not know “why” people laugh.

I am not sure I agree completely with Mr. Fields, but in my next two or three sermons—whatever it takes, I want to look at what makes people laugh, and then deal with the question that flow from it.

Today, in the story about a snake that trades frogs for whiskey, we demonstrated that people laugh at things that are incongruous, out of whack, that don’t fit our perception of how the world and all that it contains ought to fit together. Thus we smile at a three year old trying to hammer a round peg into a square hole. We chuckle at a 12 year old in a tuxedo standing at the end of a long line of kids in shorts and tee shirts waiting to get on a school bus. And we laugh when the wall of a building falls on Charlie Chaplin, and the little tramp emerges, standing in a window, upright, and unscathed.

We laugh at the incongruous—-at things that don’t add up in our view of the world, and how the people and things in that world are supposed to relate to one another.

One of the earliest written records of laughter is found in Genesis 17 and 18.

In Genesis 17 the LORD appears to Abram—-who is 99 years old, and says: “I AM God Almighty,” walk blamelessly before me, I will bless you.” God tells Abram that he is is no longer to be called, “Abram,” but “Abraham,” for he is going to be the “Father of Many nations.” Then the LORD speaks to Abraham about his wife, Sarai, saying, “No longer will she be called Sarai, but Sarah, for she will be the mother of nations.”

Hearing this Abraham falls on his face and laughs and says to himself, “I am a hundred years old, how can I father a child? My wife is ninety years old, how can she be a mother?”

Abraham laughs at the incongruity. The facts are unsuitable. They don’t fit.

In order to make things fit his vision of reality Abraham immediately petitions God, saying, “Oh that you would let Ishmael live in your sight.” Ishmael is already thirteen years old. He is Abraham’s son by Abraham’s concubine, Hagar, whom wife Sarah gave to Abraham when she saw that she herself could not have children.

Abraham’s request seems natural, and reasonable, but God is not about to let him manufacture his own method of fulfilling a promise made by God. God says, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.”

This is great stuff. Abraham laughs to himself. But God hears, because God says that Abraham is to name his son Isaac, which means, “he laughs,” or “he will laugh.” God has already determined that He will have the last laugh, and it is a long laugh, because Isaac lives to be 180 years old, older than his father, Abraham, and older than his son, Jacob.

In Genesis 18 the LORD again appears to Abraham by the Oaks at Mamre. Abraham is sitting by his tent in the heat of the day, when three men appear. These men turn out to be three messengers from heaven who turn out to be manifestations of the One God. The men say to Abraham, “Where is Sarah your wife?”

And Abraham says, “She is in the tent.”

Then the LORD says, “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.”

Now, just off stage, Sarah is sitting inside the tent, listening at the door. When she hears that she is to bear a child by Abraham, she laughs, and says to herself, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

The essayist, Paul Johnson, says, “This little episode from Genesis is so fascinating that it makes one believe in the Bible as an authentic record.” He goes on to say, “This is not just the first joke ever written down, but it is the first racy joke ever written down.”

It is a racy joke because Sarah does not laugh at the idea of having a child—-she can’t even think that far ahead; Sarah laughs at the idea of having sex with Abraham, her Old Man, who is even more sexually challenged that she is.
But see how God responds to Sarah’s silly chatter. God says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say  ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’”

Do you see what God has done? The question seeks to move the minds of Sarah and Abraham beyond the anxiety of the sex act between an old man and an old woman to the birth of their son, and to the fulfillment of the promise the Lord made to Abraham and to Sarah to make them, together, the father and mother of nations.

The climax of this episode in the continuing drama of Abraham & Sarah takes place when the Angel says, “Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.”

And the anticlimax occurs when Sarah, realizes just Who It Is that she has been laughing at, and says, “I did not laugh

And the Lord responds, “No, but you did laugh.”

Yes she did, and she laughed at God, but soon she will be laughing with God. For when her son is born, she laughs for joy. And Isaac will laugh, just as soon as he is old enough to hear the story of how he came to be. It is interesting that the name “Isaac” translates as “he laughs” or “he will laugh.”

I love this story. It is about a miracle, there is no denying that; but it is about a miracle that requires human cooperation. God will do God’s part, but Abraham has got to do his part, too, and Sarah has got to do her part, and both of them have to have faith.

I suppose that St. Paul reckoned that Abraham had to have the greater faith. In Romans 4:18 he wrote, “In hope, (Abraham) believed (i.e. he had faith), against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told.”

I remember when this story first made me really laugh. Elayne and I had just arrived at seminary. Classes had yet to begin. I believed that God had called me to the ministry, and led me to seminary. And when we moved to seminary, we went out not knowing where we were to live. We then found our little duplex through a series of extraordinary circumstances that we thought marvelous, if not down  right miraculous. So, too, we had already made that house our own. The owner owned a paint store and gave us all the free paint we could apply. We had painted everything inside the whole house—every wall, and every ceiling. We had even painted the basement floor.

Then we moved in our furniture. Everything fit in just as it should except for one thing: We could not get our queen-sized set of boxed-springs up the stairs to the bedroom. The turning of the stairs, that led from the main floor, to the upper floor, was too tight, and the ceiling was too low. The mattress would pass, but the set of boxed-springs would not. For a week, we slept on that mattress and boxed springs, but we slept on them, downstairs, it what was to have been our living room. Then, one morning we got up, ate breakfast, and read, The Daily Text. The Old Testament text referred to this story about Abraham and Sarah. The text read: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

There is only one answer that a person of faith can make to that particular question, no matter how inexperienced that person might be, and I made it. I turned to Elayne and said, “That set of boxed springs is going upstairs, today. “

Then we walked into the living room where we were sleeping, drug the mattress off, and flipped over the boxed-springs. We pulled off the bottom cover that was held in place with staples, revealing five 1” by 4” boards that held the springs in place. Carefully estimating the minimum clearance needed to negotiate the stairwell, I then cut the slats at a place that would allow the boxed-springs at a place to clear the overhang. Then Elayne and I wrestled that set of boxed-springs up the stairs, screwed the slats back together with metal braces, and set up the bed. Then, in the joy of achievement, we laughed like Sarah must have laughed when she first saw eyes of Isaac. We laughed to think that nothing we had to do on that particular day, and nothing we had to do in the foreseeable future was too hard for us, because nothing was “too hard for the Lord.”

Sarah laughed at God, and God called her out for it, but God did not punish her for it. On the whole, I think it is better to laugh at the thought that God can do something wonderful for us and through us, than simply to ignore the thought altogether.

This relates to the question of “WHY” we laugh. Once we have laughed at something we never forget it. It has our attention. We remember it for a long time. I know that because of my personal experience:

  • I still remember the first racy story I ever heard, and I remember the one who told it to me. I was in 2nd Grade at South Park School.
  • I remember the first real date I ever had with Elayne. We went to the Robinhood Drive-In Theater. When the movie ended, I forgot to return the movie speaker that hung in the window of my 1956 Chevy Bel Air to the post that held it. Chevy made fine cars in those days. I pulled that post right out of the ground without breaking the window. Elayne laughed so hard, I knew she could never forget me.
  • Most of all, I remember a time when I laughed to know that nothing is too hard for the Lord. If God commands us to do a thing, whether in scripture, or in life, God’s command contains a hidden promise that God Himself will help us achieve it. That ought to make you at least smile.


Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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