19 Jul Sunday, July 19, 2020: Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine
Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine
July 19, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
What makes you laugh? Duh—something funny, of course. But it turns out the answer to that question is not as simple as it sounds. Laughter cannot be produced in a laboratory. We don’t laugh on command. According to laughter researcher Robert Provine, we laugh unconsciously. “Laughter,” he says, “is a mechanism everyone has; laughter is part of universal human vocabulary. There are thousands of languages, hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone speaks laughter in pretty much the same way.” It is, Provine argues, “an unconscious vocalization.”
While laughter is a universal human experience, some people laugh more than others. Children laugh on average 400 times a day; adults not so much—on average, we laugh only 17 times a day. Doesn’t that help explain an awful lot about what’s wrong with the world?
You’ve likely heard the adage, “laughter is the best medicine,” and it turns out that there is considerable truth to this saying. Laughter lowers blood pressure, reduces heart disease, and stabilizes the body’s immune system. It serves as a healthy way to dispense emotion and release stress, all the while triggering the release of endorphins, the body’s feel-good chemical. Laughing is even good exercise. Laughing 100 times a day is equivalent to 15 minutes on the exercise bike. And, so much more fun! If all of this has you thinking that being a laughter researcher sounds like a pretty good gig, you need to know that the study of humor and laughter, and its psychological and physiological effects on the human body, is called gelotology. I’m thinking every congregation needs a resident gelotologist.
Humor and laughter figure prominently in the story of Abraham. Last week we saw Abraham fall on his face laughing when God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah and reiterated the promise that she would have a son. Why laughter? Humor relies on the unexpected. Incongruity and surprise are essential to good comedy. Something strikes us as funny when we expect one outcome and another occurs, and that is precisely what happened with Abraham in chapter 17. The idea that his 90-year old wife was going to have a baby was so surprising, that Abram literally doubled over laughing.
Chapter 18 opens with Abraham sitting by the entrance of his tent. He has finished his morning routine and is enjoying his midday siesta during the heat of the day. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees three strangers approaching. He recognizes them to be travelers of some sort. In Bedouin culture, hospitality is regarded as a sacred duty. It would have been rude for Abraham to deny food, water and shelter to his guests. To refuse them hospitality would have been considered a hostile act.
Abraham springs into action and brings water to wash their feet. He calls on Sarah to bake homemade bread. He plans a sumptuous meal for his three guests and assumes the posture of a servant. When it comes time for them to leave, he starts them on their journey.
The identity of these three travelers isn’t known to Abraham at the start of the story. As readers, the narrator tells us from the beginning that “the Lord appeared to Abraham,” but Abraham knows nothing. It seems likely the New Testament writer of the book of Hebrews has this story in mind when he writes, “Do not neglect to entertain strangers, for by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2).
The three visitors ask Abraham, “Where is your wife Sarah?” Notice that somehow, they know her name without asking for it. Abraham answers that she can be found in the adjoining tent. Then one of the men says, “I will come back about this time next year, and when I arrive, your wife Sarah will have had a son.” By now, perhaps it’s beginning to dawn on Abraham that these three strangers are not mere travelers after all.
Sarah happens to be eavesdropping in the next tent. The narrator reminds us again that Abraham and Sarah are in their golden years. Abraham is pushing the century mark and Sarah is just a decade his junior. The story says that, “it had ceased to be with her after the manner of women” which is a polite way of saying that Sarah has been post-menopausal for some time now.
The promise that she will bear a son strikes Sarah as funny. It’s not portrayed as a defiant laugh and she doesn’t fall down laughing like her husband did in the previous chapter. Sarah seems to be laughing to herself at the incongruity of having a child at her advanced age. Maybe she’s laughing because she stopped crying long ago. Perhaps she is thinking to herself, “Wow…men just don’t get it. That shipped sailed a long time ago.”
One of the three guests, identified in verse 13 as the Lord, asks Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord?” The Hebrew word translated ‘hard’ can also refer to something wonderful or extraordinary, so the verse can also be translated, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” This time next year, God will accomplish something wonderful in Sarah’s life. She will have a son.
At this point Sarah is feeling a little defensive, and she hollers out from the next tent, “I did not laugh” to which God responds, “Oh yes you did.”
When it comes time for their son to be born, his parents will name him Isaac. God had chosen this name in chapter 17. Isaac, “Yitzak in the Hebrew,” is translated “he laughs.” How fitting. Abraham laughs. Sarah laughs. By naming their son Isaac, every time they call his name, they will be reminded of their incredulous laughter. In chapter 21, when Isaac is finally born, Sarah will say, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
By the end of the story, everybody is laughing. I suspect even God is laughing. You might say God has the last laugh on this one.
By spending several weeks now on Abraham’s story, I hope you have a new appreciation for who this patriarch of three religions actually was. One of the significant parts of Abraham’s story that’s easy to miss is that he and Sarah endured 25 years of struggle related to the promise and covenant God made with them. Twenty-five years! Struggle is a central feature in Abraham’s life of faith. He learns how to believe by trial and error. Struggle is the incubator where his trust and faith and obedience are born and hammered out.
The Bible doesn’t whitewash the lives of its heroes. Genesis doesn’t airbrush out the less flattering aspects of Abraham’s life—the lying and trying to pass Sarah off as his sister as well as that unfortunate reproductive misadventure with Hagar. Abraham and Sarah are not paragons of virtue. They are not larger-than-life saints. There is an ancient proverb that says, “God draws straight lines with a crooked stick.” God does some of his best work among the most unlikely of people, like Abraham and Sarah. Like you and me.
God almost seems to go out of his way to create an impossible situation. God waits until Abraham and Sarah are long beyond child-bearing years before their son of promise is born. This appears to be deliberate on God’s part, an opportunity for Abraham and Sarah to learn to trust the Lord.
The question God asks, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” is critical to this story. Some might regard it as a rhetorical question which begs an immediate negative response. “No, of course not! Nothing is too hard for God.” But I think part of the invitation of this story is to not be too quick to rush to judgment, to let this question hang in the air for a while. Some of you are facing an impossible situation right now and the answer to this question isn’t always obvious. Perhaps you’re trying to cope with a fractured family relationship or tiptoeing around an impossible boss at work or dealing with addiction or being a caregiver and it is sucking the life out of you. Perhaps you are battling constant anxiety or financial stresses or profound grief or systemic poverty or racism. Some situations are so deep and complex, there seems to be no way out. We might not come right out and say so, especially in church, but the truth is that cynicism has taken hold. If we are honest with ourselves, we would say, yes, there are some problems so hopelessly hard that even God can’t fix them. That sounds like we have a pretty small notion of God, doesn’t it?
Is anything too hard for the Lord? The New Testament tells us of another improbable birth. It doesn’t involve an elderly, infertile couple but a young virgin named Mary. Do you remember what the angel says? “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
Jesus reiterates the point time and again in his earthly ministry. When he encounters a seemingly hopeless situation, he tells his followers, “For God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).
I imagine we’ve all heard people talk about such verses with an air of breezy triumphalism. Everything is possible, we tell our children. You can have it all. The sky is the limit. You can do anything you set your mind to do.
Everything is not always possible. I can’t walk through walls or be two places at once. I cannot be an astrophysicist. Or an Olympic gymnast or swimmer. There are some gifts, some abilities I wasn’t given. Some things are not possible. Only what corresponds to God’s good purposes is possible.
When Jesus faces the prospect of his death, he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, all things are possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). It was possible for God to remove the cup, but God did not do that. In that instance, Jesus’ request was not part of God’s plan, so he yielded his desires to God’s good and eternal purposes.
I invite you to spend time with this question this week. Put it to the test. “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Set your cynicism aside and ask God to do what you have written off as impossible.
Thanks be to God. Amen.