What makes something funny? What makes people laugh? Those are questions that I’ve always been interested in. I was in high school during what I’ve decided to declare the golden age of Comedy Central. You know how people of a certain age like to talk about “back when MTV had music?” Well I grew up back when Comedy Central actually had stand-up comedy, and I loved it. I loved watching stand up, there was a time when I told myself I was going to become a stand-up, like seriously enough that I looked into classes and open mics and things like that.
What makes things funny? I asked Facebook this week, and got a variety of answers. I asked google, and found a definition that said present in anything that’s funny are two things, both of which were present in the answers Facebook gave even if the exact words weren’t there: incongruity and surprise. Incongruity is the juxtaposition of two or three apparently contradictory or unrelated ideas, surprise is something being introduced into a scheme or story that isn’t anticipated or expected. Those two things are what makes a good one-liner good. I have some examples from Reader’s Digest:
“I bought a tape to learn Spanish in my sleep. One night the tape started to skip. Now I can only stutter in Spanish.”
“My girlfriend and I often laugh about how competitive we are. But I laugh more.”
“When I lost my rifle the army charged me $87 to replace it. Now I know why Navy captains go down with the ship.”
“Every episode of Scooby Doo would last two minutes if they would go to the local costume shop and ask a few basic questions.” (Author’s Note: I thought this was hilarious. No one at Pleasant Hill laughed)
When incongruity and surprise come together they give us with humor. But we can also find humor in just one or the other. Sometimes it is just things coming together that shouldn’t or that usually wouldn’t be together that make us laugh, and that brings us to the example we see of Sarah in the text. She laughs when she hears this visitor say that in a year she’ll have a child because she realizes what a ridiculous notion that is. It’s preposterous that at their age she and Abraham will have a child. So she laughs, but it’s a bitter laugh, not a laugh in response to how funny it is. Its cynical. She knows it is ridiculous so she laughs, but there’s no sense of surprise there, nothing in her that believes it might happen, no glimmer of hope that keeps her from completely disregarding what the visitor has to say. We might imagine someone laughing at the idea “what if we had a baby at our age?” Very late in life parents would make a great sitcom. A woman who knows she’s too old to have what she wanted and laughs because that’s all she can do not to cry…not so much. It is different kind of laugh that we see here, one that is void of any real sense of humor.
Humor is an important aspect of faith. That may be a foreign concept to us if we’ve been raised to take our faith very seriously, but it is true. Karl Barth said that “laughter is the closest thing humans have to the grace of God.” Reinhold Neibur, another famous theologian, the person who is credited with the “serenity prayer” (God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…), preached an entire sermon based around the idea that humor is “ a prelude to faith.” He gave this illustration: imagine we see someone who is incredibly vain and arrogant slip on a banana peel. We laugh because of that incongruity we already mentioned, there’s this contrast between his arrogance and false dignity and the humiliation of falling down in front of people. That difference in how he presents himself and the reality of his situation makes the scene funny. When we can see that in ourselves, that reality of who we are vs. how we try to present ourselves, and see the humor in it, it can be an incredibly healthy thing. Being able to laugh at ourselves is important, it keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously and getting too wrapped up in our own pride and arrogance. If we have those days where everything goes wrong and find a way to laugh at the end of it we can start to rebound and be ready for the next day.
It’s a good thing to be able to look outside of ourselves see the incongruity that so often exists between our reality and how we present ourselves, it is good to laugh at ourselves, but if we look too deep into the reality of life the laughing stops, doesn’t it? Because the reality of life is that we’re all slipping on banana peels. We are all Charlie Brown trying to kick a football. Everyone get the reference? Over and over again throughout the comic strip and cartoons Lucy offers to hold a football and let Charlie Brown kick it through the uprights. Over and over again he agrees. Over and over again she pulls the ball away at the last moment and he ends up flat on his back. And it is funny thing to laugh at in a cartoon until we realize how deep the Peanuts gang actually is, because the reality is we’re all trying to kick footballs we know aren’t going to be there. We aspire to wealth and greatness and success and our end result is the same no matter how hard we worked or what we achieved – someone else is going to end up with everything we have. We’re not going to be able to take it with us, all our hard work is this life won’t prevent us from eventually dying. Neibur argued that that is how humor opens us up to faith, when we realize that the joke is ultimately on us we start to search for more, we start to try to find something worth believing in so that we’re not just trying to kick the football in vain.
Conrad Hyers was a Presbyterian minister who wrote a lot about humor, and specifically laughter, and faith. He wrote that “faith without laugher leads to dogma, laughter without faith leads to despair.” If we realize we’re all slipping on banana peels and kicking footballs in vain and don’t find hope somewhere then life becomes a very depressing thing. That’s where we find Sarah in this moment. She’s laughing, but it’s the laugh of despair. It’s the laugh of someone who’s not going to try to kick that blankety-blank football again. Hebrews says it was by faith that Sarah was able to have a child, I was struck by that when I read the two passages together because Sarah doesn’t have faith in this moment. Sarah’s stopped leaning on faith, she’s stopped laughing for joy. She’s come to recognize the incongruity of life, but she’s stopped looking for the surprise. She doesn’t open herself up to the idea that the football might not move this time, that the surprise may still show up.
I think that’s why God’s response is so forceful in this moment, in that question we see, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” I don’t think Sarah’s getting rebuked there, I think God is trying to get her to really stop and consider the question. Can she really be certain the football is going to move again? Is there no chance that God won’t be able to do this thing?
Of course, if we read ahead we see that the football doesn’t get snatched away this time, God is able to do this incredible thing, and that reality points us to a couple things I want to mention. Number one, God’s ability to work isn’t limited by our ability to trust that God will work. That should be a great comfort to us, we are not as vital to what God is trying to do in the world and even in our own lives as we might assume. Sarah laughs at the idea that God’s promise of a child will be fulfilled. Abraham has already gone off and had a child with someone else, he’s already tried to work his way around the promise. God’s ability to work is not dependent on our ability to trust that God is working or will work. God doesn’t abandon us in our times of despair. Sarah has her child after she has completely given up. I’d be hesitant to count God out.
But that leads to the last thing I want to mention, because if we respond to the question “is anything too hard for God,” with an emphatic no then we’ve got a real challenge on our hands. If we believe that there is still room for God to surprise us then there’s a good chance that God will. The possibilities become endless. And we never know when those things that surprise us will show up and change our lives. Sarah was a hundred years when Isaac was a teenager. On Wednesday night we mentioned Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, have you ever thought about the fact that the boy who gives up his bread and loaves just handed his food to a stranger? No idea what was coming, no reassurances that he’ll still get to eat, this wandering preacher and miracle worker shows up and the kid just hands over all that he has. If we believe God can feed the masses we might be called to give up our meal without know what will happen next. God’s ability to surprise can rock us from our comfort and status-quo. God’s surprise can come when we’re hoping for something, but it can also show up when we’d be more content to let things stay how they are. When we open ourselves up to the reality that everything is possible for God we open ourselves up to all the things we can imagine but also the things that we can’t. When we open ourselves up to the reality that nothing is too hard for God it puts us and our world back into God’s hands, and the possibilities become endless.
I don’t know about you, but there are a lot of things happening in our world that make me hope God has some surprises in store. There are a lot of things that I’m hoping aren’t stuck the way they are. As we look at our world and wait and hope for God to act, I think its vitally important that we keep our sense of humor. When laughter goes so does hope. Issacs’s name is “laughter.” His birth restores Abraham and Sarah’s faith, but it also restores their ability to laugh. One goes with the other. Only the laughers can believe. Only the believers can laugh. The only thing worse than waiting is waiting without laughing.