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Fall 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 2 · pp. 86–94 

Keep on Laughing, Genesis 18 (Sermon)

Response by Louis B. Weeks 18/1 (1989): 23–26.

Ben Patterson

It is the hottest part of the day. Work is an impossibility, and sleep, the only respite. So Abraham sits in the shade at the entrance to his tent, drowsily watching the heat waves rise from the horizon.

Note that it is now Abraham who sits there, not Abram. It’s the same man, but with a new name. God changed it earlier that year as Abraham turned ninety-nine (Gen. 17:4-6). Names were very significant for Hebrews. A name was more than a designation; it signified an identity, even a destiny. To change a name was to exercise an awesome power over a person, for it meant a change in who that person was and in what he or she would do and become. God had exercised that power over Abraham. Abram means “exalted father.” Abraham means “father of many.” By changing his name, God set Abraham apart as his special servant with a special destiny—to be the father of a great nation, through which he would bless the earth. He did the same thing {87} with Sarai, changing her name to Sarah (Gen. 17:15-16). Both names meant “princess,” but the renaming stressed that she belonged to God and what she would do—give birth to nations and kings.

. . . funnier still was the surprise of God’s grace.

The forge has been doing its work! In the twenty-four years since God first promised to give these two childless senior citizens a son, the wait has been purifying and shaping Abram and Sarai into Abraham and Sarah. Remember: from God’s reckoning, at least as important as the thing we wait for is what we become as we wait. Faith and character are forged in delay. So is a marvelous sense of humor.

It’s Abraham, not Abram, we see sitting drowsily at the entrance to his tent. He is nodding off to sleep when out of the corner of his eye he sees three men standing nearby. They seem to have appeared out of nowhere, and something strange stirs deep inside Abraham when he sees them, something like fear, but not quite. It’s more like excitement and anticipation.

He rises immediately, his head suddenly clear, and rushes over to where they stand. Hospitality is a sacred duty for the Bedouin, so he bows low before them and speaks to the one who seems to be their leader:

If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant. (Gen. 18:3-5)

The perfect host is the one who says, as each guest arrives, “I’m so glad you are finally here!” And when each leaves, “Must you go so soon?” Abraham is the perfect host. When they agree to stay and to accept his hospitality, he hurries into the tent and says to his wife, Sarah, “Quick, get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread” (Gen. 18:6). He then runs out to his herd, picks out one of his best, most tender calves and orders a servant to slaughter it and cook it. He then brings some curds and milk for his guests to enjoy as they wait for the bread and meat to cook.

The three men eat silently for a while as Abraham stands watching them, trying to understand the feeling he has in their presence. Then they speak, asking him where his wife, Sarah, is. Abraham says, “There, in the tent.” Then the leader speaks, and Abraham knows the reason for his butterflies. This is no {88} man, and no stranger; this is the One he had heard speak to him the year before, but had not seen. This is the One who promised him and Sarah a son. This is the Lord! “Then the LORD said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son’ ” (Gen. 18:10).

Sarah heard him. As the men ate, Sarah, who must have had the same feeling about them as did Abraham, lay on the floor near the entrance of the tent eavesdropping on the conversation. She hears the man say, “Sarah your wife will have a son,” and she has to stifle her reaction. She has heard that story before; for the last twenty-four years, to be exact. But now she is in her nineties, and Abraham is nearly one hundred years old. She has long since given up on the hope. It hurt for a while to wait and not to receive. Then the hurt turned to anger, and the anger to cold resignation. She is surprised at what she feels now. When she hears the seemingly empty promise again, it strikes her as . . . well, funny! “Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?’ ”(Gen. 18:12).

She is still holding her hand over her mouth when the man talking to her husband speaks again. She might not have heard him had he not used her name again. He said, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ ” And before she can crawl away to the back of the tent and hide, he continues: “Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.” He has heard her thoughts! This is no ordinary man! Terrified at what is happening, she shouts from inside the tent, “I did not laugh.” Without even turning in her direction, the stranger says, “Yes, you did laugh” (Gen. 18:13-15).


What is the meaning of Sarah’s laugh? 1 Or, for that matter, what makes any of us laugh? What constitutes humor? This may come as a surprise to you, but philosophers of the stature of Aristotle, Bergson and Schopenhauer have debated this question and written books detailing their answers. Even the great Sigmund Freud, himself as “humorless as a chicken,” 2 wrote an essay entitled “Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious.” A real side-splitter, I’m sure. Throughout all of the theories, two elements seem always to be present in what makes something funny: incongruity and surprise. {89}

Incongruity is the juxtaposition of two or three apparently contradictory or unrelated ideas or situations. Surprise comes from the introduction of something into a scheme or story—an idea, an event, a person—that is totally unexpected and unanticipated. Incongruity and surprise are closely related, of course, and are sometimes indistinguishable from one another. Both capitalize on the twist, the unforeseeable. Both jolt us out of one mental attitude into another, which may be completely and even violently opposed to the first. It’s incongruity and surprise that lie behind the humor of one-liners like Henny Youngman’s: “Take my wife. . .please.” Or Woody Allen’s: “I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I’m taking along an extra pair of underwear just in case.” In an extended way, incongruity and surprise are the dynamics behind the comic success of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Incongruity and surprise go together in humor. But—and this is the crucial point for us in understanding Sarah’s laugh—it is possible to have humor that deals only in the incongruous and is completely without surprise. That is Sarah’s humor. She can laugh at the preposterousness, the incongruity of an old bag having a baby, of having one foot in the grave and the other in a maternity ward. But that is all she can laugh at: its incongruity. She expects no surprises from God, no novelty, no violations of the world she has grown accustomed to living in and, as a result, her laugh can be only bitter and cynical. She can hear the Lord say, “your wife will have a son;” and she can crack up in her bitterness. She cannot hear God say, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” If she could, incongruity and surprise would come together, and she would really throw her head back and laugh as she has never laughed before—and she wouldn’t cover her mouth when she did. She would be laughing and weeping at the same time.


Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once preached a brilliant sermon on humor and faith. 3 He described humor as a “prelude to faith,” meaning that it is our sense of the incongruous that can lead us to trust God. The same human faculty that enables us to laugh at an arrogant man slipping on a banana peel is what can open us up to faith. We laugh at the incongruity of the contrast between his arrogance and false dignity on {90} the one hand, and the humiliation and indignity of his fall on the other. That kind of humor can serve us very well in the everyday occurrences of our lives. It helps us to stand outside of ourselves. It can help us avoid pretense and sham. It can be a guard against taking ourselves too seriously. If you have ever had a day in which everything was going wrong, and you were able, finally, to laugh at it all—at the incongruity of what you want and what you are actually getting—then you know what I mean. This kind of laughter has saved my marriage.

But let that same ability to stand outside of ourselves and to see the incongruous be extended out to the ultimate things of life, and suddenly the laughter stops. Because then we discover that we all are slipping on banana peels. For what is our position in the universe but incongruous? We aspire to eternity and slip on the banana peel of death. We aspire to greatness and slip on the banana peel of insignificance. Standing on earth, looking out at the universe, we can feel big. But standing out on the edge of the universe looking back at ourselves, we are dwarfed into nothingness. Pascal was thinking of this awkward incongruity when he described the universe as so large that “the center is. . .everywhere, the circumference nowhere.” What is man in all that? What can he be? Answers Pascal: He is “a Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, and All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything” 4

The Bible agrees. It asks the same questions:
O Lord, what is man that you care for him,
the son of man that you think of him?
Man is like a breath;
his days are like a fleeting shadow. (Ps. 144:3-4)

Social, intellectual and economic distinctions among humans are meaningless when set against the monumental reality of death. The weak and poor know this. The powerful and rich kid themselves.

Lowborn men are but a breath,
the highborn are but a lie;

If weighed on a balance, they are nothing;
together they are only a breath. (Ps. 62:9)

We are like the cartoon character Charlie Brown. Each year he tries to kick the football offered by Lucy. Each year she pulls it away just as he is about to kick it. Each year he swears he’ll not try again, and each year he is duped into just one {91} more attempt. In one of these episodes, Charlie Brown is taking the long run toward the ball. As always, he kicks into a blank space left by the ball she has jerked away. In the final frame, he is lying on his back, and Lucy is looking down into his face saying, “Your faith in human nature is an inspiration to all young people.”

There is humor in the incongruity of Charlie Brown’s trust and Lucy’s deceit, humor in the disparity between what he desires and what he actually gets. But the humor becomes bitter when the football is a life with meaning, when it is eternal life, when it is significance in a universe that dwarfs not only each one of us, but even the planet on which we live.

It is in this sense that humor can be a prelude to faith. If it can help us to see the ultimate incongruity of our lives, and therefore the impossibility of us ever being more than a giant contradiction, a bad joke in ourselves, then it can open us up to faith.


When Sarah laughs, she is laughing the laugh of a cynic who will not try to kick the football one more time. She is laughing the laugh of despair that will not see anything but the ultimate incongruity of her life. Her long waiting has sapped her of her humor. Take surprise away from your sense of the incongruous, and all that remains is a bitter chuckle. That is why God’s response to Sarah has such force. When he says to her, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” he is inviting her to have a really good laugh and let surprise back into her life. He invites us to do the same. It is only when our sense of the incongruity of our lives meets God’s great surprise of grace and promise that we are enabled to live our lives with the hilarity he intended. There’s a version of pop psychology whose slogan is “I’m OK, You’re OK.” With the gospel, it is different: it is “I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK, But It’s OK!”

“Is anything too hard for God?” That is an overwhelming and shattering question. It demands an answer. Answer yes and the world is shut down, the universe is closed, and God is no longer God: benevolent, maybe; kindly and concerned, perhaps; but as powerless as we are in the face of our cosmic incongruity. Answer “No, there is nothing that is too hard for God,” and you and the world are in his hands and the possibilities are endless. He is radically free to keep his promises, {92} despite the odds against it.

But beware. When his surprise completes your incongruity, you had better be ready to be shaken out of your customary, stable, reliable but hopeless existence. Sarah will go through a pregnancy in her nineties, and worse, her son’s adolescence when she is over one hundred! The question is, do we really want to believe that with God there is nothing that is impossible? For if we do believe that, then we can no longer be content to keep on living our lives as though business were normal. Wild and crazy things can happen and usually do.

As we wait, it is critical that we keep our sense of humor in the fullest meaning of that word. When laughter goes, so does hope. When God reaffirms his promise to Abraham and Sarah, he restores not only their faith, but their ability to laugh as well. 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.


Let me tell you a very “humorous” story. It’s about a seventy-two-year-old Baptist preacher names Charles McCoy. 5 McCoy was pastoring a Baptist church in Oyster Bay, New York, when at age seventy-two he was mandated by his denomination to retire. A lifelong bachelor, he had cared for his mother for as long as she lived. In his spare time he had earned seven university degrees, including two Ph.D.’s—one from Dartmouth, the other from Columbia. But now, at age seventy-two, he was being forced to retire from the ministry.

He was depressed. “I just lay on my bed thinking that my life’s over, and I haven’t really done anything yet. I’ve been pastor of this church for so many years and nobody really wants me much—what have I done for Christ? I’ve spent an awful lot of time working for degrees, but what does that count for? I haven’t won very many to the Lord.” 6

A week later he met a Christian pastor from India, and on impulse asked him to preach in his church. After the service the Indian brother asked him matter-of-factly to return the favor. Since he had preached for McCoy, would McCoy come to India and preach for him? McCoy told him that he was going to have to retire and move to a home for the elderly down in Florida. But the Indian insisted, informing McCoy that where he came from, people respected a man when his hair turns {93} white. Would he come?

McCoy thought and prayed about it and decided he would. The members of his church were aghast. Dire predictions were made. The young chairman of his board of deacons summed up the attitude of the congregation when he asked, “What if you die in India?” I love McCoy’s answer. He told him he reckoned “it’s just as close to heaven from there as it is from here.” He sold most of his belongings, put what was left in a trunk, and booked a one-way passage to India—his first trip ever out of the United States!

When he arrived in Bombay, he discovered to his horror that his trunk was lost. All he had were the clothes on his back, his wallet, his passport, and the address of missionaries in Bombay he had clipped from a missionary magazine when he left. He asked for directions, got on a streetcar and headed for their house. When he got there, he discovered that while he was on the streetcar his wallet and passport had been stolen! He went to the missionaries who welcomed him in, but who told him the man who had invited him to come to India was still in the U.S.A. and would probably remain there indefinitely.

What was he going to do now? they wanted to know. Unperturbed, McCoy told them he had come to preach and that he would try to make an appointment with the mayor of Bombay. They warned him that the mayor was very busy and important and that in all the years they had been missionaries there, they had never succeeded in getting an appointment with him. Nevertheless, McCoy set out for the mayor’s office the next day—and he got in! When the mayor saw McCoy’s business card, listing all his degrees, he reasoned that McCoy must not be merely a Christian pastor, but someone much more important. Not only did he get an appointment, but the mayor held a tea in his honor, attended by all of the big officials in Bombay! Old Dr. McCoy was able to preach to these leaders for half an hour. Among them was the director of India’s West Point, the National Defense Academy at Poona. He was so impressed at what he heard that he invited McCoy to preach there.

Thus was launched, at age seventy-two, a brand new, sixteen-year ministry for Dr. Charles McCoy. Until he died at age eighty-eight, this dauntless old man circled the globe preaching the gospel. There is a church in Calcutta today because of {94} his preaching and a thriving band of Christians in Hong Kong because of his faithful ministry. He never had more than enough money than to get him to the next place he was to go. He died one afternoon at a hotel in Calcutta, resting for a meeting he was to preach at that evening. He had indeed found himself as close to heaven there as he would have been at his church in Oyster Bay, New York, or in a retirement home in Florida. It was incongruous—an old man, waiting to die at age seventy-two, leaving everything he had ever known and preaching around the world. That’s funny! But funnier still was the surprise of God’s grace, completing the incongruity of this old man. May we all know this quality of humor in our lives as we wait!


  1. The seminal material for my thoughts here is from Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).
  2. A phrase borrowed from John Steinbeck.
  3. Reinhold Niebuhr, “Humour and Faith,” Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching, eds. Clyde E. Fant and William M. Pinson, vol. 10 (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1971).
  4. Blaise Pascal, Pensees, The Great Books (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 181.
  5. Franklin Graham, with Jeanette Lockerbie, Bob Pierce, This One Thing I Do (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1983), pp. 115-21.
  6. Ibid., p. 117.
Taken from Waiting by Ben Patterson. c.1989 by Ben Patterson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. A version of this sermon was preached at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary Bible Conference, March 1989.
Rev. Ben Patterson is a Presbyterian pastor, a contributor to Leadership and Christianity Today.

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