Laughing at God

January 10th, 2021

Genesis 17:1-10, 15-19; Mark 8:31-38

Most families have a first ancestor, a patriarch or matriarch who founded the clan. It may be the ancestor that first came to these shores from another continent. Whether that ancestor came over on the Mayflower or in the hold of a slave ship, you are probably proud of the courage and the ability to overcome great obstacles your renowned ancestor represents.

The Israelites had a renowned ancestor also. The Israelite nation considered themselves descendants of one ancestral couple, Abraham and Sarah. God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would receive two great things: land and children. Most of their lives they lived as childless, landless bedouins. Then an angelic visitor came to their tent when Abraham was ninety-nine and Sarah was ninety years old and repeated the promise of God. “You will have land and you will have children.” It was a farfetched, impossible, unlikely, humorous promise. Abraham thought the idea was so ridiculous he bowed down before the angelic visitor and laughed his head off. It seemed laughable, except it was the plan and the promise and the program of God.

Generations before Abraham, we have a similar example of the way the plan and program of God seemed laughable. Consider the story of Noah and his ark. Noah built a huge boat on dry land. Think of the laughs his neighbors were having on Noah. We can read the Bible as the story of how people reacted to the seemingly laughable ideas of God. All through the Bible God seemed to have laughable, impossible, impractical plans and most people didn’t get it. The Bible is also the story of the few who did.

Generations after Abraham and Sarah the Israelites had multiplied to be a great nation, but they were oppressed into slavery in Egypt. One bright sunny day Moses came to Pharaoh’s palace. Moses said, “Pharaoh, I just got a message from God. God says, ‘Let my people go!’” Can you imagine the snickering in the back room? “Moses arrived with this crazy idea; God wants us to give up our free labor? Ridiculous! Laughable!”

The exodus is one long comedy. Remember the ten plagues? We read them with such a long and serious face. The plagues are comedy routines. Frogs and gnats and hail and storms are funny! God seems to be toying with the Egyptians, making fun of them. If we have eyes to see, the whole exodus story is full of laughs. Early on, it is the Egyptians laughing at Moses’ freedom idea. Later, it is God’s last laugh on Egypt.

Later the Israelites were on the doorstep of the promised land. The first fortified city they approached was Jericho. Archaeologists say Jericho may be the longest continuously occupied city on earth. Human occupancy at Jericho goes back uninterrupted for ten thousand years. When the Israelites arrived at Jericho, it had been inhabited for 7,500 years. What did the Israelites do? Be prepared to laugh. They marched around the city in silence led by priests rather than soldiers. Imagine the guards in Jericho’s towers watching this goofy parade every day. Imagine their laughter at these people from the desert. Then, on the seventh day, the Israelites made their circuit and didn’t stop. The priests blew their horns and the laughter of the guards of Jericho was drowned out by the sound of the walls falling down. It seemed laughable, crazy, impossible, and impractical. It was also God’s big idea.

Centuries later, a prophet and healer named Jesus made his way around Galilee saying, “If you want to save life, you must lose it. If you give it away, you’ll find it.” It sounds like a ridiculous paradox. Jesus said other things that must have struck people as hopelessly idealistic. He said not only, “Love your neighbor” (Sometimes that’s pretty laughable, isn’t it?) but also, “Love your enemy. Pray for those who persecute you.” Such instructions are contrary to the conventional survival wisdom in a dogeat- dog world. They seem to be laughable instructions except that they are the program, the promise, and the agenda of God.

What if someone came to us today and said, “Beat your swords into plowshares and your spears into pruning hooks?” What if someone came to us today and said, “Take your bombers and make school classrooms, make your tanks into medical clinics and your guns into the implements of agriculture?” Why, we would accuse that person of being impractical, crazy, laughable, and maybe even traitorous. But the Bible tells us that God’s mighty dream is for us to beat our swords into plowshares. What if some prophet were to come among us in North America and Europe and say, “It is the will of God that you lower your standard of living 50 percent for the sake of the poor and for the sake of the planet”? We might think that person hopelessly naive, the program laughable. And yet, wouldn’t it be consistent with the biblical admonition to care for creation and for our neighbors?

Often God is calling us to do things that seem altogether out of character. God asks us to do things that would make our neighbors and coworkers laugh their heads off. God still asks God’s people to do incredibly foolish, naive, and laughable things.

Love your neighbor and your enemy. Pray for those who abuse you. God’s plan, God’s program, God’s agenda is frequently so different from our own and so different from what is expected in our world. Yet which program really works? God’s? Or the world’s? Yes, all of human history has been the story of people who laughed at God’s program of justice, love, and compassion. We keep on laughing and God keeps on inviting us to be those rare people that get with the program. Amen.

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