What is Salvation? Joy and Laughter
Genesis 21:1-7

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 7 And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Virginia Living Museum for the first time. And what made this visit especially memorable was going with two young kids, the children of friends of ours. Their oldest was a boy, two and a half years old, and their youngest was a girl, just over a year old. They loved animals but had never been to a zoo or aquarium before.

There’s a lot of great things to see at the Virginia Living Museum – turtles sunning out on logs, river otters swimming and playing, a dinosaur exhibit, including areas to dig and find bones, and even (I was pretty excited to see) a small hobbit house for children to play in.

But my favorite moment of the entire day came with the very first exhibit we saw. It was the marine life exhibit. As you enter it, there is this dark tunnel you go through, and on your right-hand side, there is a huge aquarium full of fish bigger than I knew lived here in Virginia – all about 2 meters long. I didn’t have a lot of time to pay attention to the fish, because right after I entered, I heard behind me this loud, high pitch scream – “Eeeeh! Eeeeh!” I looked around behind me and it was our friends’ two-year-old boy screaming. I first I was worried. Is something wrong? But then I quickly realized he wasn’t screaming because he was afraid. He wasn’t screaming because he was worried or lost or troubled. He was screaming because he had never seen fish like this before. He was screaming because he was so excited and so happy, he didn’t know what else to do.

It was uncontrollable joy.

We take so much of what is around us for granted. We pass it by without seeing how truly spectacular and wonderful it is. Not this boy. He spent that afternoon in awe and wonder at what incredible creations God has made for us. And for that afternoon, I tried to see everything through his eyes – not as just another couple hours to get through before going to the next thing, but instead as a time full of curiosity, wonder, and joy. How do those jellyfish glow like that? How can the otters stay underwater for so long? How crazy it is to see the bottom of a living starfish and all that moves with it.

After that day, I thought about our friends’ son’s scream. And I kept thinking, that is how God wants us to live. With joy. With wonder. With laughter. With surprise. With seeing and experiencing and shouting out loud the awesomeness of God’s strange handiwork.

In our scripture reading for today, we get another moment of holy surprise and awe. Abraham and Sarah, 100 and 80 years old respectively, receive the joy of a child. It is a gift from God, long promised to them. But it is absurd. They are too old, they think. They’ve seen too much of the world. They know how things work. Nothing can surprise them now.

And so, the first time God tells Sarah that they will have a child in old age, she laughs at God. But it’s not a joyful laugh. It is a mocking laugh. It is a doubting laugh. It is a laugh that says there can be no real promise, no real joy, no real work of God this incredible and great. It is a laugh that not only doubts God, but doubts herself, doubts what real joy she can truly have.

But Sarah doesn’t yet know how much joy God, can bring. She doesn’t yet know how much wonder is in this world. And she doesn’t yet know how much God wants us to laugh and shout and sing and celebrate.

When Sarah does finally have her child, the author of Genesis doesn’t tell us too much about it. It’s joy and surprise are beyond what words can capture. The one thing we learn is that her son is named Isaac, which means in Hebrew, “He will laugh.” And in seeing her child that she thought would never come, Sarah laughs too. Not the laughter of sarcasm or mockery or doubt. But the laughter that is like the shout of a child – full of wonder and awe.

And for a moment, she sees her life as God wants us all to see our lives – as a gift, as something that while it can be so trying, so difficult, can also be full of holy moments like these. And before we rush on to what’s next, to what do I need to do, God wants us to simply to laugh, to smile, to celebrate, to scream, to enjoy this moment, and enjoy it with others.

One big thing we often forget to do as people of faith is be happy. Be joyful. See this world as and our lives and those who share it with us as a gift. We get so caught up into rules and debates and what we need to be doing next that those moments just fly by – or we miss them completely. We serve a God who created the hippo and giraffe, who gives us rainbows in the sky and sunsets on the horizon, who invites us to sing songs and dance and clap, who breaks into this world with absurd promises and actions of healing and love. Yet somehow, we have turned that God into a taskmaster, a judge, someone to fear and hide from, instead of dance alongside with.

And even heaven and salvation and God’s kingdom, we have turned in our imaginations into some kind of boring waiting room, where everything is proper and stiff and always the same. That’s not the God of scripture. And that’s not the kingdom God wants for us.

God wants for us what God wanted for Sarah. God wants us to laugh. God wants us to know joy. God wants us to expect and the unexpected, hope for the absurd, dream for the impossible dream. God has created this incredible, awesome world full of strange creatures, bizarre locations, families and friends, sights and sounds, smells and experiences beyond what we would dare to dream. And God made all of this not for God’s benefit, but for ours. Because it brings God joy to see us filled with joy.

There is one last part of Sarah’s story I want to mention. There is a scene right after this one in Genesis 21 where Isaac and his older half-brother Ishamel (who has a different mother, named Hagar) are playing together at a celebration. In many translations, it says that Ishmael is mocking Isaac, but most Hebrew scholars believe the original meaning of the phrase is much closer to playing with Isaac or laughing with Isaac. It is two brothers simply playing and laughing and enjoying this gift of life together. But Sarah, like so many of us, gets jealous, gets envious, thinks there is some limit to what joy God can bring into this world, and so casts Isaac’s brother Ishamel away, simply because he too was laughing and seeing. The scene ends with Ishamel and Hagar being sent into the wilderness but saved by a God who reminds all of us that God loves them just as much as Isaac and Sarah.

In this story of Sarah, we are shown a moment of holy joy, holy laughter, holy surprise and wonder awe. But we are also invited to go further than Sarah did, go further than we sometimes do. Don’t keep this joy and laughter to ourselves. There’ no limit to the joy God can offer. In fact, when others have it, ours usually grows bigger and bigger. Joy and laughter are gifts from God. But not gifts to hide or hoard or keep to ourselves. They are gifts to share, to live out. My day at the Virginia Living Museum was so much better because of those two children we shared it with.

So this week I challenge you to seek that joy and laughter God still has for you. You don’t have to have a perfect life to know it. Sarah didn’t. All you need is to know that God is still at work, offering promises, bringing a kingdom. And it all is so absurd, so strange, so wonderful, so marvelous, we too may not be able to do anything but stand and scream out for joy. Amen.