Genesis 18.1-15, 21.1-7; Romans 5.1-8; Matthew 9.35-10.8
An old man, Abraham, and his wife, Sarah, lived in their tent by the forest of Mamre. One day they are visited by three strangers. Being people who believe that God sometimes roams the earth in disguise, Abraham and Sarah welcomed the strangers, giving them food, water and rest. As Abraham chatted with them over a lovely outdoor dinner, one of the strangers said to him, 'Where is your wife, Sarah?' 'She is in the tent, helping to prepare our food', Abraham replied. At that moment one of the men leant forward and whispered, 'We will return here at the same time next year, at which time Sarah will have given birth to a son'. At that, Abraham's mouth fell open. What an extraordinary thing to say! Abraham and Sarah were very old, already decades beyond the age of childbearing. And from the nearby tent, as if to underline the absurdity of the idea, Sarah let out a laugh.
The idea of having a child when you are a hundred years old is, indeed, quite funny. And it is funny because it is absurd.
Have you ever reflected on the intimate connection between absurdity and humour? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, absurdity is that which is unreasonable, ridiculous, irrational or illogical. The absurd comes into being when two realities which are usually understood to have little or nothing in common, are forced to come together in a rare moment of comparison. Like old age and giving birth. Like monks and the Ku Klux Clan. Like bureaucracy and caring. When such comparisons are dropped on us, our first and most natural response is shock or surprise. The foreign, the unexpected or the undreamed of, suddenly arrives in our reality. A piano falls from the sky into the lemon tree in your back garden. An elephant runs through the front yard. An insurance assessor asks how you feel about the burglary. When the silliness or absolute absurdity of such situations dawns on us, we laugh. Because laughter is our body’s way of embracing experiences of irrationality or paradox.
When God's grace comes to call, it is very often quite irrational. It surprises and shocks us. It seems silly or even ridiculous in the face of the harsh realities of the daily grind. Yet such grace helps us to find the laughter and rejoicing in life. In his letter to the Roman church, the apostle Paul reflects on the absurdities at the centre of Christian faith. Take this one, for starters: 'While we were still sinners, Christ died for us'. It is oftentimes difficult for we Anglicans, who have heard these words so many times before, to register the surprise and shock Paul's original hearers would have experienced. So let's translate the statement into a more contemporary mode.
‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ For moderns, this would be like hearing that while Hitler was still sending Jews to the gas chambers, a senior Rabbi offered his life to the Allies in exchange for Hitler’s. It's like hearing that while Martin Bryant was still shooting people at Port Arthur, one of the wounded was already negotiating Bryant's freedom in exchange for his own internment. It’s like reading that the sole survivor of one of many frontier massacres here in Victoria has offered amnesty and forgiveness for the murderers. Can you hear the scandal in that? Can you hear the absurdity? 'While we were still sinners, Christ died for us'!
The surprise of God's grace is that it interrupts our despair. It cuts across our hopelessness. It relativizes our worst fears for the future. God comes to one whose self-image has been destroyed by glossy magazines and says 'You are special, I love you'. God visits the person who has failed an exam or lost a job and says 'I believe you are a winner. Let's explore how together.’ God whispers to the newly disabled ‘You still have a contribution to make’. God stands beside the compulsive liar and says 'You can tell the truth about yourself'. God visits the greedy and immoral person saying, 'You are capable of giving without thought of yourself, and I will stake my life on it'. In every case, such divine visitations are downright absurd if you look at them from any rational or logical point of view. We are all addicted to our sins; and whether we are personally aware of it or not, those of us who are financially comfortable are the beneficiaries of an economic order that exploits and steals from the vulnerable. That is the reality we live in and have become accustomed to. Yet, God is inclined to bring an entirely different reality to bear upon our situation. God is inclined to treat us as though we were not addicts and exploiters, but saints. And that, my friends, is a laugh.
At first, like Sarah, we laugh at God's foolishness. How can God be so unrealistic? How can God be so morally irresponsible? How can God promise the impossible and the senseless like that? Yet, in time, and with faith, we come to laugh with God. We begin to see ourselves and our sinfulness in an entirely new light—in the light of grace, which is the power of God's unconditional love. In that love, the suffering, the despairing and even the sin-sick may aspire to sainthood. And that, my friends, can make one laugh—not with scepticism now, but with rejoicing! Paul describes the process thus: 'We rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us'.
You will have noticed from our Genesis reading that the strangers returned to Abraham and Sarah's tent after a year. And the apparently impossible and absurd had indeed come to pass. As Abraham turned one hundred years old, Sarah gave birth to a son, whom they named 'Isaac'. In Hebrew, Isaac means laughter. But this time, when Sarah laughs, it is not with incomprehensibility, but with joy. This time she laughs with God, not at God: 'God has brought me great laughter,’ she says, 'and all who hear this story will laugh with me'. Sarah, like every reluctant and surprised convert in the history of this planet, has been bowled over by the grace of God. First by its strange absurdity. But then by its joy.