Stories always seem to go in circles, especially the real life ones. For a year now, I’ve had a fairly settled season of work and study. But I’ve come round back to the open-ended life, and with the close of my time at Oxford, I face an uncertain future. Again. I feel rather testy about it. Old prayers, old needs, old questions rear their heads as I enter the realm of home life. Often, of late, I find my heart tightening with the strain of trusting God. So in my daily devotional wanderings, I tend to head toward familiar places and I’ve camped, of late, in the old realm of Genesis.
Today I read the story of the woman whose name I bear: Sarah. This was a woman who knew the weight of hope I carry today, the ache of many unanswered prayers. The story did nothing to reassure me at first. I struggled to suppress a sudden rush of bitter amusement, for the name seemed like a joke to me. What sort of princess is asked to wander the desert for decades, barren not just in heart, but in body, her arms empty of the son God promised her? I nearly stopped. I did not want to be reminded of how long Sarah waited for her own prayers to be fulfilled.
But my eyes slipped down the page to the story of Isaac’s long-awaited birth and there, staring up at me, was a single word. Laughter. Isaac. The name of the promised child. What a name for such a baby. In the face of my own weariness, God’s little boy of laughter seemed almost cruel, as if a divine joke had been played. For oh, I knew how hard the waiting must have been. Years of wandering, years of hoping, years of disappointment as Abraham and Sarah stumbled through barren lands and dreams and wondered what God was thinking. After all those silent years without a baby, why would God give their child the name of laughter?
But as I read, I was wooed into the story by that one, ironic word. Laughter. Like a hidden code, a secret message, it caught me unawares and forced me on. I found laughter woven through the Genesis story like a counter melody, a quiet theme in the symphony of the tale. Both Sarah and Abraham laughed at different times with startling results and I began to see that there was an intricate truth, a woven song in the use of that strange, mirthful name and the way it defined the identity of the promised child and the tale that Sarah and Abraham both walked to receive him. I read on.
Abraham laughed first, right in the face of God’s promise. Out under the stars with the Spirit of God Almighty hovering over him, promising him descendants as myriad as the desert sand, he set his head down on the dry earth and laughed. He was, after all, nearly a hundred. And Sarah, his beautiful, grieving wife was but ten years younger and had always been barren. I wonder if it seemed half cruel to him, a promise from God that defied fulfillment. His laugh might have been of cynicism, or it might have been the catching of a sob, a willful turn from grief to a worldly wise acceptance. After that night of covenant, Abraham set his disbelieving laughter to action and decided, perhaps with resignation, that God’s promise was symbolic and what he really meant was that Hagar, the maid, would bear Abraham’s son. Yet God, with incredible patience, watched the child be born and then said “No.” Very simply. A true son of Abraham and Sarah’s blood would be born, and he, said God, would be the child of promise. Abraham didn’t laugh that time.
Sarah laughed second; a harsh hilarity of unbelief that echoed with the ache of her barren years. All those wandering days of emptiness, punctuated by the scorn of Hagar and the whispers that rustled amidst the women of her clan when she walked by. Was she cursed? Had she sinned so that God had dried up the life within her? Perhaps she had counted the coins of her forgotten hopes that day when those strange men strolled up the horizon and into her home. She must have seen the light kindled in their eyes, must have caught the bluster and excitement of her husband. Perhaps she tried to pray as her hands beat out the bread and formed the cakes. She must have hovered close as she served them, her shawl pulled round her head, close to her eyes so that her soul was concealed as she listened. Plying them with cake, meat, wine, her hands quick, her ears alert to the prophecies spoken. Her heart must have given an exquisite leap of joy at the words that she would bear a son. But then must have come the wrench of long-accepted grief, and then, the cold of incredulity.
For she too, heady with a hope she could not allow herself to hold, stumbled back to her tent and laughed. Oh how she must have laughed and wept and when her tears were dried, laughed again. Her whole body must have ached with her laughter that day. She denied it when her husband’s guests accused her. She could not risk offending the wild, desert God who spoke his crazy promises into her aching heart. Yet that God came near to her sorrow with never a word of condemnation and sang a promise, a beautiful prophecy over her grey head:
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
When the time revives next year, I will return.
And Sarah will have a son.
And then, it seems that God must have laughed, and his was the very last. God’s laughter shook the stars with its glad finality as it ran to bring life coursing into the barrenness of Sarah’s old body. For Sarah did, in the new life of the next year, bear a son that God himself named “Laughter” because God’s life confounded her skeptical faith, renewed her fallen trust. The life of her child embodied the goodness of a God entirely unbound by human frailty or despair.
When Isaac was born, can anyone quantify the unbounded gladness that filled the hearts of Sarah and Abraham? They must have laughed again then, laughed without pain, laughed with abandon at the miracle of the baby that squirmed in Sarah’s arms. I wish I could ask them if at that moment, they understood the waiting, the yearning, the pain through all those years of hope deferred. Did they forget it all in their joy? Did God ever explain himself? Or was his answer simply the child and that was all that was needed? Was God’s grand answer simply a child whose very life echoed with Almighty laughter?
The laughter, I realized, rings on. For Isaac was the child of a far larger promise. Isaac was the answer, not just to Abraham and Sarah’s desire, but to the promise God had made to bless all the families of the earth. Isaac’s birth confirmed God’s covenant to redeem us all, to bring eternal grace through another little baby, a promised, long-awaited child named Jesus. I find it a thing of wonder that God gave the name of “Laughter” to the child who foretold our salvation. The child who became a comforter to all people.
There must be a mad impossibility in the way of God’s redemption, even as it reaches even into my own little life. I feel it today as this story answers my restless, despairing heart. It helps me to remember that God has never left me and goodness beyond what I could have imagined to request has met me at every turn. God’s tenderness bewilders my human wisdom with its illogical and undeserved grace. It is, however, a grace that never follows my schedule. I am tempted to tread my dusty circles with loud lament at the slow way of God’s work, fix my eyes on the desert barrenness of hearts and broken bodies. I hear echoes of grand promises from this merciful God and yet want to hide in the small shadows of my tent and weep, like Sarah, with a barren laughter lamenting the impossibility of all I hope.
But into that comes God, laughing at the melodrama of my despair even as his gladness remolds my heart, kindles my hope afresh, and sets unexpected gifts in my hands. Unbound by despair, unbridled by human impossibility, God’s goodness, begun in a child called laughter, courses new through the earth every day. It doesn’t always make sense to me. I don’t understand the waiting, the days and months of unfulfilled yearning when everything seems dark. But I am beginning to see that somehow there is a glory to God in the last-minute answering of prayers. A death-defying grace springs up when we believe God’s impossible promises, whether for miraculous babies or daily bread. A wild, glad laughter must sound in the heavens when we choose to believe in what we cannot see.
So today, I choose to set aside my fear and simply laugh. Let gladness fill and overflow me until my faith joins that of Sarah and Abraham, our voices one more affirmation of the God who lives and loves . . . and laughs. Forever.
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.