There’s an old joke, one that originated in ancient Palestine. It goes something like this:
Three men walk into a campsite. A 99-year-old man is sitting in front of his tent; his 90-year-old wife is still inside. It’s a hot day. The old man sees the three men and treats them like visiting dignitaries, setting out some rather nice refreshments for them to enjoy.
Then one of the visitors says, “You know what? I’m going to come back in about a year. And your wife is going to have a baby. A boy.”
The wife, who had been eavesdropping, overhears. At our age? You’ve got to be kidding, she says to herself, laughing. That has to be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.
The punch line? A year later, after some rather hair-raising adventures, the old woman does in fact give birth to a son, and names him Laughter.
This is, of course, the story of Abraham and Sarah from Genesis 18 (I was recently reminded of the humor of the tale as I was reading Michael Lodahl’s The Story of God). The idea of two nonagenarians giving birth to a child was as ludicrous then as it is now. And to be fair, Sarah isn’t the only one who didn’t believe. Before the incident with the three visitors, God had already told Abraham that Sarah would bear him a son. In response, Abraham fell facedown on the floor and laughed uproariously (Gen 17:17). Still, God insisted: Sarah would give birth to a bouncing baby boy, and they were to call him Isaac, a name meaning “laughter.” Abraham, apparently, didn’t let Sarah in on the joke. But that interchange with God probably explains why he was so attentive to his visitors.
Anyway, you have to love a God who tells this ancient couple to name their boy Laughter.
And indeed, the account of Isaac’s birth (Gen 21:1-7) says nothing of the pain of childbirth. There is only joy, along with the storyteller’s repeated reminder: these people are really, really old — and they’re having a baby!
Personally, it makes me think again of Romans 8:18-25, a passage I’ve come back to again and again. The older I get, the more I can identify with Paul’s imagery of a woman groaning in labor pains; we, along with all of a burdened creation, are in the delivery room awaiting deliverance from suffering.
Paul says that our destiny is freedom and glory, and by the Holy Spirit, we wait with hope and patience. But could there also be joy, even in suffering?
I’ve heard some rather somber explanations of Christian joy. Joy isn’t the same as happiness, they say; that’s far too ephemeral, and we suffer too much in this life. Agreed. But in truth, it often sounds a bit like The Gospel According to Eeyore: just accept that life’s a bother now, because one day it’ll all be better.
We may all be groaning in labor, some more than others. The day of our full redemption and resurrection may seem far in the future. But as God says in response to Sarah’s stifled laughter: “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14, CEB).
For in the company of God every year, every moment, is pregnant with the possibility of real joy.