St Stephen’s Lewisham

Christmas Day 2007

Something to Laugh About

 

When the Lord brought Zion’s captives home : at first it seemed like a dream
Then our mouths filled with laughter : and on our lips with song.

Psalm 126, verses 1 & 2

The Bible doesn’t often talk about Laughter – and when it does it’s often referring to the cruel sort of laughter which people indulge in when someone they hate comes to grief. The Germans call it ‘Schadenfreude’ which means literally ‘Joy-at-grief’. The lack of scriptural references to Laughter gives some people the mistaken idea that laughter has no place in their faith. ‘It’s much too serious for laughter’ they say.

Reading a book called And God Created Laughter, convinced me that laughter dies have a part, and an important part, to play in God’s creation, especially at this season of Joy. The fact that people sometimes laugh at the wrong things, or on an inappropriate occasion, shouldn’t make us jump to the conclusion that laughter is itself bad. For a closer look at the Word of God in Scripture shows that the God’s whole scheme of our ‘creation, preservation and the blessings of this life’, and, most importantly, everything it says about His redemption of us through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is shot through with a rich vein of humour.

Laughing is one of the few things which make us different from animals: they share with us feelings pain and pleasure, heat and cold, and hunger and thirst. Orang-utans, we are told, laugh when tickled. But the nearest animals come to real laughter – is in their capacity for playfulness. A dog chasing a ball or a catching a Frisbee, or having a mock-fight with another dog gives them obvious pleasure; we know if it’s a play-fight because one dog accidentally hurts the other and cause it to yelp with pain, the game is immediately called off.

But innocent human laughter, laughing at a good joke for example, is far more subtle thing than mere playfulness. No two people ever laugh in exactly the same way. We may successfully imitate someone’s voice or disguise ourselves to look like them in appearance – and by doing so persuade people that we are indeed that other person. But that’s not the case with laughter. Everyone’s laughter is like a non-material DNA which belongs to us, and only to us individually. Nobody’s laughter sounds exactly like anyone else’s. As Jesus might have said, ‘by their laughs ye shall know them’.

Laughter, then, has something in common with our immortal soul. Our soul is ours and nobody else’s; our particular laugh belongs to us alone and differentiates us not only from the rest of creation but from each other as well. Furthermore, our laugh, like our salvation, is something spontaneous: it’s ‘given to us’ rather than being something we manufacture ourselves. A forced laugh isn’t a laugh at all; just a ‘pretend’ one. In the same way we cannot save ourselves by our own efforts. Our salvation is God’s free gift to each of us. Our part consists in accepting that gift by allowing God to give it to us, and by gratefully throwing ourselves on His mercy.

When the Bible mentions innocent laughter it’s one of two kinds. One is to do with conception and giving birth. Abraham and Sarah both laughed when told that they would have a child in their old age, and that child was named Isaac, which means ‘Laughter’. The other Bible-laughter is when people who have been held captive or in servitude suddenly find themselves set free, as when God turned again the captivity of His people Zion in that Psalm.

Each experience includes an element of surprise. That’s a necessary condition of true laughter. We suddenly see the absurdity of a situation. ‘It seemed like a dream’, wrote the Psalmist – just too good to be true. After years spent in the foreign land of Babylon, the People of God suddenly found themselves set free and sent back to their Homeland by the new Persian King, Cyrus. Not only did he let them go, but allowed them to carry back much of the property which the Babylonians had taken from them, not least the gold and silver vessels and ornaments which they had stolen from the Temple of God in Jerusalem when it capitulated to their armies. ‘I didn’t know whether to laugh or weep when it happened’ might well have been the reaction of the average Jew to his people’s sudden change of fortune.

The same is true of the Incarnation of God’s Son. The idea that God might share our humanity is improbable; the idea that He might fulfil this by being born as a baby, borders on the absurd; that this Child should be God’s way of saving His creation spoilt by human wrongdoing – that’s surely is the stuff that dreams and legends are made of!

But just suppose for a moment that it is all true – and remember that every time we recite the Creed we are staking our integrity upon its being so. Just suppose that, like St Paul, St Peter, St Stephen, and St John the Evangelist, we’ve got it right after all. It means, doesn’t it, that whilst we are on earth we shall have to put up with the laughter and ridicule of those who don’t believe; but it also means that, in Eternity, when the Truth is revealed, that capacity for laughter, which God has so carefully implanted in us human beings, will finally come into its own – because then we shall really have something to laugh about!

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