I'm going to reveal something very personal about myself here at the outset. When I was a child, one of my favorite programs was HeeHaw. A few of you may remember that show. It had a lot of bluegrass and country music. Folks were laying around in the hay, thinking about going down to the corner of town to watch the stop light turn green. It had other characters that must have made an impression on an adolescent boy, but I won't get into that.
HeeHaw also had Grady Nutt. Grady was a Baptist preacher, a comedian, and he came to be known as the prime minister of humor. I met Grady Nutt as a young adult. Tragically, he died in the 1980s in an airplane crash. Grady Nutt had a saying, "Laughter is the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world."
That's where I want to begin as we focus on God's gift of joy on this third Sunday of Advent. Laughter is the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world. Laughter is a gift of God, a gift that we need in these days, in these holidays, when in a world of terrorism and road rage, estrangement and outsourcing, all is not calm and all is not bright. The writer of the Proverbs knew about this gift and our need for it: A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones. (Proverbs 17. 22)
There is something about humor that brings us to life, and the scriptures for this day hint at all of this:
The prophet Isaiah: I will greatly rejoice in the Lord.
The psalmist: Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.
And the Apostle Paul, writing to the Thessalonians: Rejoice always.
We all need something that brings us to life, like a desert rejoicing and blossoming, like water in the desert.
"Have you heard any good jokes lately?" Just that comment is enough to bring us out of the doldrums, to lift our spirits, to fill us with anticipation. One of my favorite jokes comes from my friend Danny Morris, who spent most of his life with the Upper Room in Nashville, and is one of the most spiritual--and at the same time funniest--people I have been blessed to know. Here it is:
There was a cantankerous, crabby old man. His neighbors avoided him. His four boys moved away from home as soon as they could. You get the picture. His poor wife was longsuffering in her presence.
One night he went to bed and just slipped away.
His four boys were called in. What should they do? "He was hard to live around, and no one could get along with him, but he was our pa. We owe him a decent burial, out in the meadow beyond the field."
So they went out to the barn and found some boards and made a casket. They put the box on their shoulders and carried it out past the barn. As they passed through the gate, one of the boys bumped into the post and this caused them to drop the box. The casket broke open and the cantankerous, crabby old man sat straight up.
He had only been in a very deep... sleep!
Well, life got back to normal. He lived two more years, just as ornery and mean, cantankerous and crabby as ever. The boys could go back to their homes, but his poor wife had to stay with him.
Then one night he went to bed and just slipped away.
His four boys were called in. What should they do now? "Well, he was hard to live around, and no one could get along with him, but he was our pa. We owe him a decent burial, out in the meadow beyond the field."
So they went out to the barn and found some boards and made a casket and put the old man in it. They put the box on their shoulders and started out of the house. And as they did their mother, the old man's wife said, "Boys, when you get out by the barn...be careful going through that gate."
We need humor in our lives. It is like the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world. It is like the desert rejoicing and blossoming. In the midst of the laughter, it is as if the sorrow and sighing flees away. The message of the prophet Isaiah is so relevant for us because it acknowledges the pain and the loss and the devastation the people had been through; and at the same time, it points to something beyond the present condition.
The creation will be renewed.
The ruined cities will be rebuilt.
The exiles will come home.
The oppressed will hear the good news.
Those who mourn will be comforted.
Near the end of his life, Jesus gathered his disciples and said to them, "You will weep and mourn, you will have pain, but your pain will be turned to joy. No one will take your joy from you...In the world you will have persecution." And then, he says, in the King James Version, "But be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world." (John 16. 20, 33)
I like the words of Jim Harnish, a Methodist pastor friend in Tampa, Florida:
The resonant laughter echoing from heaven is not cheap, shallow, watery frivolity; it is rich, deep, vivid joy. It is gladness that comes from the same place as suffering; joy that comes from the same place as tears. It is the joy of men and women who face the suffering, injustice and pain of the world in all its fury, but have taken hold of something stronger, deeper and more powerful. They have grasped the assurance of the ultimate triumph of the goodness of God. They are of good cheer because they know that the power of God in Jesus Christ has overcome the world.
Now I know that I am pushing a little here, because we've all heard the message, haven't we, that "Christians are supposed to be serious." It is as if some little voice is saying, "Wipe that smile off your face; don't you know you are in church!"
I love the insight of the novelist Peter DeVries, who wrote wonderfully comic and engaging books: "Do not assume," he once said, "that because I write in comic ways, I am being trivial, and I will not assume, that because you write in serious ways, you are being profound!"
When we are most pressed, when we are most stressed, what is needed is not the serious and the somber, but something else:
The hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world
We need to laugh . "Rejoice," Paul writes the Thessalonians... do not quench the spirit! And what is the fruit of that spirit? Joy. Sometimes, even in the toughest times, we need an experience of joy.
A family story. My wife's father died a few years ago, the day before Palm Sunday. The arrangements were made, and a part of the ritual was an evening in the town's funeral home on the edge of the small city where they lived, where we were greeted by hundreds of people who had known him. He had been their football coach, neighbor, Sunday School teacher, friend, golfing buddy.
Well, my wife and our two daughters were standing in the line, being greeted, and hundreds of folks are coming through. Some recurring comments and questions came our way in the midst of the evening.
For me, people would look ask, "So you are a minister in Charlotte?" as if Charlotte were located on some other planet, and we had been abducted by aliens. This question came again and again. "Yes," I replied. "We live in Charlotte. It's a great place."
For my wife, the question asked over and over again was a little unfair. She had been away from this community for some time, since her teenage years. I was standing next to her, so I overheard some of this. Someone would grasp her hand and look into her eyes and ask this question: "You don't remember who I am, do you?"
How do you respond to that one?
And for our younger daughter, who does, in fact, play college volleyball and is tall, the question asked over and over again, to the point where I think she began to count the number of times, the number approaching one hundred, was: "Do you play basketball?"
We laughed about all of this on the way to the graveside. It was a difficult time, for many reasons. But there were moments, like these, when it was as if the hand of God was on our shoulder , touching us. In hindsight, it was God's gift of joy in a difficult time.
It is acceptable to laugh, to smile, to have fun as people of God. We take the faith seriously, but we don't have to take ourselves so seriously. Chesterton was right.
"Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly."
And so we hear the word of the Lord, on this third Sunday of Advent, and in many faith communities we will light the candle of joy. Ultimately, our joy is all about who Jesus is. After his time of testing in the desert, which paralleled Israel's exile, Jesus is worshipping in the synagogue in Nazareth, and he is reading the scripture for the people, and he opens the Book of Isaiah to this very passage:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me
Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind
To set at liberty those who are oppressed
To proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
Then Jesus closes the book and sits down. And everyone is looking at him. And then he says to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
And in that moment, we get it. It's like the ending to a wonderful story and we get it; we sense that "this is where it was leading to all along." We rejoice, we laugh, even in the midst of pain and loss and devastation, because in Jesus we hear the deep resonant laughter of God.
So, people of God: be joyful!
Discover some occasion for laughter.
Do not quench the spirit.
Let the waters flow in the desert.
Let the weeping turn to laughter.
Let the desert become a garden.
Rejoice! You are not alone.
That embrace may be the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world.
Let us pray. O God, in this season, remind us that we are not alone. Help us to continue to pray without ceasing and encourage us to rejoice always and to know that your hand is upon us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.
 As told by Danny Morris in Spirits Laughing, pages 17-18.
 James Harnish, Men at Mid-Life: Steering Through The Detours, p. 76.