Sunday, December 11, 2005


When I was a child, one of my favorite programs was Hee Haw. Some 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 me, but I won’t get into that.

Hee Haw 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 seminary student. Tragically, he died in the early 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 start this morning, 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 and face transplants 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 that’s the thrust of the scriptures for this morning:

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.

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 favorites came from my friend Danny Morris, who spent most of his life with the Upper Room, and is one of the most spiritual, and 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 long suffering 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? “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 ‘s like the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world. It’s 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.

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 says “Christians are supposed to be serious”. It is as if some little voice is saying, “wipe that smile off of 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 said, that because I write in comic ways, I am being trivial, and I will not assume, because you write in serious ways, that 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 the spirit? Joy. Sometimes, even in the toughest times, we need an experience of joy.

A family story. My wife’s father died last year, the day before Palm Sunday. The arrangements were made, and a part of the ritual was an evening in the town’s funeral home just on the edge of Kernersville, where we were greeted by hundreds of people who had known Mr. Barrow. He had been their football coach, neighbor, Sunday School teacher, friend, golfing buddy.

Well, Pam, Liz, Abby and I are standing in the line, being greeted, and hundreds of folks are coming through. Some recurring comments and questions come 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 Pam, the question asked over and over again was a little unfair. 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?

For Abby, the question asked over and over and over again, to the point where I think she began to count the number of times, the number approached one hundred, was: Do you play basketball?”

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 in church. 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 gather in the house of the Lord, on this third Sunday of Advent, and we 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 Isaiah to this 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.

(Luke 4)

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.


Sources: Danny Morris, Spirits Laughing; James Harnish, Men at Mid-Life: Steering Through The Detours.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I saw your reference to Grady Nutt and thought you might be interested in adding to a remembrance page I'm hosting at

I've a tribute page up for a long time at my web site, but thought it would be nice to jump into the 21st Century with a related BLOG.


11:55 PM  

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