Psalm 126                                  “The Joy of God”


A man appears before the pearly gates.
"Have you ever done anything of particular merit?" St. Peter asks.

"Well, I can think of one thing...." the man offers. "Once I came upon a
gang of unruly bikers who were threatening a young woman. I
directed them to leave her alone, but they wouldn't listen. So I approached
the largest and most heavily tattooed biker. I smacked him on the head,
kicked his bike over, ripped out his nose ring and threw it on the ground,
and told him, ' Leave her alone now or you'll answer to me.'"

St. Peter was impressed. "When did this happen?"

"A couple of minutes ago."


            Believe it or not, there has been a lot of talk about humor in the church ever since the time of Christ. We have some parts of the Bible, such as Psalm 126, that makes us think that it is godly to laugh out loud. But, we also see Jesus telling folks not to laugh in Luke 6:25 “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep!” James 4:9  tells us to change our “laughter to mourning.”

            Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock, the noted author of classic books on how to preach, says concerning the audience of the church: “The preacher knows also that regardless of who these listeners are, they want to be taken seriously. This does not mean that they won’t tolerate humor.” (Fred Craddock, Preaching, Abingdon Press, 1985, p88) It seems that his take on the church is that anyone who would actually come to church would be of a rather serious demeanor and would therefore only ever just tolerate joy in the church.

            Maybe there is a difference between the joy that is actually happening in the church, and the seriousness with which Scripture is handled. I know that there is a lot of joy happening in the pews. One of you came up to me and said once that you hurt your elbow during one my sermons. You said that you were getting sleepy and were propping your head up with your hand when your elbow slipped off the back of the pew and you banged it. What a joy!

            After worship I find a good many clues that there is even more joy going on. I find the notes that have been passed back and forth. I see the pictures that have been drawn on the backs of the bulletins. But, one would have to say that the humor that takes place during worship happens almost in spite of worship. It is not like what we seem to see here in Psalm 126 in which the worship of the Lord is constituted with “mouths filled with laughter.”


The inspiration for this sermon this morning came to me while considering the Toronto Blessing. Have you heard of Toronto Blessing? It has been one of the more controversial movements within the Christian church.

In 1993, pastor Randy Clark of the Vineyard Church in St. Louis, Missouri ventured to witness Rodney Howard-Browne's "spiritual anointing" at a meeting at Rhema Bible Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rodney Howard-Browne was a pastor from South Africa who believed that laughter could be a manifestation of the Holy Spirit in worship. There, Clark swallowed up the "holy laughter" movement and began envisaging it for his own church back home. Back at his Vineyard church, the phenomenon launched a resounding echo into the curious ears of Toronto Airport Vineyard pastor John Arnott. Arnott invited Randy Clark to put on a four-day conference at the Vineyard Church in Toronto on January 20, 1994.

Needless to say that this phenomenon became successful. In fact, by the month of October, 1994, approximately 100,000 people (including 6,000 pastors) had sought the "blessing." Do the math—that is 10,000 visitors a month at the church in Toronto! Further, this "blessing" spread to Britain's Vineyard churches beginning May 29, 1994. This move is accredited to Eleanor Mumford who presented it to Holy Trinity Brompton Church (a charismatic Anglican church in the Knightsbridge neighborhood in London).

It has been reported that visitors to the Toronto Vineyard Church, when they return to their churches of origin, can pass on this blessing of the Holy Spirit to others unwittingly. Hence, some pastors have been surprised by their congregations suddenly being taken up in uproarious laughter for apparently no reason. This was supposedly the case of a church in Hong Kong that was suddenly affected in such a way.

Some churches have purposefully sent their pastors to Toronto, all expenses paid, in order to bring back some of this “holy laughter” to their own churches. I know of a pastor and his wife who went to the Toronto Vineyard with such a hope. They did indeed experience the “holy laughter” in that place. In fact the wife said that she really did lose total control and was laughing while rolling around on the floor during services. I later visited one of his worship services only to learn that the “blessing” apparently “did not take” to that church.

My personal take on this is that when we as humans are deeply touched emotionally, we can respond with uncontrolled laughter. And, I do believe that the Holy Spirit can touch us in that way. Lastly, laughter is contagious. So, yes, I do believe that the blessing as it has manifested itself in Toronto is sincere. However, I think that its duplication is contingent on the Holy Spirit, not merely on someone’s desire to add humor to the sermon. In other words, the key is the presence of the Holy Spirit, not the outward display of laughter.


One of the interesting notions about laughter is that it happens easier in larger groups. Television producers in this country have known this for a long time. That is why comedies here have a “laugh track” so that you can hear other people laughing at the humor while you are watching the show. In other countries, they do not bother with the laugh track, and that is one reason why these comedies do not have a big audience in this country.  We like to laugh in groups. Note: this is only for laughter. Television has not gotten to the point of offering anything more than a laugh track—there is not a sobbing and crying track associated with dramas.

As a pastor I always thought it would be nice to have background sound track with controls up here on the pulpit. We would have to hide the speakers under the pews. I could press one button and get laughter. Press another and hear some “amens.” Press another and pick up the alto and base lines on the hymns that we are singing. Maybe press another to light a standard applause sign. Of course, ministry today is more like the Tonight Show used to be. When Johnny Carson messed up and the audience did not respond, Doc Severson got the Tonight Show band to play “Tea for Two” while Johnny did a little soft-shoe number. I guess I could get Lee or Diane to play something.

Have you ever played peek-a-boo with an infant? You make yourself disappear for a moment and then suddenly appear to the child. The child invariably starts to laugh. The more you do it, the louder the laughter becomes. Why is the child laughing? He or she is just happy to see you again! They feel joy and express it outwardly just being in your company again! You know, I always wanted to play peek-a-boo from the pulpit—just to see if I could get the kids laughing during worship.


Let me jump back to our Scripture from Psalm 126. When a child laughs, its whole body is affected. The eyes are laughing. The cheeks are laughing. The head is laughing. The shoulders are laughing. When we get older and stiffer, we are able to laugh just with our mouths, but infants laugh with their whole beings. The translation of the Hebrew from Psalm 126 really says that “our faces were filled with laughter,” not just our mouths. That is “Sechoq Pheenu” in the Hebrew—“in your face laughter.” One’s whole countenance is taken to laughter out of joy for what the Lord has done in blessing His people.

I have read in several books on resolving conflict, so I am not sure which author said it first (Cosgrove? Hatfield? Augsburger?), that laughter is a great way to lead a conflicted person out of their troubled mindset in order to effect eventual reconciliation. That is why executives try to keep business meetings humorous. Laughter is disarming. I dare you to try to stay angry at somebody while watching a “Sponge Bob” cartoon on television. Laughter can release us.

You know, people in hospitals recovering from illnesses will recover much faster and are less likely to have complications if they are kept laughing. The airflow into the lungs while laughing helps to keep the patient from developing pneumonia. The endorphins released by the body during laughter is a natural painkiller. And, the increased blood flow during laughter can act like a stimulant. Maybe you will feel better and stay awake during worship if there is laughter!


In the scripture from Psalm 126, we read about the joy of the harvest, bringing in the sheaves, that comes after sowing the seed with tears. I think it was the great preacher Charles Spurgeon who mentioned the idea that each seed that is sown is watered with a single tear by the farmer. Joy follows sadness. It is the growth of the soul that leads to the greatest joys. That starts with struggle.

At Christmas we have the joy of the birth of the Lord in Bethlehem. How can we forget the pregnancy and birth pangs? The joy of Christ follows the pangs of Mary and that of the entire world. This last week before Christmas, within our church, we have seen so many struggles. But now, today, these are followed with Joy and laughter.