BIBLE READING: John 3:1-17
Remember last week I mentioned the church of the holy laughter? Today, I thought I might reflect a little on what makes us smile. "Laughter," said Victor Hugo, "is the sun that drives winter from the human face." This morning I feel a need to be a little less serious and to share some of that "sun that drives winter from the human face."
In 2001 a British research group at the University of Hertfordshire set out to discover the world's funniest joke. More than 300,000 people from around the world visited an Internet web site called laughlab where they submitted 40,000 jokes and rated other people's submissions.
Out of 40,000 possible jokes, younger people ages 11 to 15 voted the following as the funniest: A new teacher was trying to make use of her psychology courses. She started her class by saying: "everyone who thinks they're stupid, stand up!" After a few seconds, Johnny stood up. The teacher said: "do you think you're stupid, Johnny?" Johnny replied: "no, ma'am, but I hate to see you standing there all by yourself."
Here is the runner up joke top rated by children: A boy is digging a hole in his backyard. The neighbour asks why he's digging the hole. The boy replies: "My gold fish died. I have to bury him." The neighbour observes: "That's a mighty big hole for a goldfish." The boy says: "Yeah, but he's in you cat."
The top joke, as voted by people over the age of 50 was this one: An elderly woman went to the police station with her next-door neighbour to report her husband was missing. The police officer asked for a description.
She said: "He's 35 years old, 193cms, has dark eyes, dark wavy hair, an athletic build, weighs 84 Kilograms, is soft-spoken, and is good to children."
The next-door neighbour protested: "Your husband is 162cms, chubby, bald, has a big mouth, and is mean to your children." The wife replied:
"Yeah, but who wants HIM back."
What was the top joke for all ages? A couple of hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing. His eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: "my friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator in a calm soothing voice, says: "Just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead."
There is silence, then a shot is heard. The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: "OK, now what?"
The Old Testament contains one of the oldest recorded fits of laughter. In Genesis God and Abraham talk. Abraham is 100 years old and his wife is 90.
God said, "As for Sarah your wife . . . I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her." Abraham fell on his face and laughed. In spite of Abraham's laughing at God, Sarah did have a child, and he is named Isaac, which means laughter.
So why do we laugh? One of the earliest theories of laughter is from Plato.
He said laughter helps us feel superior to other people. In the hunting joke, for example, we feel superior to the stupid hunter who shoots his friend to make sure he is dead. In the teacher asking the stupid students to stand up, kids feel superior to adults. Plato thought that it was wrong to laugh at the misfortune of others and he urged people to refrain from laughing.
Sigmund Freud developed another explanation as to why we laugh. Freud said that laughter is a way in which people can release their pent-up thoughts in a socially acceptable way. These include pent-up thoughts about death, sex, marriage, authority figures, certain bodily functions, anything that is socially unacceptable to say with a straight face. To Freud humour provides a kind of relief, a way of coping with the problems of our lives or issues that we are embarrassed or reluctant to confront. Freud might say the purpose of the hunter joke is to release our pent-up feelings about death.
Biologists have asked how laughter might have evolved in us to help us survive. They note that babies begin laughing at a fairly early age. One theory suggests that a baby's laughter is positive feedback to hard working parents who need such encouragement as they care for the child.
Studies indicate that children laugh about 400 times a day. Adults laugh on average about 18 times a day. As we grow older and continue to laugh, other survival explanations for our adult laughter have been proposed.
The philosopher Henri Bergson argued that the purpose of laughter is to communicate with other people. Dr. Robert Provine of the University of Maryland at Baltimore spent ten years studying laughter and came to the same conclusion. In his book Laughter a Scientific Investigation. He argues that laughter evolved as a way to interact with other people. Dr. Provine recorded and studying many conversations. He documented that in general men tell the jokes and women supply the laughter. He also looked at personal ads in newspapers and documented that many women seek men who make them laugh and many men try to comply with this request.
In a study of spontaneous conversations between mixed sex pairs of young German adults who were meeting for the first time, the more a woman laughed aloud during these encounters, the greater was her self-reported interest in seeing the man again. A man's laughter did not indicate interest in the woman, but men were interested in seeing again women who laughed a lot in their presence. The laughter of the female, not the male, is the critical positive indicator of a continuing relationship. Also, simultaneous male and female laughter was a predictor of mutual interest.
Laughter, researchers conclude, is one way we communicate attraction or lack of attraction in relationships. Laughter is a form of communication that plays a role in social bonding, in solidifying friendships and pulling people into the fold. Most ministers know this. We tell jokes as a way of solidifying a religious community, a way of pulling people into the fold of the congregation.
The British web site Laughlab received a lot of jokes about God. After analysing the joke score for each one, they were able to determine the top God jokes. The most popular God joke was this one: A man gets home from work one night and hears a voice. The voice tells him: "quit your job, sell your house, take your money, go to the Casino." The man is disturbed at what he hears and ignores the voice. The next day when he gets home from work, the same thing happens. The voice tells him, "quit your job, sell your house, take your money, go to the Casino." Again the man ignores the voice, though he is very troubled by the event. Every day, day after day, the man hears the same voice when he gets home from work: "quit your job, sell your house, take your money, go to the Casino." Each time the man hears the voice he becomes increasingly upset.
Finally, after two weeks, he succumbs to the pressure. He does quit his job, sell his house, take his money and head to the Casino. The moment the man enters the casino, the voice tells him: "go to the roulette table." The man does as he is told. When he gets to the roulette table, the voice tells him: "put all your money on 17." Nervously the man cashes in his money for chips and then puts them all on 17. The dealer wishes the man good luck and spends the roulette wheel. Around and around the ball goes. The man anxiously watches the ball as it slowly loses speed until it finally settles into number . . .21. The voice says: "darn."
Nicodemus is apparently wealthy. He is a leader among the conservative Jews of Jerusalem. He comes to Jesus by night, probably for fear that others might see him. He is invited to consider opening himself to the Spirit that it might rework him into a new person. He is invited to be "born anew" or "born again" or "born from above." No matter how it is translated, he is invited to let God reshape him and remake him into a new and different person.
The Gospel of God, the Good News of Jesus Christ is that we all can become new. We need not continue in our old ways.
Life is risky, even for God. God leads Nicodemus out that night to find Jesus. God reaches out to him through Jesus and offers him a new beginning. Will Nicodemus awaken? Will he choose life? It's a risky thing - personal transformation. It's risky for God and it's risky for us. You have a lot to lose, don't you? But, then that's the point, isn't it. And you have a lot to gain. You have your whole life to gain.
What do you choose? Do you feel stuck in your life? Do you feel hopeless, afraid, anxious? Medications can help a little. Talking about it can help more. But, what I find most promising is what I've always found - to not take myself too seriously and to remember that God offers us all the opportunity to be remade, to be reborn, to awaken to a new way of living.
On the deepest level, laughter is a spiritual affirmation, a source of faith in people and in the future. It is an amusement with life itself, a posture of courage in the face of tragedy, a thumbing of the nose at a disaster. In the words of Victor Hugo: "Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face."
(A sermon based on the thoughts of Rev. Clay Andrew)