Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Joy: A Sermon on Holy Hilarity

  • James Harnish
  • 2009 25 May
Joy: A Sermon on Holy Hilarity

Text: Philippians 4:20 

Tucked away in my memory bank is a "Peanuts" cartoon in which Lucy asks Charlie Brown, "Did you ever know anyone who was really happy..." Before she can finish the question, Snoopy comes dancing into the next frame. As only Snoopy can, he dances his merry way across the frames while Lucy and Charlie watch in amazement. In the last frame Lucy finishes her question, "Did you ever know anyone who was really happy... and was still in their right mind?"

You might want to ask that question of Paul. By the world's standards of happiness, anyone who was in his position and in his right mind should have been miserable. He was in prison when he wrote this epistle.

He had lost everything he valued or that gave him happiness. He is isolated from his closest co-workers and most intimate friends, and perhaps most difficult of all, he has no idea what the future might hold. He waits for the Emperor to decide if he will live or die.

By the world's standards, he should be miserable, but when you read this letter, from first to the last, it vibrates with joy. And just in case you missed the point, he comes to the closing verses and says: Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say, Rejoice!

One of Paul's favorite words is the Greek word hilarotes, from which we get the word hilarity. It literally means "laughter from the heart."

When Paul talks about joy, he doesn't mean the trivial, shallow, obscene or mean-spirited stuff we call humor today. He means bone-deep, blood-rich, exuberant laughter which comes up out of the depths of a person's soul, joy which flows from the center of our being, happiness coming from the depth of our hearts.

Did you hear about the little boy who, when asked to put his hand on his heart for the Pledge of Allegiance, patted his little bottom. When his teacher asked why, he said, "Because Grandma picks me up and pats me right there and says, 'Bless your little heart.'" Wherever you think it comes from, it's laughter from the heart; holy hilarity comes from the depth of the human soul.

I'm not sure where we got the idea that Christianity is for serious, somber, artificially-pious, self-righteous folks, but it's been around for awhile. Before the Church Lady appeared on Saturday Night Live, John Steinbeck described Liza Hamilton in East of Eden as:

"...a tight hard little woman humorless as a chicken ... [with] a dour Presbyterian mind and a code of morals that pinned down and beat the brains out of nearly everything that was pleasant to do."  

I'm not sure where we got that stuff, but it didn't come from the New Testament. This book vibrates with great joy.

When I began preparing this sermon I expected it to focus on the hilarious end of this passage, but as I lived with the text, I discovered to my surprise that the place I identified most closely with Paul was at that point of his not knowing what the future would hold; the realization of his being in a transitional period during which he didn't quite know what might lie ahead. I love Paul's words in the Philippians 3:1 of this letter. I memorized them as a kid. Paul says,

This one thing I do, forgetting the things that are behind, and reaching out to what lies ahead I go straight for the goal ...

It sounds great when Paul says it, but you know, it's tough to let go of the past, particularly when it is a happy past, and it's hard to let go of a comfortable, secure present to reach for some unknown future. That's tougher than it sounds.

I've been here 16 months now. I would have thought that the transition period in my life would have been over by now, but I'm aware that I'm not nearly through it. We're still working on the transition -- letting go of a happy past to claim an unknown future.

I knew that was true for us, but I've become aware that it's true for you, too. Totally apart from who stands in this pulpit, this congregation is in a time of transition. If I had to choose one verse to describe where we are as a congregation, it would be those words from John's epistle: "It has not yet been revealed what we shall be." (1 John 3:2)

We don't yet know what we will be. God hasn't yet revealed his vision for our future, but we know that if we are going to be effective in the 21st Century our church will be very different than it has been in the past. When you have a happy past and a comfortable present, it is very uncomfortable to reach out for an unknown future.

I had two conversations, nearly back to back, this week, in which two people said basically the same thing but with opposite feelings. One person said, "This church just doesn't seem to be the way it's been before." They said it with discomfort; they didn't like it. Within hours, another person said. "Things just aren't the same around here," and they were delighted.

We're in transition around here. We don't know what the future will hold. If you feel just a little uncomfortable, you're in good company. That's how Paul felt. And where do we find that holy hilarity which Paul described? I want to point out some road marks along the path to that kind of joy. First, at Philippians 4:6.

"Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."

Holy hilarity is born out of deep, inner peace; peace which passes all understanding; peace which comes from knowing that we are really loved and accepted by God.

My experience tells me that uptight people can never really experience joy. People who have everything screwed down real tight can never learn to dance. People who are not at peace with themselves, people who carry around the baggage of past hurts and failures, people who look at the world through the narrow lens of their own self-interest, people who just plain don't like themselves or others, can never really discover the hilarity the Gospel promises. Only those who let go and discover the deep peace which comes in knowing we are loved simply because God chooses to accept and love us, can know the freedom of laughter.

There's a line from G. K. Chesterton which I've claimed as part of the operating creed for the second half of my life: "Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly."

I have known a lot of Christian folks who take themselves entirely too seriously. We need to take the love of God and the good news of the Gospel seriously, but we don't have to take ourselves seriously at all. There is great joy that comes in knowing that we can trust the goodness and love of God.

It comes from my past. I grew up in a tightly-knit religious tradition which conditioned me to think that God, the universe and everybody was depending on my getting everything "just right." I haven't gotten free from all of that yet, but a part of the process of sanctification in my life has been for me to be set free from all of that. I don't have to get it all right because I am loved by God. And it's in that love that we discover the peace from which real joy flows.

Second, look at Philippians 4:8.

"Finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

Real joy -- holy hilarity -- is shaped by a disciplined focus of our hearts and minds and souls on things that are good, things that are beautiful, things that are filled with the joy of the Spirit of Christ.

Call it "the power of positive thinking" if you like Norman Vincent Peale.

Call it "possibility thinking" if you're a fan of Robert Schuller.

Call it "garbage in, garbage out" if you're a computer whiz.

Whatever you call it, the principle is the same. To experience joy we have to set our minds on things that are really good, things which express the greatness and goodness and joy of God.

I'm just like you ... I have days when I want to throw in the towel. I had one this week, when I wondered if we were really accomplishing anything around here at all. The phone calls were piling up, there wasn't much progress on the office renovations, the budget proposals seemed beyond our reach ... it was one of those days. Across town for another appointment, I met a member of one of the Disciple Bible Study groups. To tell you the truth, I had forgotten that she was in it. She told me how she loved the leadership, how much the people seemed to care about each other. Then her eyes lit up and she said, "And get this, I've finished studying the book of Genesis already!"

I came back to the office saying, "Harnish, keep your eyes on the good things that are happening around here. Set your minds on the places where people are discovering new life and new joy." Think on these things.

Then move to the Philippians 4:10.

"I rejoice greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.

This letter is not a "Paul-yanna" denial of the real difficulty of the circumstances Paul faced. None of that. Paul is honest about the distress he faces. But in the midst of that difficulty, there came a gift from the folks in Philippi. This epistle is a "Thank you" note, just like the ones your Mama taught you to write when you receive a gift. It's a letter of thanks for the love, concern, support which come to Paul from Philippi.

Holy hilarity comes from sharing the love, friendship and encouragement of the Body of Christ.

Paul uses this word, hilarotes, in the Corinthian letter when he writes, "God loves a cheerful giver," literally, "God loves a hilarious giver." With the budget going to the Board tomorrow night and wheels cranking up for the Stewardship Crusade, I expected this to be a great place to talk about "hilarious giving." I could see myself warming up for a strong pitch on the joy of giving, but that will have to come later, because in this passage Paul is not talking about the joy of giving, but the joy which comes from receiving. Some Christians have a much harder time receiving than giving but holy hilarity comes from receiving the gift of friendship, laughter, care, encouragement from someone else.

As I said, this was a heavy week. But then Friday I received a surprising piece of mail from a leader in this church which was terribly funny and totally inappropriate for Sunday morning. It was a hoot. I laughed out loud. It was a great gift of joy and encouragement. Holy hilarity comes from sharing the gifts of love and friendship with each other.

Finally, Paul comes to this grand conclusion in Philippians 4:11.

"I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

The J. B. Phillips translation has great feeling for the emotion of Paul's letters. Listen to the way he translated that:

"I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances may be. I know now how to live when things are difficult and I know how to live when things are prosperous...I have learned the secret of facing plenty or poverty. I am ready for anything through the strength of the one who lives within me."

Paul said he had already learned all of that. I know that I'd like to. Wouldn't you? Wouldn't you like to experience the hilarity of the soul which thrives within us in any circumstances?

I thought this week about Psalms 51:1, where the psalmist prays, "Restore to me the joy of your salvation." I don't know a single healthy Christian who doesn't have days when they pray that prayer. Anyone who says they never feel like that is either lying to themselves or lying to you. We all need that prayer now and then. And, who knows? Perhaps some of us need it today.

Content provided by: