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Luther and Laughter

The venerable Scottish Psalter paraphrased Psalm 100 in this fashion:

All people that on earth do dwell,

Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice,

Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell,

Come ye before Him and rejoice.

This is true to the meaning of the original Hebrew.

However, many modern hymnals have changed the wording, replacing “mirth” with “fear”:

All people that on earth do dwell,

Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice,

Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell,

Come ye before Him and rejoice.

Should we serve the Lord with fear? Undoubtedly. But this is not what Psalm 100 says.

The Bible should be allowed to speak for itself. We have no right to replace one good thing with even another good thing, if we claim the words of Scripture as our ultimate authority.

German Reformer Martin Luther was a chief advocate of serving God “with mirth.”

Peter L. Berger’s opinion of him is correct: “On examination of the great figures of church history, one could perhaps say that Luther was the one with the greatest sense of humour.”

Born out of his theological perspective of the liberty enjoyed by the justified saint of God, laughter propelled his world view and punctuated Luther’s writings and addresses.

Scarcely anyone understood better than Luther what the apostle Paul had meant with his message of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. The pronouncement of a verdict of “not guilty” in the courtroom of God for everyone who believes in Christ and repents of sin – a verdict which becomes effective in this present time and will be confirmed at the last judgment – filled his soul with unbounded joy. To him, laughter and humour were some of the flowers that grew from the stem of peace with God.

He stated, “The Gospel is nothing less than laughter and joy.”

This is why the Reformer did not allow himself to be overwhelmed by the reality of the world or the perversity of the devil.

Martin Luther cocked a snook at the devil as the spirit of sadness: “A poor man, entangled in sin, death and hell, can not hear anything more comforting than this precious, dear message of Christ. His heart must laugh deeply and become joyful about it ... . Sadness is hereditary to us, and the devil is the spirit of sadness, but God is the spirit of joy, who saves us.”

Due to his faith in justification, Luther counselled against sadness and worries: “If you are moody, you shall remember that the Father now smiles at you. But our heart does not want to understand this, especially when we are challenged. We then think the opposite: that God is our enemy, that he does not esteem us and wants to beat us with the club.”

Several days before his death he wrote to his wife, full of the careless joy of a Christian humour, and with no small portion of irony: “We thank you very sincerely for your great worries, which do not allow you to sleep! Since the time you took care of us, the fire was about to devour us in our guest house, right before the door of our room, and yesterday – doubtless because of your worries – a stone almost dropped on our head, about to squash us like a mousetrap! … . I worry about that you do not stop worrying that, ultimately, the earth will swallow, and all elements will chase us. Pray, and let God provide; you have not been ordered to worry about me or yourself.”

When rumours about his death had spread around the country, Luther mocked them in a ‘Letter about his funeral’: “I, Doctor Martinus, acknowledge that I am totally in accordance with the devil, the Pope and all my enemies. For they would like to be joyful about my death, and I would totally love to grant them such joy and would have liked to have died in Schmalkalden, but God has not yet wanted to confirm such a pleasure.”

By means of his published Table Talks, many of Luther’s merry quotes and rough jokes have been passed on.

Luther once described his mission in these words:

“Perhaps I owe my God and the world another work of folly [besides the Theses]. I intend to pay my debt honestly. And if I succeed I shall for the time being become a court jester. And if I fail, I still have one advantage – no one need buy me a cap or put scissors to my head [his monk’s cowl would serve as a jester’s cap]. It is a question of who will put the bells on whom [that is, who is the bigger fool]. Paul says, ‘He who wishes to be wise must become a fool (1 Corinthians 3:18). Moreover, since I am not only a fool, but also a sworn doctor of Holy Scripture, I am glad for the opportunity to fulfil my doctor’s oath, even in the guise of a fool.”

But perhaps the best example of the Reformer’s satirical mind and tongue is found in his last treatise against Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz, ‘Latest News from the Rhine,’ published in 1542. Albrecht (Albert) feared for his peace of mind in heaven, and collected more than 8,100 relics and 42 holy skeletons which needed to be stored. In response to the Cardinal’s announcement that he planned to exhibit his collection of relics every year in Mainz, Luther responded ironically by advertising that new items had arrived to the collection, for example:

* three flames from the burning bush on Mount Sinai (Exodus 3:3),

* a whole pound of the wind that roared by Elijah in the cave on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:11),

* five nice strings from the harp of David,

* half a wing of the archangel Gabriel,

* and three beautiful locks of Absalom’s hair, which got caught in the oak and left him hanging (2 Samuel 18:9).

Perhaps it is because he struggled with melancholy as well as the profoundest opposition to his passionately-held ideas that Luther’s humour served as a life-raft keeping his spirits buoyed. He will also have realised that humour often proves a tremendous tool for winning the sway of the crowd, be it a crowd of peasants or scholars.

Why do we do tend to travel in the reverse direction and follow the lead of the modern metrical psalmists in changing “mirth” to “fear”? Surely it is because we don’t trust God as we should. We think we know better. We fear joy. We fear the authority of joy, the abandonment of our hearts to joy.

Reformed churches belong to a revival tradition. It is time to get back in touch with our spiritual roots, or joy will die. We cannot afford to let this happen on our watch.

“And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.” (Nehemiah 8:12).

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