Rev. John Zehring
November 19, 2019
“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27
God created humankind in God’s image. We have returned the compliment by recreating God in our image, especially in how we depict Jesus. White. Middle class. Well-groomed. Politically conservative. One of the most popular depictions of Jesus is Warner Sallman’s 1940 portrait painting of Jesus of Nazareth, now the image of Christ for hundreds of millions of people. Clean. Watered down. A bit effeminate. Looks somewhat like us. Sanitized, tamed and molded into our own image. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”
Others champion Jesus of Nazareth as a flaming, angry, liberal progressive, send by God to implement transformative social reforms. Their text is Luke 4, when Jesus stood up in his hometown synagogue and proclaimed… “‘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 let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’.” (Luke 4:18-21). Jesus might have brought good news to the poor but, sad to say, the captives then and since have not been released, the blind (literally and figuratively) still do not see, and the oppressed are worse off than ever. Think of families separated at the border, with children separated from their family and caged worse than outcast family pets at a shelter.
For a children’s sermon, I shared pictures from a book called “The Faces of Jesus.” It depicts worldwide paintings, carvings and sculptures of Jesus from every culture on the globe. The faces portrayed came from the Annunciation, Nativity, Ministry, Last Supper, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. Classical artists as well as contemporary artists of many countries are represented. A Mexican Jesus looks Mexican. An Italian Jesus appears Italian. An Ethiopian Jesus looks Ethiopian. North America portrayed Jesus looking like a suburbanite. Most of the famous heads of Christ were included. I invited the children to look at the dozens of pictures and tell me if they could spot anything they had in common. The children, keen observers as they are, got it. They recognized immediately the one thing all of the faces of Jesus have in common: He is not smiling. He’s not happy. Zero laughter. Lacking joy. Whether a Russian icon or an African carving, Jesus looks grumpy.
It is not just Americans who recreate Jesus into their own image. Everyone does it. Every culture. Every country. Every time in history. Jesus has been recreated by many of the greatest artists in the history of civilization.
An exception. In 1973, Canadian artist Willis Wheatley, then working for the United Church head office in Toronto, created a portrait of Jesus titled “Jesus Christ, Liberator.” When Wheatley died, the United Church of Canada acquired rights to the drawing. They, in turn, allowed a group of Paulist priests in San Francisco to produce it under the name of “The Laughing Christ.” Today the popular picture is known as “Laughing Jesus” or “Laughing Christ.” The portrait appears welcoming and happy. It looks like Jesus just heard a funny joke and he is bursting his sides with happy and healthy laughter. This looks like a man you’d enjoy being with. While the gospels do not record stories of Jesus laughing, the Psalms tell about God laughing: “He who sits in the heavens laughs.” (Psalm 2:4). God laughs.
Every culture has recreated Jesus. The most important missing quality of his personality is laughter. Where is the joy? Where is the smile, the happy emotion, and the funny bone?
Every culture has recreated Jesus. The most important missing quality of his personality is laughter. Where is the joy?
God laughs. Celebrate that God laughs and that you were meant to laugh too.
I passed a church sign that read “God’s light shines brightest in your deepest valleys.” Absolutely true. We have all experienced God’s light in our dark times. But I am also reminded of a veterinarian who responded to my sermons: “You’re always talking about the troubled, the distressed and the hurting. What’s your message for those of us who are strong, healthy, happy and vibrant?” He nailed it. We create faith in God into a salve for the hurting, which it most definitely is, but that is only a part of the story. God is there for us on our best of days when everything is going wonderfully. “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24). God laughs. You too would be well-served to laugh more and smile as much as you can. If God laughs, so should you. Your inner spirit has a right to laugh and a need to laugh.
Research from the Mayo Clinic provides data about the positive benefits laughter can bring. Mayo staff tell how when you start to laugh, it does not just lighten your load mentally, it actually induces physical changes in your body. Laughter can stimulate many organs. Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain. Laughter cools down your stress response, and it can increase your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling. Laughter soothes tension and can stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.
Other research has pointed out that laughter lightens anger’s heavy load. Nothing diffuses anger or conflict faster than a shared laugh. Looking at the funny side can put problems into perspective and enable you to move on from confrontations without holding onto bitterness or resentment. Laughter may even help you to live longer. A study in Norway found that people with a strong sense of humor outlived those who did not laugh as much. The difference was especially pronounced for those fighting cancer.
“A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones,” says Proverbs 17:22. And so, celebrate that God laughs and that you were meant to laugh too. Take time to laugh. As needed, laugh at yourself so as not to take yourself too seriously. And as you think about matters of faith, lighten up and recognize that there is a cheerful, happy, joyful and laughing side to your relationship with God.
A young girl in church school was furiously drawing a picture, switching out one crayon after another. Her teacher came by and asked “Honey, what are you drawing?” Without looking up, the girl answered, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” The teacher commented “Honey, no one really knows what God looks like.” Without pausing from her drawing, the girl replied, “They will when I get done!” Hopefully her depiction, unlike the sanitized portraits throughout history, will radiate a laughing, smiling, happy, and joy-filled Jesus who came not only for those who are hurting, but for all. All.
The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”