Summary: James urges us to turn our laughter over sin into mourning.
“Knock, knock.” Who’s there? “Sadie.” Sadie who? “Say de magic word and I’ll let you out!”
“Knock, knock.” Who’s there? “Nobel.” Nobel who? “No bell so I knocked!”
“Knock, knock.” Who’s there? “Dewey.” Dewey who? “Do we have to listen to anymore knock, knock jokes?”
I appreciate the few groans I got which I’ll take for laughter. I would have had better jokes but I didn’t have any copies of Readers’ Digest. That little magazine always had good clean jokes in its “Laughter Is the Best Medicine” section. And for the most part laughter is the best medicine isn’t it? If you’re laughing, you’re too busy to be stressed. So if we could just laugh our way through life, we’d be set, right? Not exactly, says the Apostle James in our text. In fact he explains when laughter is not the best medicine. Let’s find out what James is talking about.
If you were looking for some light reading to cheer you up before bed, the New Testament book of James is not usually the book most would grab. That’s because James, the half-brother of Jesus, had to write stern words to Jewish Christians who acted as if Christianity was like nothing more than a go-out-for-Sunday-brunch ritual. They may have been on their best behaviour while at church but they quickly shrugged out of their niceties as easily as kicking off a pair of dress shoes once they returned home. You may think I’m exaggerating but listen to James: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight” (James 4:1, 2a). Christians coveting, quarrelling, even killing?!? And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Other problems these self-professing Christians had were boasting and cursing. They also discriminated between the rich and the poor, and took advantage of those who were less well off than they. The worst part is that these “Christians” weren’t the least bit bothered by these sins. They figured that as long as they believed in Jesus, they were bound for heaven no matter how they acted along the way.
Have you ever been at a church with members like that? Of course you have. Wherever Christians gather, sinners meet...even here. Tell me, have you ever caught yourself coveting someone else’s set of wheels as you walked through the church parking lot? What about a pair of shoes you saw flash on the way up to Holy Communion? Ever wonder why you can’t afford such a nice pair, as if God never gives you good things? And did you perhaps “admire” something more about that person than the shoes he or she was wearing? Can it be? Would we really entertain such sinful thoughts at such a sacred time in worship? Or have you ever gone to a church meeting where you didn’t have to fight down the urge to “put someone in their place”? “Ah, but like you said, Pastor, we Christians are sinners. We’re not perfect.” You’re right. But that wasn’t James’ issue with his readers. His problem was their attitude about their sin. James wrote: “8Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom ” (James 4:8b, 9).
James’ readers thought that their sins were harmless - funny even, like the tantrum someone else’s three-year-old throws in the middle of the mall. And we’re a lot like James’ original listeners, aren’t we? We brag to our friends about how we got away with cheating on a test. We laugh about how our parents believed our half-truth about what we did last weekend. And we boast about how we got back at a neighbor for that pesky pet of his. But there’s a time when laughter is NOT the best medicine. God, who seeks our eternal happiness, doesn’t want us to be jolly when it comes to sin. He wants us to mourn, wail, and hate what we’ve done.
It might be helpful for us to remember how the “happiness” that sin brings is so short-lived, and therefore not worth pursuing. It’s like the happiness that comes from rolling around in a mud puddle. Have you ever tried it? I played a few soccer games in fields that were nothing but mud and rather enjoyed slip sliding in the mess to see how filthy I could get. But when the game was done it didn’t take long to start shivering from the cold and to start itching from the mud drying on the skin. The only thing I could think of then was getting cleaned up. It turned out that rolling around in the mud really wasn’t that great.