The Civic and Parish Church of Bournemouth

A Sermon for Advent 3 2018

A man who has braved recent storms and spent last night under the pier wanders in and tries to tell a joke  – but it falls flat.  No one is greatly fussed – it happens.  But, by contrast, if we were honoured with a royal visit and that visitor told an unfunny joke you might feel the tension rise to a level that just doesn’t happen when a powerless person fails in his or her attempt at humour.  Why is the tension higher if a powerful person’s humour is off the mark? Because everyone present is stuck between the utter dishonesty of laughing at something very unfunny and the risk of embarrassing a more powerful and influential person by not laughing.  A dilemma!

Laughter can be a serious business! For a rare minority of people it is literally impossible to take a joke.  There is a word for this: Gelotophobia – the fear of being laughed at. Those who suffer from gelotophobia react to all laughter as if it is at their expense. They are fearing the power of laughter being used against them. Their fear can bring stress headaches, uncontrollable trembling, or adrenaline-fueled bursts of anger. 

What causes a fear of laughter to develop? Bullying—in one form or another—is often to blame.  How powerful we feel influences our inclination to use humour. How we use power has far-reaching consequences.

Mary’s song of praise urges us to think about power: (I hope there’s no one here suffering from gelatophobia – if there is, any laughter is definitely not at your expense!)

5 year old: “Mom, can I sleep with jump leads under my pillow?”

Mom: “OK, but you have to promise not to start anything.”  But then there’s a different kind of power … for example, as successful entrepreneurs we want to teach our children what we have learned.. One entrepreneur sat his four year old son down and said, “It’s time for your lesson.” What’s two plus two?”

The little boy said “Two plus two is Six.”

“No, son,” his father said, “two plus two is not six. Two plus two is four.”

“I’m sorry, daddy” said the little boy. “I thought we were negotiating.”

And then there’s the power of subtle manipulation:

There were 11 people hanging on to a rope that came down from a helicopter. Ten men and one woman.    The pilot shouted down that one person should let go, because if they didn’t, the rope would break and everyone would die. No one could decide who should go. Finally the woman gave a really touching speech on how she would give up her life to save the others, because women were used to giving up things for their husbands and children and giving in to men.      

      All of the men started clapping.  Aghhh…..!   One person left on the rope. The subtle power of catching out those who are trying to score off you!

And there’s the power of national leaders:  Did you hear the story of the Soviet foreign minister in Stalin’s time who was overheard talking to Stalin by trans-Atlantic telephone. “Yes, Comrade Stalin,” (& almost saluting as he answered); but, then, surprisingly, “No, Comrade Stalin,” and he almost shouted, “No. That’s, definitely, no!”

The foreign minister grinned, as he put down the ‘phone, at those listening to him, and explained:       “Comrade Stalin asked me if there was anything he had said with which I disagreed.”  The power of reprisals!

So what is the power of God like?

Mary’s song of praise to God for the baby Jesus includes, ‘He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble’.

If Mary is to be believed, God questions violent and coercive uses of power – even overturns them, as He freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  

What does that mean for us?  In the face of our carefully hidden desires to be more important and powerful – at home, with family and friends, and in many other places,  God assures us that,  ‘He has brought downrulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble’; and this is not only made explicit in Mary’s song of praise, but in the helplessness of the baby to whom she will give birth, who shows us that the nature of the power at the heart of the universe is the same power of gentle weakness and wounded love that, 33 years after the birth of the baby, hung on a cross dying for us – such was, and is, and ever will be, the power of His vulnerable love, which He longs for us to share with others. +