“He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.” (Psalm 2:4).
Whenever I preach, there is an inner caution about what it is I am doing when I engage in God-talk. How is it that the preacher can take a text and propose to enlarge upon it with notions of his or her own and say that this is a Word from the Lord? How can you know that my speech, perhaps enhanced by insights gained from the writings of others more learned than myself, is something God wants you to hear?
As I do not know how to answer that question means that both my speech and your hearing must be rounded with the spirit of humility. For this reason I am persuaded that all God-talk is provisional. To think that we ever truly capture the idea of God and the things that belong to our believing with a net of words can only result in the idolization of ideas.
The God-talk that arises from our wishing to be faithful to the written text is at best only metaphor. Such speech is for saying the unsayable. It is for signaling intimated realities lying beyond the boundaries of our knowing.
God, it appears has left us free to improvise, to be inventive, and to tinker with the machinery of language when reaching toward the infinite. We are free to indulge ourselves in the delicious game of God-talk. All theology, preaching and creating liturgy can be a kind of joyful play – a “now-you-see-it-and-now-you-don’t” sort of affair. No matter how we think about God, God is always there for us.
Metaphorically and poetically, it is easy to envision God breaking into laughter when we with our God-talk try to discover the secret that seems always to stay just beyond and outside our preaching, our creeds and statements of faith.
I am very fond of the psalms and believe they are an example of how people can talk about God – and to God.
Keep in mind that the psalms are a form of thoughtful poetic speech. Poetic speech is metaphor often harnessed to our deep-most longings. Poetic speech is the means by which we reach to that which is highest in ourselves and to that which is higher than ourselves. Poetic speech is not literal talk; it is provisional talk seeking truth.
So God-talk is also a kind of poetic speech. The psalmist engages in poetic speech when mentioning that God laughs. The preacher’s God-talk, given his or her finitude, verges on poetic speech – the preacher plucking seeds of meaning from sacred story as a woman might sort peas from their pods.
In the psalm quote at the head of this essay (here I am indebted to some remembered words by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr) the psalmist shows God laughing at man because of the vanity of man’s imagination, his pretensions and the evil he inflicts upon both humanity and the Earth. This laughter of God is not associated with God being amused. Rather, God’s laughter arises from God knowing that he has enough trump to take all the tricks. God laughs because God knows the outcome of all human selfishness and rebellion – God knows how history will end and laughs at the wicked and all who mean to upset God’s purposes.
The Bible over and again pictures unbelief, pride, blasphemy and irreligion as being among the objects of God’s ridicule. The psalmist in giving poetic voice to the idea of God’s laughter knows that God is not yet victorious over the world; still, the psalmist believes it is already a fact in God’s mind.
Hence the confidence of God’s people. Taking the psalms as a whole, the psalmist by means of poetic speech invites the reader to take heart.
God may not be as we define God in our creeds; nevertheless, this “unsayable” God is never beyond the reach of human need.
Biblical faith allows that God laughs with us. We in turn also laugh, ever confident that God’s love accompanies us on our earthly pilgrimage.
Christianly speaking, we know that the abundant life to which Jesus has called us cannot be had apart from life in this world.
The world is God’s gift to us, a world wherein we are to manage our lives in the presence of possibility, surprise and novelty.
Here also are disappointment, frustration, pain and finally death. Here only will we come to the portals of Eternal Life.
It is here that we discover as did the psalmist that divine design governs in all our days. So in another place the psalmist bears witness to this grace of God when he writes:
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
“Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy.” (Psalm 126:1-2)
God laughs, we laugh. Laughter, said theologian Karl Barth, is the closest thing to the grace of God.
We may laugh because we live in a grace-ordered world. We may laugh because, as poet William Stafford wrote, we live in a world where our stumbling leads home.
The Rev. Merle G. Steva is minister of visitation emeritus, First Parish Church, Saco, and may be reached by email at [email protected]