Who was Mary Magdalene?

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!”John 20:18

Who was Mary Magdalene? A prostitute? A woman once possessed by the devil? Jesus’s lover? Jesus’s wife? “The apostle to the apostles”? “The thirteenth disciple”?

I would say just one of those descriptions is good. (Feel like guessing which one?)

Whatever, two thousand years of Christian history have thrown up all these portraits of Mary: which just goes to show how obsessed people can be with improving (supposedly) on what the Bible actually says.

So… what does the Bible say?

The short answer is: very little. Her name suggests that she came from the town of Magdala, a fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. She was numbered among Jesus’s inner circle, along with the twelve disciples and “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases” (Luke 8:2) who supported Jesus and the twelve financially.

We are told there also that “seven demons had come out of her” – but what lies behind that tantalising scrap of information we can only guess. (Given that the Bible chooses not to tell us, let’s be warned not to guess; who are we to shove our noses into things the Spirit has kept from us?)

She figures prominently in the events of Jesus’s suffering and death – she stands with other women before the cross, and, supremely, she is a witness to the events of the first Easter morning.

And that’s just about it.

Her reputation as a prostitute arose because somebody decided to identify her with the unnamed “sinful woman” of Luke 7:36-50 who anointed Jesus at the meal table, and the story caught on. There is no evidence for this, nor for the suggestion that there was any kind of romance between her and Jesus. (Keep these things in mind next time you come across a tacky “unputdownable” novel or a sensational “must-see” film.)

So… Mary was a loyal supporter of Jesus, who had had some kind of troubling spiritual affliction which he healed. That sums it up.

But there is a wonderful detail we shouldn’t miss: Mary was the first person in history to be able to utter the words “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18). She was the first witness to the resurrection…

The early part of John 20 is pretty breathless stuff – everyone seems to be running.

Mary, first, probably along with the other women mentioned in the other Gospels, comes in the dark of early morning and finds that the tomb of Jesus is open. She runs to tell the disciples. So Simon Peter and “the disciple Jesus loved” (probably John the son of Zebedee) run to the tomb, with Mary bringing up the rear.

John outruns Peter, but hesitates to enter the tomb until Peter catches up with him. But when he does go inside… “he saw and believed”. (Can you picture his face in that electrifying moment?) The two of them head off back to where they are staying, no doubt walking now, but no doubt also wracking their brains to take in just what has happened.

Mary lingers, no doubt in a state of shock, fear and total confusion: what is going on!

She gets into conversation with the gardener and – well, read it for yourself in John 20:11-18. The gardener (who, of course, isn’t the gardener) speaks her name: “Mary”. And her world is changed for ever.

And then?… I picture Peter and John sitting with the other disciples in their lodgings: John – the first believer! – is quivering with excitement and trying to convince Peter, and the rest, of the astounding truth: Jesus has risen from the dead. Peter is sceptically shaking his head.

The door bursts open. Everyone looks up. Mary has run like the wind. Her face is bright red; her hair is all over the place; and she is panting so hard that she can hardly get her words out. But when she finally does, there is a moment of utter, awe-struck, pin-drop silence: “I have seen the Lord!”

What a moment! Oh, what a moment!

To Mary Magdalene fell the privilege, the honour, of being the first person to bear witness to the resurrection. Not to Peter, James or John or any of the men. (Who says God has a down on women?) Which means – going back to our question at the beginning – that she is truly “the apostle to the apostles”, for the word “apostle” simply means “someone sent with a message”.

What can I say? We cannot make Mary’s claim, “I have seen the Lord”. But we can claim to know him, and seek to love and follow him. So let us too do what Mary did – be apostles, if not to the apostles, then to our unbelieving world. How can we keep this staggering, life-changing, world-changing message to ourselves?

Lord God, thank you for those brave and dedicated women who were with Jesus and the twelve in the early days, and especially for Mary Magdalene, the “apostle to the apostles”. Please grip me afresh with the wonder of what happened that first Easter Day, and help me also to be an apostle to those whom I meet. Amen.

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How to ruin your life – and how it can be mended

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised that they were naked… Genesis 3:6-7

When Steve Smith is an old man he will be remembered for different things by different people, depending on the place he had in their lives. But for a very large number of people he will be remembered chiefly for just one thing – and that one thing, I’m afraid, a bad thing.

What am I talking about? Steve Smith? Who’s he?

Until a few days ago he was the captain of the Australia cricket team, and one of the most successful batsmen in the history of the game. But he and a couple of team-mates hatched a plan – a stupid, grubby, pathetic little plan, to be honest – to cheat in a test match. They tampered with the ball in an attempt (which turned out to be useless) to gain an advantage over their opponents.

And… they were found out.

Cue an explosion of outrage. So Smith has had to resign as Australia captain, and his up-to-now glittering career has, for the time being at least, ground to a juddering halt. Now it’s all about shame, guilt, regret, remorse. Even if he is able at some point to successfully resume his career, what he did will never be forgotten.

Am I stretching things to be reminded of Adam and Eve in Eden?

I don’t think so. Set aside questions of how literally we are supposed to take the story – the point is, as one writer puts it, “They exercised their freedom to disobey God’s command, ate the fruit, and wound up standing on the curb outside the garden with their battered suitcases lying beside them on the ground.”

Banished. Outcasts. Like Steve Smith. From unspeakable bliss to unbearable wretchedness. So much ruin! How bitter can you get?

A modern true story and an ancient, God-inspired tale. And what they have in common, of course, is that they are to do with sin. They remind us that our actions have consequences.

It’s the big sins that grip our imaginations, of course. None bigger than what happened that terrible day in Eden.

And sins that catch the headlines. Steve Smith is in good (or should I say bad?) company – think of the politician who embarks on a squalid affair, or the banker who uses inside knowledge to help himself to millions, or the vicar who exercises inappropriate power over vulnerable people. How we love reading about these stories in our papers!

But we’d better be careful. For even the seemingly tiny, unnoticed sins have a serious effect on our lives and upon the kind of people we are becoming. When I was a teenager there was a pop song with a line that has never left me: “One day, you’re gonna discover, one little wrong leads to another…”

Is it too much to say that every human being is the sum total of the things they have done, thought and said?

Choices matter; decisions matter. No wrong-doing is petty, for it contributes in ways we cannot imagine to the formation of our characters.

The question that we need to face is as basic as you could get: Do we take sin seriously? Or do we, perhaps subconsciously, gloss over it with feeble words: “Well, everyone does it”, or, “I can’t help it – it’s just the way I am”, perhaps even “I’m sure God will forgive me.” Anything rather than face reality and resolve to change.

I said earlier that what Steve Smith did will never be forgotten. And as long as there are still people living on this earth I suspect that that is true.

But it isn’t the whole truth. The good news is that God (and ultimately, of course, he is the only one who really matters) loves to forget.

At the heart of the Christian faith is a truth that can be summed up in just three words: God loves sinners. And in his Son Jesus he has made it possible for us to be forgiven and for all our sins, both great and small, to be forgotten, wiped out, obliterated.

This is the meaning of the cross; this is the message of Good Friday. Long before he died on the cross Jesus was described as the sacrificial “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And those words mean exactly what they say.

Yes, Steve Smith did a bad thing. But I find myself feeling rather sorry for him rather than judging him; for haven’t I done many bad things too?

The fact is… I am Adam. I am Eve. And – yes, I am Steve Smith too. (Though not, sadly, when it comes to batting).

Lord God, when I look at the cross I am made aware of how seriously you take sin. Please help me to take it as seriously, and so to appreciate better what Jesus did for me. Amen.

A nasty piece of work?

Love does not delight in evil… 1 Corinthians 13:6

Do you ever take pleasure in badness? Come on, be honest, now!

I suspect all of us, from time to time, experience a little shiver – what I think the French call a frisson – of enjoyment when, say, we hear about something nasty happening to someone we don’t like.

Yes? Well, we need to listen to the apostle Paul as he tells his readers in Corinth not to “delight in evil”.

Is he thinking about evil in the sense of wickedness, bad things you do, or in the sense of misfortune, bad things that happen? The immediate answer is the first, wickedness.

A clue as to why he gives this rather negative command may be found earlier in 1 Corinthians, in chapter 5. Apparently there has been a grossly scandalous episode in the church in Corinth: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate…” Paul is obviously very shocked. But even worse follows: “And you are proud!” A clear case, it would seem, of “delighting in evil”.

I think, though, that delighting in evil can also apply to misfortune, to plain bad luck – we quite like it, don’t we, when people we regard as bad “get their comeuppance”? Huh, serve ‘em right!

The question arises: why would anybody, Christian or not, be guilty of this unpleasant attitude? I would suggest three possible answers – and I invite each of us to look at ourselves to see what, if anything, fits.

First, some people seem to be – putting it bluntly – rotten through and through. They seem to have no conscience, no sense at all of right and wrong.

In one of Shakespeare’s least known plays, Titus Andronicus, there is a character called Aaron. To describe him as “a nasty piece of work” would be flattering him. At the end of the play, after he has been found out and is facing the prospect of torture and death, he speaks these chilling, appalling words: “If one good deed in all my life I did,/ I do repent it from my very soul.”

Well, I don’t imagine many of us are as sunk in wickedness as Aaron. But (how best to put this?) we, ahem, aren’t quite as nice as we like to make out, are we? If we take an honest look into the murky depths of our hearts we see things which are not exactly pleasant. And one of those things may very well be a tendency to “delight in evil” – to “gloat”, in fact.

Second, delighting in evil helps us to feel better about ourselves, especially if we are by nature a bit low in self-esteem: “Well, of course, I would never act in such a way,” we think. Seeing sin in other people fosters a sense of smugness and self-righteousness in us.

This, of course, can be the special curse of the “religious” man or woman – that we go around with a nose-in-the-air, “holier-than-thou” manner. How many people, I wonder, have been put off turning to Christ because we have given this kind of impression?

Third, and linked to this, delighting in evil enables us to feel deliciously judgmental and censorious.

Please notice that word “feel”. Of course we wouldn’t give expression to what is going on in our hearts – oh no, we’re far too well trained and “civilised” for that – but the feeling is there all right.

There’s a little remark of Jesus – almost a throwaway remark – in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…” (Matthew 7:11). Perhaps it’s a remark we ought to take more notice of. If Shakespeare had an acute insight into human nature, how much more Jesus!

But enough of this negative stuff! To finish, let’s notice how that verse of Paul’s ends: “Love doesn’t rejoice in evil, but rejoices in the truth”. Yes! God’s truth is pure and holy – and it is in that that we should find our joy.

And here is Paul again, this time in Philippians 4:8. To me, reading these beautiful words is like taking a warm, cleansing, refreshing shower: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about these things.” Not about “evil”, whatever sense we take it in.

To which I hope we can all say a loud “Amen”.

The truly Christlike response to evil of any kind is sorrow, sadness, possibly anger. But never, never delight.

Dear Father, help me to see immediately if any hint of smugness, gloating or self-righteousness threatens to poison my soul – and having seen it, to stamp on it with all my heart. Amen.

A nasty piece of work?

Love does not delight in evil… 1 Corinthians 13:6

Do you ever take pleasure in badness? Come on, be honest, now!

I suspect all of us, from time to time, experience a little shiver – what I think the French call a frisson – of enjoyment when, say, we hear about something nasty happening to someone we don’t like.

Yes? Well, we need to listen to the apostle Paul as he tells his readers in Corinth not to “delight in evil”.

Is he thinking about evil in the sense of wickedness, bad things you do, or in the sense of misfortune, bad things that happen? The immediate answer is the first, wickedness.

A clue as to why he gives this rather negative command may be found earlier in 1 Corinthians, in chapter 5. Apparently there has been a grossly scandalous episode in the church in Corinth: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate…” Paul is obviously very shocked. But even worse follows: “And you are proud!” A clear case, it would seem, of “delighting in evil”.

I think, though, that delighting in evil can also apply to misfortune, to plain bad luck – we quite like it, don’t we, when people we regard as bad “get their comeuppance”? Huh, serve ‘em right!

The question arises: why would anybody, Christian or not, be guilty of this unpleasant attitude? I would suggest three possible answers – and I invite each of us to look at ourselves to see what, if anything, fits.

First, some people seem to be – putting it bluntly – rotten through and through. They seem to have no conscience, no sense at all of right and wrong.

In one of Shakespeare’s least known plays, Titus Andronicus, there is a character called Aaron. To describe him as “a nasty piece of work” would be flattering him. At the end of the play, after he has been found out and is facing the prospect of torture and death, he speaks these chilling, appalling words: “If one good deed in all my life I did,/ I do repent it from my very soul.”

Well, I don’t imagine many of us are as sunk in wickedness as Aaron. But (how best to put this?) we, ahem, aren’t quite as nice as we like to make out, are we? If we take an honest look into the murky depths of our hearts we see things which are not exactly pleasant. And one of those things may very well be a tendency to “delight in evil” – to “gloat”, in fact.

Second, delighting in evil helps us to feel better about ourselves, especially if we are by nature a bit low in self-esteem: “Well, of course, I would never act in such a way,” we think. Seeing sin in other people fosters a sense of smugness and self-righteousness in us.

This, of course, can be the special curse of the “religious” man or woman – that we go around with a nose-in-the-air, “holier-than-thou” manner. How many people, I wonder, have been put off turning to Christ because we have given this kind of impression?

Third, and linked to this, delighting in evil enables us to feel deliciously judgmental and censorious.

Please notice that word “feel”. Of course we wouldn’t give expression to what is going on in our hearts – oh no, we’re far too well trained and “civilised” for that – but the feeling is there all right.

There’s a little remark of Jesus – almost a throwaway remark – in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…” (Matthew 7:11). Perhaps it’s a remark we ought to take more notice of. If Shakespeare had an acute insight into human nature, how much more Jesus!

But enough of this negative stuff! To finish, let’s notice how that verse of Paul’s ends: “Love doesn’t rejoice in evil, but rejoices in the truth”. Yes! God’s truth is pure and holy – and it is in that that we should find our joy.

And here is Paul again, this time in Philippians 4:8. To me, reading these beautiful words is like taking a warm, cleansing, refreshing shower: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about these things.” Not about “evil”, whatever sense we take it in.

To which I hope we can all say a loud “Amen”.

The truly Christlike response to evil of any kind is sorrow, sadness, possibly anger. But never, never delight.

Dear Father, help me to see immediately if any hint of smugness, gloating or self-righteousness threatens to poison my soul – and having seen it, to stamp on it with all my heart. Amen.

When everything seems lost

Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.” But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high. Psalm 3:1-3

Have you ever noticed how important the little word “but” can be?

Just three letters, but they have the effect of turning things round: “We thought he wasn’t going to pull through, but the doctors did a wonderful job”. “At first she saw nothing in him, but look at them now – thirty happy years of marriage!” “It rained most of the day, but then the sun came out and we got a couple of hours’ cricket”. It was abc; but now it’s xyz.

This happens a lot in the Bible, not least in Paul’s letters. A good example is where Paul writes grimly about the spiritual deadness of everyone who is still in their sins: “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath…” Grim indeed! But then he goes on: “But… God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ…” (Ephesians 2:1-5)

That’s surely the greatest turnaround in the Bible. (What a wonderful expression that “rich in mercy” is!)

And here it is in Psalm 3.

The psalm is traditionally linked with King David, and to a time of great trouble in his reign. And there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be so. For the full story you need to go back to 2 Samuel 13-19, but the essence of it is this…

One of David’s sons, Absalom, has rebelled against his father and wants to be king. He wages a campaign to get support from the people, both great and small, till it reaches the point where David thinks it’s all over. He says to his officials, “Come! We must flee, or none of us will escape from Absalom” (2 Samuel 15:14).

And so we get the pitiful spectacle of the great King David, no less, the triumphant man of war, scurrying out of his capital city like the proverbial rat leaving a sinking ship. Surely the lowest point in his reign.

Going back to Psalm 3 (this time using The Message translation), he is overwhelmed by a sense of utter helplessness: “God! Look! Enemies past counting! Enemies sprouting like mushrooms…”  He has to endure their cruel mockery: “Hah! No help for him from God!” You’re finished, David!

But then comes the but… “But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the one who lifts my head high.” That’s verse 3 – and it’s a verse worth reading over and over again, a verse, as I once heard it put, worth sucking slowly like a sweet.

How has this transformation come about? We aren’t told. But David has certainly been praying, and he gets a wonderful assurance that his prayers are not wasted.

Look at the three aspects of this assurance.

First, God is his protection – “a shield around me”. Yes, he has felt outnumbered and fatally exposed; but now he sees that his loving God is far greater than all his enemies.

We too as Christians sometimes feel that we are outnumbered by our spiritual enemy, the devil. The church seems so feeble and small. Our faith is dismissed, if not actually mocked, by clever unbelievers. How good it is, then, to know that God is in fact a shield around us. He will protect and keep us as we hold on to him.

Second, God is his “glory”. You can take that in different ways. One commentary says: “My glory is an expression to ponder; it indicates the honour of serving such a master; perhaps, too, the radiance he imparts.”

Personally, I like that second thought; it links beautifully with another psalm attributed to David: “Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame” (Psalm 34:5). David has reason to reflect that, for all the shallow glory of his earthly kingship, his true glory is what God imparts.

And it’s a deeply humbling thought for us, too, that as we go about our business day by day we can actually reflect the glory of God.

Lord, make me a mirror of your splendour!

Third, God is “the one who lifts my head high”. That’s a great expression! – especially if you compare it with 2 Samuel 15:30: “David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered (was he hiding his face?) and he was barefoot.” A picture of humiliation, if ever there was one – tears; bowed head; bare feet.

And God will, in time, “lift the heads” of all his suffering, humiliated, outnumbered, downtrodden people.

Are you going through a particularly tough time? All I can say is: pray – of course; read those chapters from 2 Samuel; read these beautiful verses.

And then look out for that wonderful “but”!

O Lord, in your kindness and mercy be my shield, my glory, and the lifter of my head. Amen.

Build me up, don’t crush me!

When the uproar had ended, Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said goodbye and set out for Macedonia. He travelled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people… Acts 20:1-2

When Paul was on his missionary journeys he didn’t usually stay very long in one place. His method was to preach Christ to his fellow-Jews in the local synagogue, and of course to anyone else who would listen, to gather around him a group of new believers, and then to move on to the next place.

But he made an exception for the big, bustling city of Ephesus, a focal point of political, economic and religious power. We learn in Acts 19 that he stayed there for over two years; and his stay was anything but uneventful, to put it mildly. To cap it all, the city erupted into a riot – what Luke calls “uproar” – triggered by the preaching of the gospel, and Paul decided it was time he was on his way.

But before he left there was something he was keen to do. Luke tells us that he “sent for the disciples” and “encouraged” them. He then tells us that, after leaving, Paul “travelled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people”.

Encouragement: that is the key word in these verses from Acts 20.

Remember, Paul is among people who haven’t been followers of Jesus for all that long, people who live in an area dominated by dark forces such as the worship of the goddess Artemis (or Diana) of the Ephesians, people whose society is corrupted by all kinds of immorality. If these infant Christians are to thrive after his departure – well, they need all the encouragement they can get!

If that was true then, it’s also true today. Whether you look at the “developed” or the “undeveloped” world, the powers of darkness, ignorance, superstition and sheer wickedness sometimes seem overwhelming. How can the people Jesus called his “little flock” (Luke 12:32) possibly survive, never mind thrive? Sheep among wolves indeed.

Encouragement is vital.

But what is encouragement? What does this quite common word in fact mean?

It’s an elastic word – you can stretch it in different directions. At its simplest: to encourage someone is to give them a boost. And this can be done in various ways… A simple word of thanks for something done. An arm literally or metaphorically round the shoulder. A word of advice, guidance or rebuke. Even perhaps bit of a scold (as long, of course, as it’s a loving scold). A practical gift to meet a particular need.

In essence, the person on the receiving end of encouragement will feel that they have somebody standing with them – somebody who loves and cares and who has power to help them. In the New Testament the ultimate encourager is the Holy Spirit himself: in John 14:26 Jesus calls him “the Advocate” (New International Version): but that word could be translated “Encourager”.

I’m afraid that in some Christian circles encouragement is in pretty short supply. A man turned to me once at the end of a service where the sermon had been basically a message of encouragement and said, “You know, it’s really refreshing to hear this kind of message. All these ‘challenging’ and ‘hard-hitting’ sermons we keep getting are all very well, but so often you just end up reeling, feeling guilty and a failure.”

Just as flowers blossom in the sunshine, so Christians blossom under encouragement.

Of course it’s not only preachers who can give encouragement in their sermons; in fact, they may be the people who need it most! – it can seem a thankless task preaching your heart out to what sometimes seems like a brick wall.

The fact is that encouragement should be like a perfume that fills the whole church, among ones and twos as well as throughout a congregation.

Just one word of warning, though: be careful not to confuse encouragement with flattery.

Flattery, at its worst, can be described as false praise, given in order to ingratiate yourself with someone so as to get something from them. That is obviously wrong.

But well-meaning Christians can also be guilty of false praise. Why? Because we don’t like hurting people’s feelings by being honest, so we imagine that by offering syrupy words of praise we are avoiding the problem and somehow doing them good.

This too is wrong. We need to learn how to speak the truth in kind and loving ways, ways that allow scope for further talk and, hopefully, solid building up.

I love the wise words of Proverbs 27:6 – that “wounds inflicted by a friend” can in fact be “trusted”; whereas the person who “multiplies kisses” is an “enemy”.

Worth thinking about, that!

Christian, make up your mind to be a Spirit-like encourager!

Father, help me always to speak the truth in love – and always for the good and growth of the person I am speaking to. Amen.

Good for a laugh?

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. Proverbs 17:22

I heard about an old man who was never anything but bright and happy. When someone wanted to know his secret he said, “Every morning when I wake up I ask myself a question. Am I going to be cheerful today, or am I going to be miserable? And I make the decision to be cheerful.”

Easier said than done, you might think. Indeed, somebody might well say, “You wouldn’t talk like that if you were going through what I’m going through…”

Fair enough. Cheerfulness isn’t just a tap you can turn on at will – any more than anxiety is a tap you can turn off just because of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25. Things aren’t quite as simple as that.

And yet… what that man said is worth thinking about. The fact is that we do have it within our power to take at least some control of our moods; we can adopt a basically positive or a basically negative attitude.

Some people seem to delight in being miserable. I have a friend who was breezing down the high street one day when he met someone he knew just a little and had always got on with all right. Being a cheery sort of soul he greeted him: “Morning! How are you today?” To which came the never-to-be-forgotten answer, “What’s it got to do with you?”

CS Lewis also tells the story somewhere about being on a train and asking a fellow-passenger if he knew what time they were due to get to Liverpool. The merry response was, “Ask the guard – it’s not my job to give you information.”

Oh well, they say it takes all sorts…

The Book of Proverbs is a fascinating part of the Bible. In the Good News Bible translation of 17:22 it reads: “Being cheerful keeps you healthy. It is slow death to be gloomy all the time.” The Message translation has: “A cheerful disposition is good for your health; gloom and doom leave you bone-tired.”

Whichever translation you prefer, the verse raises a question (one which, in fact, applies to many verses in Proverbs): Is it simply a statement of fact, an observation, or is it intended to be a challenge to the reader? In other words: are we supposed to respond by shrugging our shoulders and saying, “Yes, that’s true, that’s the way it is”, or by perking up and saying “Yes! It’s time I stopped being such a misery-guts!”

It isn’t clear. But if you are a Christian you will surely want to take something positive from it – something to make you a better person.

Anyone who can make us smile is a real tonic. Just yesterday the death of the British comedian Ken Dodd was announced, and all the tributes being paid were along the same lines: he was “life-enhancing”; it was impossible to be gloomy in his presence. (Apparently he claimed never to reply to letters from the Inland Revenue, on the grounds that (wait for it) he lived by the sea-side. Geddit…?)

I know that humour can be a tricky thing: so often it depends on either cruelty or crudity; either it invites you to enjoy somebody else’s misery, or to wallow in what is coarse and vulgar. But a wholesome humour is truly a gift of God.

There have been times in history when Christians have been renowned for their sombreness. The novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, the man who wrote Treasure Island, once recorded in his diary: “Went to church this morning – and was not depressed!” – as if it was the most amazing thing in the world. This, surely, cannot be right. Doesn’t Paul list joy at number two in his description of the fruit of the Holy Spirit? Isn’t a joyless church, or a joyless Christian, an absolute contradiction in terms?

Here are one or two quotes which, I think, could well be described as proverbs…

Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the Godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers. (The Puritan writer Richard Baxter, 1615-1691)

If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there. (Martin Luther, 1483-1546) (Mind you, I’m not quite sure where he might have preferred to go…)

The person who is always laughing is a fool; the person who never laughs is a knave. (Spanish saying) (Yes, over the years I have learned to be very wary of people who never smile or laugh; they often seem to point to trouble ahead.)

On balance I think I’ll aim to learn from that cheerful old man we started with. What about you?

Lord God, your word tells us that there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. Help me always to know the difference! And thank you for those lovely Christians who lift my spirits by their cheerful faith. Amen.