Jesus had a great sense of humour, despite often being called the Man of Sorrows.
His frequent use of irony and hyperbole – a big word that theologians like to use when ordinary folks would just say exaggeration - is usually lost on those who equate long frowns with deep spirituality.
James and John were two of Jesus’ closest friends, but he still gently dubbed them Sons of Thunder for asking (in Luke 9:54) about calling down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village that refused to welcome them.
At least they asked for his permission, but I also recall an “expert’s” serious claim that their sobriquet arose because their father Zebedee had a bad temper! (Chapter and verse, please, mister expert?)
More irony shows in Matthew 23, when he called the scribes and Pharisees “blind guides” and “whitewashed sepulchres:” clear oxymorons; since guides must be able to see, and Pharisees only wore black, with dark blue fringes.
And his exaggeration (sorry) hyperbole?
It’s hard not to chuckle at the absurdity of trying to remove a small splinter from your brother’s eye while there’s a plank poking out from your own, as he warns in Matthew 7:3.
Imagine his Matthew 19:24 word-picture of a camel – fully-laden or otherwise – invading an embroidery session, looking to insert itself inside the eye of any needle present! Needle-ss to say, some “scholars” have since invented a small door within the city gate that an unladen camel just might squeeze through to get inside!
I envisage that camel having less trouble with his task than any teachers who have to keep a straight face while proposing such an explanation. Why not just accept that God can achieve what is humanly impossible, and then to take a second option of getting a life? I wonder if in Matthew 23:24 that Jesus wasn’t rubbing it in just a little more when talking about those legalists who strained out tiny gnats from a cup, only to gulp down a camel they hadn’t noticed…
But without trying to reduce Jesus’
teachings to material for stand-up comedians, his use of humour allows some room for us to include it in our sermons. Yet I make no claim to infallibility - as the following episode may indicate.
On Sunday morning, February 5th 1984,
while preaching from Matthew 5’s Beatitudes, I mentioned that modern translators use “happy” in place of the older “blessed.” From there I urged my little flock to join in others’ happiness instead of piously waiting for obvious spiritual – and doctrinally-pure reasons to smile.
“As a matter of fact,” I continued, “our family is happy because yesterday - February 4th - we got together to celebrate our parents’ golden wedding. How about that? Fifty years married!”
Their happy response was a collective “Aaaaaaaaaahhhh!” that swept the chapel. While waiting for their approval to subside, I suddenly recalled that my grandfather had been born in 1884! And heard myself saying: “And this year, we celebrate my grandfather’s one-hundredth birthday!”
An extended “Oooooooooohhhhhh!” and a burst of applause greeted this news. But all the while my heart was racing, as I feverishly asked myself: “How do I get out of this?”
By the time order was restored, I’d found an escape from my deep verbal crevasse…
“Unfortunately, he won’t be with us to celebrate. He died in 1960!”
Laughter erupted, far outstripping the “Aah” and the “Ooh,” both in length and in volume. One lady actually left the chapel, hurrying to reach the toilets before (as she later explained) she had a bladder
The rest of the sermon was devoid of any further self-imposed tangents and heart pulpit-ations.
That same Sunday I had a second service about twenty minutes’ drive away. During the drive, aglow with my unplanned success, I decided to rerun this new preaching feature, with exactly the same timing and delivery.
This time however, an older congregation’s stony faces greeted my oratory incursion.
Years later, I still wonder whatever happened, that my quip died so quickly – or at least fell so flat...
Did it this time flatten itself against the back wall, at the same speed as it left the pulpit, unhindered by any connection with auditory nerves along the way?
Or did it collapse at my feet, spreading itself into the carpet’s flatness and whimpering softly in the terminal agony of being totally ignored?
All I know is that there are pockets of humour lurking in many sermons.
Sometimes I find them.
Sometimes they find me.
Author's note: True story.
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