Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 13th August 2017 (the service included the baptism of Jack)
Theme: Is there Humour in the Bible
Readings: Jonah Chapters 3 & 4; Luke 18:1-8
Jesus saves…and Neymar scores on the rebound.
I’ve found Jesus. He was behind the sofa all the time.
You don’t find jokes – even bad jokes like those – in the Bible. There are moments when characters from the Bible use humour to make a point. More of that later. But you don’t find out and one-liners in Scripture.
As I’ve said, I’ve been asked in this series of sermons with subjects chosen by you to respond to the question of whether there is humour in the Bible. That could attract a rather academic talk – which would rather miss the point in a sermon and kill any humour there is – so let me try and answer it simply and then try and relate that to our Christian life, and especially that of Jack being baptised today.
First, though, what makes us laugh? If we were to go around the church and ask people, we would quickly discover that there are many different things that we find humorous: for some it will be the physical comedy of slapstick, for others the witty comedy of jokes that play on words, for still others the bite of satirical comment, and for others the surreal comedy of Monty Python. And so on. We all laugh at different things. And that’s even more true when we compare humour in different countries and cultures. People from China find things funny that people from Europe don’t. People from Germany laugh at different things from people from the UK. Humour is very culture-specific. The story is told of a businessman who gave a speech in a foreign country through an interpreter. Without warning the interpreter beforehand, he inserted a joke into the presentation. The interpreter knew the joke would not translate and knew of no equivalent to substitute in its place, so she said, “This man just told a joke that he thinks is funny, but it does not translate well, and you will not find it funny at all. So, when I stop talking, everyone please just laugh.”
So when you’re reading the Bible, written in Middle Eastern culture over a period of a thousand years and two thousand years ago, it perhaps isn’t surprising that the humour doesn’t always travel.
The other problem is that we’ve become accustomed to thinking that religion is a serious matter. For regular churchgoers here often do you smile during worship? Of course, there’s no excuse for smiling for the sake of it, but from time to time, perhaps we ought just to allow ourselves to let the joy of knowing God leak out in a smile. Faith, like football, isn’t a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that.
Humour, of course, has a way of getting to deeper truths than the surface of things. So perhaps we should expect to find humour in Scripture, a book given to God’s people to help us to look deeper. That’s why I’ve chosen the two bible readings today that I think we should see as funny and, if you read them as humour, help us to appreciate how humour helps us appreciate the message.
Jonah is the funniest book in the Bible. It is, after all, a fishy story. There’s the whole idea of someone being swallowed by a big fish. Then there’s Jonah himself. He is such a pathetic character and we’re meant to laugh at him. In the two chapters we’ve heard read today, we get Jonah, having tried to run away from God and being puked up by a fish at Nineveh, then going to this enormous city and preaching repentance. And, believe it or not, the whole city repents. And, boy do they repent. Even the cows are required to put on sackcloth – imagine what penitent cows look like. Jonah is most successful prophet ever.
But then what does Jonah do? He becomes angry with God for causing the Ninehvites to repent. “I knew you were a merciful God,” he complains. It’s a fit of pique. Jonah wants to die. So he sits down in the shade, cross that God is kind. So God causes a plant to grow to give shade and Jonah is happy. But then God gives a worm to the plant so that it dies and Jonah loses his shade. And then God sends a hot wind so that Jonah wants to die. And God asks him whether he’s angry and sulky Jonah says yes and so God reminds him that it is he who made the plant, the worm, the wind, and Nineveh (not to mention its cattle), so Jonah is asked to remember that.
We’re meant to laugh at Jonah and humour is used to remind him and us of the mercy of God. And perhaps we remember when we too have had our moments of hypocrisy.
An even broader comedy comes when Jesus tells the parable of the persistent widow. He tells it to encourage the disciples (and us) to be persistent in prayer. It would be very easy to give a lecture about perseverance (or a boring sermon), so Jesus tells a humorous story that’s a bit like a cartoon strip. The judge is a cartoon caricature. He’s got no respect for the law and he couldn’t give a monkeys about other people. He couldn’t be bribed or bullied. But he could be bothered. This irritating widow makes his life miserable by constantly bothering him about getting her day in court. She wears him out. Eventually he gives in because she’s made such a nuisance of herself. It’s not hard to imagine the smile on people’s faces, especially if we imagine Jesus telling it like it’s funny. It’s even funnier in the Greek. The judge says, “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”. In the Greek the word “wear me out” literally means “give me a black eye”. So she’s beating him up with her words, he’s literally got bags under his eyes. Even as Jesus tells the story you can picture this determined old woman bopping the judge and giving him a black eye. This time the humour is through hyperbole.
So there’s humour in the Bible alright and we can and should laugh. The Bible tells a story early on in Genesis about Sarah – a woman who is so old she can’t have kids – being told by God that she’s going to have a child, have a new life where there was none in other words. And Sarah’s response…she laughs thinking to herself, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master–my husband–is also so old?” That’s Genesis 18:12.
So one way of seeing the whole of the Bible’s story about humanity and God is as one big joke. Where Sarah can have no new life, comes baby Isaac. Where Hannah, who is barren, cannot bear a child, comes Samuel. Where Mary knows not a man, comes Jesus. And where there is death, comes resurrection.
The Bible may not be humorous throughout – we would certainly not take notice of it if it ignored the suffering, darkness and injustice that comes along for many people. But, at the deepest level, the bible is both tragic and comical. It is tragedy because it tells the story of human inability to practice goodness, kindness and justice. It is tragedy because, despite all that God does for us, we routinely ignore him, preferring our own way to his. But it is comedy too. Comedy, because, in Jesus God comes and defeats sin and injustice; comedy because although death is real, it never has the last word; comedy because, at Easter, Jesus, raised from the dead, is the punchline to end all punchline, God’s last and greatest joke to silence all that would defeat us.
Today we baptise Jack into that enormous cosmic joke. His life will have its fair share of challenges and there is much that is uncertain in our world and about his future, despite the wonderful start he is being given by Sam and Nick. Who knows what the future holds? But, despite that uncertainty, the big, secret joke that we’re being let in on today is that God has taken hold of Jack today, by his baptism, and he will never let Jack go.
That’s true of us all. Like Sarah, let us laugh, not because what we are being told today is impossible to believe, but because the God of impossible things will have the last, and funniest word.