Anyone interested in the sermon I preached on Psalm 104 at Grace Chapel this morning can find it here. (They’re quite impressive with how quickly they get the mp3 up!) It is always a joy to share God’s word with our GC family.
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision. (Psalm 2:1-4)
There are remarkably few treatments to be found in theological libraries about humor in Scripture. Most of those few that exist seem to operate from the conclusion that what humor is in the Bible is in isolated pockets. Sure, when Ehud skewers the tyrant Eglon, losing the sword in his rolls of fat and causing him to soil himself, we can’t help but suspect we’re meant to chuckle. A bit of Hebrew or Greek suddenly makes the reader aware of groan-worthy puns which crop up in the oddest places. However, taken in sum, almost everyone agrees that the Bible is a Very Serious Book, and we should be Very Serious People if we are to use it as the foundation for our faith.
This Very Serious approach to Christianity, however, seems to me unsatisfactory. We might gain some hint of this simply by noticing its effects. A humorless Christianity is dehumanizing, lopping off our emotional legs so that all we can do is sit on the stubs and point accusing fingers. A faith unable to chuckle will do the craziest things without getting the joke. One look at some Christians’ ridiculous wardrobes, our trite fiction or our bizarre attempts at spirituality betrays an insanity which even a modicum of irony would undo.
However, the deeper problem with Very Serious Christianity is that it misses the point – the punch line – in Scripture itself. Scripture is, at heart, a comedy. In one sense this is true simply by dint of the way the story ends. In the categories of the dramatists, we are in a story with and unapologetically happy ending. All the deaths, all the exits stage left, get brought back for the finale of the resurrection, and in a world made new the players live happily ever after. This note of hope, and the joy it engenders, should in itself call the grimness of too much spirituality into question. One wonders what Very Serious Christians will do in a world with no more tears or heartaches, and (one assumes) with no more frowns.
There is also another, deeper sense in which Scripture is comedic. While God is certainly a character who is not to be trifled with, every other character (which means every character like us) is portrayed in the most ironic and slapstick terms. Seriously, go read about Abraham’s brilliant plans to tell Pharoah his wife is his sister (twice). Watch Israel’s kings run back and forth like indecisive tumbleweeds, worshipping idols and begging God for help based on which way the weather seems to blow. Listen to the disciples talk with Jesus, and marvel at the way a moment of insight is almost always immediately followed by one of monumental stupidity. The antics of humanity are enough to rival the slapstick of the Three Stooges or the ridiculousness of the Royal Tenenbaums.
This is why, as the psalmist notes, God laughs at the schemes of man. When Very Serious Men gather their might against the Lord’s anointed, while they might feel dignified and important, the truth is that they are a joke. Their frailty, their presumption, and their shortsightedness combine to prove them to be nothing but the oafish buffoon included in every play and movie for comedic relief. Go read the prophets, who mock idolaters for being no brighter than the lumps of stone they worship, who ridicule the oppressors and their wives who are as fat as the cows of Bashan.
It isn’t just the wicked who are worthy of a chuckle in Scripture either. The righteous are too. God reminds Israel that He saved them not because of their greatness but because they are the least among the nations. Paul tells us God saved the foolish and the weak to show His power in their midst. God is on a serious mission, but we are chosen to be his players because, well, it’s ridiculous to think we’re doing His work on our own. Indeed, salvation itself is in a sense comedic: we are sinners made righteous, saved by the ultimate irony of the cross and resurrection. We are not saved by our Very Serious attempts to justify ourselves, but by ruefully surveying our best efforts and recognizing them as piles of something which might offend the Very Serious reader (but which Paul has no problem referring to in the crudest terms).
Of course, everything I just said is only one side of Scripture’s perspective. There is a deeply serious aspect to everything in the Biblical story: our sin is a grave offense, our misdeeds cause unimaginable destruction and the cross is a brutal and bloody salvation. However, the problem comes when we let this seriousness become Very Serious; too serious to also get the joke. Very Serious Christianity is ultimately destructive to the soul because it cannot take God’s perspective on our weakness: we are foolish, fickle, and frail, but we are also redeemed and being used as agents of redemption.
If we are to reach a point of health in our Christian lives, we must learn to laugh at ourselves, and laugh at all that is like us in the world. We must learn the freedom which comes from seeing our own silliness. We must chuckle like only those saved by grace can chuckle, and roar with the laughter of those saved by faith in the Very Serious work of Someone else.
When we sin, we must grieve it with the tears of repentance. But then, seeing it nailed to the cross, we must smile with the security of knowing we are still loved and still being made into Christ’s likeness.
When we stare the devil in the eye, we must fearfully look to Christ for rescue. But then, recognizing that he has been publicly made an object of ridicule through Christ’s death and resurrection, we must laugh in His face because of the silly creature he is.
We must laugh at a toddler’s shaky steps and a teenager’s silly soapboxes (especially since the teenager takes them Very Seriously), not because we are better than them but because our walk is truly no less steady and our ideas no less small.
We must laugh at ourselves, at all the ways we think we’re strong and all the ways we are truly weak. We must tell jokes about our own people, our own denomination, our own misadventures. We must tell the stories about how silly we were when we were younger, and how silly we were last week as well.
In the end, we must learn to laugh because it reminds us of our humanity. We are not to be taken seriously; we are not to be made much of. It is no accident that we are the children in the story, and just as our Father smiles at us in our messiness and helplessness, so we should smile as well.
Here is the sermon I preached this morning at Grace Chapel; it was great to see all of our dear friends in Lincoln. Also, if you go to GC, give Mike and Ben a hug sometime – preaching three services in a row is no easy feat.
I am certainly not the first person to remark that evangelicals often struggle to know what to do with Easter. Oh, we’re all for the resurrection. We insist that it happened, and write all sorts of books defending its historicity. However, once the proofs have been trotted out and the usual alternative theories debunked, we often struggle for the application, the ‘so what’ of the empty tomb. At best, we say something like “and this really proves that Jesus was God, so you should believe it.”
Belief is certainly a good response to Christ’s resurrection, and I’m all for apologetics, but this approach deeply impoverishes us if it is the whole story. We often talk about the significance of the cross, plumbing the depths of Good Friday. Unfortunately the resurrection often ends up as an addendum in our theology. This is tragic, especially since the Scriptures actually have a lot to say about Jesus’ resurrection. It is a central event, as pivotal as the crucifixion, in the story of God’s work in Jesus. Of course we ought not pit the two against each other, but Easter provides an opportunity for us to reflect on all the things the resurrection of Jesus Christ means.
To that end, I thought I’d post some ways (by no means all of them) the resurrection is viewed as significant in Scripture. I’m breaking with my usual form and offering proof texts in parenthesis without specific comments for the sake of space. I hope their connection to the given idea will be evident. If not, I’m happy to expand any of them in the comments. In addition, I’ve tried to give the list some progression. The first few applications are the ones I hear most often, the later ones are less emphasized, at least in my experience. Continue reading
Note: This is the meditation I’m giving tonight at our Good Friday service.
Text: Luke 22:66-71
It was the dawn of the last day for the Son of Man. The morning sun was stretching into a courtroom already buzzing with action. Luke’s account is terse and to the point, but Matthew and Mark help us paint in around the edges. This “trial” was no careful, judicious affair. It was pure chaos. Men were being brought in from all over the city, the rabble-rousers and usual suspects, to accuse the Son of Man. Money was switching hands under the table to convince false witnesses to make up accusations, but none of the charges would stick. Nobody could agree; they were simply yelling contradictions.
In the midst of it all was Jesus, humiliated, chains on his wrists, facing the men said to be the holy leaders ofIsrael. He wasn’t pleading for his life. He wasn’t giving some rousing defense. No, the gospels tell us that he stood silent, unwavering, not speaking a word as every attempt to fabricate his guilt fell to pieces. How uncomfortable it must have been for those seeking to accuse him. He didn’t speak, didn’t give them the chance to argue or twist his words. He didn’t even have the dignity to treat them like the judges they believed themselves to be.
Finally, exasperated, the council silences the crowds and addresses Jesus directly. They ask the question that has stood in the shadows behind every false accusation: “Is this your claim? Are you the Christ, the Messiah? Tell us.” Continue reading
When I was an awkward teenager I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out ways to get girls to like me – hardly a surprise, I know. Unfortunately, I was a wannabe-punk rocker and part time Dungeon Master living in rural Nebraska, so my basic lack of appeal to the opposite sex was hardly surprising. Rather than connecting the dots and trading in my Hot Topic spikes and polyhedral dice, however, I ended up acquiring a bunch of “skills” that I was sure would do the trick. I learned to play guitar, memorized poetry, and got good at card tricks. I also, in a particularly ill-conceived move, decided to learn how to dance.
Now by dancing I don’t mean that I figured out how to slow dance at prom. I mean ballroom dancing, big band swing and tango. I started by watching videos on the then-infant internet; when it became apparent this wasn’t working, I took lessons at a ballroom in a nearby town where the classes were made up half by people in their 60s and half by others as socially clueless as me.
While I eventually got decent at dancing, at least enough that in college it was a skill I used to help woo my now-wife, as a gangly 17-year-old I was something of a trainwreck. Being the sort of person for whom “learning” meant “reading a book,” I endeavored to master the right moves. With great focus, I nailed the footwork and how to lead a partner. I thought I had it down. But when the music started, while I executed the moves with technical precision, the magic wasn’t there. Instead of grooving to the beat, I looked a lot like a skinny teen stiffly executing a series of memorized movements. I knew the steps, but I hadn’t begun to learn how to dance.
While stories of my high school ineptitude are good for a laugh, I want to propose that learning to dance is a lot like embracing the Christian faith. Continue reading
Evangelicals love statistics, especially negative ones. The way the church talks, one often thinks the sky is falling. According to “studies”, young people are leaving in droves, Christians are morally indistinguishable from non-Christians, and in all likelihood this will be the last Christian generation in America.
The problem with these oft-cited “studies” is that they simply aren’t true. It has often been remarked that we as evangelicals love poorly-conceived statistics – some articles here, here and here might be helpful places to start if you’ve never heard this critique. Recently, I spent some time fact-checking one of these claims – that “only four percent of the coming generation will be Christian.” While this immediately raised my eyebrows because I have some background in the area, a quick google search confirmed that this stat was everywhere. The problem is, it simply doesn’t reflect the facts. Coming out of this work, I thought I’d post an overview of some reputable statistics on where evangelicalism, and Christianity as a whole, actually stands on the American stage. Continue reading