TBT: Ha! Ha! Among the Congregants
TBT: October 2018
From Gottesdienst 2007:1
by Peter M. Berg
Is it just me, or are we staid, dried-up old Lutherans finally having too much fun at church? If the laugh-o-meter is any indication, it certainly appears that we are. At some Lutheran churches a Sunday without a joke or a cute story by one of the ministers or ministerettes is a rarity. Some who bear the name Lutheran might exult, “Good for us! It’s time to loosen up a bit! We joyless Europeans need to learn a thing or two about how to win folks over and make church enjoyable!”
Count me unconvinced.
Going for the laughs with cute, self-effacing humor has a way of winning the hearts of parishioners, and with plenty of alligators chomping on pastors nowadays, the thought of having some friendly faces in the crowd is appealing. Besides, all of us like our egos stroked. The theology of glory has a pernicious appeal, and going down the glory road telling one-liners is a way to get strokes. All too many pastors covet the reputation of being a “regular guy,” and humor in the pulpit, or in the unfortunate after-service announcements, is a way to gain that reputation.
While confessionalism ought to be a corrective to such thinking, confessionalism is not easily attained or held. I’ve heard too many confessional preachers lately who should know better, who seem to believe that a sermon must begin with a laugh-inducing introduction. I recently attended the theological symposia at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne. The clergy-dominated crowd at chapel has been so conditioned to a joke during chapel homilies that the crowd even laughed when one particular preacher didn’t intend to draw laughter. (This is not to mention the din of noise created by people talking prior to the start of the daily office. Shut up! Please, shut up. We’re in a holy place. We probably can’t expect a half hour of silence as occurred when the seventh seal was opened in heaven (Rev. 8:1), but could we get at least five minutes?)
More than a decade ago, while still in the sect of the Wisconsin Synod, I crossed swords with a pastor who was a member of a Christian contemporary music band, and who was an advocate of the use of rock music in the church. An approving article in the synod’s official publication, known then as The Northwestern Lutheran, had this to say about the group’s demeanor when performing: “When this musical group is performing, they engage in antics that might be described as undignified and tell jokes best described as groaners. They display emotion openly—especially their happiness in the Lord” (vol. 79, no. 6).
At the risk of sounding like a Biblicist, I have to ask: Where in the Holy Scriptures do you see this kind of thing? Scan the width and breadth of both testaments and there is nothing like this. And this has nothing to do with cultural differences. The ancient world knew how to laugh lustily. Whether it was the ribald or farce, sarcasm or folksy observations about the foibles of everyday life, the ancient world knew how to laugh. Be that as it was, you can scan the Prophets for one-liners and you’ll come up empty-handed. You’ll find laments, woes, threats, rejoicing, praise, promises, and prophecy aplenty, but no jokes. The Israelites rejoiced, even laughed, as the bodies of Egyptian soldiers washed ashore from the Rea Sea; the psalmist blessed those who would carry out the divine vengeance by taking Babylonian babies by the heels and cracking their heads open on the rocks (Ps. 137), but there are no jokes. No Rodney Dangerfield saying, “Take my wife, please, someone take my wife!”
The prophet Elijah could taunt the prophets of Baal as they pranced about their altar cutting themselves with knives, suggesting that perhaps their god had gone to the WC. His use of sarcasm, a legitimate form of humor, was the prelude to their getting their gizzards cut out. Ha! Ha! St. Paul employs sarcasm in his wish that the Judaizers, who were troubling the Galatians about circumcision, would go all the way with their knives (5:12). Ironically, sarcasm is the one form of humor which the sensitive proponents of cutesy humor in the church abhor.
If the preaching preserved for us in both testaments serves as any kind of paradigm at all, as it well should, then you realize how out of keeping much present-day preaching has become. There is a dearth in biblical preaching of the kind of crowd-pleasing humor that has become commonplace in the church. Neither the sermons of the prophets nor those of the apostles nor those of the Lord contain this kind of playing to the crowd. Lest I be accused of pooping on someone else’s party, remember that I was one of the editors of the Motley Magpie. I know humor, I’m a real fun guy, but I also know humor’s place, and it’s not in the holy of holies. Finally, isn’t that the root of the problem: a loss of the sense of the holy? So convinced that grace is ours and beyond our losing, we trifle with grace. The priests Nadab and Abihu suffered the horrible consequences of trifling with unauthorized fire (so much for creative worship, Num. 3:4). “If the righteous is scarcely saved” (1 Pet. 4:18), then preachers had better forego imitating Jay Leno in favor of being preachers of the true saving righteousness and the relief which it brings the burdened souls of their people.
I was once asked if God had a sense of humor. If He does it is very ironic. He makes you laugh through your tears at your foolishness and your lack of faith. I suppose that maybe on occasion a knowing smile came across the face of that little shyster Jacob as he looked back upon his life. However, this was far removed from the knee-slapping guffaws of today’s ecclesiastical jokesters. Jacob saw his sinful folly against the backdrop of the mercy of the One he wrestled to a draw at the ford of the Jabbok. The old man had every reason to rejoice over Him who is mercy; however, there was little reason to slap his gimpy leg in gut-splitting laughter.