Not a laughing matter!

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One of my blog readers asked a question about using humour in preaching.

I light-heartedly commented that preaching is not a laughing matter!

His question followed a sermon I had preached on the selection of David as the new King of Israel. The story recorded in 1 Samuel 16:1–13 is laden with irony. I was not aware of trying to make the sermon funny, but it did raise a few smiles.

The seven sons of Jesse are paraded, like beauty contestants before the prophet Samuel, awaiting his decision on who should get the winner’s sash.

Samuel has his eye on each of the seven sons, significantly the perfect number, convinced that each one had to be “the man!”

Yet, as irony has it, the chosen son was not among them. The overlooked eighth son was up on a hillside looking after the family sheep.

Samuel, the whole coronation party, the story, and we the readers are all left waiting for the unnamed eighth son to arrive. Finally, the chosen one has arrived. He is duly selected, marked with anointing oil and set aside by the presence and power of the Spirit. Only then is the youngest son named. He is David (‘beloved’).

I find that biblical narrative often contains a fair share of embedded humour. We also find strands of humour in Jesus’ sparkling parables.

“The Bible is predominantly a serious rather than a funny book. Yet it would distort the Bible to suppress the humour that is present” (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery).

The preacher often does not need to inject humour into a biblical passage but merely release it. This release is more often than not in subtle asides that arising out of the text on which we are preaching.

Preachers need to remember that laughter is not the main aim of the sermon.

Laughter is always an incidental part of the preaching process.

For this reason, preachers probably should keep full-blown jokes to an absolute minimum, make sure that they are relevant to what we are saying, and try to tell them well. Successful comedy requires a perfect sense of timing, otherwise funny comments will fall on death ears.

What about the tendency for preachers to tell a joke at the beginning of their sermons? This can become somewhat predictable when it is the only way preachers start their sermons. It can also be rather irritating when the jokes have nothing to do with the sermon that is to follow. This type of warm up joke is often an attempt to grab the congregation’s attention and get them onside. If the preacher is not careful it can be manipulative.

So, is preaching a laughing matter? Yes and no. Preaching is a serious business that needs to be done with a sense of gravity and urgency. Yes, preaching is a human endeavour. If preaching is, as Phillip Brooks said, “Truth through personality,” the sense of humour of the preacher and of the biblical writers will emerge.

Spurgeon was noted for being humorous as a preacher but he said that humour in his sermons was merely a fragment of the amusing things he thought about while preaching.

Humour in preaching requires wisdom, a sense of the occasion and above all restraint.

John Woods




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