Humor in One's Sermon

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A few years ago Playboy magazine had a drawing on its front cover, I've been told, of Jesus laughing. It subsequently reported that the magazine editors received more irate and upset letters as the result of that picture than of any other picture they had ever published.

What amazes me is that there are still people who believe that Jesus didn’t laugh. They probably have a sneaking suspicion that religion and humor don’t mix, that it's okay to laugh until someone mentions God. I read about a person who was horrified by the thought that Jesus laughed. "That's sheer heresy," she exclaimed. "Jesus was too holy to act like that."

Oh no He wasn't! And neither should His followers.  

Laughter and a good sense of humor play a significant role in the life of any pastor and in the sermons he/she preaches.  And for this Jesus is their Example. 

I recently saw a book with this insightful title: Jesus Laughed: The Redemptive Power of Humor. Since everything about Jesus was redemptive, the title implies that His ministry—His sermons and His parables, His laughter and His tears—was liberating.  That's so needful when dealing with agitated siblings, bickering disciples, or frustrated religious leaders.  

We know that the speakers we like and enjoy are those who have important things to tell us and say them in ways that capture our attention. They reach both our intellect and emotions by seasoning their words with appropriate humor. Quite often we may forget the sermon, but remember the stories. It was easy for the disciples of Jesus to recall His parables and teachings, often with such vivid clarity that they could reconstruct, with the Spirit’s help, His messages from memory.

A careful look at Jesus helps us to discover that laughter and a jovial spirit definitely played a key role in His ministry (See Luke 6:21).  He used humor quite effectively in promoting the kingdom of God and in reaching the hearts of men and women with the good news of the gospel. The New Testament suggests that Jesus' sense of humor was recognized by His disciples, by the common people who were drawn to Him, and even by religious leaders.

In his book, The Humor of Christ: A Significant but Unrecognized Aspect of Christ's Teaching, Elton Trueblood writes about finding humor in many of Christ's sermons (See Matt 7:3-5). The reason?  Jesus employed humor as a device for gaining interest as well as a weapon in His attack of established (but mistaken) ideas of His day! 

Here's another motive for using humor in one's sermons:  While  humor may not actually solve our parishioners’ problems, while laughing, they may discover that there is a way out of their dilemma.  Humor helps to disconnect and free ourselves from grief or a sorrowful event. Laughter can also provide distance.  It allows us to step back from sadness or disappointment, deal with it, and then move on. It was Henry Ward Beecher who observed, "A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs—it's jolted by every pebble on the road."

Unfortunately, in our desire to make people laugh, we often fail to distinguish between laughter that heals and laughter that hurts. Laughter and our sense of humor are closely connected with our sinful and spiritual tendencies. Someone has rightly observed: Tell me what you find amusing, and I will tell you what you are all about. It is essential that no matter who we are or what we do, since laughter plays such a crucial role in our lives, it should be motivated by God's love and governed by His ever-caring grace. 

So what does that mean? 

First of all—laugh at yourself  . . .  but that takes a big dose of self-confidence, doesn't it? It's been said that you give yourself away by your laughter, giving others a chance to learn of your innermost secrets. But that's okay . . . go ahead and share your difficulties and embarrassing moments. 

Secondly, laughter knows no boundaries, can breakout at any time, and is freely shared by everyone. No matter our age or situation, laughter is always beneficial. It knows no social or economic roadblocks. It has no age barrier or foreign accent; it is like a tranquilizer with only good side effects that old and young alike can enjoy. The only restraint to humor are the ones we place on it. It is a powerful antidote to pain and conflict. The ability to laugh easily and frequently lightens your burdens, inspires hope, and tends to keep you focused and alert. When laughter is shared, it binds people together and increases happiness and intimacy. When people laugh together they tend to talk, touch, and to make eye contact more frequently. 

Lastly, remember that from a biblical perspective, laughter is an act of faith. Laughter is often related to my knowledge of the outcome, or lack of it. If I know how something will turn out, I can laugh with confidence. If I'm unsure, I may not want to laugh at all. What this tells me is that the mandate to live by faith covers everything in life, including laughter. 

When talking to people about some painful experience of the past, I can say, "Now I can laugh about it." Having seen how things turned out allows me to laugh, as Sarah herself discovered.  But God can laugh beforehand because He knows what the end will be. So when God tells me to "rejoice … always" (Phil 4:4), He’s telling me that I should be of good cheer—right away—because He’s a God who can foretell as well as determine the outcome. If I am connected with Him, He promises that He will work out everything, not necessarily the way I want, but for my good (Rom 8:28). Such assurance allows me to sit back, take a deep breath, and enjoy the roses—with a hearty laugh. That's an act of faith.

Gordon Kainer is a speaker, writer, and retired academy Bible teacher living in Grants Pass, Oregon

For practical suggestions on how to put more humor in your sermons, be sure to read part two of this series in the October 28 issue of Best Practices for Adventist Ministry