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The Strengths and Seductions of Humor (Part 2)

For humor to have value in a sermon, it must serve the truth.

This is part two of a two-part series. To read part one, click here.

PreachingToday.com: What does it look like when humor fits the truth?

Haddon Robinson: If the story makes people think of the truth that lies behind it, then it serves you well. Sometimes humor can do that. A certain kind of insight into the human condition can be humorous, but at the same time it's an incision made without tearing the audience up. Humor helps the truth to penetrate. I have heard people use an observation about life, and it causes me to laugh, but at the same time it gives me insight as a good illustration would.

You've mentioned laughter turning on a serious point. Do you have an example?

You want to be sure you're not making light of something God takes seriously.

I preached from2 Kings 18, on Hezekiah destroying the serpent. The serpent that he smashed was the serpent Moses put on the stick, when the people were bitten by the poisonous snakes in the wilderness. I talked about how Israel had packed the snake in Styrofoam and carried it around for 500 or 600 years. They kept that snake through the judges, through Saul's reign, and through David's reign. Finally, when they put up the temple, the curator found that snake and put it up. At first, the people looked at it as an object lesson of what God had done in the past. Then they began to worship it, and Hezekiah had to destroy it.

I was drawing the truth that we've had to fight these good snakes that have turned bad for centuries. Jesus found them in the Pharisees. The early church found it in Sabbath keeping. We find it in music and styles of worship. The good snake has turned bad.

Towards the end of the sermon, I talked about the pastor who told stories to children before the main sermon. With the kids gathered up front, he said, "Now, boys and girls, I want to tell you about a little creature that you have in your backyard. It jumps around. Do you have any idea what I have in mind?" No takers. So he said, "I'm thinking of a little creature that eats nuts, has a big, bushy tail. Now do you have any idea who it is?" None of the kids respond. "Well, I'm thinking of a creature with a big, bushy tail, who climbs trees and jumps from tree to tree. Now do you have any idea?" One kid put up his hand and said, "Well, I know the answer should be Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel to me."

I went on to say there are a lot of people in our culture who are asking the hard questions. They don't think the church has the answers. When they look at the church they may be saying, I think the answer could be Jesus, but what I see at the church is old, dead snakes.

People laughed, if they hadn't heard the joke. People laughed at it, but I thought the sermon had a kind of seriousness to it that it needed something at the end. Then as they left, before I let them finish their laugh, I tried to drive home the point.

In, when the apostle Paul talks about foolish talk and coarse joking, what do you understand that to include?

Given the context, he's talking about sexual innuendo, laughing at what God takes seriously. It's the most offensive thing I see on television. That can be in a whole lot of realms. It can be in the realm of religion. It can be in the realm of sex. It can be in the realm of prejudice. But in that text I think he's talking about the sexual humor that debases human life and mocks God's good gift of sex.

Is joking about baptism, or about communion, dangerous ground?

Yes. When preachers talk humorously, they often talk about those things because they are so serious, and they go wrong. You find that with funerals. You find it with weddings. You find it with baptisms. We might tell that to one another because life is humorous, and the most humorous things happen when we're trying to be the most serious. But when you take it into the pulpit, you really have to weigh it, because you want to be sure you're not laughing at baptism or at the Lord's Supper or making light of something that God takes seriously.

Do you think that humor in preaching is important enough that someone who's not naturally humorous should work at it?

No, I don't think so. There aren't many people who don't have a sense of joke who ought to try to cultivate it. It's tough enough to do when it's good and it's skillful, but there are other skills you need to cultivate first. You ought to cultivate the ability to tell a story, the ability to look at life and see insights into the way we handle life; this low-risk humor, you ought to cultivate.

Do you have any practical examples of how to cultivate that skill?

Listen to people who do it well. In conversations with people who are humorous, a good communicator is always asking, "What made that work?" Stand-up comedians often have humor that simply looks at life differently. They look at the bottom of the chair instead of the top of the chair. They see things we all have seen, but they see it from another angle, and that's what causes us to smile. A perceptive person can do that. That low-risk humor can be cultivated. When people can use humor well, it adds a spice to the sermon. You can't live on spice, but it does make basic food appetizing.

Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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The Strengths and Seductions of Humor (Part 1)

For humor to have value in a sermon, it must serve the truth.

Laughing on Purpose (Part 1)

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Laughing on Purpose (Part 2)

When humor helps a message