The Preacher’s Message
The third argument for serious preaching is the preacher’s message. There is no more serious message in the world than the face that we are sinners on the way to divine judgment and eternal damnation in hell.
Is there not good news, though? Yes, but even the divine remedy to our desperate plight demands awe and reverence. We preach Christ crucified, the power and wisdom of God. But who can stand in the shadow of that God-forsaken, cursed tree and tell a joke? Even hardened soldiers changed their tune there (Matt. 27:54).
Is there not joy in believing? Yes, but it is joy in believing, not joy in jokes. It is spiritual joy, not carnal. And even when we believe, and rejoice, it is always tempered by the new perspective we have on those who are still perishing. Richard Baxter said: ‘Let the awful and important thoughts of souls being saved by my preaching, or left to perish and be condemned to hell by my negligence, I say, let this awful and tremendous thought dwell ever upon your spirit.’ In the light of this, should we not join with Solomon who ‘said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?’ (Eccl. 2:2).
The Preacher’s Fruit
Fourth, consider the preacher’s fruit. What was the effect of New Testament sermons? The first post-resurrection sermon had this effect: ‘And fear came upon every soul’ (Acts 2:43). Paul describes the impact the Word of God should have on a visitor to our church services upon hearing God’s Word: ‘. . . he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: and thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth’ (1 Cor. 14:24-25). Though we don’t see much of that today, it was certainly present in times of revival through church history
“But if I stop making people laugh, people will stop coming to church.” Yes, some will stop. But what is more important, having more people in our churches, or doing more good? Here is wise Solomon’s answer:
“It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity” (Eccl. 7:2-6).
The Preacher’s World
Fifth, there is the preacher’s world. On the one hand we are living in a world full of suffering, sorrow and pain. Is comedy appropriate when there are deeply wounded and hurting souls in our congregation? On the other hand, we are living in a world full of vanity, frivolity, and superficiality. Is more comedy really what’s needed to make people think more deeply and carefully? James says the way to truly heal and help people is to aim at conviction and repentance:
“Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (James 4:8-10).
Paul also says that in the light of sin, inappropriate foolish talking and jesting should be replaced with giving of thanks (Eph. 5:3-4).
Conrad Murrell used to lace his sermons with comedy. However, God convicted him that in the light of the world we live in, it was completely out of place. He writes:
“Evil is upon us. We are under sentence of death. Our children are being lost to drugs, immorality, drunkenness, despair, lawlessness and suicide. Our parents grow older and are slipping into hell. Our brothers and sisters carelessly let their lives slip by oblivious to their eternal destruction. Churches decay. False prophets deceive the people. Lies prevail. Truth is trodden under foot. The saints cry for bread. Add to this all the physical suffering, torment, starvation, political and social oppression in this world. What is funny? Where is the humour in all this reality? Is there anything any more incongruous than dying humanity hee-hawing itself to hell? How much laughter do you hear in a funeral parlor where a child lies after being run down by a drunk driver? How many comedians perform on death row in a prison house? If the world may laugh while it goes to hell, certainly Christians may not. They may be blind, but we are not. Distress may drive a fool to jesting, but it drives a Christian to his knees.”
John Angell James wrote a book arguing for a more ‘earnest’ ministry. He holds up a high standard:
“It is hard to conceive how earnestness and spirituality can be maintained by those whose tables are covered, and whose leisure time is consumed, by the bewitching inspirations of the god of laughter. There is little hope of our arresting the evil except we make it our great business to raise up a ministry who shall not themselves be carried away with the torrent; who shall be grave, without being gloomy; serious, without being melancholy; and who, on the other hand, shall be cheerful without being frivolous, and whose chastened mirthfulness shall check, or at any rate reprove, the excesses of their companions. What a demand does this state of things prefer for the most intense earnestness in our Sabbath day exercises, both our prayers and our sermons! In this modern taste we have a new obstacle to our usefulness of a most formidable kind, which can be subdued only by God’s blessing upon our fidelity and zeal.”
It might also help us to remember the suffering parts of the body of Christ. I spent some time with the church in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. The Hungarian and Romanian churches were just emerging from decades of persecution. I don’t recall one joke in any of these sober gatherings. Though our part of Christ’s body presently enjoys times of unprecedented prosperity and comfort, let’s remember that other parts of the same body, North Korean parts, Chinese parts, Sudanese parts are being attacked, wounded, tortured, and even ‘amputated.’
The Preacher’s Bible
My sixth argument against comedy in preaching is the preacher’s Bible. The Bible never uses ‘laughter’ in the sense of comedy. Yes, there is some irony, satire, ridicule, and derision. There are a few word-plays and puns. But, of the 33 times ‘laugh’ and ‘laughter’ occur in the Old Testament, they are used in a good and positive sense only four times, and then to describe joy rather than laughter. The other 29 times usually speak of scorn or unbelieving derision. They are never used to describe anything funny. In the New Testament we find ‘laugh’ and ‘laughter’ only five times, only one of which is in a positive sense (Luke 6:2). Three of these times, the laughter is in scorning Christ. The nearest we find to ‘joke, fun, funny, humour or amuse’ in the Bible is ‘foolish talking, jesting, fool, foolishness, merry or merriment.’ Only the last two of these are ever used in any good and positive sense, and that is in reference to joy and rejoicing in the blessings of the Lord.
The Preacher’s God
Seventh, and last, think about the preacher’s God. The third commandment requires that we use anything associated with God carefully and reverently. The Westminster Larger Catechism puts it like this:
“The third commandment requires that the name of God, his titles, attributes, ordinances, the Word, sacraments, prayer, oaths, vows, lots, his works, and whatsoever else there is whereby he makes himself known, be holily and reverently used in thought, meditation, word, and writing . . .”
And no wonder! Consider the reactions of Job, Isaiah, and Daniel when they came ‘face-to-face’ with God (Job 42:5-6, Isa. 6:5, Dan. 10:17). And even Christ’s most intimate friend almost died when he met the glorified Christ on Patmos (Rev. 1:17).
Perhaps none of these arguments taken apart are convincing. But taken together the cumulative effect surely persuades us to more serious preaching in our comedy culture.
– David Murray