"Virtues for Vicissitudes: Humor"

Jonah 4:1-11

I Corinthians 4:8-13

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, used to tell the story about one of the priests in the Church of South Africa—sometimes when he told it, he was the priest in the story. It’s customary in that Anglican denomination for the one who is going to preach to kneel for prayer before entering the pulpit.

The daughter of one minister noticed her father praying Sunday after Sunday as he prepared to preach. She asked her father what he prayed for. The minister replied, as many of us who preach might, that he was asking God to help him preach a better sermon.

It was then that the child asked, “Well, why doesn’t God do that?”

The mysteries of unanswered prayer are many. We’re better off if we can learn to laugh in the face of them.

There are many times when we’re better off if we can laugh about prayer and preaching and our life together. There are many times when we’re better off if we can laugh about our work and our relationships and our world. If you can remember all the way back to last Monday—even the members of the United Nations had a good laugh when our President spoke!

Humor often arises out of a reversal of fortune; it comes from a result that was unexpected. In that sense this past week has been filled with humor—Rod Rosenstein, Brett Kavanaugh, the Senate and Supreme Court, perhaps even our nation are in different places this morning than we thought they might be today when we surveyed the situation last Monday.

There are many times when we’re better off if, as it has been suggested, we can “put a benevolent finger on the gap between what we want to happen and what life actually provides, between what we dream of being and what we actually are, between what we hope other people will and what they actually are.” This is all to say that we might want to cultivate the virtue of humor in our lives.

G.K Chesterton famously said that “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

So when Paul was faced with the criticism of the Christians in Corinth, he didn’t defend himself directly.

He addressed their pride in speaking in unknown languages by telling them: “If I speak in the tongues of human beings or of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

He granted that they might have great faith, but reminded them that “I may have faith enough to move mountains; but if I have no love, I am nothing.”

To people so sure of themselves and so dismissive of him, Paul could write: “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!...We are weak, but you are strong.” In sum: “We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ.”

Looking at the gap between what Paul hoped others would be like and what they actually were, Paul exercised the virtue of humor. It’s said that, like anger, humor springs from disappointment, but it is disappointment that is optimally channeled. It’s one of the best things we can do with our sadness.

Let’s face it. All of us could lighten up a little. We take ourselves and our concerns and our complaints so seriously. But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “Absolute seriousness is not without a dose of humor.” And keep in mind, he wrote that from a Nazi prison.

Seriousness, it is said, presents a paradox.

If we are not serious about our responsibilities, we become unstable and chaotic. If we are not serious about the challenges facing our nation, injustice will increase. But seriousness can also be destructive. A serious orientation is characterized by a lack of flexibility, an inability to change direction, a narrow repertoire of approaches, and persistent efforts to try harder even when the approach always fails.

You probably know what it’s like to have such a serious outlook. I know I do.

Indeed the seriousness with which individuals, families, and congregations approach their problems can be more the cause of their difficulties than the effect of the problems.

Jonah, the reluctant prophet of the Hebrew Scriptures, is a good example of both the dangers of seriousness and the renewing power of humor.

This morning we came in at the end of Jonah’s story. Maybe you remember the beginning—or at least the part with the fish.

Out of that combination of anger and mercy that is judgment, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn the people there that God's punishment was at hand.

And let’s be honest. The Ninevites were terrible people. They were deserving of punishment.

Jonah is angry as well—angry that God would show mercy on such people. He gets on a ship heading for Tarshish, in southern Spain, probably the farthest point away from Nineveh to which he could sail.

Jonah wants nothing to do with the mercy of God—certainly nothing to do with sharing the mercy of God with those whom he doesn’t like.

The trip, of course, doesn’t go as planned.

Bad weather comes up. The sailors in the storm tossed boat discover Jonah’s disobedience is the cause of their danger. At his suggestion, they throw Jonah overboard and then pray to his God as if their lives depended on it—and, really, they did.

Scripture tells us that “God provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah.” We might desire something better than a fish for ourselves in difficult situations. Jonah probably did. But a fish is what God provided.

Inside that fish for three days and three nights, Jonah prays to God. The notes in my Bible say that it is a psalm of thanksgiving, instead of an expected petition for help.

Now prayer can be difficult in the best of circumstances. Stuck in the belly of a fish, prayer might be the last thing you'd think about—if it wasn't the first.

One thing is certain, however, for Jonah and for us. No matter how deep the fish dives and no matter how dark it is inside, no depth or darkness is enough to drown out the sound of prayer.

So Jonah—yes, even Jonah, who is running from God—ends his prayer ends with the affirmation: “Deliverance belongs to the LORD.” 

If the story of Jonah were simply a cautionary tale about the dangers of trying to run from God, perhaps we could learn the lesson. Jonah, however, is less about our reluctance than about God’s love.

After Jonah prays, we are told, the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. When you think about it, that fish was probably as glad to be rid of Jonah as Jonah was to be out of the fish.

All that was bad enough. But then Jonah gets to Nineveh, announces God’s impending judgment—and the people repent.

One Old Testament scholar finds echoes of the Ninevites repenting in the children’s book The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. Do you know this story? I didn’t.

In what already is a great reversal, the tables are turned and a vicious Pig repeatedly demolishes the houses built by the three little wolves who just want to play games. In the end, after having built several houses with the strongest steel, barb wire, and cement, which, despite their best efforts could not withstand the Big Bad Pig's attempts to destroy their homes, the three little wolves decided to construct a house out of flowers. The story ends with the Big Bad Pig being seduced by the sweet smell of the fragile and beautiful-to-look-at dwelling, resulting in the now harmless Pig playing games with the wolves instead of violently destroying their home.

Imagine. Imagine an end to destruction as evident in the surprise repentance of one of Israel's worst enemies. It is a humorous fantasy with a message of redemption.

But in spite of this humorous repentance—or maybe because of it—the ever serious Jonah sits in the hot Middle Eastern sun. He is still angry—seriously angry, angry enough, Jonah says, to die.

Like Jonah, all of us can take ourselves and our wounds too seriously. We can develop the expectation that others should respond with the same seriousness.

The truth is, all of us could lighten up.

The good news is that when we are serious, God responds with humor.

While Jonah sits outside Nineveh, stewing in anger because God can be so kind, a bush grows up and provides him with some shade. It is a small gesture from God, who still loves Jonah in spite of his recalcitrance.

But the next day, just to make a point, God has a worm attack the plant so that it withers. As a result Jonah sits with the sun beating down on him wishing he were dead not only because God loves the people that Jonah despises but also because that bush has been destroyed.

Here I’m helped by the South African Old Testament scholar, Juliana M. Claassens, who points out that the God of Jonah is indeed the God who gives shade to this angry prophet, the God who offers protection. But God also removes this protection, causing the burning sun to attack Jonah. This story illustrates the difficult reality that we all know all too well: The same God who is known to be a compassionate God is also the God responsible for the atrocities of cities being destroyed, of lives being lost, of people being taken away into exile. In plain language, God is good, and life is often horror. God is love, yet horrible things happen to innocent people.

Humor, Claasens says, helps us express this character of both our faith and our lives.[i]

Here is our challenge. Living in all the beauty and terror of this world, how will we move into a future that embraces both in faith?

 Can we, like the angels, take ourselves lightly and learn to fly?

Events in our nation this past week were filled with the kind of roller coaster ups and downs that we have come to expect in recent years, even if we are not used to them. Yes, there are serious issues involved. But it may be that only as we channel our sadness and disappointment into the virtue of humor that we will be able to move forward.


[i] L. Juliana M. Claassens, “Rethinking Humour in The Book of Jonah: Tragic Laughter as Resistance in the Context of Trauma”  http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1010-99192015000300006