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Layton Friesen: The ‘Joke’ that is Epiphany

by Layton Friesen

Proclaiming Jesus is like telling a good joke.

Back in high school, my friend John would regale us with jokes for hours on end and they were roaring funny. Watching him I could see that a good joke is a precarious thing. It has to come off perfectly or it’s worse than no joke at all. If the teller stumbled over words, or had to make corrections in the telling, it got unfunny fast.

A joke separates those who have the wit to “get it” and those too dull. If you don’t “get” a joke, there is no help for you. It’s hopeless to go over the joke again in slow-motion, trying to make it funny by explaining. It depends on a common culture and experience, but gives a sharp kicking surprise in the end.

All of this is an analogy to preaching about Jesus.

Did you ever notice that in the preaching of the apostles nobody once “explains” Jesus? Never do you hear Peter holding forth about the verb tenses that Jesus used when he called Lazarus from the dead. Paul, in his letters, never waxes on about the historical background of Zealots. John does not “take apart” the story of the prodigal, explaining why this story shocked Jews in Palestine. Nobody pontificates on the various word-choices for “love” in the Greek of John 21. Why not?

Maybe the story of Jesus has some of the same qualities a good joke has. It was all-together one event, a wondrous, startling, completed occasion in the life of the world. It was perfectly timed and delivered. Situated just-right within the culture of Christ’s time, it drew into one lightening-bolt a host of back-stories from Israel.

It was delivered once, caught the world unawares, and sent it rolling in sudden happiness—even laughter. In one strike, history was changed. Christ’s life was complete and had to stay complete—the resurrection was like the best punchline.

Could the good news arc across the divide between an Aramaic-speaking Jewish fisher-peasant from Capernaum and an urban Greek-speaking pagan in Rome? It’s a huge question for the apostles, but never once did it occur to them that the secret to the Gentiles “getting the joke” was sermonic rabbit-trails on rural Jewish culture, or tutoring in Aramaic, Jesus’ language. They moved in and told the story again and again to whoever would listen. Some got it and others definitely did not. There was little help for those who didn’t.

And if the apostles didn’t pulpiteer on Christ’s participles, maybe we shouldn’t either. Preaching is telling the good story again, now hilarious for Canadians. It’s proclamation, not dissection.

Now, I need to also say that if we preachers are going to tell the story faithfully so that listeners “get it,” we do need to know something about the language and ancient culture of Jesus. We need to study to get the rhythm, the timing, the tone down into our bones.

Layton Friesen
Layton Friesen

But as the old Methodist preacher W. R. Moltby said, “The well is deep, and you must have something to draw with. But there is no need to make people drink out of the bucket, still less to chew on the rope.”

A preacher that makes you chew on the rope just sounds like someone with no sense of humour, which in my high school was not the guy you wanted to be.


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