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The Foolishness of Preaching
and the Preaching of Foolishness


Old Testament Reading: 1 Kings 22:1-28

New Testament Reading: 2 Corinthians 11:16-33

Introduction This will be, as far as I know, the first sermon for All Fool's Day ever preached in this church. Though as with so many other things, we have secularized this holiday as "April Fool's Day," it did originate on the liturgical calendar of Christendom. And I for one cannot pass up the chance to preach the sort of sermon that such a puckish holy day would seem to invite! So here goes!

The Jester: Let me first comment on the two scripture passages you just heard. Both seem to me particularly apropos today. To take Paul first, I will not enter into the precise nature of the polemic he is engaged in, save to say he is defending himself and his gospel from the attacks of some whom he sarcastically calls "super-apostles," and who preach a legalistic gospel which he deems no real gospel at all. They seem to be the same as the Cephas party that opposed him in 1 Corinthians.

Note that in our passage, Paul seems to have decided to follow the advice of that biblical proverb which suggests that you "answer a fool according to his folly lest he think himself wise." That is, he feels that his opponents speak no other language but foolishness, so if he's going to get through to them at all, he has to speak in the same terms, though he apologizes repeatedly.

Paul says that if it's bragging about apostolic credentials and comparing war-stories that the Corinthians want, he has a few to share. But in the process he purposely makes himself into a ridiculous figure -- precisely to show how ridiculous anyone looks when praising himself, apostle or not. An interesting notion, I think: that there are some people one can only approach through foolishness, because it's the only language they understand.

And I'm not sure it's always worth the risk, either! I think of all the popular evangelism of the last couple of decades that tries to sell the Christian gospel like a soft drink ("Things Go Better with Christ!"). I think that we dare not go that low. We dare not degrade the gospel in trying to preach it. If we have to do that, then the proverb of Jesus has become timely: "Do not cast your pearls before swine."

But for the good of the Corinthians, whom he wants desperately to win back to the truth of his gospel, Paul is willing to condescend even to buffoonery. At least he could see it was buffoonery, whereas today's evangelism cannot see the difference!

Now for our Old Testament reading, the story of the gadfly prophet Micaiah. Why does King Ahab send for Micaiah when a full 400 prophets have already confirmed his plans as the will of Yahweh? Simply because the 400 are paid court prophets who know who keeps their bread buttered, and furthermore, Ahab knows they know it! He knows they are yes-men, and so he will feel safer if he can find an impartial prophet to confirm their prophecy. In fact, there is one prophet who always seems to confute his plans, so that Ahab can do nothing with a clear conscience. Why not con­sult him­? If by some fluke, Ahab has really hit upon the will of Yahweh this time, Micaiah will surely confirm it and the coast will be clear!

But, as you heard, it didn't work. In fact as soon as Micaiah starts agreeing with Ahab's plan, the king smells a rat! "­Wait­ a minute! ­This­ can't be right! You're agreeing with me! Come on, Mike! What do you really think?" You heard how it ended for Micaiah, and you can be sure the court prophets took the lesson: those were 400 yes-men who determined to keep right on saying yes!                            

You know, when I put the pictures of Paul and Micaiah together, I am strongly reminded of the strange medieval figure of the Court Jester! You know what the Jester's job was: it was to keep the king entertained by buffoonery, but also to provide a bit of occasional non-comedy relief! That is, since the king was accustomed to hearing him say outrageous things, the jester could occasionally get away with saying an outrageous or offensive truth that the king would brook from no one else. If the king didn't like the message, then like Saddam Hussein, he might as soon kill the messenger. But the Jester had a special privilege. He could speak as he liked, since his role was that of a madman whose ravings might be laughed off. No one could hold him responsible for the silly things he might say. And so if he happened to see the truth that others could see but dared not speak, the Jester could speak it and hope to be spared. If the king didn't like it, he could dismiss it as the mouthings of a poor lunatic.

If the Jester had a special privilege to speak, so did the king have a special responsibility to hear. Whatever the Jester might venture to say, the king would expect it to be a gag, and he would expect not to take it seriously. But then it just might be one of those truths hard for him to hear, hard for anyone else to speak to him. If he knew what was good for him, the king would always listen to the Jester with half an ear open to hear the truth. Certainly Lear would have been better off had he heeded the word of his court fool!

In today's reading don't we have biblical fools and court jesters? Paul hopes the foolish Corinthians may recognize the truth when it is spoken in the tones of a madman. Micaiah is sent for precisely because the king knows he is crazy enough to speak the truth.

As a preacher, I will not be so bold or self-important to fashion my role on the pattern of the prophet. But the role of the jester! Now that fits just fine! As with most of my clothes, it is a snug fit, but it suits me! And you, lords and ladies, are my royal audience! I sing for my supper! For your entertainment and edification I juggle ideas and texts from the Bible! Come one, come all!

You may from time to time shake your head and wonder where I have picked up some of the crazy things I say of a Sunday. You may wonder if even I can possibly hold the opinions I offer in the church newsletter! Am I just creating controversy for its own sake? Should you take me and my preachments seriously? Well, of course, and of course not! You would never be so foolish to take anything this fool says as true just because I say it! At least I hope not! It is your job to discern, to weigh in the balances, to accept or to reject! So feel free to  laugh off the outrageous things I say if you feel that's the proper response. But be careful before you do! It just may be that this jester's rantings are the truth this time! If something strikes you as patently ridiculous, at least consider it long enough to discover why it strikes you so! Is it baseless? Arbitrary? Is it some private hobby horse I happen to be riding at the moment? Maybe it is!

But suppose it seems crazy because it is so far removed from your preconceptions and presuppositions! Suppose that if it were true, and you admitted the truth of it, then the changes that would ensue in your life, your thinking, your religious practice, would be so far-reaching, that... well, it would be a lot easier just to laugh it off, albeit a bit nervously! Could that be, your majesty?

The Laughing God: Now that I have prepared you to hear the most outrageous absurdities from this pulpit (though of course that's nothing particularly new!), let me submit one for your careful consideration.

Here is the question I want you to consider with me for a few more moments: just what sort of a God would have as his messenger a jester? Well, of course, it must be a God who laughs! "He who sits in the heavens laughs," says the Psalmist, and he is laughing at us!

Isn't that what God is doing in the story of Micaiah? He gathers all the heavenly beings about him and solicits ideas for how best to pull a fast one on poor King Ahab! And, sure enough, the poor sap falls for it! He falls right into the trap! God must have had a good, universe-shaking laugh at that one!

Or think of the horrors of the Book of Job. Really, it's a black comedy of sorts. Think how it begins, after all. Essentially God makes a bet with his friend Satan that no matter what indignities the two of them put the old geezer through, he will remain faithful! I think of Lord Dunsany's tale, "The South Wind," in which Fate and Chance play an everlasting game of chess, using the very gods, to say nothing of the souls of men and women, as pawns!

But what of the relevance of this? It all adds up to the unsuspected doctrine of the divine play. In Hinduism, this is a well-known piece of theology. Hindu sages reason that God created the world as an act of play, a great cosmic joke of sorts. This may sound frivolous, but in fact it is an important assertion about the freedom of God. It is to say that when God created, he created as a free act. It was nothing he had to do. His nature did not force him; nothing forced his hand. We might say that he created even as he saved: by grace. God did what people and animals do when they play: he exulted in his power and engaged in gratuitous behavior -- of which you and I are the beneficiaries!

And dare we imagine that what is true of creation is true equally of providence? When the devotee of Krishna feels that things are taking a strange and absurd course in his life, he has a category to explain it. He says that God's providence is his play. Admittedly this makes the devotee the butt of God's little joke, but then that's just a gentle reminder of creaturely humility!

What must the Apostle Paul have made of God's providence as he lay curled up with aching joints in that wicker basket going over the Damascus wall? I'll tell you one thing: he who sits in the heavens laughed! He must have! And I suspect Paul knew it, too, at least eventually.

I realize that this line of thought only goes so far, and then we are talking about tragedy, which is an altogether different subject. But surely it is worth while to have a religious way to relate the providence of God to the absurdity that is everywhere present in our lives. I believe it is not only Socratic humility, but even spiritual growth, to come down off our high horses and realize just what comic figures we really are, in short, all fools.




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