The Foolishness of
and the Preaching of Foolishness
Reading: 1 Kings 22:1-28
Testament Reading: 2 Corinthians 11:16-33
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!
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
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
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
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
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
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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