Sermon preached at Evensong on the Second Sunday before Lent (4 February 2018) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean
Reflecting on the day's readings (Genesis 2.4b-25 and Luke 8.22-35), the Dean considers whether we are often too fearful of having our lives disturbed, our inconsistencies exposed, and calls us to be "open to the power of the saving love of God, to change us and change our world".
Twenty years ago I worked with a canon in another cathedral who always started his sermon with a joke, and it was nearly always terrible, so I don’t tell jokes in sermons. However, today is different. It’s not because I think I need to tell you a joke to get your attention or to make you like me, but because I want you to understand and respond to something in the scripture readings we’ve had this afternoon, something they have in common with jokes. I’m not telling a few jokes to make you laugh, but to make you think. And in particular to think about the punchline, the final sentence at the end of the joke that makes it funny, or the story that makes its meaning.
First, a couple of jokes by a great comedian called Tommy Cooper.
I have problems sleeping at night. Two nights ago I slept like a log. I woke up in the fire place.
Last night I slept like a baby. I woke up screaming at 2 o’clock.
If you’re not British you may wonder why these jokes are funny. It’s because they both work by taking an English idiomatic phrase literally, using the punchline to take your mind off in a completely different direction from what you expect to hear.
To ‘sleep like a log’ means to sleep heavily, without moving; to ‘sleep like a baby’ means you can sleep through noise and distraction with no bad dreams. And the punchline in both jokes mocks the idiom: a log belongs in a fireplace, a baby screams at night, and why do we think that sleeping well is anything like a log or a baby – how ridiculous are we?
Every good joke has a good punchline – the final pay-off that provokes you, hopefully to laughter, and does it by upsetting your expectations of what should come next.
Two more jokes to help us be aware of punchlines and to think outside the box, before we get down to work on quite how ridiculous in God’s eyes we are.
My wife complained that her feet hurt. I said: “You’ve got your shoes on the wrong feet.” She said: “But these are the only feet I’ve got.”
And then there’s my favourite, drawn from my own experience of home maintenance: We had a problem with the shower. I got my tools, and my wife called the plumber. He came round and asked her, where’s the drip. She said: “He’s in the bathroom trying to fix the leak.”
And quite what does this have to do with the two rather long readings from the Bible, which you can find on pages 7 & 10 of your service booklet? You may have gone to sleep or been looking at the ceiling, but you might have noticed that there are three stories in these two readings and each one ends with a punchline, and the two punchlines at the ends of the readings are important ones for us to hear.
Let’s start with the first story, which is about sex – now there’s a teaser – it’s on pages 7 and 8 of your service booklet. It comes almost right at the beginning of the Bible, which starts with two stories about creation, and this is the second one. The stories tell us why rather than how: why the world is as it is, because it reflects how God made it. The first creation story about the six days of creation is answering the question: ‘why do we Jews keep the sabbath day holy?’ And the answer is that God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh, and so therefore do we, to remember that it’s God’s world not ours.
But our first reading from chapter 2 of the book of Genesis is the second creation story, about how God forms man from the dust and creates not only the animals but also splits man apart to make both man and woman. And the question which this story answers is, ‘why do men and women love and long for each other?’
It’s because we were originally one flesh which was divided, and we long to come back together, to become one flesh again.
However, right at the end of this reading, at the end of chapter 2, there’s a startling punchline, which isn’t essential to the story, but which challenges those who read it: ‘the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.’
Why is this a punchline rather than a mere statement? Because the two halves of the sentence would not go together in normal Hebrew society. To be naked was shameful; and the Jewish scriptures have many stories of people whose nakedness is uncovered, and how shaming it is. For Hebrew readers, and indeed for most other people, the words ‘naked’ and ‘not ashamed’ would not appear in the same sentence, and finding them here together upsets the expectation of what’s normal.
The punchline introduces the next chapter about how the snake tempts the human couple to disobey God, and so take on shame: but the punchline also calls into question the expectation that being naked is necessarily shameful. The punchline says that shame isn’t what God intends, but it’s what human disobedience to God produces. And this relates to our reading from Luke’s gospel, which has two different stories connected together – so we move on to page 10 in your service booklets.
The first story in this long reading is about Jesus stilling a storm at the insistence of his disciples, who think their boat is sinking, and Jesus silences the wind and the raging sea, and asks them, ‘Where is your faith?’ And rather than the disciples saying what you might expect – our faith is in you, or in God, perhaps – they ask the question, not of Jesus but of each other, the question which is partly a punchline: ‘Who then is this?’ Who IS this? – and then the following story answers that question – but in a rather disturbing way.
As soon as the boat comes to land and Jesus steps out of it, a man possessed by demons meets him and addresses him as ‘Jesus, Son of the Most High God’. This is the immediate answer to the disciples’ question, ‘Who is this?’ But it’s an answer given by a naked madman, speaking with the voice of many demons who aim to corrupt and deceive humanity. How could this answer from such a shameful person be trusted?
But Luke in the story shows the result of the interaction between Jesus, Son of the Most High God, and this naked madman: the result is that the area is cleansed of unclean animals and demons, and the naked madman is clothed and in his right mind.
Jesus has brought order and sanity, and so the madman’s answer to the disciples’ question, unlikely as it seems, is true – this is the Son of God. And the people of the local town come out to see for themselves that this powerful wonder has taken place.
What then would we expect next in the story? That the people rejoiced at the healing of a sick man? That they welcomed Jesus? No, neither of those. The punchline is: ‘And they were afraid.’ They’ve just witnessed an amazing miracle, and they respond with great fear, and they beg Jesus to go away and leave them alone. They meet the truth of God in Jesus, and have the proof of who he is in front of them, and they don’t want to see it. They are offered salvation, but find it too demanding, too frightening. Stilling a storm and un-shaming the naked is just too much for those who want their life to remain undisturbed...
I do wonder, if you and I had been there, how different we would have been. Would we too have been afraid and overwhelmed? Would we have not wanted to see what was in front of us? Would we prefer the familiar world of madness and shame that we constantly live with, to having to confront our own spiritual nakedness?
After all, don’t we still prefer how things are to how God wants them to be?
We live as if war and famine, poverty and homelessness, deaths from road traffic, the abuse of women, children and men, and so many other shameful things, are just normal. We’re afraid to change our own lives for the better, let alone the lives of others. Can we face the cost of asking Jesus to bring us to our right mind, and to be nakedly who we are in front of others in spite of our shame...?
It’s not just comedians who can do a good punchline. As the scriptures show, God in Jesus confronts us with our inconsistencies and how ridiculous we are, our shameful acceptance of how things are now. And God invites us not just to laugh about it, but, with repentance, to go to the roots of sin in us and make everything about us naked and open to the power of the saving love of God, to change us and change our world.
‘Who then is this?’ ask the disciples. Life for most of us is often no joke: but God will keep sending us punchlines to bring us up short. Listen out for them, laugh at our shameful ways of being, and turn to Jesus, Son of the Most High God.