The key to a good joke is an unexpected wry twist at the very last moment. You don’t give the punchline at the beginning or middle of a joke. No, a good joke-teller weaves together a seemingly pointless and at times oddly disparate story (a la “A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar…”). Only in the final sentence are the loose ends of the story twisted into an unexpected comedic finish.
Many jokes seem headed for a colossal tragedy. Listeners are expecting a train wreck of a finish, but suddenly the story swerves at the last minute. It’s that unexpected turn from tragedy to comedy that makes us laugh. Even though we know a punchline is coming, we are still surprised and pleased when the unpredictable finish resolves the tension.
Jokes build momentum. The tension grows as the teller reaches the climactic finish. We listen to jokes in a leaned-forward posture. A good joke drags out the ending as long as possible. It piles on the impossible. It builds a heaping tower of anticipation on its listeners, and at just the right time the punch line comes through like a wrecking ball.
And that is why I say the Old Testament is a huge joke. Seemingly pointless commands, weird stories, odd characters. The plot is like one giant downward trajectory. If ever a story was doomed to fail, it’s the Old Testament. And yet, the anticipation builds from Genesis to Malachi. We have no idea what we are waiting for, but the whole book has us leaning forward…
And at just the right moment: Jesus. The ultimate punchline. There was no foreseeable way to rescue the narrative of the Old Testament. No way to resolve the tension. No way to twist this intricate story into a joyful finish. But then, Jesus.
In Christ, every single loose end, every single bizarre commandment, every single tragic downfall is twisted into the most unexpected swerving of events in the history of joke-telling. What wry humor God has. God becomes man. Death brings life. A cross becomes a source of celebration. Eminent colossal failure becomes preeminent eternal victory. It’s inconceivable!
The road to Emmaus (Luke 24) was a place of improbable laughter. As Jesus explained how the whole Law and the Prophets was about him, he revealed himself as the punchline planned before the dawn of creation. Surely those two men must have laughed with joyful disbelief. On the road to Emmaus, the universe finally got a thousands year-old joke. Millenia of built up tension and anticipation was finally released in a giant exhale of laughter. Everything in the heavens and the earth now had a new meaning–because of Jesus.