Weekly Preaching: March 4, 2018

February 27th, 2018

Exodus 20:1-17 (paired well with Psalm 19) was the focus of my blog for October 8, just twenty weeks ago, so I’ll refer you there for my stuff about Torah as dream, Zora Neale Hurston and more. I'll also point you to this sermon from 3+ years ago, and this one from October 8. I do like the idea of the commandments as a jumping off point during Lent as we ponder what God requires, and how much repentance and mercy we require.

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1 Corinthians 1:18-25 focuses us squarely within the movement that is the season of Lent. As a preacher, I worry that when I preach “the Word of the Cross is folly,” it will turn out that my words about the Cross will be folly. The gravest risk for preachers who’ve grown up in our thin, vaguely revivalistic environment, is that we will minimize, individualize, trivialize and thus confuse and empty the Cross of its richer meaning. If you had time to read N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion, you’d be well-served; suffice it to say that his endeavor is to broaden the context and significance of Jesus’ crucifixion, which is more than Jesus died for our sins. Such eloquence:

“When Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as a result of which the world is a different place… The death of Jesus was the moment when the great gate of human history, bolted with iron bars and overgrown with toxic weeds, burst open so that the Creator’s project of reconciliation between heaven and earth could at last be set in powerful motion… Christian mission means implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross.”  

A revolution in all of creation began, and we aren’t saved from the trouble but are called to be active participants in God’s undeniable labor of reconciliation.

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We have pretty crosses adorning our churches, not to mention jewelry, posters, clothing… The cross in the first centuries was horrific, something from which you would avert your gaze. Christian art avoided the cross for several centuries, and even then the first ones were golden and bejeweled (Robin Jenson’s The Cross: History, Art & Controversy is a lovely study of the cross in historic art). Consider the first instance of a cross — in that laughable graffiti found near the Palatine Hill in Rome — depicting a man bowing down before a crucified figure with a donkey’s head, with the inscription, “Alexamenos worships his God,” clearly ridiculing a late second century convert to Christianity.

Mathis Grunewald, "Crucifixion." Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

We speak of “apologetics,” the intellectual defense of the faith. Paul surrenders before beginning, making zero apologies for the absurd, unexpected and not prophesied idea that the Messiah would not crush his foes but be crushed by them; the Scriptures themselves indicated that being killed on a tree was an offense. How can the preacher resuscitate the disgust, the offense, except just to name it? Or maybe we show horrific images, maybe von Grünewald's Christ, pierced hundreds of times...

Or maybe that startling bronze crucifixion by Floriano Bodini. This is God? Looks entirely God-forsaken — which is a pitch-perfect way of speaking of it, since Jesus screamed in misery, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” So many Protestant churches suffer from adornment with slick, brass, polished wooden crosses that are allegedly empty — due to Easter? The crucifix tells the deeper truth of God's heart. As Rick Lischer put it in his memoir about his son's death (Stations of the Heart), when battling the cancer, they looked into a church and saw a crucifix, prompting them to know this was the place for them, for such a church, and such a God, "is not freaked out by death."

God certainly gave us brains God would have us use in the life of faith, but the perils of being so smart and learned are many — perhaps especially for the clergy. Martin Luther, when castigating some foe, loved to label him “Mr. Smart-Aleck.” Anthony of Padua was one of Francis of Assisi’s most brilliant followers, but Francis was exceedingly wary of the life of scholarship, fearing that books and learning would become property to be protected and would puff people up. Finally and reluctantly, in a fascinating letter, he agreed to allow Anthony to pursue a life in scholarship, but only “on the condition that you do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion.”

Speaking of St. Francis and the folly of the Cross: while most devout Christians have gazed at the cross and felt considerable relief that Jesus suffered in their place, Francis longed so deeply to be one with Jesus that he prayed, “My Lord Jesus Christ, two graces I ask of you before I die: the first is that in my life I may feel, in my soul and body, as far as possible, that sorrow which you, tender Jesus, underwent in the hour of your most bitter passion; the second is that I may feel in my heart, as far as possible, the abundance of love with which you, son of God, were inflamed, so as willingly to undergo such a great passion for us sinners.” And with that, a seraph flew toward him and burned wounds, the holy stigmata, into his hands, feet and side, which bled intermittently until his death two years later.

If we ponder the cross, we try to choose among or amalgamate various theories of the atonement. I love Robert Jenson’s remark (in Systematic Theology):

“The Gospels tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back... Therefore what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell this story to one another and to God as a story about him and about ourselves.”  

Wow. Can the preacher simply trust the story, which has worked for centuries, instead of over-explaining it?

Paul’s rhetoric about the hope in weakness, that God’s weakness is stronger than our strength (by light years — not an inch, and not by a last-second basket), then weakness might be the key to a great many things for us, including leadership — which is what I tried to explicate in my newest book, Weak Enough to Lead. I address Paul in the final chapter, as Paul ingenuously plays on the weakness of the cross and his own weakness, and how this is God’s true way of redemption in the world.
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John 2:13-22 poses a chronological challenge. The Synoptics locate the cleansing of the temple early in Holy Week, while John sticks it in when Jesus is just getting started, shortly after attending a wedding with his mother. People ask, What Would Jesus Do? If the Scriptures supply the answer, it just might include overturning the tables of the religious and chasing people out of church with a whip.
Jesus waltzed right into the temple, and in a rage that startled onlookers, drove the moneychangers out of the temple. Was he issuing a dramatic memo against Church fundraisers? Hardly. Like the wine at Cana, this was a sign. He was acting out, symbolically, God's judgment on the temple. The well-heeled priests, Annas and Caiaphas, had sold out to the Romans. Herod had expanded the temple into one of the wonders of the world — but he pledged his allegiance to Rome by placing a large golden eagle, symbol of Roman power, over its gate.
The people were no better: a superficial religiosity masquerading as the real thing. Within a generation of Jesus’ ministry, that seemingly indestructible temple was nothing but rubble. Tell your listeners about the massive Herodian stones in this wonder of the ancient world. Help them imagine the sights, sounds and smells of the moment. I once set up a bunch of little tables with coins on them and proceeded to turn them over as my sermon began. I’m not sure anybody heard anything after that, but you never know…
Jesus was not the first to denounce the showy façade of a faked religiosity among God's people. Through the centuries, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, and John the Baptist had spoken God's words of warning to people whose spiritual lives were nothing more than going through the motions, assuming God would bless and protect them even though their lives did not exhibit the deep commitment God desired. God's prophets who spoke this way were not honored, but were mocked, arrested, imprisoned, and even executed. Jesus was courting disaster.
If we ask, Why did Jesus die? many might answer, For our sins. But then ask, Why did they kill him? Look no further than this moment: Jesus shut down operations in the temple and forecast its destruction. No wonder the authorities wanted to kill Jesus! In a way, Jesus would himself become a kind of substitute temple. The temple was the place, the focal point of humanity's access to God. Jesus, like the temple itself, was destroyed, killed; his death, and then his resurrection on Easter Sunday, became our access to God.
Here’s a preaching point, beyond the wonder of Jesus. Jean Vanier points out the people then as always made an idol of money — which is at the heart of so many injustices. Everything gets commercialized, even church. James K.A. Smith has quite shrewdly described the modern liturgy of the mall, with its entrances and cues and communions. Jesus wants all places to be holy, and we’d best start with the holy place. Jesus wants all bodies to be holy; as Vanier suggests, Jesus, by purging the temple, “is also crying out against the desecration of the temple of our own bodies.”
Fred Craddock has helped us discern the connection to the wedding at Cana. Both are on the “third day,” and both are polemic against religion centered on ceremony. But the difference: “In Galilee is the wedding; in Judea is the funeral.” 

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.
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