Weekly Preaching: March 7, 2021

March 3rd, 2021

I love that Exodus 20:1-17 is paired with Psalm 19, which reminds us of the beauty and value of God’s law, correcting our foolish lunge toward ideas that the Law is oppressive or has been tossed in the waste bin by Jesus – especially during Lent! I think of the fabulous moment in Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses:

“Moses lifted the freshly chiseled tablets of stone in his hands and gazed down the mountain to where Israel waited. He knew a great exultation. Now men could be free. They had something of the essence of divinity expressed. They had the chart and compass of behavior. They need not stumble into blind ways and injure themselves. This was bigger than Israel. It comprehended the world. Israel could be a heaven for all men forever, by these sacred stones. With flakes of light still clinging to his face, Moses turned to where Joshua waited for him. “Joshua, I have laws! Israel is going to know peace and justice.”

Martin Luther noticed grace and a promise in each commandment. What better sermon could you preach than to narrate the way God in mercy relieves us of our burdens by declaring, “You don’t ?commander of the commandments? And where were they? These aren’t chiseled rules to be used in judging others or keeping our nation in good order. God has just delivered Israel from bondage – and now God explains what will be required to stay free. There is such a thing as holiness, as a deep desire to fulfill God’s will. Brevard Childs: "The intent of the commandments is to engender love of God and love of neighbor.”

The preacher could pick one command and zero in – or you could do what I plan to do, just a quick, breezy touching on each one with an explanatory note or two. No other gods? Luther clarified that our god is whatever motivates us, changes our mood, embodies the good life… so who is your God? No images of God? We are made in God’s image, and Jesus is the perfect image of God – so other creature-like images (the Egyptian or the Wall Street golden bull, you name it) mislead us. Remember the Sabbath? Can we switch off our gadgets and rest?

Don’t kill? Jesus went deep, explaining that anger is an interior kind of murder (and in our rancorous culture, where anger management is a big thing, aren’t we rabid killers?). No adultery (in a culture where sex as impulse, pleasure, and self-fulfillment is all over the media)? Jesus said if you harbor lust in your heart, you are an adulterer. No condemnation there; just as in that moment in John’s Gospel, Jesus encounters an adulterer to set her free. No coveting? Coveting is the engine of capitalism! But God would liberate us from the stranglehold of always wanting more – or really, wanting what is new and different. I don’t want more iPhones. I want the latest iPhone.

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 on “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. N.T. Wright: “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.” 

We have pretty crosses adorning our churches, not to mention jewelry, posters, clothing… The cross in the first centuries was horrific, from which you would avert your gaze. 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.

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, perhaps von Grünewald's Christ, pierced hundreds of times, or maybe that startling bronze crucifixion by Floriano Bodini. This is God? It looks entirely God-forsaken – which was God’s point. As Rick Lischer put it in his memoir about his son's death (Stations of the Heart) when battling 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."

Before turning to the Gospel, I think it is worth passing along a word of encouragement to preachers from Michael Knowles, and reminds me that we preachers need encouragement more than we need material: “The vast majority of preachers throughout the entire history of the Christian church have conducted their ministries in either relative or absolute obscurity. And they, by virtue of such obscurity, best exemplify cruciform preaching as Paul intends it. Wherever preachers stand before their congregations conscious of the folly of the Christian message, the weakness of their efforts, and the apparent impossibility of the entire exercise… there, Paul’s homiletic of cross and resurrection is at work. The one resource that genuinely faithful preachers of the gospel have in abundance is a parade of daily reminders about their inadequacy, unworthiness, and – dare we admit it? – lack of faithfulness. Yet these are the preconditions for grace, the foundations for preaching that relies on God ‘who raises the dead.’”

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. 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, a symbol of Roman power, over its gate.

The people were no better: a superficial religiosity masqueraded 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 many 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.

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. Like the temple itself, Jesus was destroyed, killed — and his death, and then his resurrection on Easter Sunday became our access to God. And Fred Craddock has helped us discern the connection to the wedding at Cana. Both are on the “third day,” both are polemic against religion centered on ceremony. But the difference: “In Galilee is the wedding; in Judea is the funeral.” 

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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