How Should We Preach about Sin and Evil?

For a long time we have treated personal sin and larger pictures of evil as different discussions. We have responded by preaching atonement theories that addressed the forgiving of personal sin so we might get to heaven. All other evil became part of “the problem of evil.” This category of evil need not be addressed by the cross but by philosophical and political debate.

Such thinking, according to N. T. Wright, is “not only politically naive and disastrous, not only philisophically shallow: it was also theologically naive or even… heretical. It was trying to ‘deal with evil’ all by itself, with no reference to any belief that this might be God’s job.” Wright goes on to say “it is God who deals with evil, and he does this on the cross. Any other ‘dealing with evil’ must be seen in the light of that.”

What is your response?

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“Father, Into Your Hands…” – A Sermon Starter

As with other words from Jesus, we are able to talk more intelligently about this text when we are attentive to the episode surrounding the text (context). For example, a natural tension arises in this scene as it appears Jesus has his life taken from him. Jewish leaders have been convincing that this man needs to die. Roman executioners appear to be in charge of his fate. Yet, Jesus is not swayed by this alliance of power. Instead his words suggest ongoing confidence in the Father. On account of this confidence, Jesus gives his life on his own terms.

Luke has already told us what Jesus has said about the hostile world and what he has said to the undeserving criminal. Now Jesus is giving his very spirit into the hands of the Father. Each of these statements reveal a consistency in the worldview of Jesus. When preaching, we can communicate this by reaching back into the gospel to highlight his tendencies to forgive, to invite the undeserving into the kingdom, and his own dependence on the Father.

Again, we do not want to ignore surrounding events. We want to remember the sun is darkened for three hours, the temple veil is torn in two, the centurion praises God and declares the innocence of Jesus, and a member of the council is waiting for the kingdom of God. Perhaps Luke wants to be sure we recognize that Jesus knew what he was doing when he put total trust in the Father.

The challenge for preaching these texts remains “What will we do with this information?” This short look proposes that in response to the hostile world – Jesus is forgiving. In response to the undeserving sinner – Jesus is welcoming. And in response to the Father – Jesus is self-giving. This at least provides a starting point for preaching these “last words” of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.

A Written Sermon

“A Long Journey of Presence and Absence” (Matthew 27.45-54)

Crucifixion. The word sometimes gets lost on us as we are inclined to think about the cross as a piece of religious furniture and crucifixion as some religious ritual. But lets be clear, what happened on Good Friday at the place called skull was an execution.

The Gospels give us permission to eavesdrop, to listen in on words spoke by Jesus on the cross. Words we have come to know as “the last words.” We might find ourselves asking the question “What would we expect to hear at an execution?” Each of the Gospel writers contribute. This is not a collecting of data about crucifixion. We listen in in order to learn how to follow. We read these words with the hope to discover what it means to be a disciple.

Matthew paints a gloomy scene. Jesus is not only executed but executed alongside convicted criminals. He has received the death penalty. Passersby insult him. He is taunted and mocked. He is insulted some more. Matthew does not even mention the pain. There is total darkness. It was inevitable that emotions would be strong. It is then we get the words… “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.”

“My God, My God, whay have you forsaken me?” These are the only words from the cross we get from Matthew. We get them in Aramaic, perhaps so we won’t overlook them. Perhaps so we feel the emotion. Jesus is feeling forsaken. He is not the first, he is quoting a psalm. This is not a coincidence, the psalms are words used by old Israel to navigate during emotional terrain. The psalms are songs and prayers that travel a long journey of presence and absence. This “word” is part of the practice of singing and praying the psalms. Old Israel knew about the presence of God, that is why they could sing about being led beside still waters. Old Israel also knew absence. They know the feelings of being forsaken. Some still feel it.

Mark also records these words. His is a dark Gospel with dark powers showing up in the early chapters. Even Jesus is accused of being in league with dark powers. He writes these words after the deaths of Peter and Paul. He writes them to a church in danger of losing their own life. We might say they felt forsaken. He writes so that those who feel forsaken may have hope. The early church knew what it meant to feel forsaken. Some still feel it.

Of all people we can trust Jesus speaking these words. He knows what the presence of God feels like. He knows the presence of God in healing the leper, in making the lame walk, the blind to see. He knows the presence of God when the dead are raised. He knows as he witnesses the kingdom of heaven come to earth. We can trust Jesus. Since he knows so clearly what presence is like, we can trust him to recognize absence.

What goes through our mind as we read this text? This is a word we might expect during an execution but not one we were hoping for. We hear a word like “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” and we might think “Oh that Jesus, always thinking about forgiveness.” But we read this word “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” and think “Oh no, what are we going to do with this?” Forgiveness fits nice in our vocabulary. Abandonment belongs to some other story. Yet this text reminds us, our story is one of presence and absence.

These words remind us the cross is not for safe religion. The cross cannot be reduced to a piece of religious furniture. Crucifixion is not just another religious ritual that can be cleaned up easily afterward. Pop religion will try to convince us that a scene like this is not even possible. Pop religion, pop psychology, pop songs – they all try to do the same thing. They all try to convince us they can simplify complicated things in the hope of selling something along the way. We know this all too well, we are presently getting a regular dose of pop politics.

The cross goes against the way the world works. The cross leaves the holiness of God raw in the world. This is evidenced as the temple curtain is torn and as the Son of God hangs exposed. The cross exposes a holy God and His plan of victory by weakness.

We do not want to neglect the conclusion of the scene. The temple curtain tears, the earth shakes, the rocks split, tombs open, bodies are raised, the Romans are terrified. And whatever conclusion we come to, we know, this was no ordinary execution. What are we to make of this response to Jesus three o’clock afternoon prayer? What are we to make of the way God answers the prayer of His forsaken son?

We may know what presence feels like. We may be able to point to people, situations, and activities where we have known the presence of God. We may claim to know absence. We may experience absence even when among people, in places, and during activities where we used to feel His presence. These words may leave us with questions. But they do not point fingers at us. The text simply highlights the reality of a long history of presence and absence. The text does not provide an escape from absence, instead it may imply that following Jesus may bring us into places where we feel forsaken. But Matthew reports them so we can learn to follow. Matthew wants us to know what it means to be a disciple.

Perhaps the text wants us to recognize that Jesus is present even in the absence. That Jesus is there even during feelings of abandonment. Jesus is there even during unimaginable pain. That even in our worst times, we are not alone. We journey with one who knows how to navigate dark days. We are following one who has traveled the paths of presence and absence. This is good news. We cannot be where he has not already been.

“Today You Will Be With Me” – A Sermon Starter

The second statement from the cross may prompt us to explore the type of people we find Jesus hanging around with in the Gospel. More specifically, we might be interested in the types of people Jesus invites into the kingdom. There is a substantial list of people who are welcomed by Jesus that may prompt a series of questions. Does everyone receive this invitation the same? Are others always in agreement with those Jesus chooses to invite? What tensions enter the narrative due to Jesus and his care free invitations? Is there any significance of this criminal being with Jesus?

Luke includes multiple people who may appear unlikely to be welcomed into the kingdom. Perhaps it would be valuable to examine any number of them on the way to our text where Jesus speaks with this criminal at this place called skull. These words are spoken in the context of a conversation between three men who are being executed, one of them Jesus. It is of interest that Jesus not only spent his life with such people, but also his death. He dies with them and for them. Jesus is crucified because of conversations like this one. Yet he does not stop, not even now, not even from the cross.

We do not know what else, if anything, these three on the cross may have said to one another. If there was anything else, Luke did not think it necessary to report it. Yet this conversation continues. Every one of us continues to ask for or to receive what we do not deserve. We are either asking Jesus to do things the way we want them done “Save us and yourself” or we are believing he knows what he is doing “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Again, we are not accumulating information for the sake of information. When working toward application, we ask ourselves “what are we to do with this information?” It is not enough to know that Jesus welcomed unlikely people into his kingdom. We are also expected to be inviting as well. But be aware, one has already been crucified for this kind of behavior.

“Father Forgive Them” – A Sermon Starter

Luke shares three different statements from Jesus on the cross. Simply stated, one of them is directed to the Father about the mob or the hostile world. The second is directed toward an unlikely recipient. The final one Jesus directs to the Father about his own self. While it would be easy to make too much of this observation, it is possible that distinguishing the words this way could help during our preaching.

For instance, upon reading the first text, we might explore the way the world operates. What is important to the world? What are the world’s expectations of others? How far is the world willing to go to maintain its control on the way things operate? Questions like these will help us understand the crucifixion from the world’s perspective.

On the other hand, there is another perspective on display in the text. We might explore the way that God operates (in this case, how God operates in the person of Jesus). What is important for Jesus? What expectations does Jesus have for the Father? How far are Jesus and the Father willing to go in order to demonstrate the way they operate? Questions like these help us reframe the crucifixion from God’s perspective.

Keeping questions simple will help preachers to prompt listeners to think without making the sermon a cognitive exercise. The episode surrounding our text reveals information about how the world responds to the ways of God. It also provides us with information of the way God responds to the ways of the world. Our text helps us understand that what the world (and all onlookers) thought was a criminal execution was actually an opportunity for Jesus to demonstrate the way God works.

Our application is then related to what we do with this information. While we are reminded of God’s desire to forgive, we are also reminded that as followers of one who is willing to forgive (even from the cross), we are expected to be a people who practice forgiveness.

Preaching the Cross

Death by the cross was an attempt of the Roman Empire to deter a rebellion. It was hoped that public torture and humiliation would prompt any would be rebels to think twice before getting any ideas. Yet, Jesus consistently makes clear that to follow him means the cross as a way to view the world. Interestingly, words like cross and crucifixion have become somewhat pious and religious and do not cause us to shudder the way our ancestors might have. It would do us well to remember that what took place one Friday afternoon on Golgotha was an execution.

Having said that, my friend Layne and I are making plans for Lent. These plans include preaching about the cross. More specifically we will be preaching the seven last “words” from the cross. This makes it obvious that, at least this year; we will not be rushing past Good Friday to get to Easter. Though we are well aware the grave is empty, we want to recognize that the narrative we live in includes “God crucified” before it includes “He is risen.” Perhaps this is our feeble attempt to “Preach Christ crucified” as the apostle encouraged.

It is hoped that a close examination of what Jesus said from the cross will help us in our understanding of what it means to follow. This is an event that changed the world and the way we view the world. Just like Good Friday and the crucifixion, we want to remember that these “words” belong to a larger story. One that includes both the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of those who gather in his name.

Where are the Disciples?

Sometimes the biblical narrative gives profound truth. Other times we get details about things that seem trivial. We find both in the Gospel of Mark 8.22-10.52. R.T. France considers this to be the second act of the gospel. As this act begins we receive profound truth “You are the Christ.” Yet, we do not want to ignore the details of movement in the text. The posture of disciples seems to matter. For example, Jesus turns around to see disciples behind him. Jesus then tells Peter to get behind him (in rather strong language). The text may be letting us know where disciples belong. Disciples belong behind Jesus.

When a man with great wealth approached Jesus he “ran up to him.” Afterward, Jesus “looked around” to tell his disciples how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom. On the road to Jerusalem, Mark tells us it was “Jesus leading the way.” When a blind man receives his sight, Mark adds that he “followed Jesus along the road.”

Of course, these things could be simple details. They could be an effort to tell us where someone is standing in a particular scene. They could be efforts to help us picture events in our mind. However, they could be deliberate references of where disciples should be in proximity to Jesus. These references might be reminders that our plan may not be God’s plan. Such references may be reminders of where we ought to be. We are to be where Peter belongs, where all disciples belong – disciples belong behind Jesus. To be anywhere else, to offer any advice on the way the kingdom should work is to be in league with Satan.

The cycle has not changed since Mark chapter 8. Jesus starts talking about the cross. We still disagree with this plan and insist there may be more effective ways to build a kingdom. It becomes easy and tempting for us to allow some of these ideas into our sermons. It is easy to point fingers at Peter from where we are. Yet, in honest moments we are able to admit that we are still not comfortable with a cross as part of the plan. Again, Jesus will emphasize where we are to be (and he may use strong language) – we belong behind Jesus.