When Gospel Enters Darkness

Next month, July 29, I will have opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching. If this conversation goes as planned, we will be leaving with at least four sermons in some stage of development and ideas for a sermon series connected to each of those sermons.

Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one of the emphases we will talk about that day.

The Gospel is not content with safe territory. In fact, Gospel seems to be drawn toward darkness. On account of that, we acknowledge risk when we carry the Gospel with us. To bring Gospel into darkness is to enter a battleground. While it might be paranoia to expect an evil spirit behind every tree, it is naïve to ignore the reality that there is more going on than the eye can see. The Gospel of Mark takes us into that territory. To be in the Gospel of Mark is to be saturated with powers and darkness and the question “who rules the realm?” The Gospel may be the story of the Son of God but humans and powers of darkness are woven into the story.

We might wish for something like “Ten Ways to Slay a Demon.” Instead, we find a story. And this story reminds us that every step of kingdom work is a step into heavily defended territory.

An Advent Sermon

“An Unorthodox Christmas Announcement.” Mark 3.1-6.

Take a look at Christmas cards you have received. Christmas cards you have sent. Christmas cards still on the shelves at the store. You will find manger scenes and shepherd scenes. You will find wise men traveling from afar. You will find quaint scenes of evergreens in winter. You will find animals with snow in the background. You will find Santa. Guess who you will not find – John the Baptist.

Yet the birth of Jesus is significantly tangled up with the birth of John the Baptist. Just read the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. What does John bring to this season we call Advent? What does he have to say to us at this time of year? John is a bit of an oddity. He has long hair and an untrimmed beard. He never cut his hair. Those guys at Duck Dynasty were not the first to sport that look. He had a strange diet. He did not receive many RSVPS’ for his holiday open house. Most of us prefer something other than locusts at our gatherings.

We cannot help but notice that Mark starts his Gospel by telling us this is about the good news of Jesus and then immediately begins talking about John the Baptist. John interrupts the Gospel. Just as he interrupts history. Just as he interrupts Advent and our holiday plans. John disrupts our lives to tell us that now is the time to prepare for the one coming.

John was a preacher. He preached that one was coming. Fred Craddock tells us he was no candle in the sanctuary, more like a bonfire in the wilderness. A stump would serve as his pulpit. The sun and moon served as his chandeliers. John was a wild man. Guys like this fascinate me. I have purchased books just because the word wild was in the title. I like to emphasize the wild in wilderness.

It is true, at Christmas we overlook John as we think of others. Mary and Joseph come to mind. Even King Herod seems more a part of the story than John. We are more likely to think of George Bailey, Clark Griswald or Scott Calvin than John as someone who belongs this time of year. No wonder he is often overlooked.

Yet there is something about John that seems to fit perfectly for Advent. Our text says that John came as a messenger to prepare the way for the one coming. John is always pointing toward the coming one. The gospel tells us that even while in the womb he leaped for joy when pregnant Mary walked into the room. This does not stop when he becomes an adult. He comes to “Prepare the way for the one coming.” He tells us “After me comes the one more powerful than I… I am not worthy to take off his sandals… I baptize with water – he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

The only son of a priest would have had responsibilities and obligations to his family and to society. He was supposed to be a priest. He was supposed to marry and have children who would grow up to be priests. At some point John turned his back on this obligation. He turned his back on everything most important for one born into his position and headed for the wilderness. And there he announced that one was coming.

John is a reminder that our significance is not found in ourselves. Our significance is not because of our skills, our histories, our futures or our upside. Our significance, our very identity is found outside ourselves – in our relationship to Jesus. We cannot discover who we really are by taking a deeper look inside ourselves. The self-help section at Barnes and Noble cannot help us here. John the Baptist tells us, our identity is in Jesus. Identity and significance is found beyond mother and father and family. John reminds us we find who we really are in relationship to the one who is coming.

It is Advent. I am the un-Baptist. I may like to think I am drawn to the wilderness. Yet I live in modern convenience. John is eating locusts and wild honey. I am trying to include greens and whole grains into my diet. John is wearing camel’s hair clothes. I am looking for something more comfortable. But John reminds me of an important Advent truth. My identity comes from outside myself. I can only know who I really am in relationship to Jesus.

Do not expect a Christmas card with John the Baptist on the front. Do not expect Macy’s to include him in a display to help sell merchandise. It would be a surprise to find someone hanging an ornament to commemorate his role in the story. Yet he is not here by accident. As then, John points us toward the one who caused him to leap while still in his mother’s womb. As then, he points us toward Jesus.

Preaching Against Evil Enchantment

C. S. Lewis did not preach many sermons. But one of his sermons “The Weight of Glory” has been on my mind recently. Here is an interesting portion of that sermon. “Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us…” As he is apt to do, Lewis reframes things in a way intended to make us think differently.

This has prompted me to become curious about the recent fascination to create adult versions of the stories we learned in childhood. So, Little Red Riding Hood crosses paths with a werewolf; Hansel and Gretel become witch hunters; even Snow White learns to handle weapons. It is possible the revival of fairy tales is due to a desire for once upon a time and happily ever after and magical things happening to ordinary people. It is possible we try to hang onto our youth by retelling childhood stories or have a simple longing for adventure and enchantment. Yet I cannot help but wonder if we turn to stories like these because we fear that we ourselves are under a strong spell? But I digress…

This conversation reminds me of Mark’s Gospel. There Jesus announces the Kingdom and then proceeds with an all-out assault against the power of evil. We find Jesus delivering people from demons and illness. Mark makes breaking a spell look mild as he portrays preaching the Gospel more like hostage release or a prison break. At one point, it is implied that evil is tied up in the back room while the Good News goes forth.

In keeping with this theme it is important (but not always easy) to remember that we are at odds with evil and not with the people who are bound by it. It would be contradictory to oppose the very people we desire to see set free. In fact, it might be more accurate to suggest that the primary involvement of people is that they have fallen into its trap. People have been lured, seduced, and captured by this evil enchantment of worldliness. With Lewis, we preach to break that spell. Following Mark’s lead, we preach to set people free.

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.

Making a Sermon Move

Preachers are always looking to put words together in ways that make a sermon move.  We want to help listeners recognize themselves in the story and see themselves as part of a spiritual adventure.  I fear that we sometimes overlook the biblical text as a natural place to find movement.  Exploring structure, genre, and purpose are not simply academic exercises.  This is necessary work to discover narrative movement.  In our discovery we find that sometimes physical motion helps the text move.  Other times, emotion, behavior, or newly introduced characters or places move the narrative.  The fact is that the text has a pace and moves in a specific direction.  The text knows where it is going and the preacher should follow it.

For example each of the four Gospels may take us to Easter, but they pace themselves differently and highlight different things along the way.  In an effort to illustrate this I make the following simple statements (perhaps too simple) about the Gospels.

Mark is intentional about moving us to a fuller understanding about who this Jesus is, especially His relationship to a cross.

Matthew creates space for us to reflect by switching back and forth between narrative and teaching sections.

Luke pulls us forward by demonstrating how innumerable barriers to the Good News are overcome by the activity of God.

John carries us along with scene after scene (or sign after sign) toward the possibility that we might believe.

I am not suggesting that we get locked in on a particular path to the neglect of others.  I am suggesting that the text tends to take us along specific routes.  We hinder the text when we try to take it down paths it was not intended to travel.

Preaching the Crucifixion Narrative of John

A harmony of the Gospels is an interesting exercise but any attempt to do it likely results in missing out on the emphasis of the individual gospel writer.  Thus, preaching should result in telling the story as the gospel writer tells it.  Ben Witherington says it like this, “let the evangelist have his say.”

For example, the first century view of crucifixion makes it somewhat surprising that John presents it as a moment of triumph.  The Gospel of Mark includes darker and more disturbing parts about the death of Jesus.  Witherington refers to Mark as providing “gut wrenching feelings.”  Some of the things that provide such feelings include darkness at noon, earthquake, additional mocking, splitting the temple veil, and the cry “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  Witherington concludes that John’s telling of the crucifixion is intended “to produce different emotions and reactions.”  I agree.

As a side note, if you are unfamiliar with Witherington’s commentaries, his John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel is an excellent one to start with.  Preachers will find his sections titled “Bridging the Horizons” particularly helpful.  He suggests that John includes “many ironies and peculiar turns to the story of Jesus.”  He goes on to say that “none is more strange than the way this story ends.”

In his discussion about the ending, he introduces a word from J. R. R. Tolkien to the conversation.  Eucatastrophe is defined as a fortunate disaster.  He then suggests that the death of Jesus is an illustration of such a fortunate disaster.

Such a triumphant, victorious version of the crucifixion leads us to ask whether John is guilty of leading readers astray.  If crucifixion is the final chapter, then the answer is yes and Billy Joel’s sermon “Only the Good Die Young” is the one we should be singing.  But the crucifixion is followed by resurrection and in that context triumph and victory are in play.  We have here “the benefit of hindsight and insight” – we have eucatastrophe!

Preaching John’s narrative does not put preachers in a place to describe crucifixion or retell history.  When we preach John’s version of the story, we are preaching for the same reason that he wrote, “so that you also may believe” (John 19.35).

Unexpected Words

I do not wish to constrict or limit preaching by claiming that it has to be done in a certain way, at a certain time, or about certain things.  I do wish to point out that near the end of the Gospel of Mark there are two episodes where we find unexpected people delivering an unexpected message about Jesus.  And I am convinced that these two episodes are helpful to preachers interested in proclaiming news about Jesus.

Admittedly, this is a brief look at these episodes.  Yet, even a brief look places us in situations where words about Jesus totally change the situation into which they were spoken.  It is not the words themselves that change the situation.  Instead, these words are recognition of what has become obvious to the speaker.  These words become an announcement of reality.

The first is in chapter fifteen where a Roman Military Officer reframes the crucifixion of a political criminal into a revelation that Jesus is the Son of God.  Unexpected words that readers of the Gospel have been waiting to hear.  Words that are different from words we are hearing from others.

And then in chapter 16 we are introduced to some well-meaning people. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome come with good intentions. They are looking for Jesus. We are told that it was the first day of the week. They are right on schedule. They arrive in reverence, with respect, in order to pay tribute to Jesus. They love him. They are faithful to the ritual. They come with a question, “Who will roll away the stone for us?”  Perhaps we could paraphrase that question like this, “Will anyone be able to remove that barrier between us and Jesus?”

They come without expectation.  But then, things begin to happen. They discover that already, “the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large.” They are then greeted by a young man in a white robe who speaks to them some unexpected words. “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He said to you.”

As in Mark, on any Sunday, people will show up looking for Jesus. They may be well intentioned people, they love Jesus, they desire to pay him tribute. They would like to do something for him.  And then, the preacher utters unexpected words.  Words that are not being uttered anywhere else.  We talk about an impossible situation. We talk about something that only God can pull off. We are reminded that Jesus is not always where we expect him to be. We do not have a corner on what he does or where he shows up. That just because our intentions are good does not mean that we are about his business. And, as in Mark, the response might be astonishment or fear or both.

We have become trained to look for an outline. For something that might make a catchy slogan.  Or answer pragmatic questions.  We are looking for “How the Cross Improves Your Life.” Or, “Making the Resurrection Work for You.” Instead, we get unexpected words. Words as unexpected as Easter. No one expected the dead to come back to life any more than they expect our words to make a difference.  But, these words interrupt well intentioned plans. Interrupt those who come expecting to do something for Jesus.  Our task is still to interrupt the lives of people with the news of a Risen Lord.

We may consider ourselves unlikely candidates to speak such unexpected words.  Interestingly, in both episodes the preacher is also somewhat unexpected.  No one expected a Roman Military Officer to reframe the crucifixion quite like that.  Some may have been convinced that he was a failed messiah, a misunderstood prophet, or a guilty criminal.  No one was saying that maybe this was the Son of God.  But the words of this speaker cause hearers to rethink the reality of this situation.  Readers of Mark have been waiting for someone to speak these words for a long time.  But no one expected this particular preacher.

The expectation was to find a dead Jesus in the tomb.  They suspected that it would be the right thing to anoint the body.  No one expected a young man dressed in white to be seated there instead.  No one expected this young messenger to be speaking for Jesus.  No one expected Jesus to be alive and on the move in Galilee.  But the words of this preacher remind listeners that they are not finished following Jesus.

We preach to the curious.  The heckler.  The seeker.  The one who came to do something.  We preach to those who are just performing rituals.  We preach to those who came to hear about Jesus.  To those who thought that a criminal was crucified, here hangs the Son of God.  To those who thought they were about to anoint a dead body, that body is alive and wants you to follow him to Galilee.

Like the preachers of Mark, we may be speaking to observers or to those intentionally seeking Jesus.  To antagonists or to someone wanting to do something for Jesus.  To those who come thinking they will have to remove the barrier between themselves and Jesus, only to find out that it has already been moved.  Like the preachers of Mark, we bring words to our gatherings that cause listeners to rethink what is happening around us.  Words that may be contrary to appearances.  Words that suggest things are not the way they seem.    Our situation may appear to look a certain way, but reality suggests otherwise.  We are called to state that reality.