Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017
2 Corinthians 5.20–6.10
People come to church for all sorts of reasons and with a variety of expectations. Some come looking for a church that offers their children Christian education and fellowship. Some choose to attend services at a particular church because they like the music there. Others choose a church that has a beautiful liturgy. Still others just come because their wives make them come. If there are a hundred people in the congregation, those same people have a hundred different reasons for being there. But whatever motivation leads people to come to church, be it on Ash Wednesday or any given Sunday, I believe that all of us have one expectation in common. We come to church hoping to hear a good sermon, a sermon that inspires faith and hope in us and draws us closer to God and leaves us feeling like we learned something.
You’d think that writing and delivering a good sermon would be an easy task. Like a nurse giving a flu shot, how tough can it be? But judging by the number of sermons that miss the mark, I’d say that writing and delivering a good sermon is a challenge that compares to batting in Major league baseball. If a player can keep a batting average of 300, getting a hit one of every three tries, he’s doing really well. Likewise, a preacher who can hit a home run from the pulpit once a month is doing very well. Let’s be honest, most sermons are not big hits. Preachers try their best, but it doesn’t always work. Preachers often wander without making a clear coherent point, while the poor souls in the pews drift with the meandering sermon into a slumbering twilight sleep born of the tedium of listening to something that makes no sense.
This happened once to me, in Westminster Abbey, London, of all places. It was a dark December evening during Christmas week about thirty years ago. I had come five thousand miles to attend a service of evensong in this hallowed shrine of Anglicanism. My expectations were high. The choral music was magnificent. The aesthetics of that setting are unrivaled in the Western world. Just being there was an inspiration. But then the young Canon to the Ordinary began to speak. On and on he droned, about what I don’t know. The last thing I remember is that he was reading to us from a book of cannon law; then I suddenly I found refuge in sleep. I mean, I went out like a light—not very polite to do when you are a guest in a foreign country, but a boring sermon is a boring sermon. I fought sleep but I could not stay awake. Then, it happened. The sermon ended without my knowing it. The organ bellowed. Trumpets blared. The congregation stood to sing, and as they did it startled me from sleep. You know what I mean. It’s one of these when you’re sound asleep and then suddenly it’s like, “Woo, woo, woo woo, Where am I?” My arms and legs were flailing about. I was so embarrassed. The gent beside me gave me a dirty look. I looked at him appealing for Christian forgiveness and understanding, but none was forthcoming. I could have shriveled under my seat. “It’s not my fault!” I wanted to say, “He was reading from a book of canon law!”
I’m sure that preacher was a good man, but he would have had a better sermon had he taken Saint Paul’s advice. Paul told Timothy how to preach. “Preach the word,” he said, “be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and teaching…do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4.2–5). Billy Graham was an evangelist. What does an evangelist do? The work of an evangelist is to tell the world about Jesus Christ. Not meekly but boldly. Not passively but urgently. Not quietly but loudly so all can hear the message of the gospel that salvation comes by the cross of Christ, that sin is the problem, and the blood of Jesus Christ shed for us on that old rugged cross is the answer; it is the antidote as Saint John said, “not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world.”
You say the whole world is turmoil today and the country is divided and we need action to heal our wounds. When the world repents of sin and turns to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and when we turn to the Prince of Peace for salvation, he will mend those divisions, and that turmoil that seems intractable will cease. You say he can’t do that. No one can do that. You’re right. No one relying on human power and reason alone can do that. But Christ does not rely on human power but on the grace of God and grace, as he revealed when he worked among the people in Galilee. It is a power that can heal the sick with a word, open the eyes of the blind, and raise the dead to eternal life. Grace is the greatest power governing the universe and it belongs exclusively to him.
There is no political party that can deliver the salvation we need. Salvation belongs to Christ and it long past time for this county to admit that we blew it when we took prayer out of the public schools and turned Sunday mornings over to little league soccer. If God doesn’t come first in a nation’s life he doesn’t come at all. It’s no mystery what is happening to this country. We have treated Our Lord, the world’s true redeemer, as if he were some sort of pariah. We need the salvation that only he can deliver, a salvation that is in his precious blood and his alone, a salvation he gives to those who repent of their sins and beg his forgiveness. And God knows we have a lot to beg forgiveness for.
“Repent, and believe the gospel,” Jesus proclaimed, “The kingdom of God is near.” (Mark 1.15). That is how Jesus preached: simple, straightforward, alarming, bold; always pointing the listener to the world’s true governor: God.
But in pointing the listener to God, Jesus could not help but point also to himself. He had the courage to tell them what they did not want to hear: that in order to enter God’s kingdom they would first have to repent of their sins and then follow Him. “Take up your cross and follow me,” he said.
That was Jesus’s message then. And still today, two millennia later, the message has not changed. And that is the work of the preacher: to proclaim that message. A good preacher proclaims not his own word but Christ’s. Saint Paul said that he was—and that the preachers are—“ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor.5.20). The preacher’s job is to deliver a message to us from the Lord. An urgent message that comes down to two little words, “the cross.” What is Christianity about? The cross. Where do we look for salvation? To the cross. Where did Christ die? On the cross!” The message never changes. That is why every true sermon is a variation on this one theme: “Today is the day of salvation” (2 Cor.6.2). Today is the day to repent of sin, change your life, and determine once and for all to live for Jesus and let him live in you.
The preacher may be up in a pulpit and the congregation may be seated in the pews but we all, alike, stand under the authority of God’s word. All of us are called to conform our lives to the pattern of holiness that Christ has set before us. That is why the best sermon ever is the one I make of my life and you make of your life. When it comes to the gospel, actions speak louder than words.
Nevertheless, words matter and preaching is vitally important. As Saint Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, “How are people to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? …” As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!” (Romans 10.14-16).
What’s he saying? There is nothing more important in life than that we faithfully proclaim the word of God and obey it. He is saying that we do not come to church for entertainment. Nor is this a lecture hall where we debate current issues. This is a church whose business is to proclaim the forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ who died on a cross for our redemption. And the word is this: “Today is the day. The time of salvation is now” (2 Cor. 6.2). Confess your sin to Jesus Christ, commit your soul to his eternal care, cling to him who alone is our redeemer, as you would to one who rescues you from a burning building. Cling to that old rugged cross on which the young prince of glory died, and having turned your life over to him don’t ever, ever turn back.
The Reverend Jansen String
St. George’s and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church