The word “crisis” in English means a time when a particular situation must either go on, be reversed, or be changed in a new direction. It is a “decisive moment” or a “turning point” in the course of human existence. Decisions must be made.
These times can be predicted to some extent, as in the cases of developmental crises such as the time to start and finish school, the time when a couple is to have a child, the time they can no longer have children, the time a person retires. Other kinds of crises are more nearly emergency crises in that they cannot be predicted, such as the onset of a given illess, the death of a person, an accident, or a tornado.
Little wonder is it, then, that in the New Testament the word krisis means a time of judging, of judgment. In its ultimate meaning it refers to the Day of the Lord when we will be judged for the deeds we have done. Contemporary behavioral science literature observes that a crisis is a time of stress when life itself — which moves on regardless of what kinds of voluntary decisions we fail to make — literally sits in judgment upon us and forces a change. As Omar Khayyam puts it:
The moving finger writes and having writ, moves on
And all your piety, nor all your wit
Can lure it back to cancel half a line
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.
Thus when we are preaching to meet needs of people in times of crisis, the moralistic, hortatory tone of a plethora of “We oughts” and “We shoulds” are really as unnecessary as saying: “We ought to be up before sunrise to help the sun rise!” Crises occur as part of the “isness” of life.
Preaching to meet the needs of people in crisis in this way calls for some real knowledge and personal discipline on our part. If we faithfully inform ourselves and submit to these disciplines, we can become effective interpreters of both the “nowness” of human crises and “the shape of things to come” in the lives of people.
Basic Knowledge of Common Human Crises
Background preparation for preaching to meet human crises is imperative. A preacher needs to read such books as Erik Erikson’s Identity and the Life Cycle: Daniel Levinson’s, The Seasons of a Man’s Life: Carol Gilligan’s, In Another Voice: Havighurst’s, Human Development and Education and Oates’, Managing Your Stress.
Similarly, pastors contribute to their own education by organizing support and fellowship groups for persons going through specific crises. If a pastor leads these groups, the group becomes an opportunity to “listen in” on what it is really like to face such crises. It is a way of getting to know your people in more than a social chit-chat basis. It is a way of preparing your being to preach as an imperative part of sermon preparation.
For example, a group of young parents with children in different age groups as a focus could be organized with an age group for each morning in a whole week. A drug and alcohol abuse group could be quietly organized on a continuing weekly basis. A group of widowed persons or a group of persons about to be retired could be another ongoing group.
These groups can well serve as “consultants” to the pastor as to the content, direction and tone of preaching on various crises. If the morale of the group is good, then they form a recruitment team to urge other people to hear the sermon.
A Point of View on the Sermon on Crises
Whatever else a sermon on human crises is, it must not be merely a set of wise sayings or a psychological treatise on the ways to face, endure, and get through particular kinds of crises. Wise sayings and psychological wisdom may be used, but the sermon on crises is far more than either or both. The sermon probes the crisis-affected person’s relationship to God in Christ and God in Christ’s relation to him or her in this crisis.
Furthermore, human crises need to be described as having both positive and negative dimensions. Not all crises are “bad.” Not all of them are “good.” Any one crisis has both painful and redeeming dimensions.
The graduation of the high school seniors in your congregation is a time of celebration, but it represents also the disbanding of one’s peer group on a daily basis. Forming new friends on a job, at a college or in the military calls for the commencement of a new life.
Joseph’s parents and brothers were scourged by the famine. Yet the crisis reunited the family. Joseph said to his brothers: “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”
In other words, the preacher captures the irony and ambiguity of human crises, i.e. that every curse is alloyed with blessing and every blessing is mixed with hazard. As it is often said, the word “crisis” in Chinese means both danger and opportunity.
Again, the sermon itself universalizes the crisis experience in such a way as to involve everyone in the sound of the preacher’s voice. For example, the birth of a child is not only unto parents, but to grandparents, uncles, aunts, great-grandparents. Little children who have no grandparents often find surrogates for them in the church.
The Substance of the Sermon on Crises
The Biblical context and basis for the sermon on a given crisis is the preacher’s first concern for substance. For example, the birth narratives of the Scripture provide this for the crisis of the advent of a new born child. (Note Gen. 18:9-15; 21:7-9; Ex. 1:15-2:10; Judges 13, Ruth 4:13ff. I Sam 1:1-28. Jer. 1:4ff.; 20:18; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6: 48:41; 50:43. Luke 1:1-80.) A follow-up sermon on “The Slaughter of the Innocents” mentioned in Matthew 2:16 has an excellent Biblical context for preaching on child abuse and “the turning of the hearts of the parents to their children” mentioned in Luke 1:17 through the Presence of Christ.
The next common venture of human life — as recurrent as the birth of a child — is the event of death. The facing of death, the experience of bereavement, is a “prototype” crisis for interpreting the very meaning of life itself. One cannot preach on a topic like “What is a Good Death?” without making a very positive statement about what a good life is. It would be highly valuable to a congregation, I think, to hear a sermon on “What is a Good Life?” (with a text such as Gal. 2:20) after hearing one the previous Sunday on “What is a Good Death?” (with a text such as II Tim. 4:6-7).
Another important crisis in human existence is marriage, which can be matched with the decision to be a single person. Is there any justification today for the decision to be single? Or, have we tended to make an idol of the institution of marriage? This decision gets made all around us, but are they recognized in sermons? What about those for whom the single life is a forced or coerced necessity? Here again the choice of subject matter for sermons on crises in life can recognize the irony and ambiguity of human life. The wise pastor, in behalf of his people’s own quiet desperation, does not leave crises half-interpreted. This pastor’s sermons are not “cakes half-turned.”
I have chosen three crises — birth, death, and marriage — as illustrative of how the depths of human suffering can be lifted to light in courageous preaching. Whatever we do, let us never trivialize the crises which — one way or another — every human being faces before God in Christ. Let us plumb the depths of the scriptures and preach the whole counsel of God.
Other crises are too numerous to discuss in detail, but note several of them: The event of turning 16 and getting a driver’s license; the event of becoming “legally an adult”; the event of taking one’s first job; the heartbreak of a broken courtship; the event of losing one’s job; the event of being called as a minister; the event of the last child’s leaving the nest; the event of a physical handicap one must “learn to live with”; the event of placing one’s parent(s) in a nursing home; “breaking up housekeeping”; “setting up housekeeping”; and “returning home from college.”

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