?When I was a boy, my grandfather had a painting of a sailing ship on his living room wall. Sometimes I would stare at the picture for a long time, looking at the ship, its masts and lines and the rolling waves.
Then I noticed something strange.
I found that I could make the ship disappear! If I stopped looking directly at the ship and focused instead on the wall or frame around the ship, then I would no longer notice the painting. If I did it long enough, the ship would seem to disappear. It would still be there, but I would no longer notice it.
It’s an old magician’s trick-getting people to focus on the edge of something, instead of what is happening in the middle. But there was no magic here. When I lost my focus on the ship, my mind simply overlooked it. Once concentration on the picture was lost, the ship seemed to disappear.
Something like this is happening in our pulpits every Sunday. The cross, which is central to our faith, is too often overlooked and ignored to the point of disappearing. The central tenet of the Christian faith is being ignored to a large degree.
Of all the world’s great religions, none is so focused as Christianity. Other religions are defined by a general philosophy of life. Christianity is focused on the deity of Jesus, His death and resurrection and the grace that flows from that divine sacrifice.
Everything we believe about God, life and the universe connects through this single event. The cross really is the intersection of all worlds.
Paul recognized this fact in Galatians 6:14, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (NIV). And again in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The cross to him meant the same thing it does to us today-the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
Something has happened to those who preach Christ week after week-something terrible: We’ve gotten used to it. The
scandalous truth of the cross, which Paul calls its “offense,” is lost on us. Shorn of the cross, Christianity is not much different from Judaism or Islam. Without realizing it, our messages have become sub-Christian.
The effect of this disappearing cross in the pulpit is felt with devastating force in the pew. In a previous church, I visited a man who was sick with a terminal illness. He was in his 80s and a pillar of the local church. He had served his church as a deacon, elder and trustee. Now he faced his own death, and he was concerned that he was not good enough to go to heaven.
Here was a man who had been in church every Sunday, yet he did not understand the cross. He had memorized the Catechism, the Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments; but the assurance wasn’t there. How was it possible that he had missed the significance of the central event of the Christian faith?
Over the years, talking to other men and women his age, I discovered that he was not alone. A significant number of congregants do not understand the cross either. They keep going back to the idea that there is something they must do or not do to earn a place in heaven. The grace of the cross has not gotten through.
It is a mystery why one person understands the gospel and another does not. After many repetitions of the same message, we begin to wonder if it is necessary to keep repeating it. Instead, we concentrate on the less-scandalous aspects of the faith. We preach that we are for love and caring and against sin. After decades of this kind of preaching, a congregation could tell you all about the evils of drinking and why they are against abortion or for the environment; but they still do not know if they are going to heaven or why.
Preachers preach what interests them. If we like history, we preach history. If linguistic studies are our forte, then we fill our sermons with Greek and Hebrew. If we enjoy a clever turn of the phrase, we find clever hooks to gain our congregation’s attention. This may impress, but alone it does not get the job done. The central message must be clear. We may be preaching the Bible, but are we preaching Christ?
There are many subjects that can obscure the cross. Here are some of the worst.
1. Moralism. It is important to preach the Ten Commandments and the other decrees of God. The problem with preaching them, however, is that they are not particularly Christian. We could go through all 10 of them, accurately exegeting each one, and never mention Christ.
2. Cultural commentary. A pulpit is a dizzying height from which we may freely display our egos. It is easy for us to assume that our opinions on all matters are more informed than they actually are. But there is no justifiable reason to think a preacher would be any more informed about the world than the average well-read person in the pew. When we presume with our limited knowledge to speak outside of what the Bible says, we should not be viewed as an authority. Even so, many preachers will speak at length on non-revealed matters without any mandate to do so. The Bible was not written as a book on politics or health. Preaching on such subjects leads us in a straight line away from the cross.
3. Self-help. Modern society has passed from the age of moral certainty and entered the age of psychology. This is true in the church as well. In this age, preachers are not so much tempted to tell our congregations what they should be doing as we want to tell them how to get ahead. Pulpits are rife with prosperity preachers who deliver the message that if we believe and persevere, we can grow rich, successful and famous.
Preachers are attracted to self-help thinking because people like to hear it. We hope we will be able to attract them to Christ by promises of prosperity and happiness, of fixing their marriages and improving their finances. In an effort to reach the lost, we can easily put the cross in the background and move pop psychology to the front.
The problem with self-help is that self comes first. It is a mixed message. We attempt to draw people by promises of riches and motivation, and then we expect to teach them that God is their source rather than themselves. The more we convince people they are the source of their own happiness, the more we convince them God is not. This strategy is counter-productive in the end, leading people away from the cross-not toward it.
4. Entertainment. We all know that preachers are not entertainers. However, preachers often used entertaining methods to help a sermon go down smoothly. There is nothing wrong with this. The problem comes when our clever methods distract from the message.
In a megachurch I once attended, the preacher gave a five-point sermon, mostly centered on self-help. On the third point, the drama team presented an entertaining skit as an illustration. It was enjoyable, but the problem was that the illustration had little to do with the point. It appeared that the drama team had a clever skit they wanted to use; so the preacher decided to use it, even though it ruined the balance of the sermon. The use of drama distorted that one point out of proportion to the others. The message became the drama; the drama did not serve the message.
Moralism, cultural comment, self-help and entertainment have a place in preaching; but that place should be behind the cross-not in front of it. When we major in minors-poof!-the cross disappears.
Bryan Chappell makes this point in his excellent book Christ-Centered Preaching.
Messages full only of moral instructions imply that we are able to change our fallen condition in our own strength. Such sermons communicate (although unintentionally) that we clear the path to grace, that our works earn and/or secure our acceptance with God. However well intended, these sermons present a faith indistinguishable from that of morally conscientious Unitarians, Buddhists, or Hindus.1
After reading this, I went through my old sermons-and cringed!
For example, there was that lovely Mother’s Day sermon, “What Your Mother Wants You to Know.” It went over well. Everyone loves it when you talk about mothers, but this was not a Christian sermon. It was not even biblical.
Then there was that series on “The Leadership Secrets of Moses.” Dr. Haddon Robinson once remarked about a similar series by another preacher, that if we want to really follow Moses’ leadership path, we should kill an Egyptian and bury him in the desert! It was not Moses’ perseverance or genius that made him a leader; it was his moral bankruptcy changed into graceful obedience by the mercy of God. Only when Moses received the grace of God was he ready to be used as a leader.
Moralistic sermons are easy and popular. But if all we do is hand out moral advice, how will our people ever keep it? It takes a life transformation to live by the moral standards of Jesus. That transformation can only come through the cross.
That is how the cross disappears from our messages. But how do we get it to reappear?
We do not have to. The cross is already there on every page of the Bible. All we have to do is to display and highlight the message of redemption that is inherent in every passage we preach.
The cross is there in biblical prophecy and symbols. The Old Testament presents pictures of Christ to us in many places. He is the rock that followed the Israelites in the desert, the cloud by day, the brazen serpent. He is there in the pattern of the tabernacle, the suffering servant, the fourth man in Daniel’s furnace, and so on.
But ultimately, typology is not the best way of showing Christ. Typological associations with Christ are welcome additions to a Bible story, but they are not the story itself.
A better place to see the cross is in the pattern of sin and God’s redemption. We see examples of redemption in the stories of the Bible-in Boaz’ redemption of Ruth, in the sacrifice of Isaac, in the prophetic suffering of David in Psalm 22, in the prodigal son, and in the good Samaritan. In these stories we see parallels to His nature, revealed in Christ.
The cross is also revealed by the incompleteness of our morality. We should never preach moral behavior as if it can save us or even make us a better person. The more we understand biblical morality, the harder it is to keep without God’s help.
The Law is an incomplete sentence, a subject without a predicate. If we name the sinner-“murderers,” for example-we must fill in the rest or we have not finished: “Murderers are forgiven on the cross.” The condemnation of the sin of murder leads to the murderer’s redemption in Jesus.
Likewise, when looking to the future, our hope is in God’s redemption-not our own perfectibility. The mistake of self-help and positive-thinking preachers is not that they are wrong but, again, that they are not complete. Christ alone will bring in the millennium. Until then, we live in a messy world where good people are treated unfairly, bad people are rewarded for being bad and whistling in the dark does not keep bad things away. The only thing that will keep us from disaster is God’s grace.
One thing above all will make the cross appear in our messages-if it is embedded in our own lives. The real reason the cross disappears from our sermons is because we allow it to slip out of the central place in our own lives.
Inside every evangelical Christian preacher is a legalist who wants to get out. Evangelical culture contains more than its fair share of legalism. Preaching the cross and the cross alone is never entirely comfortable to us. This is why we need the cross so much-because we are sinners like everyone else.
As the world becomes more complicated, our need for the cross becomes more necessary. Temptations are greater, inter-personal relationships are more difficult and the issues of the world are increasingly difficult. The one certainty we have in an uncertain world is that Jesus loved us and died for us on the cross. It is the one, true hope for change in an ever-devolving world.
If we keep the cross before our congregations, we will see lives changed. If we leave the cross out, or obscure it through concentrating on peripheral issues, then we will lose all possibility of positive change. The cross is the one, true remedy we have to offer a broken world. Let us be sure to display it proudly.
1. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 284.