PREACHING CHRIST IN A GODLESS WORLD
(The Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, St. James Church, Elmhurst, New York, 12.5.2015)
“A voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill be made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth---and all people will see the salvation of God.’”(Luke 3:1-6)
Today, we hear the voice of John the Baptist, calling people to repent and prepare the way for Christ. John was the fearless, selfless and passionate prophet who became the forerunner of Jesus Christ. Jesus said there is no other prophet greater than John the Baptist (Luke 7:28) and he came to be baptized by him in the Jordan. John told the crowd, “I baptize with water but this One, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie, will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mark 1:8). When Jesus was baptized, heavens opened, the Holy Spirit came in the form of a dove and the voice of God said, “This is my beloved Son!” (Matthew3:17).
The title of this sermon is “Preaching Christ in a Godless World.” What is a Godless world? It is a world where God is remote; a world where people do not dream God’s dream, do not think God’s thoughts, do not do God’s will. It is a world where people do not know the true God (Hosea 4:6); or if they once knew God, they now have forgotten Him.
Recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby came to a realization that the England which he once knew is longer the same. This realization came when the Anglican Church produced an advertising of the Lord’s Prayer and the cinemas in London rejected it saying that it may offend the British people who belong to other faiths or those with no faith.
There was a time when England was a Christian nation and English missionaries spread throughout the world. That was a time when England was known as “the empire where the sun never sets”--- because when the sun sets on their colonies in the west, it rises on their colonies in the east. Today, England is no longer the same. The demise of British Empire has long ended and the British people no longer know where the sun has gone.
There was also a time when the Anglican Church was predominant in England. Reformation started in Germany and spread across the British Isles in the form of Anglicanism. Anglicanism was like the air that the British people breathe. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Robert Runcie, was asked why he was an Anglican and he replied, “I am an Anglican because I was born in England; had I been born in India I might have been a Hindu.” Today, the Church of England has waned and waxed and its power is no longer recognized.
As Germany, England and much of Europe, Christianity in the United States is also in crisis. The competitors of Christianity are not Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism but secularism. In New York City alone, the number of those who profess no faith has exceeded the mainline denominations. Even those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” are actually atheists or agnostics.
The consumerism and other secular values have been deeply embedded in American culture. We’ve just finished Thanksgiving and are now preparing for Christmas and you can see the flurry of commercial activities. As someone said, “Christmas is another season when Americans buy things they do not need, with the money they do not have, to impress the people they do not like.”
We have been secularized in our thinking. We put our trust in our government, in our military, in our economy than on God. We worship money, entertainment and power. There are more people who turn up for sports than for church; there are more people glued on their television sets, computers and cellphones than praying or reading the scriptures. There are more people shopping during Black Friday than those who worship on Good Friday. Even family times are no longer quality times for bonding because we now fiddle with our cellphones by the dinner table.
Honestly speaking, even as Christian people, we act secularly. We have devalued the Word of God. Congregations cannot sit for long sermons. In many of our churches, people come to church but are anxious to leave even before the service is over, but they would line up for Broadway Shows and spend hours in sporting events. Many churches, including Episcopalian, accommodate this lukewarm interest in hearing the Word of God by shortening the sermons into five or seven minutes. Someone said, “because we preach sermonettes, we grow Christianettes!” We grow members who are “neither hot not cold” but lukewarm in the faith.
When we listen to our political leaders, we do not hear an appeal to God who guides our destiny as a people and as nation. What we hear is an appeal to the secular god of money, might and power. One cartoonist puts it this way: “We are suffering from a ‘military industrial complex.’ We have 1,800 nuclear missiles, 283 battleships and 9,400 planes. We spend more in military than the incomes of twelve nations combined and we increase military spending year after year---and yet we still feel insecure.”
The values of the godless world is akin to the values of the Roman Empire, the context of John the Baptist preaching, the context on which Herod ruled: gold on top and human beings at the bottom. Conscience was wanting, human life was devalued and the rule of the thumb was “might is right.”
So how do we preach Christ in this godless world? Let us draw inspiration from John the Baptist.
- Preach Christ with passion!
John the Baptist preached with passion. Like the Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos and Joel, John called people to repent and turn to the Lord. When some lukewarm Hebrews came for his baptism, he rebuked them saying, “Who warned you of the wrath of God that is to come?” Change your life, changed your conduct, rend your hearts and not your garments because even now, “the ax of judgment is laid on the roots of the trees.” Because he preaches with passion, John attracted so many people---even in the wilderness.
That’s what I like with our new presiding bishop, Michael Curry. He preaches with passion, with energy. You are electrified with his energy. Samuel Chadwick once wrote, “Preaching is never a profession; it must always be a passion.” St. Paul said, “Woe unto me if I preach not the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16).
John the Baptist saw that His people have forgotten God. They have placed their hopes in human achievements. They were lost. They were no different from the pagan people around them. So he preached with passion to prepare the way for Christ!
2. Preach Christ with compassion!
Although John the Baptist was often pictured as an ascetic who preached hell, fire and brimstone, he was actually a compassionate prophet. His parents were devout Jews: father Zechariah was a priest and mother Elizabeth was cousin of the Virgin Mary. In other words, John and Jesus were second cousins.
John’s birth was a miracle, an answer to Zechariah’s prayer, because Elizabeth was past child-bearing when she got pregnant. And so when the child was born, they named him John, derived from the Hebrew term meaning “God is gracious.” As he was passionate, John was also compassionate---the reason why many people came to listen to him---even in the desert.
Compassion in Greek brings the image of being gripped in the intestine. Being compassionate is to feel the pain of people, bodily within yourself. Have you ever tried looking at the homeless people shivering in cold, hungry and thirsty and not feel their pain? Have you ever been to the slums in some Third World countries and see the poverty and squalor of those who sift through the garbage dump looking for something they can live on and not feel their suffering? Have you ever visited the sick or those in prison and not feel their suffering and agony? Have you ever heard the cries of the widows and orphans of those who died in wars and those who recently lost their lives in terrorism and senseless violence and not feel their anguish?
Indian evangelist Ravi Zacharias said that “somewhere in the universe, there is a place where all the heartaches in the world are funneled into.” That place is in the heart of God who aches in love and compassion for the world which He made. The pain of God is expressed by Hosea who suffered pain from the faithlessness of His people, “How can I give you up Ephraim? My heart recoils within me and my compassion was stirred.” And when Jesus saw the poor and the oppressed he was filled with compassion because they were like sheep without a shepherd! And when he looked at the disunity of God’s people, He said, “How often would I wish I were a hen gathering her chicks under the shadow of her wings but you would not!”
Have you seen the movie Gandhi? There was a scene, in which Mahatma Gandhi was asked by Anglican missionary Earl Stanley Jones what advice he would give to Christians so the Indian people would accept it as an Indian religion and Gandhi said (Year 1919).
First, you who are Christians or who call yourselves Christians, must live more like Jesus. Make him alive in your life.
Second, you must practice your religion, without adulterating or toning it down. Do not tone down the name of Jesus just because you may offend other people. No, the essential offense is not in proclaiming your faith but in toning it down. It is strange that many American Christians, in their desire to be inclusive, do not want to mention the word Jesus anymore and others wanted to abolish “Christ” from Christmas tree, Merry Christmas, etc.. Gandhi said, “Do not tone Jesus down but present Him as He really is.”
Third, emphasize love and make it the center of your proclamation because Jesus is love.
Fourth, study other religions more sympathetically.
One of the things that bother me with the escalating violence and terrorism is the pervading reaction of many, including those who profess to be Christians. And the reaction is aimed at demonizing Islam. While it is true that the fanatical ISIS claim they do their evil deeds “in the name of Islam,” they do not necessarily speak for the Muslim community in the same manner that Ku Klux Klan do not represent the Christian community or the anti-abortionist terrorists do not represent the evangelical prolife movement.
Furthermore the political rhetoric does not sympathetically ask the question why these people devalue lives? Why? Do we really stop, look and listen? Why do this couple in San Bernardino would leave their six-month old baby to commit a killing spree on innocent civilians, some of whom are the husband’s friends?
With all the fears from terrorism, there is an upsurge of civilians, including those who purport to be Christians, buying their own guns and training to shoot in order to defend themselves, maybe to the delight of the NRA (National Rifle Association). What? Don’t we remember what Christ said, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword?” Violence begets violence; more violence begets more violence---and the cycle never ends! As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot be overcome by darkness; only light can. Hate can not be overcome by hate; only love can.”
In 1966 Simon and Garfunkel debuted a song, “Hello darkness my old friend, I come to talk with you again…people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening.” Some asked the question, “Where is God in all of these? Why is God silent?” The poet Charlotte Elliot once wrote, “If we have a keen sensitivity like God, we can hear the blade of grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat and we will die from the roar that lies at the other side of silence.” Maybe the silence of God can be deafening and if God speaks, we may die by the sound of it.
- Preach Christ for transformation!
Stanley Jones wrote in one of his books, “Christianity has its creeds but it is not a creed; it has its doctrines and documents but it is not a doctrine or document; it has its rites and ceremonies but it is not a rite or a ceremony; it has its buildings and institutions but it is not a building or an institution. It has at its center the Person of Jesus Christ.”
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “The Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (1Corinthians 1:23). To us, Christians, the Cross, the Calvary love of God in Christ, is the power and the wisdom of God.”
Therefore, the ultimate purpose of preaching Christ is a revolution of values, a revolution of love that leads to reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19). God has acted in coming down from heaven and became incarnate in Jesus Christ to reconcile us to God and to one another.
John the Baptist was the reformer but Christ is the transformer. John baptized with water that we may be cleansed from sin but Christ baptizes with the Holy Spirit that we may change our hearts. There can be no new person without new heart; no new society without new humanity. Corruption is like a fish. When removed from water it dies and begins to decay. What is the solution? A new creation! Jesus said, “Behold I make all things new” (Revelations 21:5). When you are in Christ, you are a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17) Your values, your thinking, your actions must change.
Preaching Christ must therefore aim to change the value system. Revelations 21:21 speaks about the streets of the City of God paved with gold. This is a reversal of value system. In the kingdom of Herod, gold was on top and human being beneath. Gold steps on human beings. But in the kingdom of God, human beings are on top, gold beneath. In the kingdom of Herod, gold steps on human beings but in the Kingdom of God, human being walk on gold. The power that comes from the barrel of the gun is transformed by the power of love!
Let me end my sermon with a story on allegiance. I do not mean the Broadway Musical starring my favorite singer, Leah Salonga. I still have to see it sometime. But this story on allegiance was set in the Middle East, a story from the Muslim context. I heard it many years ago spoken by an Indian evangelical leader, Sam Kamaleson:
In the era of the Caliphates, there was a Caliphate (king) who was so self-centered, so jealous and so insecure. He was secretly disliked by many people. Unlucky for him, a new prime minister was elected who was so popular, so selfless and so magnanimous and he was well-liked by everybody. His name was Jaffar. So the king, unable to accept a competition, had Jaffar killed. Then he issued an edict that whoever mentions the name of Jaffar would have his head cut off. In the middle of the marketplace, a former Ethiopian slave, shouted “God bless Jaffar.” The guards arrested him and brought him to the king. The king said, “Are you a fool, trying to disobey my command? Now the guards will put you in chains, torture you and then cut your head off.” The Ethiopian smiled and said, “O King, I was in so many chains and Jaffar set me free.” Then he looked up to heaven and said, “O Jaffar, even these chains I offer to you.” It appeared to the king that nothing could break this man’s spirit, so he ordered his guards to cut the chains and offer the slave gold and silver to win him over. The guard untied him saying “I don’t know what happened to the king but he wants you free and also to have these gold and silver. Now to whom does your allegiance belong?” The slave raised up the gold and silver on his hands and said, “O Jaffar, even these, I offer to you.”
Because of his allegiance to Jesus, John the Baptist head was cut off by King Herod. Allegiance to Christ is costly. Salvation is free but it is not cheap. Christian discipleship is costly. But when we commit to follow Christ, preaching love and reconciliation, He will set us free from every chain that binds us---even from fear and death. Amen.