The Troubled State of Christian Preaching
Who Is First and Last?
Looking at how this message scandalized the ancient world opens a window into our preaching today. When the culture takes issue with the church today, it carps about our oppressive sexual ethics (especially our opposition to homosexual behavior) and our various prosperity gospels (from the most egregious health-and-wealth messages to the more subtle but equally dangerous sermons on how faith in Christ can improve your marriage, your business, and your self-esteem). And then there is the regular complaint about our self-righteousness—our incessant habit of pronouncing judgment on our culture, which is grounded in the assumption that sinners are found mostly in that culture, outside the church walls. Thus all the sermons about how we need to reform and stand against the culture, as if the "we" is in no need of fundamental reform, or that the Lord does not have a controversy with his people.
In the New Testament era, by contrast, the big problem was the scandal of the Cross. It's not hard to see why. Among the many things the Cross says is this: We're as dead as Jesus. He hangs there as the true human, the sign of all humanity, dead to the world, dead to the future, and especially dead to God, who it seems has forsaken us. The situation is so bad that only the sacrifice of Another—again Jesus, who hangs there as true God—can remedy it. For people like us, who imagine we're not so much dead as suffering a cold, and that if we take our vitamin C and will ourselves out of bed, we can make a go of it—well, this verdict can sound unnerving. Worse, to be told we can do nothing to revive ourselves, that we are left completely at the mercy of this Other—well, this doesn't sit well in any culture, let alone in a culture that prizes individual initiative and heroic effort.
It's interesting that our culture is rarely scandalized by this preaching of the Cross. That's probably because it is a rare theme of Christian preaching these days. Instead we have been smitten with practical preaching that helps people become successful in life and business, and with ethical preaching that tells people how to live better. This is done for the noblest of reasons—to show the gospel relevant to people's daily needs, but one can see where this has gotten us. When the Cross is preached, it is often preached in a way that falls on deaf ears. It's seen as a theme for theologians to wax eloquent about with strange words like propitiation and justification, or something comforting to guilt-ridden religious types—but meaningless to regular human beings.
Even when we try to make Jesus first, we end up inadvertently making ourselves first. Giglio noted his priorities when he said, "Clearly, speaking on this issue [homosexuality] has not been in the range of my priorities in the past fifteen years. Instead, my aim has been to call people to ultimate significance as we make much of Jesus Christ." Giglio is exactly right. Unfortunately, in a desire to reach the world for Christ, some inadvertently reverse Giglio's priorities and make much about our ultimate significance. Jesus becomes merely the means by which we feel better about our place in the universe. Need purpose and meaning? Follow Jesus, that will do the trick. In this subtle shift, we become the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega.