Easter Sermons: Banal, Saccharine, and Boring

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When St. Paul preached on this hill in Athens nearly 2,000 years ago, his “Easter sermon” turned the city upside down and became one of the most influential in the history of the world. Not much danger of that happening with the trite, cliched efforts of modern pastors, clerics, and theologians.

At Easter it has become customary to hear straining-to-be-meaningful sermons that aim either to emotionally energise a congregation, or otherwise attempt to apply the resurrection of Christ to contemporary political and social issues. Some preachers are unwitting comedians, as they offer hilarious examples of what happens when orthodoxy is derailed and an ersatz Christianity is transposed over the top. The result veers between contemptible and ridiculous.

This year did not disappoint. Dutifully, newspapers reported the sermons of a motley cast of popes, bishops, princes, pastors and priests whose pronouncements from pulpits around the world, when taken together, constitute a powerful emetic.

A small sample is sufficient to give a flavour of Easter in 2018:

Pope Francis used his Easter sermon to talk about refugees, immigrants and Syrians. Last year, he used his Easter Sunday sermon to talk about tragedy, misery, and disaster in the world with very little mention of the themes that the Apostolic writers were wont to associate with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection: themes like sin, repentance, forgiveness, and spiritual regeneration.

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Pope Francis offers to the crowd the glad tidings of Easter, with sermons featuring strong messages about geopolitics, including immigrants, Syrians and refugees.

To be fair to Prince Charles, he is not a preacher by vocation but if he is ever crowned king, he will receive the appellation “Defender of the Faith” and will become the head of the Church of England, which implies the need for a minimal theological awareness.

It is with great relief to all that Prince Charles demonstrated that he would not be out of place among the muddle-headed prelates of the Church of England as he delivered a patented woolly message on Good Friday reminding everyone about the great similarities between Islam and Christianity. So great are these similarities, that it is a matter of extreme befuddlement to the Prince as to why there is no peace between them.

The Prince reminded everyone that Mary is a shared figure in both Islam and Christianity, and having thus established this striking, cosy closeness between the faiths, appealed for everyone in the middle east to lay down their shoulder-held missile launchers, and to live at peace as friends. The Prince’s message is bound to make a big difference to the geopolitical situation, with many thousands of people heeding his words. For what militant in Syria does not hang, bat-like, from every word that proceeds from the His Highness’s mouth? Just like bishops of the Church of England, the Prince has acquired the habit of public hand-wringing, virtue-signalling, vacuous lamentation, and “calls” to masses of humanity to immediately cease their evil ways because their evil ways are simply not very nice.

This year, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby gave his sermon in the presence of an art installation made from hundreds of dangling articles of refugees’ clothing, transforming Canterbury Cathedral into something resembling a Mad Hatter’s laundry room. The Archbishop did make a heroic effort to sound like an Anglican clergyman who actually believes things in the New Testament, although his Easter sermon was richly interspersed with references to bombs and terrorism in Egypt, giving the impression that any mention of the resurrection was a somewhat irritating excursion from his real topic of interest, that being geopolitics in the Near East.

In Australia, the Anglican Archbishop Kay Goldsworthy was reported to have given a sermon imploring Anglicans “not to run away from challenges”. Following this sermon of dazzling substance, she was so swept up in the awe of the resurrection that she immediately addressed the major sporting scandal running the rounds in Australia, involving high profile cricket cheats. The Archbishop was most concerned that the cricketers should forgive themselves, which she opined was going to be one of their foremost challenges – the forgiveness of God not even rating a mention.

Perhaps one of the most preposterous articles was written by Robyn Whitaker, a theologian whose interests include “gender, sexuality and ethics”. One online profile states that she has expertise in feminism and gender equality.  Whitaker’s article asked readers to focus on the race of Jesus of Nazareth and to think about his skin colour.

Other clerics and would-be religious leaders decided that it was best to boil the texts of the scripture dry, and get down to the residue of a few basic principles. “Hope” is always a popular one, or sometimes “renewal“. Vague concepts like these are quite plastic. Even a borderline-competent public speaker can use a theme like that as a launching pad for a peppy talk to boost the morale of their listeners. The resultant sermon typically sounds like it could have been lifted from a life coaching manual.

Finally, there are those sermons that bear titles which imply that the meaning of Easter is opaque and dark. It is no longer clear in a world of modernity, colour and excitement. Titles like “Why Easter still matters” or “What should the resurrection mean to you?” arrogantly suggests that the resurrection of Christ is an impenetrable historical story, remote and alien to the listener.

This is just a small sample, mind you, of Easter sermons. The banality is endless, and it comes as a considerable relief to turn from these “clouds without water”, as St. Jude would describe them, to the fountains of living water from the scriptures. For in contrast to modern clerics, the New Testament begins from a very basic supposition.

The New Testament takes for granted that this supposition is clear to anyone.

It is quite simply this: something of tremendous consequence was accomplished when Jesus died on a crucifix outside of Jerusalem. This has shifted the invisible order of things, and this alteration of the spiritual reality in which humankind lives reached its apogee three days later when Christ rose from the dead, the true King of all the Earth.

Not one of the apostolic witnesses asks the question, “Why does the resurrection matter?“. Not one of them attempts to make the resurrection applicable to their hearer’s context. Not one tries to blend the resurrection story into a morality fable about slavery or the machinations of the Roman senate and their greedy imperial taxation schemes. Not one tries to boil it down to a string of saccharine, safe buzzwords – “it’s all about love, folks!”.

No, the inverse. The apostolic assumption is the resurrection, if truly believed by the reader, is significant in a way that will be obvious to anyone. It is quite clearly a testimony that requires no interpreter because the very fact that a man has risen from the dead is sufficient of itself to establish his primacy in the constellation of ideas and opinions. It justifies his claims; it underscores their merit; it overturns all competition; it empowers his gospel. A person who reads of the resurrection, who believes it, and who earnestly, deeply seeks for Christ in the silence and stillness, will find him.

The best kind of sermon in our times, therefore, is one that follows the apostolic example. It is the sort of sermon that invites people to believe and seek for Jesus himself. Not to seek for “hope” that Aunt Sally will get better, not to seek for “renewal” of our finances in 2018, neither to seek to mine the text for forgettable sentiments to spray upon contemporary political issues. But, rather to be made aware of the heaviness of our peril. Of our imminent approach to judgement and ruin. To be broken and contrite in our reflections upon ourselves.

And thus to seek for Jesus himself: the Lord of Life who welcomes properly penitent souls. The One who can transform a person’s inward life and give him a deep sense of the beauty of holiness; the ugliness of sin; a thirst for godliness; a hunger for God; and the unspeakable joy of tangible, deep communion with our Creator, Friend, and Redeemer.

How different Easter would be if clerics took their cues from St. Paul and preached the resurrection as the Apostle did. No mealy-mouthed sugary sweetness here. Rather St. Paul preaches the resurrection as a divine command to the human race; an urgent and non-negotiable summons to repent and believe. And he does so with the unstudied impetuosity of a man who knows of that which he speaks, is unswerving confident, and knows that he is conveying the authorised message of God to the world:

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you…

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

Charismatic Nuttiness: Baal Worship comes to America?

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The replica of the Palmyra Arch, destroyed by ISIS in October, 2015. This reasonably nondescript Roman archway was recreated using 3D printing technology and put on display in a New York City park. According to charismatics, this exhibit signals the arrival of Baal in the United States. It seems Baal litters the world with easily identifiable clues as to his whereabouts, in this instance an 11-tonne lump of moulded plastic.

There are those who seek for signs.

A great number of these people fall within the charismatic camp, which is a movement so frequently riven with heterodox opinions. Heterodoxy is the natural result of a small army of self-appointed “prophets” who deliver “revelations” to the charismatic faithful. These revelations range from idiotic musings to a mash of scripture and commentary, blended with a tincture of politics and a liberal splash of imminent doom.

People caught up in the movement – and I know a few – seem to live lives of ceaseless supernatural drama. They crave it. Perhaps their lives are so boring that the only way they can realise some purpose in their daily existence is to imagine a constellation of supernatural workings surrounding them, both demonic and angelic. The charismatics I know interpret every dream, every international news event, and every happening in their personal lives as a “sign”, or the voice of God, or a portend of the apocalypse. Usually a portend of the apocalypse. The nuttier drivers of the movement appear to find supernatural signs in their morning cornflakes. So ubiquitous is this characteristic of sign hunting, that it seems to be the logical and inevitable outworking of charismatic doctrines.

Our Lord, of course, warned people against seeking for signs (Matthew 16:4). God-honouring faith should not require them. Indeed, a person who lacks faith in the integrity and the quality of God’s word – as many charismatics seem to – will lack the fundamental prerequisite for meaningful knowledge of the Almighty. After all, without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Nonetheless, God in his great mercy sometimes does provide his people with authentic signs to demonstrate the reliability of his Being and purpose, and these actual signs have been recorded in inerrant scripture for our edification. As C. S. Lewis once pointed out, the authentic signs and miraculous works of God never have the quality of fiction to them. They could not ever be lifted from the script of a supernatural teen drama series, unlike the ruminations of many charismatics which seem to indeed be strongly influenced by supernatural television drama.

Too many charismatics seem to imagine that the devil and the demons litter the world around us with signs of their activity, like the exhaust of a passing engine. To wit, a few days ago, Charisma News reported the following story that follows the charismatic script to the letter.

It turns out that a 3D printed plastic replica of the ancient stone archway in Palmyra destroyed by ISIS was erected in a public park in New York City. Because this 2,000 year old Roman archway once connected a main thoroughfare to the entrance of a temple to Baal, charismatics immediately “exposed” the fact that… yes, you guessed it, that this replica archway is a sign that Baal has come to America. (Cue sinister organ music.)

(For an immeasurably more sober account of what is going on, read here.)

It is my contention that charismatics who promote this kind of nonsense bring disrepute to the gospel of Christ, which first and foremost is a reasoned and logical presentation of truth. Part of the inestimable glory of the gospel is that it is divine knowledge with a power unto itself. Humble, long-term exposure to this knowledge changes a man into a wiser creature, a more sensible creature with mature habits of thinking, who is thus equipped to really and properly enter into a loving relationship with God. One never gets the impression from the New Testament that the first Christians were jumping at shadows, or trying to divine the future by using the news headlines in the same manner that a shaman might once have employed the entrails of a bird.

These sorts of charismatic claims are juvenile and childish. They do not betoken tutored or sober minds that have been nourished by the word of God. Moreover, such claims are also utterly illogical. By the logic of the Charisma News article, any ancient archaeological religious artefact that is brought to a country must be a “harbinger” of doom or a sign of some demonic entity’s day of visitation. It must be very perplexing for charismatics, (should they consider the matter deeply at all), that most national museums in advanced Western countries hold collections of pagan religious artefacts and have done so for a long time. These artefacts are essential pieces of the historical record.

I simply refuse to accept a Christianity that is so intellectually sterile, juvenile, and fearful that a plastic replica of an ancient doorway is cause for alarm. Such a Christianity is not that of St. Paul, or of C. S. Lewis, or of St. Francis, or of Martin Luther, who despite his famous wrestling matches with the devil, was a level-headed fellow who did not engage in omni-directional emoting but produced considered argumentation. He did not interpret every change of wind as a sign of coming doom.

If it were not for the painstaking archaeological investigations of scholars both Christian and non-Christian, we would know very little about the ancient world and therefore our understanding of the biblical past would be much impoverished. Sensible Christians should never be afraid of evidence or of knowledge, which when rightly interpreted through the prism of a God-honouring intellect, always enhances and enriches our wisdom. It helps us to grow and learn, not just as individuals, but as as Church.

Charismatic nuttiness, of course, is the direct function of certain presuppositions and first principles. If a person lives in a reality where the devil leaves easily identifiable demonic signs everywhere – in this instance, an 11-tonne plastic archway in a public park – and if a person buys into the (largely American fundamentalist) idea that America is so extraordinary and exceptional that it must feature prominently in any end time prophecy, then of course these signs will form the links in the fabric of a worldview. Or more correctly, these signs will form the iron bars of an intellectual cage.

To such irrationality, I prefer scripture which is rational and sound above all things. In scripture, Paul tells us that idols are “nothing at all”. Indeed, a person may even eat food sacrificed to idols in a clear conscience (1 Corinthians 8) providing he does not violate the conscience of his brother by so doing. Now, if it is true that an idol is “nothing at all” other than a misshapen lump of wood or metal, then it is most assuredly true that a 21st century plastic replica of a 2,000 year old Roman archway that once linked a street to a temple is “nothing at all” as well.

This archway has no moral quality to it. It has no power. It is merely a moulded form that bares some resemblance to something else. It is a copy, and therefore lacks the essential qualities of the thing that it imitates. It is not being used for purposes of worship. It is not being used to revive a cult of Baal in the United States. If anything, it is being used to strike a note of defiance against ISIS – which is a real evil in the world.

The devils do not work according to the dictates of ancient and medieval superstition (or according to the silly tropes of Hollywood!), which imagined that this object or that totem could somehow take upon itself a power and must therefore be regarded as having moral agency all of itself. The devils work by corrupting men, not by inhabiting things.

This is where charismatic nuttiness becomes dangerous and even corrupting. For if you buy into the idea that this plastic archway is a revival of Baal worship, then you have to also (logically) buy the idea that ISIS were doing God’s work by destroying the ruins in the first place. Are any charismatics prepared to embrace the logical overflow of their worldview?