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Preparing for Lent

In the late 1970s I read a story that came from Punch (a magazine dedicated to humor and satire).  As the story went, a woman went into a jewelry story in Sydney, Australia and asked to look at cross necklaces.  The clerk dutifully brought a number of them out and laid them on a black velvet tray.  He looked up and asked her, “Are you interested in one that is plain or one with a little man on it?” I remember gasping that anyone could be that oblivious of the central symbol of the Christian faith.  Time wise this incident took place at the beginning of the so-called post-Christian era (or post-Christendom).  At the time (i.e. the end of Christendom) a person could reasonably assume knowledge of Christian symbols and their meaning.  Almost forty years later, such an assumption is dangerous if not foolish.  At our recent “Clergy Day Apart” we heard a series of marvelous presentations by Dr. Stephen Seamands on his book Give Them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Return.  Overheard in the conversations during a break after Seamands had presented a lecture on preaching the cross and crucifixion was a comment by a pastor that went something like this:  “I’ve always thought we were a church of the incarnation and resurrection.  Why can’t we just skip over that stuff about the cross?”  (I promise you I am not making this up.  I am also hopeful that there is far more to the conversation that I missed!) Here is a clue.  We have crosses on our altars for a reason!  The Apostle Paul put it bluntly.  “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified” (I Corinthians 2:1-2). Central to the Christian faith is a conviction that we cannot get to Easter except through the cross!  Last week I taught a class on preaching for the West District clergy.  As a part of that class I shared a model set of sermon outlines presenting a series on the meaning and importance of the cross for the Christian faith.  I entitled it “Give Them Christ: Preaching Lent Through Easter” and based it on a rough outline of one chapter of Stephen Seamands book and the Revised Common Lectionary (for Holy Week).  I offer the outline for reflection and use for those so inclined. Give Them Christ:   Preaching Lent Through Easter Ash Wed                      The Reality of Sin                                  Psalm 51:1-17 1st Sunday                   The Bizarre Symbol of Our Faith        I Corinthians 2:1-5 2nd Sunday                  The Scandal of the Cross                     I Corinthians 1:18-25 3rd Sunday                   The At-One-Ment of the Cross          Matthew 16:13-23 4th Sunday                   The Suffering of the Cross                  Matthew 27:33-54 5th Sunday                   The Love of the Cross                          John 19:16-30 Palm Sunday               The March of the Cross                      Matthew 21:1-11 Maundy Thursday      The Shadow of the Cross                   John 13:1-17 Good Friday                 At the Cross                                         John 18:1-19:42 Easter                            The Triumphant Sign                        Matthew 28:1-10 I find myself coming back time and time again to a famous quote by George Macleod (a great Scottish preacher & theologian of the mid-twentieth century and founder of the Iona Community): “I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church.  I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, because that is where He died.  And that is what he died about.  And that is where churchmen should be and what churchmanship should be about.” Likewise the great old hymn “Lift High the Cross” rings in my ears offering us advice.  “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim till all adore His sacred name.” The opening verse both invites and challenges us to enter fully into a theology of the cross suitable for Lent.  “Come, Christians, follow this triumphant sign”  (“Lift High the Cross,” The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 159, chorus and verse 1).