Preaching into the pain

Can you preach, with that curse ringing in your ears? You must.

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A few weeks ago, a Ukrainian woman hit the headlines.  She was handing out sunflower seeds to young Russian soldiers.  And with the gift came a curse: ‘Put sunflower seeds in your pocket so they grow when you die’

Stare deeply into that curse.  The hate.  The rage.  The venom.

Can you preach, with that ringing in your ears? What do you dare to say?

And each day, somewhere in the world, there will be news story of equal power

At the moment on Sunday mornings we are learning from Isaiah, and last Sunday we met Chapter 14.  Babylon’s empire, personified in its dead king, descends to the realm of the dead, with corpses standing to see him – not in respect for his crown, but appalled at his humiliation. 

Those who see you stare at you,
they ponder your fate:
“Is this the man who shook the earth
and made kingdoms tremble,

the man who made the world a wilderness,
who overthrew its cities
and would not let his captives go home?” Is. 14:16-17

It’s like Wagner, Dr Strange and Tolkien, having nightmares.

Can you preach, with that ringing in your ears? What do you dare to say?

Nothing unpleasant happens here

I’ll be honest – that woman with her seeds and her curse got under my skin.  I mean, I know that horrific things happen, even though I have been privileged not to see any of it with my own eyes.  I know that children are killed and brutalised on a daily basis, that there are still millions of people in active slavery, I know all that.

But it’s just normal to be informed and move on.  To watch the news and then head out to John Lewis. 

Overseas readers, John Lewis is a chain of department stores, priding itself on being good quality but fairly priced for what they offer.  Certainly not cheap.  ‘Never knowingly over-priced’  was their official motto, although it has met its match in the internet.  ‘Never knowingly over-stylish’ was its reputation. Safe.  Should London be threatened with a nuclear attack, the general advice is to head to one of their stores, because nothing unpleasant had even been known to happen there.

That is how life is.  

But that curse, and Isaiah 14, speak of the same reality. And its one we preachers forget at our peril.

Like you, each week I sit with the passage and the commentaries, my notes and my scribblings, and I work at the relevance.  I work at being engaging, and interesting, and helpful, and encouraging.  I want to challenge – and in reality, not just sounding off.  I want to lift Jesus’ name higher, and call his people to worship him, not just at that moment, but through the rest of their hard week.

And, you know, in the quest to do that, I can become lightweight, easy.  Helpful, but never difficult.  Reassuring. The John Lewis of preachers. Never knowingly over-disturbing.

But Isaiah’s grim vision, and that woman’s fury, rhyme. There is deep justice but there can also be profound reconciliation at God’s hands.

Preaching that rhymes with the pain

The rhyme tells me that outside my nice life there is a world of unimaginable bitterness and injustice and hate. That emotions of jealousy, and contempt, and loathing, and revenge, are real. 

So here’s the challenge, preachers – do you dare to go there?  Do you have the guts to name and deal with those issues? Maybe it will be in the grand international stories (and our church may be unusual, but we have people from Ukraine, and Hong Kong, so these are local stories too). Maybe it will be calling out the villainy of domestic violence, looking into the eyes of a victim – and a perpetrator.

Because the rhyme also tells me that God has given us scriptures to go there, and further.  Not just to hear that pain, but then to construct a gospel home where Ukrainian and Russian believers, black and white believers, Jewish and Palestinian believers, fault-on-both-sides-believers, different-caste, different-class, different-tribe believers, can weep and pray together. That’s our calling.

But if your sermon is just ‘Here’s the structure of Isaiah’, ‘Here are three Points beginning with P’, then you’ll never get there.

So here’s my challenge, fellow-preacher, and a task for you. 

Deliberately watch the news with great care this week.  Note down the hardest, most painful story you come across.

And then take your passage, and see how they connect.  Spend an hour imagining what you’d say to the woman with the sunflower seeds. To the man who’s lost his wife to a gunman. 

You might decide not take that into the sermon itself, but your message will be designed to resonate with it.

But if, like my passage, it looks clear-eyed into those dreadful concerns, don’t flinch.  Preach it.

If you’d like to watch my sermon on Isaiah 14, you can find it on YouTube here.  Do tell me how I can improve.

And if you’d like to know more about my approach to applying the bible, you can find my book, Cutting to the Heart, here.

Pile in!

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