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Preaching in the City of Man

What Esther and Jonah can teach us about proclaiming heaven's Word in a fallen world.
Preaching in the City of Man
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PreachingToday.com: You wrote an article for the Christian Vision Project called "Sex & the City of God," in which you address how Christians can respond to a corrupted culture. Could you summarize the two faulty responses you mention in the article?

Mark Buchanan: I took the example of Jonah, which is the approach of some more conservative churches, and is a denunciatory and adversarial approach. You just reject the culture. You separate yourself from it. If you're somehow hauled into having an engagement, you go in the spirit of condemnation: "Forty more days and God's going to get you."

The second is what I call the Esther approach, and our theologically liberal brothers and sisters may have been tempted toward this. Prior to Esther's realizing that she's been raised up for such a time as this, she's really just a beauty queen. She wants to be like everyone else in the culture, only a little more so.

She hides her identity. She's embarrassed by the distinctive Jewishness of her uncle Mordecai: she sends him clothes when he's out there mourning and fasting so that he brings no reproach on her. And there has been a tendency in the church to conform, to fit in with the culture so we are never reproached by it. We stay with it; we keep up with the trends.

What are some of the warning signs of a Jonah mindset?

Touching on an issue that's current and controversial—same-sex marriage—there's a temptation to want nothing to do with any of that. If they come near here, we'll denounce them.

If we're going to ask anybody to give up their idols, we'd better present a relationship with God and a relationship with the people of God that is worth the tradeoff for them. When they feel the love they are seeking is selling them short, they may see there's a love available in Christ Jesus that is real and incarnated among the people of God.

If we're going to ask anybody to give up their idols, we'd better present a relationship with God that is worth the tradeoff for them.

If we take the Jonah approach, we can miss the spiritual hunger that is underneath things in our culture that are deplorable on the surface. In Acts 17, Paul goes to Athens and sees all the idols and is deeply distressed. The word for distressed is a very strong word in the Greek. It basically means he's having a seizure over it. And yet when he gets up to preach that night at Mars Hill, he doesn't come across as this condemnatory preacher saying, "I see how deluded and given over to corruption you are." He becomes very winsome: "I see that you're very religious, and that you even have shrines to the unknown god. I want to tell you about the God you're seeking."

There's all this questing that's very idolatrous within our culture. The Jonah approach looks only at the surface of it instead of probing to ask, "How is this potentially a quest for God?"

Take the Jonah story. The Ninevites are wicked people, but they are quick to repent, because underneath all that wickedness was a false quest for the true God.

Do you feel that preachers have a responsibility to address sensitive issues—like same-sex marriage or homosexuality—from the pulpit?

Absolutely. The approach we take in our church is, if we're not taking on those issues and doing so in a way that's biblically substantive, grace-filled, Christ-centered, and giving hope without giving excuse to people, then we're participating in the ongoing irrelevance of the church to the broken world.

Jesus is clear that he's called us to be in the world, not of it, and that he's sent us along highways and byways to proclaim good news to people for whom the church often doesn't come across as good news.

It is incarnational. It is seeking as Jesus himself sought: to seek and save that which is lost, and to bring healing to the sick. There are ways we can engage culture that may make us feel good because we vent our spleen. But they will not advance the redemption and hope of Jesus Christ. There are ways we can do it that are highly engaging, that don't back down from the controversial aspects of the issue but don't merely inflame those things. We should bring more light than heat to the issues.

Could you share an example of that way of engaging culture?

A couple weeks ago, someone came to me and said, "Did you know there are two gay men attending our church?" I said, "I didn't, but that's good to hear."

And I never flinch on this issue. I'm not fuzzy on this. But it's important to me that there's a tone in which I communicate that at least piques the curiosity of people who may disagree with me. And I hope that, more than it piques their curiosity, it articulates the gospel and the hope of Christ in such a way that they say: "I may have some fundamental or visceral or philosophical or personal reasons for disagreeing with that man, but I believe that man loves Jesus, and I believe he loves me."

A lot of that has to do with tone. Jonah gets a one-liner from God: Forty more days and then Nineveh will die. But the tone with which he delivered that message—though it does bring repentance to the town—is anger and rancor and bitterness and resentment, and all those other things that harden hearts. They don't break hearts. And we need to be in the heart-breaking business.

On the other side of the coin, you talk about how "Esther" preachers embrace a corrupted culture to a fault. What are some of the warning signs of preaching with an Esther mindset?

We get shy about speaking on these issues, and we're too quick to concede ground that has always been ours to defend. Paul is clear that he is going to defend the gospel. When we feel embarrassment over the things we have to be absolutely clear and unflinching about, we're venturing toward an Esther mindset.

And that pertains not only to doctrinal areas, but also to ethical areas where we're willing to fudge on what the Scriptures are unambiguous about. And we do that in the name of inclusiveness, et cetera, et cetera.

One of the things I've been walking my church through lately is the concept of heaven. And heaven has a radical exclusivity: Revelation 21:8 talks about who won't be there—like cowards and the sexually immoral.

But it also has a radical inclusiveness. Who will be there? The glory of the nations. And the church needs to understand that if we need to hold to that radical exclusivity, we have to call people to righteousness. We have to call people to purity. We cannot in any way dilute that.

At the same time, in some of the ways we call people to this, we're trafficking in moralism more than in purity. We're saying, "You've got to look like this; you've got to button up and sit still in your chair"—and other things that are a violation of the radical inclusiveness of heaven, where every tribe, tongue, and nation brings the splendor of who they are before the throne of God.

You mention in your article that you believe the church should not attempt to impose morality, but to preach purity. What does it look like for a preacher to preach purity on a Sunday morning?

For one thing, the very concept of purity is much more attractive than morality. Morality, whether this is a misunderstanding or not, seems to traffic in rules—to say, "Here are the strictures; you need to mind your p's and q's and behave yourself."

Truth can become falsehood if we don't get the tone right.

Purity calls us to a life of God-ward-ness and adventure; there's something heroic about it. There's something winsome about the life of purity.

It also has a certain currency within the culture. Bottled water companies are competing over who's got the purest product. We buy organic vegetables because we want things that are grown with the least amount of additives and preservatives. We want pure things. So, in the mindset of the people on the street, purity is a good thing.

And if you look at what God has to say about being pure, a call to purity is much more strongly enforced than the whole thing of being moral. It's a broader concept all together. How a preacher approaches this, in the area of sexual ethics, for instance, should be as a life of purity—a life of Christ's life flowing through us. There's a vigor and robustness about it.

When I was preaching on Esther a little while ago, I was talking about how conforming to the culture will kill us in the end. I said: "I want to speak to the young women here about the way some of you dress. This is not condemnatory, but I need to ask you to help me—a red-blooded male who is attracted to your body in all the wrong ways—help me and my brothers to live a life of purity. Scripture is very clear that, if we're not sexually moral, we're actually defiling you as a sister in Christ. And we can defile you by our thoughts, and I don't want to do that and I know my brothers don't want to do that. We're not blaming you—we're just asking you to help us. We're weak."

I got a standing ovation. And I think it was because there is a hunger for someone to speak clearly and forthrightly about it. Also, it was done in a way that nobody was shamed. They were not imposed on by a narrow morality: You trampish girls, coming in with your belly showing.

Instead, they were invited into a kingdom adventure: Can we do this together as a community? Can you understand how we, as men, are wired, and serve us in the spirit of Christ? Will you do that, for Christ's sake and for our sake? Something in most people's hearts leaps toward that invitation.

Virtue rightly understood is not a narrow, confining, priggish thing. We are honoring our own body and who we are as sacred people made in the image of God. We're honoring our God, and we're honoring others.

You mentioned Daniel as an alternative to the Esther and Jonah mindsets. How does Daniel display a more balanced perspective?

The Daniel story is beautiful, because Daniel is even more immersed and caught up in the pagan culture than Jonah or Esther. Jonah is still in his little enclave and gets called out of it. In Esther's story, there is still some separateness—the Jewish community is distinct from the surrounding culture.

You don't get that in Daniel's story at all. The best and the brightest are recruited, then systematically groomed and educated to fit within the pagan world—even renamed. There is entire immersion into culture. And what's fascinating about that is that Daniel can comply with some aspects and say, "That's fine; I'll go along with that," and in other areas he takes a stand. He says: There's a point I cannot cross over; I cannot partake in that without a violation of my conscience and the God I love and worship.

And the way he does that is so winsome. It's not crusading. It's not with mouth frothing. He's quiet, he's modest, and he's hard as steel. He's adamant.

I love this picture of what the church, the people of God, can be within a fallen culture. In a lot of ways, we are recruited into perpetuating a system that we may be victims of. How can we make a stand within that system that's unambiguous without being obnoxious? Daniel gives us a brilliant portrait of what that looks like.

Are there lessons preachers can learn, specifically regarding how they prepare their sermons, from how Daniel behaved and spoke?

Daniel's modesty, civility, and firmness of conviction are virtues for preachers and also those to whom they preach.

As an example: Not long ago, a young man I know told me that he worked in a place that sold books of pornography. He asked me what I thought.

I said: "Let's unpack that. First of all, you have to make an abstinence commitment: I'm not going to take that to the bathroom on my break. Secondly, you can go to the boss, as Daniel went to the boss, and say, 'Is there any way I can get an exemption here?'"

And that's what this young man did. And the non-Christian boss came under conviction and removed the stuff from his store.

We don't always have happy endings like that, but we can always go in a spirit that says: "This is where I stand, these are why I hold these convictions, and this is why I, in good conscience, cannot partake of such and such. Is there any way we can come to an understanding here?" And if we do that with a Daniel spirit, a spirit of firmness but civility, most people are willing to meet us more than halfway.

When preaching it, there are ways we can embody that spirit in the discussion of these more controversial issues. It's all in the tone with which we speak truth. Truth can become falsehood if we don't get the tone right.

You mentioned you got a standing ovation for preaching on purity to women. Based on your experience and what you've heard from others, what happens when preachers adopt a Daniel mindset when they focus on purity?

Our church has tons of young people. We're a very cross-generational church, and we continue to attract some of the most good-looking, well-built young people. They are finding Christ and living this Daniel life of purity.

I'm seeing that purity is attractive to people. It's hard and it requires discipline, and it takes a group of people who will walk with you, exhort you in it, and call you to account. There's nothing easy about it. But our hearts love virtue and rise to it. And I'm seeing a community forming of young men and women who are stepping up to be each other's soul mates and role models in that life.

The other thing I'm seeing is a restored sense of loveliness. The standard of the age for female and male beauty is the porno star. God's standard of beauty is loveliness, which is an inner quality. Certainly, there are things you want to be aware of in terms of your dress and how you conduct yourself. But loveliness is a quality of the heart and spirit.

My heart is increasingly realizing how God has called the church to be the presence of Christ in this broken, hostile, needy world.

As a church, our mandate these days is to win the heart of our community. And the concept of winning the heart of the community is the essence of what I'm about as a preacher—to win them in Christ's power, to win a life out of darkness and destruction, to be winsome, and to portray God without censoring the revelation of God. We need to embody the message of God among our people in a way that breaks and wins hearts.

Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.

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