André Resner : The Unmarketable Gospel, From Palms to Passion
The Unmarketable Gospel—From Palms to Passion
There is a little spat among those few people who think about, write about, and teach preaching. It revolves around this question: when the preacher starts thinking about the sermon, where should s/he start?
One side says, “With the hearers and their concerns, questions, and situation. This side is concerned with relevance. If the sermon does not matter to the hearers then it will fall on deaf ears. The preacher must always start with the question, “So what?” Why should this message matter to those that I am addressing?
The other side says, “Not so fast. Your advice to start with the hearer, to aim ultimately for relevance, comes from the rhetoricians, from the communication theorists, and, yes, they have a certain truth on their side. In fact, you can see that truth work itself out in our entire advertising industry. Products are created, advertised, and sold on the basis of consumer desire and need. If you as the producer of a product fill a perceived consumer need, you will become very popular and wealthy.
Remember the George Foreman Grill? Most people are going to cook meat somehow, why not market a grill that cooks it well, sweeps away a lot of the grease and fat, and is a snap to clean? We have one. George Foreman, the former Olympic gold medal winner and heavyweight boxing champion, wasn’t even interested in the deal to endorse the grill when it was first pitched to him. They sent him a grill and he let it sit in a corner for 6 months. One day his wife cooked up some burgers for their kids and found it both easy and effective. She made George a burger. He called his agent. The grill has sold over 100 million and has made George a personal fortune of about $200,000. Based on this model, the preacher should definitely start with the hearer, the consumer of sermons.
The counter argument says, again, not so fast. The gospel is not a mere product. And it is not really “sold.” The “market mentality” starts not simply with the needs of the consumer, but the perceived needs of the consumers. What if the consumers do not know what their real needs are? How many of those 100 million George Foreman grills are still being used today? How many are in the garage sale pile? Did they just meet a temporary need that is being filled by something else today?
What if the gospel, in its essence, God’s response to a human need that humans themselves may be unaware of, or to a great degree, unwilling to acknowledge, unwilling to own up to?
Whatever you think of Donald Trump, the leading contender for the ticket in the Republican presidential race, I’ve found one thing about him particularly interesting: he will never admit to being wrong about anything. I’m pretty sure that’s why he’s on wife #4. To never admit to being wrong about anything requires that you either be very, very rich and powerful, or completely broke and destitute.
But here’s the gospel’s marketing problem: part of its message to us, in fact a large part of its initial message to us is that our world, and we, as part of this world, are in the wrong. Or, perhaps better, we are part of something that has gone wrong and we as humans are incapable of fixing the problem on our own.
Now some preachers have found a way around this problem. They are now marketing a gospel of blessing, wealth, and prosperity. The “wrong,” they pitch, is that there are many people behind the curve of wealth. They are victims. But their clever gospel is that God wants to bless them and thus overcome that wrong. All they have to do is believe this fact about God and open themselves up to God’s blessings. This “gospel,” unfortunately, is really a pyramid scheme whereby a few people at the top become very wealthy, famous, and powerful, by means of the contributions (seed offerings) of a large base who fund the wealth of those at the top in the hopes that they too will reach the top. It is “a” gospel, but it is not “the” gospel. I believe the apostle Paul would call it “another gospel,” and probably write them a letter.
No, the gospel is not very marketable. Because at the heart of it is a scandal. Scandals don’t market well. Advertising companies do not hire pitchmen and women to front their products who have been involved in scandals. But Paul says this is the heart of the gospel message, scandal. The word “scandal” has this list of synonyms: impropriety, misconduct, discreditable behavior, outrageous behavior, shocking incident, offense, transgressions, crime, sin, skeleton in the closet.
And more than mere scandal, Paul says that the gospel is also foolishness. The word for foolishness in the Greek is moronic, which has this list of synonyms: stupid, senseless, brainless, mindless, idiotic, insane, asinine, ridiculous, ludicrous, absurd, preposterous, silly, inane, half-baked, empty-headed, weak-minded.
So, imagine yourself having this product, the gospel as scandal and foolishness, the gospel as discreditable, outrageous behavior, the gospel as idiotic, asinine, half-baked and weak-minded logic, and you went to a Madison Avenue ad agency to help you market the product, what might they say to you? Probably something like, “Sorry, it can’t be done. You’d be wasting your money. Too much of an uphill battle. Pick another product and get back to us.”
What is the scandal of the gospel? What is its foolishness?
The scandal is: a crucified Messiah—an executed King. What could be more useless or futile for the future of a people, an empire, than a charismatic, brilliant and trusted leader of the people, who is murdered?
In 1963, America was, it was thought, on the cusp of an era so bright and hopeful that it was called Camelot. But on November 22 of that year those dreams turned into a nightmare when Kennedy was assassinated while in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.
Kings cannot die. Hope for their influence in making life better for the citizenry rests in their being alive and changing the conditions of the world for the better for everybody.
In the scene Luke gives us, we see a motorcade (well, a donkeycade) with Jesus coming into the capital city. The people are throwing their cloaks on the ground to welcome has arrival, his inauguration as it were as King of Israel (Luke has no palms and no Hosannas—he would call his “Cloak Sunday”). The current religious leaders consider it foolish, wrong, even heretical for Jesus to allow the people to treat him this way, to call him the Messiah: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
Notice what the Pharisees call Jesus as they rebuke him, “Teacher, command your students to stop!” Stay in your place—teacher—keep your students in their place! Don’t presume to a place that only God can fill!
But the people that day, they want a king. They need a king. They hope Jesus is that king. But here’s the funny thing about that day and that hope. We know that the religious leaders were wrong about Jesus. But it turns out that the people announcing Jesus as king were wrong too. Well, perhaps more precisely, they were wrong and right at the same time. They were right to proclaim him king. But they were wrong about the kind of king he was going to be. How do we know this? Because as soon as he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death, they turned on him as a false messiah, a phony king, a scandal, a fool, a discredited, dishonored, ludicrous, asinine, ridiculous, criminal of the state. When they were given the choice by Pontius Pilate to free Jesus or a convicted murderer, they chose Barabbas. They had given up hope that Jesus might actually be God’s promised king.
The rest of Luke is the story of the people’s rejection of Jesus, the battle over whether he is king or not. He is questioned by Pilate, and by Herod, and eventually he is crucified. And while he dies, he is mocked by people calling him “king.” “If you are the king of Israel, then come down from the cross!”
They even wrote a sign and put it above his head on the cross. The sign read, “The king of the Jews.” What a joke. What a lie. What an imposter. Time to move on to the next possible candidate to give us what we want, what we think we need.
Paul Tillich, an important theologian in the 20th century, wrote a little essay explaining why preachers cannot think about preaching in terms that the rhetoricians typically do, in other words, they cannot start with the hearers and their perceived needs and wants, and then fashion a gospel that meets those needs. That is because, Tillich argued, Christian preachers do not have just any message that can be cut and pasted to fit the perceived needs of any human audience. Christian preachers have the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, and that gospel is inherently scandalous.
So the question the preacher faces in preaching is not, how do I shape this message so my hearers will best receive it, but rather, how do I get the gospel’s inherent scandal in front of the people so they confront the crucified and risen Jesus himself, and thus have the opportunity to accept it/him, or reject it/him. Preachers must continue the scandal, not turn into salesmen or alter the message so it markets better.
This is the mission of the church and Christianity: to bear witness in word and life to the scandal of a self-giving love and mercy for a broken and frightful world. What does the world really need?
Yes, it needs healing—and God’s response is crucifixion and resurrection: putting to death the old and decaying while starting the new and the living.
Yes, it needs love—and God’s response is crucifixion and resurrection: putting to death hate while taking the side of the most vulnerable, the poor, the aged, and displaced.
Yes, it needs forgiveness—and God’s response is crucifixion and resurrection: putting to death sin, violence, and idolatry while constituting a new humanity in Christ, forgiven, and empowered to extend God’s mercy in a world of severity and ruthlessness.
Yes, it needs Hope—and God’s response is crucifixion and resurrection: putting to death small “h” hopes for temporal, this-worldly, advantage, while commencing the new era of God’s eternal future, where there will be no tears, there will be no suffering, no pain, there will be no death, for the first things will have passed away.
The truth of this week, the week of the palms, the cloaks, and the Passion, is one that comes over against all human expectations and hopes. Remember, the crowd was actually wrong about Jesus that day they waved the palms (in Mark and Matthew), laid their cloaks on the ground, and hailed Jesus as king. They were wrong because of the kind of king they wanted him to be.
If they had known that he had come to Jerusalem to be assassinated, murdered on a Roman cross, and mocked as king, they wouldn’t have had that “triumphal entry.” They would have saved their voices for another day, perhaps for the day that Jesus was condemned as a false king, and they shouted to release Barabbas instead. Perhaps for the day he hung on the cross and they shouted at him to prove himself to be king by coming down from the cross.
But even if they had saved their voices from all that, Jesus reminds us of something very interesting and strange: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” I encourage you to find a stone today, put it in your pocket, place it on your desk, or table, or kitchen counter, and this week, listen to its witness. Because these rocks will shout in their silent witness: “Though we do not know who he is, or what we really need, God is going to be who God is anyway, and meet our greatest needs, in spite of us.”
André Resner teaches preaching and worship at Hood Theological Seminary. His most recent book is Living In-Between: Lament, Justice, and the Persistence of the Gospel (Wipf & Stock, 2015). He and his wife, Chris, a technology facilitator in the Salisbury Rowan School District, live in Salisbury.