SERMON: What Does the Atonement Mean?
Introduction: Jared serves as the Assistant Pastor of United Wesleyan Church in Alexandria, VA. As a bi-vocational pastor, he also serves as a one-on-one English tutor at the International Monetary Fund for economists from around the world. In this capacity his time is spent in personal conversation with people of every religion and culture. This experience has sharpened his faith and given him a deeper understanding of the meaning and importance of the gospel. His simple advice for fellow preachers is to spend more time with unchurched people and preach in a way that would be meaningful to them.
Lenny: Jared, I like the way you helped us to engage the atonement through the lens of a narrative that is “both true and meaningful.” Why was it so important for you to develop those concepts before moving into the body of this sermon on the atonement of Christ?
Jared: The more I meditate on Jesus, the gospels, the cross, and the resurrection, the more I realize how interconnected all of the pieces are to history itself. As a father of two small children, I fully understand the value of telling children simply that Jesus is God’s son and the he died for our sins; this is a good starting point. However, as adults, we need the fuller and more complex story that Scripture provides. In the incarnation, God stepped into history. The cross was the result of concrete historical events. The Holy Spirit then inspired the gospel writers to present a multi-layered historical drama. We cannot fully understand Jesus—nor what He means for our life— without this context. Historical context is what separates Christian theological truth from mere mythology.
Lenny: This was the type of sermon that sought to bring people into the story of God instead of bringing God into the story of our lives. There is a huge difference between these two homiletic approaches and perhaps both are necessary to reach a variety of people. The reason why I think your sermon aims to bring people into God’s story is the enormous amount of time you devoted to unpacking the historical background of the text and its theological implications. Some of the people who listen to your sermon might suggest that perhaps you spent too much time on the history (true) and theology (meaningful) of the biblical story. How would you respond?
Jared: I would agree that I spent a lot of time developing and unpacking this background in this particular sermon. There are two things I would say in response to those who question this approach. First, many people do not have a solid grasp of this narrative. While it certainly should not be explicitly presented in every sermon, it does need to be presented at some point. Second, it is very difficult to talk about the multiple layers of meaning found in the cross without this historical background. A penal substitution view of the atonement (i.e. God punished Jesus for our sin) is easiest to present without any historical narrative, though other equally biblical views require far more context. As this was part of a series called “Groundwork,” I was intentionally investing in laying a firm foundation.
Lenny: What makes a good sermon a good sermon is not just a matter of biblical exegesis but contextual exegesis. Tell us how this sermon addresses the particular needs of people in your preaching context.
Jared: Peoples’ needs were represented in the bookends of the sermon. At the beginning, I attempted to connect with real questions, feelings, and doubts of people through a fictional journal entry. At the close, I sought to answer these questions by showing how, through the cross and the resurrection, Jesus is our mercy, our example, and our victory. I then brought this home by describing how I personally find a deep sense of forgiveness, a model for how to live, and a great source of hope and confidence in the cross when viewed through the lens of the resurrection.
Lenny: I encourage my preaching students to view their sermons in order to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of their sermons on a frequent basis. As you reflect upon your sermon, what do you think were its strengths and areas for improvement?
Jared: I always struggle with time and would prefer to keep it to 20-25 minutes, which I was not able to do in this case. Nevertheless, when preaching a dense and multi-layered sermon like this, I use a manuscript so that I can carefully choose each word; when listening to it again I am happy with the words I chose. However, I think the sermon would be strengthened by a couple more illustrations, especially something stronger at the end to more clearly show what it looks like in real life to have Jesus as your mercy, example, and victory. Despite this, I received strong feedback that the sermon really helped people understand the cross more deeply than they had before.
Lenny: As you know, we met and had some great times together when we were Master of Divinity students in seminary. We both believe in the importance of ongoing education in the formation of ministers. Here is a big question but, I think, a significant one for those who might be considering further education: How has education prepared you for pastoral ministry, in general, and the preaching life, in particular?
Jared: I would say that education connected me to specific resources (authors like N. T. Wright, commentaries, and software like BibleWorks) and trained me on how to find new ones. I use these skills and resources every time I preach. I approach each text and topic with confidence. My time at seminary also significantly raised my own standards and stretched my capacity. When writing a paper for a world-class scholar you are motivated to dig deeper and read material that may intimidate you at first. More personally, listening to and talking with world-class scholars and hearing them articulate clear answers to very difficult questions gave me confidence that good answers and deep understanding are available to those who diligently seek them. This has paid off a thousand times over as I encounter people’s most difficult questions. I find that people draw confidence from a wise and knowledgeable pastor/preacher. While education can never provide all the answers, it certainly encouraged me to dig deeper rather than settle for shallow and unsatisfying answers. From a different angle, the time spent in Christian community profoundly shaped my soul. Chapels, Bible studies, classes, and conversations impacted my personal discipleship.