One of the drums I’ve been beating lately is the need for our biblical proclamation to be done beautifully. Last year, I posted excerpts from a variety of writers who express the truth in powerful ways that stir our affections.
We do indeed need beauty in writing, but we also need to consider beauty in preaching. Too often we preachers spend all our time making sure we’ve understood the meaning of the text and can communicate it faithfully. Precious little time is spent thinking about how we can communicate that meaning beautifully.
A preacher who preached faithfully and beautifully was W. A. Criswell (1909-2002). Often, when I listen to his sermons, I not only believe the truth presented, but I taste it. Here are a few examples:
Watch how Criswell communicates the cosmic significance of the crucifixion:
So Jesus bowed His head on the cross and cried, “It is finished!”
The drops of blood that poured out from the cross to the dust of the ground whispered to the grass, saying, “It is finished!”
The grass whispered to the herbs, “It is finished!”
The herbs whispered to the trees, “It is finished!”
The trees whispered to the birds in the branches, “It is finished!”
The birds spiraling upwards to the clouds cried, “It is finished!”
The clouds spoke to the stars in the sky, “It is finished!”
The stars in the sky cried to the angels in heaven, “It is finished!”
The angels in glory went up and down the streets of the heavenly city echoing this glad refrain, “It is finished!”
The crucifixion of our Lord was God’s redemption for the sin of the world.
Notice the way Criswell shows how sin leads to the curse of death:
If one sins against a friend, something dies within him.
If one sins against a partner, something will die between them.
If one sins against his home, something will die in it.
If one sins against himself, something will die in him.
When one sins against God, something dies between him and the Lord.
When sin is added to anything – to any gift, any virtue, any achievement – it will spell grief and misery and death.
A gun plus sin will produce violence and murder.
Success plus sin will produce egotism, pride, and overbearing ostentation.
Money plus sin will produce greed, bribery, and blackmail.
Love plus sin turns to lust.
A home plus sin will produce an atmosphere like hell.
Alcohol plus sin – a car plus sin – any gift of God plus sin is damned to misery and perdition. God said, “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” There is a curse in sin.
Now watch how vividly Criswell paints the crucifixion scene. He puts the listener in the place of all the main characters and then drives home the theological truths of the cross by addressing the congregation personally:
What do you see when you look at the cross?
The Roman soldiers looked and they saw garments to be coveted and a robe for which to gamble.
The priests looked and they saw an enemy to be destroyed.
The curious passersby, who sat down and watched Him there, saw a scene in which to idle away a weary hour.
One malefactor looked and saw another criminal, like himself, being crucified.
The other thief looked and saw hope for heaven: “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.”
The centurion looked and said: “Surely this man was the Son of God.”
The ruler of the Passover feast looked and saw a polluted body that had to be removed before the Sabbath Day drew on.
Pilate’s quaternion of soldiers looked and were commissioned with three deaths to be ascertained. Two of the three certainly expired with the breaking of their bones by heavy mallets, and the other was declared certainly dead with a spear, opening His heart and His side.
John looked and saw a fountain of blood and water for atonement and the cleansing of our sins.
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus looked and saw a precious body to be lovingly laid away.
God the Father looked and saw the sacrifice of His only-begotten Son.
When you look upon the cross, what do you see? When Jesus stands before you, upon His brow the crown of thorns, mocked, rejected, scourged, bleeding, dying, what do you feel? Surely, surely we are conscience-stricken, for His suffering is a revelation of the judgment of God upon the sin of our own hearts. It is our sins that placed upon His brow the crown of thorns. It is our sins that laid upon His back the cruel and heavy stripes. It is our sins that nailed Him to the tree. Surely it is our sins that we see in the sufferings of His cross, in His tears, in His sorrows, in His wounds, and in His death.
When you look at the cross, what do you see? Do you see the love of God for a lost humanity? He died in our stead. It is by the love of God for us that we are delivered from so terrible a penalty.
When you look upon the cross, what do you see? Do you see our victory over sin and death and the grave? Through the torn veil of His flesh, we have our entrance into heaven.
When you look upon the cross, do you hear God’s call to the human heart? Do you not feel God’s entreaty to your own soul?
And here’s my all-time favorite section from a Criswell sermon. It is one of the most poetic portrayals of the gravity of Christ’s death ever delivered from a pulpit:
He was raised between the heaven and the earth, as though both rejected Him, despised by men and refused by God.
And as though abuse were not vile enough, they covered Him with spittle.
And as though spittle were not contemptuous enough, they plucked out His beard.
And as though plucking out His beard was not brutal enough, they drove in great nails.
And as though the nails did not pierce deeply enough, He was crowned with thorns.
And as though the thorns were not agonizing enough, He was pierced through with a Roman spear.
It was earth’s saddest hour, and it was humanity’s deepest, darkest day.
At three o’clock in the afternoon it was all over. The Lord of life bowed His head and the light of the world flickered out.
Tread softly around the cross, for Jesus is dead. Repeat the refrain in hushed and softened tones: the Lord of life is dead.
The lips that spoke forth Lazarus from the grave are now stilled in the silence of death, and the head that was anointed by Mary of Bethany is bowed with its crown of thorns.
The eyes that wept over Jerusalem are glazed in death, and the hands that blessed little children are nailed to a tree.
And the feet that walked on the waters of blue Galilee are fastened to a cross, and the heart that went out in compassionate love and sympathy for the poor and the lost of the world is now broken; He is dead.
The infuriated mob that cried for His crucifixion gradually disperses; He is dead.
And the passersby who stop just to see Him go on their way; He is dead.
The Pharisees, rubbing their hands in self-congratulation, go back to the city; He is dead.
And the Sadducees, breathing sighs of relief, return to their coffers in the temple; He is dead.
The centurion assigned the task of executing Him makes his official report to the Roman procurator, “He is dead.”
And the four, the quaternion of soldiers sent to dispatch the victims, seeing the Man on the center cross was certainly dead, brake not His bones, but pierce Him through with a spear; He is dead.
And Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus of the Sanhedrin go personally to Pontius Pilate and beg of the Roman governor His body, because He is dead.
Mary His mother and the women with her are bowed in sobs and in tears; He is dead.
And the eleven apostles, like frightened sheep, crawl into eleven shadows to hide from the pointing finger of Jerusalem and they cry, “He is dead!”
Wherever His disciples met, in an upper room, or on a lonely road, or behind closed doors, or in hiding places, the same refrain is sadly heard, “He is dead. He is in a tomb; they have sealed the grave and set a guard; He is dead.”
It would be almost impossible for us to enter into the depths of despair that gripped their hearts.
Simon Peter, the rock, is a rock no longer.
And James and John, the sons of Boanerges, are sons of thunder no longer.
And Simon the Zealot is a zealot no longer.
He is dead, and the hope of the world has perished with Him.
Then, then, then…