I went to the home of a woman who attended the church I pastored. When I walked into the flat, her husband was asleep on a cot in the living room, a gaunt shell of a man, his substance sucked out by whiskey. His skin was yellow. When he awoke and we met, his voice was rumbly and harsh from smoking, and frighteningly loud. His eyes had something hateful about them that made my blood run cold.
This was the demanding, abusive man whom the woman in our church tried to placate day by day. She had told me chilling stories about him.
They lived on welfare, and their house had poverty written all over it. In the dirt “yard” sat an abandoned tire. The kitchen floor sloped steeply, and the gloomy walls needed paint. In the living room, the fabric on the arms of the chairs was worn through, a chair or two tilted due to a missing leg, the cushions gave no support. Mousetraps were everywhere. Dimly lighting the place were bulbs that could not have added more than 40 watts apiece.
But each week something happened in the life of this woman that elevated her to a higher, brighter plane. She would come to church and hear a sermon. That sermon was nothing less than a condensed dose of dignity that saved and ennobled her battered spirit. Regularly I saw the tears of gratitude as she grabbed my hand before she left for home.
No matter what our station, daily life in a fallen world is a walk through a gauntlet of belittlement. Those who attend our churches are daily bombarded by false values and beliefs that cheapen God’s creation, by personal slights and insults, by Satan’s accusations. Their minds are assaulted by scabrous images in the media and by profanity that is objectionable to God precisely because it debases the creation. They are subject to sins that mar God’s image within them. They suffer distorted images of themselves that contradict God’s truth.
After such a week, it’s a wonder that a person can walk into church with any sense of worth (and the faces of many confirm that).
But then they hear godly preaching, and gravity reverses as people sense the upward pull of heaven. The sermon reveals the character of God, who infuses all life with meaning and majesty. The sermon tells who we are in God’s sight: created in the divine image, beloved beyond description, destined for glory. The sermon uncovers sins—then announces how to be redeemed. The sermon honors the morality that exalts humankind. The sermon assumes that people can think and discern about life and the Book of Life. The sermon appeals to the will, treating people as responsible agents whose choices matter forever. The sermon preaches Christ Immanuel, forever hallowing human flesh, second Adam who will one day resurrect believers in his likeness. A sermon is the most intense dose of dignity any person can receive.
To sit through a Spirit-led sermon is something like ascending the Mount of Transfiguration. Prior to that moment, Jesus resembled any other man. He looked and dressed and groomed himself like a common man. But on the Mount of Transfiguration, his appearance changed to display his full divine nature. The glory of God radiated forth, his face blazing like the sun and his clothes becoming heavenly white. The curtain was pulled back, revealing reality.
During a sermon, we are in a sense transfigured. Our true dignity from God shines forth. Nothing else in life treats a man or woman in a way that assumes greater worth or higher powers.
There is no more costly gift I could have given that downtrodden woman than my best and God’s best in a sermon. It is a weekly dose of compressed dignity.