I preached on Romans 3:21-26 recently. It's a dense, theologically loaded paragraph on the vindication of God's justice in justifying the unjust through the cross. Leon Morris has called it perhaps the most important paragraph ever written.
So how to preach it? Well it's Paul, so then clearly a strong didactic form is called for. Verse by verse, commentary in one hand, a greek lexicon in the other. Unpack the massive theological freight piece by piece and if you're lucky some doxology tacked on the end (if you're unlucky, an exhortation to evangelism).
Well, perhaps you'll think that's more the model I ended up with. But close to my heart throughout the preparation was this desire simply to meditate on the three scenes Paul gives us. The law court (v19-24a); the slave market (v24b) and the temple (v25).
To be honest, if I'd had my time over I think I would have ditched everything else and just gone with a simple meditation. I'd have gotten the congregation to close their eyes and come with me on a journey...
You are in court. Standing in the dock. You and all humanity. The arms dealer is to your left and the amnesty international human rights lawyer is to your right. In front of you is a paedophile, behind you is Mother Teresa. But there you are in the dock. The court room intimidates you, everything in it is against you. You know that your very life hangs in the balance. You dread the verdict that is about to be announced.
The judge reads out these words. As he reads, you know that every charge is unquestionably true:
You are not righteous.
You have no understanding.
You do not seek for God.
You have turned away.
You are worthless.
You do no good.
Your throat is an open grave.
You use your tongue only to deceive.
The venom of vipers is under your lips.
Your mouth is full of curses and bitterness.
Your feet are swift to shed blood
Ruin and misery mark your way.
You have not known the way of peace.
There is no fear of God before your eyes.
The whole court-room is silent but the words ‘not righteous', ‘no understanding' and ‘worthless' still ring in your ears. Your mouth is stopped. You cannot answer a single charge. It's all true and the weight of condemnation is crushing.
The judge raises his gavel. There can be only one verdict. The hammer crashes down. The judge declares it:
I find you not guilty.
The court-room changes in an instant. Smiles everywhere. The judge steps down off the bench to congratulate you. You are lost for words.
"How? Why? What...?
Large doors are opened and great light comes in. The guards usher you through the doors and out into the light.
The scene has changed.
You find yourself in a first-century market-place. You are hungry. You have no shoes. Instead you stand in iron shackles - owned by a cruel master. You have never known any different. You stand in front of the mob and the bidding starts for you. The price goes up and up and you dread the reasons why anyone would pay so much.
"Sold!" you hear. And you peer into the crowd to find out who. Suddenly a man emerges. He smiles, bends down and unlocks your shackles. He stands up, looks you in the eye and says "You're mine now." You reach for words but they don't really come... "Why? How? What did you pay?"
"Let me show you" He says and takes you by the hand out of the market.
Immediately the scene changes again. You are at the temple, standing - like all the other sinners - in the queue for the altar. You are carrying a young lamb in your arms just like the law tells you. At the front of the queue someone lays their hand on the head of their lamb, confessing their sin. Then, holding its wriggling form down on the altar, they slit its throat - the blood gushes out. You see the blood and you know that's what you deserve as a sinner. You shuffle forwards towards the altar.
Suddenly, from deep within the temple a voice booms out ‘Stop the sacrifices.' You drop your lamb in fright, as does everyone else. They all scurry away. Then you see the most shocking sight of your life. The LORD God Almghty emerges from within the innnermost sanctuary. You are stunned. But not half as stunned as you are about to be. In His strength the LORD strides towards the altar. He lays down on it, and carrying the sins of all the people the LORD is slain and His blood is spilt.
And now you know - the verdict you didn't deserve, the freedom you didn't earn - it was purchased by the blood of the LORD Jesus Himself. You look to the altar to see your God now become your Lamb and His blood now become your atonement. Shaking your head in wonder you leave the temple, the weight of your sin gone - the weight of His glory upon you.
Go back to the dock. Remember your guilt. Now feel the wonder of the verdict.
Go back to the slave-market. Remember your bondage. Now feel the joy of your freedom.
Go back to the temple. Remember the queue for the altar and whose blood was really required. Now feel the awe as you behold the Lamb of God bleeding for your sins.
I should have just preached that don't you think?
Anyway - I went for a bit of a compromise. Didactic with a touch of meditation thrown in.