The stench of death

Mon, 30/09/2019 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

2 Corinthians 2:15-17 says this:

For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.

The gospel message is the most beautiful thing you've ever heard. And yet, when some people here it, it sounds utterly horrible. They hate it.

Anyone who's worked in pastoral ministry for any length of time has encountered this seemingly strange reaction: Hatred of what, to us, sounds like the fragrance of eternal life.

I think my favourite book in the Chronicles of Narnia is The Magician's Nephew. Amongst other things, it describes how Aslan formed the land of Narnia; he sings it into existence, a beautiful picture of how the very universe is sustained by the word of God that created it.

The protagonists in the book are Digory and Polly, two children who find themselves in the dark, unformed space that is to become Narnia. They are joined by three other people: a London cabby (from the era of the horse-drawn cab), who is struck by the wonder of what he meets more than any other character, Jadis queen of Charn and Digory's Uncle Andrew. CS Lewis deliberately places the latter two next to each other, to show us how they are both driven by an appetite for self-advancement.

The way in which the gospel can be the stench of death is memorably illustrated as Lewis describes the different reactions to Aslan's song.

“Gawd!” said the Cabby. “Ain’t it lovely?”

“Glory be!” said the Cabby. “I’d ha’ been a better man all my life if I’d known there were things like this.”

The Voice on the earth was now louder and more triumphant; but the voices in the sky, after singing loudly with it for a time, began to get fainter. And now something else was happening.

Far away, and down near the horizon, the sky began to turn grey. A light wind, very fresh, began to stir. The sky, in that one place, grew slowly and steadily paler. You could see shapes of hills standing up dark against it. All the time the Voice went on singing.

There was soon light enough for them to see one another’s faces. The Cabby and the two children had open mouths and shining eyes; they were drinking in the sound, and they looked as if it reminded them of something. Uncle Andrew’s mouth was open too, but not open with joy. He looked more as if his chin had simply dropped away from the rest of his face. His shoulders were stopped and his knees shook. He was not liking the Voice. If he could have got away from it by creeping into a rat’s hole, he would have done so. But the Witch looked as if, in a way, she understood the music better than any of them. Her mouth was shut, her lips were pressed together, and her fists were clenched. Ever since the song began she had felt that this whole world was filled with a Magic different from hers and stronger. She hated it. She would have smashed that whole world, or all worlds, to pieces, if it would only stop the singing.

A bit later, C S Lewis explains why it is that Uncle Andrew did not realise that Aslan and the other animals were speaking. This develops the point further, but also explains how, as well as the gospel, the praises of the people of God can sound ugly to some.

“When the Lion had first begun singing, long ago when it was still quite dark, he had realized that the noise was a song. And he had disliked the song very much. It made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel. Then, when the sun rose and he saw that the singer was a lion (‘only a lion,’ as he said to himself) he tried his hardest to make believe that it wasn’t singing and never had been singing—only roaring as any lion might in a zoo in our own world. ‘Of course it can’t really have been singing,’ he thought, ‘I must have imagined it. I’ve been letting my nerves get out of order. Who ever heard of a lion singing?’ And the longer and more beautiful the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring. Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan’s song. Soon he couldn’t have heard anything else even if he had wanted to. And when at last the Lion spoke and said, ‘Narnia awake,’ he didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl. And when the Beasts spoke in answer, he heard only barkings, growlings, bayings, and howlings. And when they laughed—well, you can imagine. That was worse for Uncle Andrew than anything that had happened yet. Such a horrid, bloodthirsty din of hungry and angry brutes he had never heard in his life.”

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