Emerging Christian Story – Lenten Sermon #5 – March 21, 2012
Pastor Monte Stevens – North Riverdale Lutheran Church – Dayton, Ohio
“Let’s Talk About the Good News”
When I was in seminary I needed a little money for simple items – like food and rent. The seminary offered me a job running their audio visual department. At $3.25 an hour, which was the minimum wage then, I would take care of setting up projectors and TV/VCR’s in professors’ classrooms.
I also had to record all the sermons that students gave in their preaching class. I got to hear a lot of sermons from first year students giving their first sermons in seminary. I should have been paid more than minimum wage!
In a preaching class one professor always had each student preach a sermon on the topic, “What is the good news?” I didn’t listen well to each and every one of those sermons as I would often try to read after I pressed the record button and they started babbling. Well, sometimes it just sounded like babble! Remember, they were learning the craft of preaching, and in this case, sharing their understanding of the “good news.”
I don’t remember much of what any one person preached although they all had a rather narrow definition of what the “good news” was, and it mostly had to do with Jesus dying on the cross and us getting into heaven and being saved. (We’ll come back that narrow definition in just a few moments.)
Right now I want you to think about how you would answer this question: What is the “good news” that Christianity offers? The “good news” that Jesus offers? What would you say – in just a few sentences?
Our topic tonight is just that: What is the “good news?” So let’s begin reflecting on the good news.
The “good news” must be important because Mark, the first gospel writer, has the words “good news” in the very first sentence of his gospel. Mark 1:1 says, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” The words good-news and gospel translate the same from the Greek word, euangelion. They can be used interchangeably.
You will see Mark 1:1 translated using both ways. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” or “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ”
I like “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” better.
The writings that we know as Matthew, Mark and Luke didn’t become known or labeled as the “Gospel of Matthew” or the “Gospel of Luke” until much later.
They were labeled that way because people saw them as good news – as gospel. So Mark begins by saying, “This is the beginning of the good news.” Mark was written around 70 AD, so the good news isn’t just something that happened 40 years previously, in 30 AD, when Jesus was alive. The good news continued even in the year 70.
This is just the beginning of the good news about Jesus. Or you could say that the good news is not just a moment in time, but a continuation of what Jesus began. If Mark were here today, I think he would say, “Yes, the good news that had its beginning in Jesus Christ is still unfolding today.”
Try this among family members and friends, ask them, “Christianity talks about the good news; what is that?” You may get some interesting answers, but I suspect that most people will say something along these lines: The good news is that Jesus died for my sins and I get to go to heaven.
That sounds good, and if your grandest goal in this life is just to make sure that you get into heaven, then I suppose it is good news.
But for me it’s just too reductionistic – too small in scope – and misses the intent of Jesus’ call to discipleship. If the good news of Christianity is reduced down to a belief that Jesus is my ticket to heaven, then it’s no wonder that people don’t find Christianity all the relevant for the living of their life.
Over the past century or so, Christianity, unfortunately, has been reduced down to what many call a “heaven and hell” theology. The emphasis has been placed on whether someone is going to heaven or hell and often is summed up by the simple question, “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?”
The fires of hell were described as tormented and hot, while heaven used every possible positive metaphor. In this framework the only person to make things right with a God who would send you to hell for your sins was Jesus; if only you believed in him and that he took on our sins.
As we have talked before, and we will talk again next Wednesday – about the meaning of Jesus’ death, that is a very limited view of the Christian faith. And the God who would need a blood sacrifice to clear away sins becomes a problematic image of God for me and many others.
To many millions of Christians that is the “good news.” But I believe the good news of Jesus Christ is much larger and the heaven and hell framework is too small to share the grace and love of God and express the Christian faith.
So what is the good news?
Let’s begin with Jesus’ first words in the gospel (the good news) of Mark. What does Jesus first say in Mark’s gospel – his first words? Chapter 1:14-15 says, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel – or believe in the good news.”
Jesus started his ministry by preaching the good news of God, and the good news of God was that God’s Kingdom was at hand. Repent, turn your life around and believe in the good news that comes with this kingdom. So the good news from the very beginning has to do with God’s Kingdom that is at hand – that Jesus is ushering in through his preaching. Jesus preaches about this Kingdom for the rest of Mark’s gospel.
So the good news is that the Kingdom is here and you can live in it.
The contents of that Kingdom are what Jesus preached about. In that kingdom Jesus taught about what God is like. He teaches about God’s nature, God’s will, God’s passions, God’s character. Remember the many parables that start out: “The Kingdom of God is like…”
The good news is that our lives are able to be lived in the Kingdom that God has established. The good news, if you believe it, is that if you live your life in this kingdom, by these kingdom values, by these kingdom insights, through the wisdom that this kingdom offers, then you will be living a life just as God created life to be lived; a life full of meaning where you find your purpose; a life that places God at the center; a life where God’s love and grace can be experienced and shared with others; a life that reveals and manifests God’s character and passions.
In other sermons I have offered a definition of the Kingdom of God that most biblical scholars agree with. They say, “The Kingdom of God is what the world would look like if God was on the throne and the rulers of this world were not.”
Of course, the person on the throne, ruling the world in Jesus’ day was the Emperor of Rome. He ruled by power and might and fear and violence. There were winners and losers and insiders and outsiders. There were people of high status and low status. You were a friend of the empire or an enemy of the empire – and many more distinctions.
Jesus offered a different vision of how to rule, and that rule was governed by one Rule, that of love. When love rules, justice will prevail and all would have enough. When love rules, the lowly will be lifted up and the proud brought low. When love rules, peace prevails and swords will be beaten into plowshares.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at hand” – or as one person has expressed it, “God’s new benevolent society is already among us.”
The good news wasn’t just to show a way that individual souls could leave earth, avoid hell, and go to heaven after death. The good news was about God’s will being done on earth. It was putting God onto the throne of your life. The good news was a summons to rethink everything and enter a life of discipleship, where one had to relearn a new way of life, as citizens of a new kingdom.
For Jesus the kingdom of God had come. This was not a distant reality to wait for someday. It was within reach here and now.
The good news was for everybody, but especially those who had been beaten down and cast aside and valued as less. Remember who Jesus hung out with: those on the margins of society, the religiously unclean, the prostitutes and sinners, those who were the last, the least, and the lost.
Everyone agrees the poor and downtrodden should be helped someday; oppression and exploitation should be stopped someday; the planet should be healed someday; we should cease war someday. Would it not be good news to a mother of a soldier if war ceased and her son or daughter could come home alive?
For Jesus, the dream of Isaiah and the other prophets was of a time when good news would come to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, and the indebted … and that time could start now.
People needed good news now, not someday. Jesus preached that the good news of the kingdom was to begin now, and be fulfilled today.
Brian McLaren in his book entitled, “A New Kind of Christianity,” says this: “The time has come today to cancel debts, to forgive, to treat enemies as neighbors, to share your bread with the hungry, and your clothes with the naked, to invite the outcast over for dinner, to confront oppressors not with sharp knives, but with unarmed kindness.”
No wonder Jesus called people to repent. If the kingdom is at hand, we need to adjust our way of life and join the joyful mission in God’s kingdom now!
To the oppressed and hungry, and naked, and downtrodden, this was good news.
To the enemy and the one with debts and the one in need of forgiveness this new kingdom was good news! To the ones in power, to the ones who are rich, the ones that can lord it over others, to Caesar, and the elite, the good news is always bad new first.
Remember how Jesus was always disturbing and was unsettling to those in positions of power and prestige? The good news was disturbing to them, for they needed to repent and let God, the true king, rule in their lives.
To keep broadening out our narrow view of the good news, remember what Jesus asks his disciples to do fairly early in his ministry. He sends them out Noah Style – two by two – to begin to share the good news.
Jesus had been preaching that the kingdom of God is at hand – so live like it – and he sends out his disciples to share the good news!
The good news was good news before the crucifixion – where most people locate the good news. Jesus had been preaching that the kingdom of God is at hand – so live like it – and he sends out his disciples to share the good news!
Those that are not ready to hear it and live it, those not ready to repent and turn to the liberating life that God offers, they will ask the disciples to leave their homes. Jesus said, “that’s OK … go on and share the good news to the next person, in the next house.”
When the growth of early Christianity is studied by sociologists and cultural anthropologists, we discover something quite interesting. Christianity grew fastest from those of the underclass, those who were on the margins of society, those who were poor and experienced injustice in their lives. To them, Jesus’ vision of God’s Kingdom was good news!
Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor and in his book, “Evolving Christianity,” he offers this brief story that I find very telling. He shares: “Almost every Sunday, our Quaker meeting will have several first-time visitors. More often than not, when I engage them in conversation, they will volunteer why they are visiting, usually in these very words, ‘I am looking.’ If time permits, and I sense they don’t mind my inquiring, I’ll ask what they are seeking. The responses have included community, meaning, understanding, a fresh start, relationship, acceptance, love, or heaven. Behind almost every response,” says Gully, “is the hope for a richer, fuller life.”
I would agree and I would add, behind almost every response is the desire to hear and experience some good news; that life can be different; that there is a different vision for God’s world than the life they experienced that past week; that they are looking for a way of life that is both “at hand” and holy.
The beginning of the good news began in the life and preaching of Jesus. The good news is still being shared today as we live out the values of Jesus; the values of compassion, love, generosity of spirit, joy, forgiveness, meekness, treasuring others, reaching out with care and concern, offering hope where there is despair, and the list is as long as all the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus was the good news of God revealed. Jesus offered good news each day of his living and even in his dying. I believe every person is in need of the good news that Jesus preached and offered to those he met, even when that good news is of the disturbing kind. The world, as broken as it is, sure could use some good news.
One of my favorites sayings is one that I believe came from St. Francis of Assisi. He said, “preach the good news – use words if you have to.”
The time is now; let’s follow Jesus in sharing the good news of God until everything on earth is as it is in heaven.
God’s spirit is on you – to bring good news to the poor – and sends you out to release those that are captive and give sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”
Now go. Live and share the good news!