Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sermon for March 4th: 'Gospel'


Lent Sermon Series 2012 #2: ‘Gospel’

Last week I introduced our Lent sermon series on sharing our faith with others. We remembered that Jesus told his early disciples, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people’ – in other words, becoming a disciple always included the call to help others become disciples too. It’s always been God’s plan and God’s dream that the people of Jesus would tell other people about Jesus and invite them also to become his followers.

However, we also noted that although fishing is fun, no one is born knowing how to fish – you have to be willing to learn. And so this Lent we’re taking some ‘fishing lessons’ together. Lesson one last week centred around the word ‘Lost’. Jesus said, ‘The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost’. What does it mean to be lost? We saw that if you’re pretty sure your life is going in the wrong direction, but you’re not sure what the right direction is, that’s probably a good sign that you’re lost! We went on to note that ‘lostness’ shows itself in a hunger for healing and wholeness, in loneliness, in guilt and a sense of failure, and in the fear of death, to name just a few things.

Last week’s word was ‘lost’; this week’s word is ‘Gospel’, which means ‘Good News’, and this is to do with the essential message that Jesus wants us to share when we witness to others. Let me make two preliminary observations.

First – and many of you have heard me say this many times – there’s a world of difference between ‘good news’ and ‘good advice’. ‘You should go to church more’ is good advice. ‘You should pray about your problems’ is good advice. ‘you should read the Bible’ – ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ – ‘Give ten percent of your money to the church’ – all excellent advice, especially the last one! But Jesus didn’t send his disciples out to spread good advice, at least not at first – he gave them a message of good news. So when we’re thinking about what it is that Christ wants us to share, let’s start by asking ourselves ‘Does what I’m sharing sound like good news?’ If not, it’s probably not the message Jesus gave to his disciples.

Second, not all ‘good news’ is ‘the’ good news. It’s possible to sit down as a congregation and make a list of all the wonderful things that we do. ‘We sponsor two children with World Vision; we helped fund their Cambodia Trauma Recovery Centre; we serve lunch at the Bissell Centre once a year; we hold excellent senior’s lunches and Spaghetti Church and our congregation is growing and we have lots of little kids in our services and all of that is good news! So let me tell you how wonderful our church is!’

Well, again, I sincerely hope that our church is wonderful, but Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to go out into the world and tell people how wonderful the church is! Rather, he gave them a message about the love and power of God breaking into a sinful and hurting world to bring rescue and healing and transformation and hope. So let me explore that message with you under three ‘R’s – Reign, Reconciliation, and Resurrection.

First, Reign – the Reign of God, or what most Bible translations call ‘the Kingdom of God’. This was the very first message that Jesus proclaimed, in Mark 1:14-15:
‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”.

The Good News of the Reign of God is enormous – it’s a worldwide, all-embracing thing. It’s so simple and so relevant that I can’t help getting excited just thinking about it! Here it is: because of the love and power of God, the world is not always going to be the way it is today. Today when I look around, yes, I see many good things – the beauty of the natural creation, the grandeur of the night sky, examples of human love and kindness and generosity, great art and music and so on. But we also know that there is a lot of bad news. Twenty percent of the world’s population consumes eighty percent of its wealth. Much of the world is engulfed in conflicts of one kind or another, and millions of people go to bed each night in fear. Injustice, oppression, famine, disease, malnutrition, illiteracy, prejudice, racism – the list goes on and on. Is this the kind of world we want to live in? Of course not. And yet the people of the world seem powerless to change things.

Jesus told a story once about a farmer who planted a crop, but during the night an enemy came and planted weeds among his wheat. When the plants began to grow and the weeds were choking the wheat, the farmer said to his steward, ‘An enemy has done this’ (Matthew 13:28). And Christianity also teaches that ‘an enemy has done this’. A malignant power, sometimes referred to in the Bible as the satan or the devil, has told lies to the people of the world about how to get what we want out of life, and we’ve believed those lies. As a result, we now live in fear and slavery, as if we were an enemy-occupied territory.

What has God done about this? The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis did a series of radio broadcasts in the middle of World War Two, explaining the basics of Christianity. At the time of the broadcasts much of Europe was occupied by the Nazis. And so Lewis used this illustration:
‘Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage’.

The Good News of the reign of God is that through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus God has broken the power of evil. God’s plan to change the world is centred not on political or military skullduggery but on the transformation of human hearts by the power of Christ. This obscure Galilean carpenter, the early Christians said, is in fact the Lord of all, the one who one day will judge the living and the dead. The kingdom he began will one day come in its fullness, the world will be completely healed of evil, and the last word will go not to tyrants or terrorists or tycoons but to the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us – the one who taught us to pray, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. One day, that prayer will be finally and gloriously answered; that’s the good news of the Reign of God.

If the first ‘R’ is ‘Reign’, the second R is ‘Reconciliation’ – reconciliation with God. Here we turn to the writings of St. Paul, to his second letter to the Christians in Corinth:
‘All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us’ (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
The Reign of God is a big picture concept – the healing of the whole creation. Reconciliation with God is an individual concept – it’s about the healing of my relationship with God and your relationship with God. And the Bible teaches us that it happens through Jesus and his death on the Cross.

When two people are at odds with each other someone has to make the first move, or reconciliation is not going to happen. There may be a lot of history between them, a lot of pain on both sides. They may each be afraid that if they make themselves vulnerable and take the first step toward reconciliation, the other person may take advantage of them and they will just get hurt again. To be reconciled means being willing to take that risk. It even means being willing to be the first person not to strike back and take revenge, even if it makes you look weak and defenceless.

That’s what God did in Jesus. He came to live among us and share his love with us, but we rejected him and nailed him to a cross. But Jesus rejected our rejection; he prayed, ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing’. He had always taught his disciples to love their enemies; now he practiced what he preached by loving and forgiving his enemies, demonstrating that the God who is seeking us is a God who loves his enemies. That’s why reconciliation is possible.

Do you want a Bible story about reconciliation? How about this one from Luke chapter 15, told by Jesus himself?
A man had two sons, and the youngest said to his father, “Father, I don’t want to wait until you die to inherit; give me my share of the property now!” So the father divided his property between his two sons. The next day the youngest son left home and went to a far country where he wasted the money in wild living.

When he had spent everything a severe famine came to that country and he began to be in need. So he took a job with a pig farmer; he was so hungry that even the pig food looked good to him. Finally he came to his senses and said, “Back home, even the servants have enough to eat, and here I am starving! I’ll get up and go home to my father and say, ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God and you and I’m not worthy to be called your son; please give me a job as one of your servants’”. So he set off home.

But while he was still a long way off his father saw him coming and his heart was full of compassion for him; he ran to him and kissed him. His son said, “Father, I’ve sinned against God and you and I’m not worthy to be called your son”. But his father wouldn’t let him finish; he snapped his fingers for his servants and said, “Quick – bring the best robe for him to wear, and shoes for his feet and a ring to put on his finger. Then go and kill the best calf we’ve got and let’s have a feast, because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

The good news of reconciliation is that when we come home to God what we meet is not condemnation but compassion. God accepts us as we are, forgives us, and gives us a fresh start with him. Abraham Lincoln said, ‘the best way to defeat an enemy is to turn him into a friend’. That appears to be God’s plan!

If the first ‘R’ is about the reign of God and the second ‘R’ is about reconciliation with God, the third ‘R’ is to do with Resurrection. In fact, I seriously considered putting this one first, because if there had been no resurrection, there would have been no Gospel, no good news at all. When the early Christians saw Jesus die on the cross they assumed that their movement was over. They had thought that Jesus was the King God had sent to set his people free, but according to the scriptures that King, the Messiah, was supposed to defeat God’s enemies, not be killed by them. And so it was obvious to them that, no matter how good and wise and kind and powerful Jesus had been, he was not the Messiah. Love had come face to face with death, and death had won, as it always does.

But all of that changed on that first Easter morning. The disciples were practical and level headed, and it took a lot to convince them – a lot of testimonies of eyewitnesses, and then their own experiences of the risen Jesus appearing to them and speaking to them. But finally they were convinced, and their whole world changed. The resurrection proved that Jesus had been right – the Kingdom of God is at hand, and Jesus is the King! Love is stronger than death, because even death could not stand in the face of the Son of God. And this meant that there was no longer any need to fear. Why fear death if you know that, one day, you will be raised as Jesus was raised? Why fear tyrants when the worst they can do is to kill you – and death is only a temporary phenomenon for believers? To use C.S. Lewis’ memorable phrase from the Narnia stories, when death encounters the love of God in Jesus, ‘even death itself begins to work backwards’.

Do you see how this good news of Jesus exactly meets our needs? If we are afraid to approach God because of our sins and failures, it tells us of a Father who has compassion on us, runs to meet us in Jesus and hugs us and throws a feast for us when we come home to him. If we are afraid of death, it tells us that because of the resurrection of Jesus death itself has been swallowed up in victory. If we feel powerless to change ourselves, it assures us that the God whose power raised Jesus from the dead can also raise us from the death of sins and fears and negative habits and put us on a new path of life. If we feel a sense of hopelessness about the future of the world, it gives us a firm promise that the best is yet to come – that God is at work to heal the world of evil and that one day that process will be complete when Jesus is acknowledged as Lord of all. Does that seem impossible to us? Well, so does resurrection, right?!

A friend of mine likes to say, ‘The Gospel is like a Persian carpet, with many strands – each one meeting one of our deepest human needs’. Today with these three ‘R’s – ‘Reign of God’, ‘Reconciliation with God’, and ‘Resurrection’ – I’ve only begun to explore those strands with you, but hopefully you’ve seen enough to begin to glimpse the big picture.

Last week we saw that we live in a world full of people who have lost their way, and maybe we feel lost sometimes too. Today we’ve seen that the good news of Jesus speaks directly to that ‘lostness’. Next week we will ask the question, ‘How do we respond to the good news?’ Stay tuned: our word for nest week will be ‘Conversion’!

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