Reverend Philip Stringer
LET US PRAY: Come, Lord Jesus-- and fill us with expectant waiting. Give us ears that hear your coming and receiving hearts. Come and lead us into the world to serve you, as we watch and pray for your coming in Glory. AMEN
Mark begins his gospel with these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” And then he tells us that God sent John the Baptist. The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, does not begin with Jesus. The beginning of the Good News is in God the Father.
The Good News is not Jesus himself. The Good News is that Jesus came for us; that the Father sent Jesus to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. The Good News is a love story -- It is a story about the love of God, and we are the object of God’s affection.
That has always been a difficult concept in this world -- that God would love us. Sin makes this a violent place. And a violent, destructive world looks for a violent, destructive god. The great Oxford theologian Erik Routley has pointed out that the concept of an “unfriendly” God is so deeply embedded in human minds that all religions give prominent place to measures by which people may woo God’s favor by acts of sacrifice or atonement. “It was towards the eradicating of this persistent illusion that Jesus’ teaching was directed,” says Routley. “Where people had been saying that ‘God must be caused to love the world,’ Jesus said, ‘God is love . . . He loves the world and has always loved it.’”
The beginning of the Good News is that God is love -- and the next chapter of the story is that because God loves us, God comes to meet us where we are.
The Eucharistic Prayer that is part of our celebration of Holy Communion retells this great love story beautifully. It tells us that in the beginning God created this universe out of love -- and out of that love, God formed us, too. Out of love for us, God sent the law and the prophets. And then he sent John to proclaim to us, “your sin is too great. But he who can overcome sin is coming. He is coming for YOU because he loves you. And all the powers of sin and death cannot stop him.” And finally, in these last days, he came. The Good News is that the God who loves us comes to meet us where we are.
That news is as good today as it ever was. And it insists on being shared. Good News is only “news” when it IS shared. The very phrase, “good NEWS” implies that it is a message to be shared. If it is NOT shared, it isn’t news at all -- it is only a dead piece of information.
We make a terrible mistake if we think that sharing the good news means telling people who Jesus is. What turns the information about who Jesus is into Good News is when he becomes incarnate in the lives of people today. Jesus comes to meet them where they are when we not only tell the story of God’s love, but we live it in words and actions.
A number of years ago I took a research trip into the mainland of China that I think I mentioned to you before. During that trip I also took a few days away from my research to visit a remote village that had suffered from a polio outbreak about 10 years earlier.
You are certainly all familiar with the “one child” policy of the mainland. It was being strictly enforced at this time and penalties were severe. And so some births had not been reported to the government -- when vaccines were distributed, they were skipped over. For many others, however, when the oral vaccines were delivered, a rumor spread among the people that it was a trick of the government to sterilize the children -- and the vaccines were never administered. As many as 70-80% of the children in the country were stricken in the outbreak -- thousands of children.
But that was 10 years earlier -- and ancient history in the memories of most -- prehistory for the children. All they knew was their suffering.
My interpreter and I visited the project to see the work that was being done to assist these children. Only about 2% of the children were in the program in this rural farming country. A few had received surgery. Others received physical therapy by therapists who traveled over dirt roads by bicycle or motorcycle to their mud and brick homes. The goal for all of the children in the program was that they become as independent as possible and contributing members of society.
I think I may have told you about a boy who didn’t know how to answer the question of what he wanted to do when he grew up, because no one had ever asked him that before,
But there was another boy—
After watching him do his exercises on the dirt floor of his family’s farmhouse -- lifting a small sack of sand by a rope with his foot, I asked him what he would like to do when he grows up. Through my interpreter he answered, “I want to be a doctor and discover a cure for polio so that other children will not get sick as I did.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that 40 years before he was born, Jonas Salk had already done that.
The world is still busy looking for a cure for the disease of human sinfulness. Some seek it in wealth, others in power, still others in good works. But God has already provided the cure in Jesus.
The love of God the Father that sends Jesus to rescue us from sin and death is Good News. But like the polio vaccine — it only becomes good news — and only affects people’s lives — when it is proclaimed.
Many of us in America were enculturated to think of the United States as a “Christian nation,” but that’s far from true. While Christianity has always been the predominant religion in the United States, to begin with, a nation is a thing — and a thing has no soul and has no faith.
The Pew Research Center has gathered religious data for decades. In surveys taken as recently as the early 1990’s, over 90% of Americans identified as being Christian, and 5% said that they were “unaffiliated.”
In their surveys conducted last year, the number of people identifying as Christian dropped from that early 1990’s figure of 90% to 65% — and the number of people identifying as “unaffiliated” rose from 5% to 29%.
A lot of people want to blame other people and other religions for this — but the fact is that churches in America are not becoming increasingly empty because people are converting to other religions. The churches are emptying out because people don’t believe Christianity offers anything of value; In other words, they do not see the Christian religion delivering good news.
So — for a sermon on a Gospel reading that starts, “The beginning of the Good News…” all of that sounds pretty depressing. However, I will make an important point here — The problem is not that there is no Good News; the problem is that people do not see it or hear it.
A story that sticks in my mind was told by a woman who was shopping for a cross necklace to give as a confirmation gift. There was a young woman behind the counter at the jewelry store, and she asked the customer -- “do you want a plain cross, or one with a little man on it?”
Who brought the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to you? How is it that you came to know through them that he is not just a little man? When you think about that, I know you will see that whoever brought you the good news of Jesus Christ did more than tell you the Good News.
They loved you with it -- and that is what has made all the difference.
The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ is that God sent a messenger to announce him. That’s where it starts.
Consider the places you go -- to work, to school, to the market, or a restaurant. The world is as hungry as ever for the Good News of God’s love in Jesus. People may not know who that “little man” on the cross is; They may not know who the baby in the manger is. But they ARE watching you. If they don’t know you are Christian, they will see only a woman or a man. If they DO know you are Christian, they will watch to see if you pray to a little man on a tree.
But if you love them unashamedly because you are a Christian . . . They will have the beginning of Good News proclaimed to them. For they will have a man sent from God; or a woman sent from God to where they are, who has come to tell them that the Son of God is coming FOR THEM. He is coming because he loves them.
And THAT is good news, indeed.