Friday, January 19, 2018

January 21, Prophecy #3: The Good News of God

Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:6-14, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20

You might remember from a decade ago a man named Harry Knox who attended our church. He had moved to New York to work for an organization in the Marriage Equality movement. Harry was a devout Methodist who had been turned away from ordination because he was gay. He was an activist but also a kindly encourager. He led us in Bible studies and in prayer, and he helped us to understand same-sex marriage. Eventually he moved on to another job in Washington DC.

He told us that what drew him into Old First, this introverted Reformed church, and not some more activist congregation, was a sign I had posted out front. The sign simply said, “The Bible is on your side.”

I remember having some hesitation when I put that sign up. Was I making it too easy? Was I too much appealing to the Park-Slope feel-good self-indulgent consumer spirituality, that in Park Slope we can have it all? What about repentance, what about God’s judgments? And then what about the racists and slave owners and bigots who claimed the Bible was on their side? Well, yes, to all of that, but if you didn’t believe that ultimately, somehow, the Bible is on your side, you wouldn’t be here.

We wouldn’t be here if the gospel were not “good news.” Yes, there’s bad news too, important bad news, but the news that is bad is bad for what is bad, and it’s good for what is good. It’s even good for what is bad. The news is good for what we don’t expect it to be good for, and that’s what makes it “news”. It’s “news to us!” We had not expected it, it’s not what we anticipated in the world.

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” In that statement there are two strange things.

The first is that the arrest of John the Baptist should be bad news. A bit unfeeling on Jesus’ part, and wouldn’t a Messiah try to get his cousin out of jail? Or maybe this is like our Epistle, “Those who have cousins are as though they have none, and those who mourn are as though they are not mourning.” Like soldiers in the army. When a lieutenant gets killed in battle, the captain does not stop the battle to grieve his lieutenant but only fights the harder. The arrest of John the Baptist was the signal for Jesus to get on it, no more waiting, no more preparation, put it all on the table.

The second strange thing is that Jesus was announcing “the good news of God.” That’s rare in the Bible and unique in the gospels. Usually it’s “the good news of the kingdom” or “the good news of Jesus the Messiah.” Here it is “news of God.” Jesus had new things to report about this God, he was announcing that God was starting to operate in ways they did not anticipate.

The people of Galilee believed in God, whom they were commanded to love, but they’d had no news of God for centuries, just old news. God was not with them. They had no evidence that God was even on their side. To deal with this, their political parties developed different strategies.

The Sadducees were in power, and their platform was that the status quo was all there was—just do the rituals and support the temple hierarchy and make the best of it until you die.

The Pharisees were the party in opposition; their platform was scrupulous legal observance for everyone, in order to earn God’s forgiveness and get God to come back to them.

And the independent intellectuals wrote that God had just plain gone over to the side of the Romans, and for proof just read the news.

Jesus comes with other news. In the Gospel of Matthew, he lengthily explains the news, but in the Gospel of Mark he just acts it out. He demonstrates the news of God—he models it. We will watch him do this in the coming weeks, as we read the lessons from Mark. By watching what Jesus does we learn what God will do. By watching what Jesus is like we learn what God is like. And by extension what God wants. It’s the news of God.

To give us the news of God is prophecy. It takes prophecy to tell us that the news of God is good news. It takes prophecy because to get this news requires working the interface of revelation and reason, of gospel and science, of God’s Spirit and our souls, God converting our self-sufficient thinking to receive the information that comes exclusively as the gift of the self-defining God.

It takes prophecy to break you out of ordinary time, and all the sufficient strategies you’ve developed to get you through your ordinary time. The prophet Jonah said, “In forty days you will be overthrown.” St. Paul wrote that the appointed time is short. The Lord Jesus said, “The time is filled up.” Your ordinary time is not full, but empty space in front of you, and it’s lengthy, not short. Ordinary time just goes on day after day, unless you suddenly get news. And prophecy is that news.

It takes prophecy to get you to respond. It takes prophecy to get you to repent, whether it’s the repentance from your sins like Nineveh or the more positive and non-remorseful repentance of the fishermen simply to change their minds and change their ways and set a new course. But for both sorts it takes prophecy to get past your resistances. I mean, ordinarily, who responds so dramatically as those fisherman did to Jesus, or as the whole population of Nineveh responded to Jonah?

The story of Jonah raises many questions, more than just the part about the whale, like why would an imperial capital so totally repent for a foreign god whom their own gods were defeating? And why would real-life fisherman do something so unethical as abandon the work they were doing, so that someone else had to finish it, and as if they didn’t have families to feed? They had wives but they acted as if they had none. They had business obligations, but they acted like they had none.

The point is freedom—the relativity of your obligations, and the fragility of your self-sufficiency. I think that’s the point of the Epistle, which is better translated not as admonition but description, so that in the pressing moment the married are as the unmarried and the unmarried are as married. It is neither your obligations nor your lack of obligations that define you or confine you. You are committed and you are free. You are free to be committed and you are committed to be free.

When I was a kid I got sent to evangelical summer camp. That’s where the child-evangelists worked, and they were skilled at getting us kids to give our lives to Christ. I always wanted to please adults so I got saved again every summer. In 1963, we were living in Bedford-Stuyvesant. When the summer days were hot, the big kids would open up the fire-hydrants. Powerful gushers of water and amazing fun. Until the cops would come.

One hot day, the big kids had opened up the hydrant, and I was ten, and I was wearing a cool new yellow bathing suit, and I wanted to get out into the street, but I knew it was illegal, and I had given my life to Christ, so I called the cops. I watched for the cops to come from inside the house with my bathing suit still on. It didn’t take long for me to feel ashamed and confused, and I stayed inside all day.

You know those child-evangelists had told me the wrong good news. They just wanted to get me to conform to their ideas of salvation, but they should have cared about me, and my peculiar life, and what it was like for me to be a white kid in a ghetto, a preacher’s kid, and taught me why I was free to go play under the fire hydrant.

When there’s so much wrong news in religion, prophecy tells the right news. Prophecy takes you in your real life seriously, and doesn’t force you into some religious paradigm. Prophecy can see the individual details that rule-makers cannot see. Prophecy tells you that God is with you, prophecy tells you that God is on your side and the Bible is on your side, and that you can repent precisely because God already is on your side. Whether you repent of your sins or you make a drastic and risky change in your life, God is on your side to keep talking into your new obedience.

So that’s your take home today, it’s simply that God is on your side. I don’t care who else misuses that thought, it doesn’t take away the truth of it for you, God is on your side. And you should tell others that too.

When Jesus announced the good news of God, he began to act it out. When you watch him in the Gospel of Mark you watch a powerful and sometimes even scary working out of love, a passion of love, an investment of love, a sacrifice of love, liberating love, healing love. And he called others to join him in the active incarnation of that love. That was the good news of God. It’s never old news. I invite you to believe the broadcast of it every week, and report it to others whom you know, that God is love and God loves you.

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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