Do you want the good news or the bad news?
Sunday 18th January @ St Barnabas
Well, I wonder which reading you’d like me to preach on this morning? You can have Paul talking about wrath and God’s judgement and things that deserve death, or you can have Mark writing about Jesus going around healing people, and praying, and preaching. I wonder, which one you would prefer? It’s a no-brainer, really, isn’t it? We want of course to think about Jesus, and how He went about doing good, and if we’re really honest, not worry too much about the kind of stuff Paul writes.
And indeed as I started to write my sermon this week, I had every intention of concentrating just on Mark’s gospel and to guide you through what is a fairly well-known and inspiring passage. But the more I worked at my sermon, the more I found myself drawn back to that passage from Romans, and called at least to relate the things Paul writes about to the gospel reading.
After all, imagine for a moment that you go to the doctor and without any explanation, you’re given a prescription for some medicine. You’d want to know exactly why you had to take those tablets, wouldn’t you? Or again, perhaps you leave you car in the garage for a day, and at the end you are presented a large repair bill, for several hundreds of pounds. You’d want at least see the invoice and discover what they’d done to your motor, wouldn’t you?
And it’s rather like that when it comes to the gospel. We heard last week how Jesus started his public ministry by going round and proclaiming The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news! But we can only know why the good news is good news if, so to speak, we can know what disease the medicine of the gospel is aimed at dealing with. Otherwise we tend to hear Jesus’ message and think we can take it or leave it, as if it were something to nice to eat when the mood takes us, rather than a very necessary and very important treatment for our human condition.
Which brings us right back to our first reading this morning. You see, the reason why Paul writes as he does is not to frighten us or plunge us into despair but in order to show us exactly why we need a Saviour. And although maybe we wish we could skate round this passage, or simply ignore it, I believe it is vital that we just spend a few moments looking at what he teaches. For although Paul wrote these words two thousand years ago, in essence they describe the world as it is today, and they remind us that whatever advances have been made over the past two millennia, human nature is basically the same and still in need of salvation.
Why the wrath of God?
Now there’s a bit of a problem when we start to read Romans 1:18 and come across these words: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Because the popular conception of the wrath of God is fire and brimstone and damnation, and I guess some people still have the image of the hellfire preacher who leaves his congregation cowering in fear. But actually when you look at the passage more carefully you can see that the way God reveals His wrath is not like that at all. Instead three times – in verses 24,26,28 – Paul talks about God giving them over and what that means in simple terms is that God shows His displeasure with us simply by letting us go ahead and do whatever we want to do. Because as any parent knows, there comes a time when no matter however much you warn a child and tell him not to do something, you simply have to let them find out for themselves the consequences of their actions. And that is exactly what our Heavenly Father does with us.
But why is God displeased with us in the first place? Well, verse 20 gives us the key to understanding everything Paul talks about: For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. In other words, all other things being equal, there is enough evidence from the world around us to show us there is a God who made us, who knows us and who loves us. And I guess that most, if not all of us gathered in church this morning, would recognise this to be true. You only have to look at the beauty of a sunset, say, or feel the depths of someone’s love for us, or admire the brilliance of a scientific discovery, to see something of the Maker’s master handiwork and glimpse something of His power and awe and glory. But the vast majority of people, if I may put it this way, have never had their eyes opened. There is something deep within all of us – call it sin, call it blindness, call it what you will – that prevents us from recognising who God is and what He is like.
What are the practical effects?
And that is more than simply an abstract theological or spiritual problem. For, first of all, it means that because we do not give God the honour or the recognition that is His due we end up, as Paul puts it in verse 25, worshipping and serving created things rather than the creator. And you don’t have to look too far to see the sort of trouble this creates. An unhealthy addiction to making money, or a desperate seeking after the latest thrill, or even a life-long quest for that elusive, perfect relationship. You are in many ways what or who you worship, and where God is not the object of our worship, then the Bible tells us in the long-run we will find ourselves unfulfilled, dissatisfied, and worse in this life.
But there’s more. Because, as Paul goes on to explain in verses 26-27, our failure to recognise God for all He is leads to what Paul terms here unnatural relationships. Now there’s a whole sermon’s worth of material in these two verses alone, and I want to get back to our gospel reading. But it’s worth reflecting that when God created us as human beings, his design was for male and female living in complimentary and equal relationships within the institution of marriage. And any sexual expression which falls short of this ideal is a symptom of the disorder and chaos of this world. That, at least, has been the teaching of the church for the best part of 2000 years, and I would say that we alter or tamper with it at our peril.
And just in case we think somehow this rather bleak picture of the human condition doesn’t really apply to us, then Paul reels off a whole list of sins in verses 29-31 which seem to cover most, if not all of us, at one time or another: They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. He could really be describing the plot of East-Enders couldn’t he?
But this is no fiction Paul is talking about. He is exposing in the most graphic and most explicit way possible the darkness which is in all our hearts. And while we might want to explain some of what goes on by social, genetic, environmental factors – and they indeed all play their part – we can’t escape the fact that the basic human problem is that we are out of relationship with our Heavenly Father. We do not see His handiwork; we ignore His still, small voice of conscience, and we put ourselves at the centre of our lives, rather than Him. With what result? The worship of false things, sexual disorder, every kind of wickedness.
Why good news?
Now do you understand why Jesus’ first words as he stepped into the public limelight were The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!? This God whom you have been ignoring for so long has come to earth to begin His rule. He is calling you back to Himself. He wants a new relationship with you. Turn back to Him, confess all that is within you that is wrong, false, disordered, and accept me as your Saviour, your Lord, your King. For if you want hope in your life, then you need to come to me. If you want peace in your life, then you need to come to me. If you need real, lasting love in your life, come to me. I am the one who brings you into the family of your Heavenly Father. I can rescue you from your own sins, and the sins of others. I am the bread of life, the living water, the manna from heaven that always satisfies. And don’t worry that you’re not good enough, that you’re not religious enough, that you’re not clever enough. Just come.
And if there’s anyone here this morning who hasn’t yet heard and responded to Jesus’ invitation to come, then can I urge you to consider today the response you need to make? Because if what Paul saying is true, if you are in your natural state cut off from the one who made you and who loves you, then there is something you need to do urgently and necessarily. You need to turn back to God and thank Him from the bottom of your heart for the gift of His Son Jesus Christ, and you have to accept that this Jesus has died and risen again for your sins. Because this medicine of the gospel is the only one out there that will deal with the basic disease of the human condition, and the amazing thing is that it is freely available to all who are quite willing to accept it. So if you haven’t make your response to Jesus, then please take some time to do so today. There really is no better thing you can do.
And what about the majority of us who have heard and heeded Jesus’ call to come? Well, the reason why we will be spending so much time in Mark’s gospel this year is because I believe we all need to take a fresh look at Jesus and what He wants of our lives. The Christian gospel, after all, isn’t, “Come to Jesus and then carry on living as before”. That’s believing without repenting. Nor is it, “Keep trying your hardest and hope Jesus will forgive you”. That’s repenting without believing. It’s, “Come to Jesus, fall in love with Him, let His relationship with you totally change your life and revolutionise the very centre of your being”.
The problem is, however, when we’ve been a Christian for five, ten, fifty years, we lose the radical cutting edge to our faith. We think we know the story, and if we’re honest we lose interest in deepening and strengthening our relationship with Jesus. There just seem more important things to do and we start to drift. Not because we mean to fall away, or we’ve stopped believing. It’s just that our faith has lost its spark, we lose the thrill and excitement of the “hour we first believed”. And I guess most, if not all of us, know folk who have fallen away in this fashion.
The power of Jesus
So let’s finally, and briefly, come to our gospel reading this morning. What is it that particularly stands out about Jesus and can excite us and thrill us as we read it today? Well, the first and most obvious thing that comes out is the power of Jesus – demons driven out, a leper cured, even the mother-in-law made well. And maybe one reason why we lose the cutting edge of our faith is that we forget the simple fact there is power in Jesus’ name. Because there is, isn’t there? Turn back a page to the end of Matthew’s gospel and what do we read? All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. And although we may wrestle with times when prayer appears not to be answered, or when situations fail to change as we would like, we should never doubt the fact that Jesus is the one with all the power, all the authority, and as the one who has conquered death He can do all things.
The personal touch of Jesus
But the other amazing and wonderful thing that comes from out from this passage is the personal touch of Jesus. Did you notice from our reading how often Jesus reached out to help someone in need? Verse 31: So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. Verse 41: Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. I, for one, never ceased to be amazed how Jesus on His mission to die for the sins of the world stops and makes time for each person He encounters. And He doesn’t deal with them according to a slick, pre-packaged formula or a well-presented sales pitch. He deals with them as individuals, as they really are, according to their need.
So how do folk experience the personal touch of Jesus today? Well, the simple answer is that He uses our hands, our feet, our words. Because Jesus doesn’t just show us who He is and what He can do. He also entrusts to us the task of sharing the same good news in this same sinful world Paul was describing earlier. For, although the world is under God’s condemnation, although our Heavenly Father has given people over to do exactly what they want to do, there is still hope. And where do people find this hope? In us. In you, in me, in the stories of how Jesus has shown His power in our lives, in the ways our daily existence has been revolutionised and transformed by His love. And so Jesus calls us to follow His example, to heal the mother-in-law, to touch the leper, to be His hands, His feet. And unless we follow, we are quite literally leaving people without hope.
The role of prayer
That’s quite a solemn thought, isn’t it? I believe, therefore, it’s no accident that right at the centre of the passage Jesus is found praying. Now unlike John, Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus prayed or what He prayed. He just tells us that Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. And if Jesus needed a regular, disciplined pattern of prayer before the demands of the day threatened to overwhelm Him, surely Mark is telling us what our priority should be day by day, hour by hour. Jesus needed to discover the Father’s will, to learn where He had to go, what He had to do, and resist the temptation to stay in Capernaum as a tame, on-demand miracle worker. And so He prayed. And if Jesus put prayer first and made it such a priority, what about us?
Because at the end of the day, I believe prayer is the interface between the world Paul describes, the real world that you and I live in each day, and the wonderful good news of Jesus we see in our reading today. I don’t know about you, but there are times when I leave a Sunday morning service excited and thrilled about the Christian faith, only to find my excitement dampened or squashed by the reality “out there” – something that happens in our streets, or a tale a neighbour tells us, or a headline in the Herald. That’s why I passionately believe if we are to impact a world under God’s judgement, if we are to transform the lives of our families, our friends, our neighbours, with the most amazing story of love and salvation, then we need to pray. And we need to keep on praying, faithfully, perseveringly, persistently, trusting in and claiming the power of Jesus’ name.
So as we go on with Mark’s gospel throughout the year, let’s not only fall in love with Jesus again and be inspired by example. Let’s also be bold enough to pray about what we read and what we hear, so that through our words and our actions people who so desperately need the gospel will come to hear those words of Jesus: The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news! Let us therefore pray…