I have resisted getting into this because I keep telling myself, “This is not what you do here at Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor.” Normally, I don’t engage in theological discussions, particularly those that are the equivalent of how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. But, today I can’t help myself because some discussion is taking place around the interwebs about “what is the gospel?”
Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow titled, Telling The Good News. I’ve got a terrible cold or allergies or something, so I hope your day is better than mine appears, if I don’t improve!
44He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Did you see the CNN story this week about the guy in China who was threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge? A Chinese man, named Chen Fuchao, was despondent over a 2-million yuan (about $294,000) debt that he had incurred over a failed building project. He climbed up on the Haizhu bridge, threatening to jump. Apparently this bridge is quite attractive to jumpers because since April, 11 people have thrown themselves off the bridge.
On this particular day, Mr. Chen had tied up traffic for 5-hours and it was more than Mr. Lian Jianghsheng could stand. At 66-years-of-age, Mr. Lian approached police and offered to negotiate with Mr. Chen. The police declined his offer, but Mr. Lian burst through the police line and climbed up on the bridge where Mr. Chen was poised.
Photographs show Mr. Lian greeting Mr. Chen with a handshake. But then, Mr. Lian threw Mr. Chen off the bridge. Fortunately, a partially-inflated emergency landing cushion was positioned below — one wonders why it wasn’t completely inflated — and Mr. Chen hit the cushion, doing damage to his spine and elbow. He is recovering in the hospital.
Mr. Lian then saluted the crowd from the bridge and climbed back down, only to be taken into custody by police.
CNN reported Mr. Lian said, “I pushed him off because jumpers like Chen are very selfish. Their action violates a lot of public interest,” Lian told Xinhua. “They do not really dare to kill themselves. Instead, they just want to raise the relevant government authorities’ attention to their appeals.”
I assume Mr. Lian will not be receiving the Humanitarian of the Year Award this year.
Or, did you hear this story about a woman in Taiwan — why are both of these stories about Chinese? — who was so distraught over her husband’s unfaithfulness that she contemplated both suicide and murder. She decided on suicide, and flung herself without looking out an open window of her apartment several stories above the sidewalk.
Amazingly, she landed on her husband, killing him instantly. She sustained only minor injuries. Authorities could not prosecute her because her husband was killed accidentally.
So, two stories of people descending rather dramatically, which are both amusing, but understandable. But what we have here in the gospel of Luke is an amazing story unlike any we’ve ever heard before.
This is Ascension Sunday in the calendar of the Christian Year. We have almost come to the end of the story of God at work in this world, again. We started last November, after Thanksgiving, with Advent — looking for the coming of the Messiah.
We moved through the four Sundays of Advent into Christmastide with the celebration of Jesus’ birth and incarnation on the Feast of Christmas.
Then, Epiphany — the appearing — came along. Then, Lent. Then Easter. And we have been in Eastertide since then.
But today is Ascension Sunday, the pivotal Sunday between the season of Easter and the appearances of Christ after the resurrection, and Pentecost. Pentecost is next Sunday and marks the birthday of the church with the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower the apostles.
Jesus has now been risen some 40-days — isn’t it amazing how often the number 40 appears in Scripture? This is the same amount of time that Jesus spent in the desert at the beginning of his ministry. It’s also the same amount of time Rick Warren suggested to go through his book, The Purpose-Driven Life, but he actually takes the 40-day idea from scripture, too.
But now Jesus is about to leave the disciples. They thought they had lost him at the crucifixion, but then came the resurrection. So now, they must be a little confused.
“Is Jesus really leaving us, again?” they must have asked one another. Jesus must have sensed their puzzlement because here in these last moments with the disciples, he takes them quickly through a crash course in theology.
It’s In The Book
The first thing he says to them in this last meeting is —
“This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Of course, at this point there is no New Testament. The only scripture the disciples or Jesus knew was the Hebrew Scripture, which we call the Old Testament. So here’s a major point Jesus wants to leave his disciples thinking about —
Jesus said, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.”
Which tells us two things:
- The Old Testament has a lot to say about the Messiah; and,
- It all came true in Jesus.
Remember the story of the transfiguration of Jesus? Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on the mountain. There they see Jesus glowing like the sun, and he is joined by Moses and Elijah. Moses represents the Law, the Torah, the Law of God. Elijah represents the prophets. Curiously, both of these men did not die like almost everybody else. Moses dies at the end of Genesis and the scripture tells us that God buried Moses, and that no one knows where his grave is to this day. Elijah was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot.
But guess what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are talking about. Jesus’ impending death. I think the King James version says “his demise” but that means Jesus’ death. That death by hanging on a tree, which was a cursed thing in the Hebrew culture.
So, the first thing that Jesus reminds his disciples right before he leaves them is — Scripture tells my story.
Jesus Opens Their Minds
Then Luke tells us, 45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.
This was exactly the same thing he had done with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He helped them understand what Scripture said about the Messiah, and why all of those prophecies and descriptions were about him, Jesus.
You remember the story of these two disciples, recorded by Luke only a few verses before our text today. The two of them, Cleopas was the name of one, were walking away from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They were downcast, discouraged, and as they walked a stranger joins them and asks why they look so sad.
Their reply is “are you the only one around here who hasn’t heard the story of Jesus? they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”
Then Jesus gently chides them for their unbelief, and begins to explain the story of the Messiah to them. As they walk and listen, they come to the home where they are staying. Jesus acts as if he is going on down the road, but they invite him in for dinner. It is as he breaks the bread and blesses it that they recognize him, and then he is gone from their presence.
They asked each other — “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
So, Jesus helps them, and us, understand the scripture that talks about the messiah, and that he is that promised savior.
Not Everybody Understands Scripture Like Jesus Taught Us
So, what does that have to do with us today? I’ve just finished reading an interesting book, Jesus, Interrupted, by Bart Ehrman. Dr. Ehrman teaches at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He teaches religious studies. And, he used to be just like us — a Bible-believing follower of Jesus. He loved the Bible so much that he wanted to teach Bible.
So, he went to Moody Bible College, and Wheaton College, both academic powerhouses for conservative, Bible-believing young people to receive training for ministry. But, then Ehrman went on to Princeton Seminary where he encountered a very different view of the Bible.
Rather than embracing the Bible as the Word of God, or a guide for Christian living, Princeton introduced Bart Ehrman to a scholarly approach to scripture called “higher criticism.” Higher criticism is an approach to understanding scripture that looks at the cultural, linguistic, stylistic, and historic clues found in the ancient manuscripts.
Of course, there are no original manuscripts of any book of the Bible, much less the whole Bible itself, but higher criticism dissects the form and content of what we call sacred scripture looking for its origins and its flaws.
When he came out of Princeton, Ehrman was no longer a Bible-believing, conservative Christian. He was an agnostic — someone who doesn’t know if God exists or not. Ehrman says the he became a “happy agnostic,” not because of his biblical studies, but because of the problem of evil and suffering in the world. He can’t figure out how a good God can allow bad things to happen. That is a topic for another time, but that’s his story.
In his latest book, Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman says — are you ready? — the following:
- Most of the New Testament books are forgeries;
- Few of the sayings of Jesus are things Jesus actually said;
- The three different gospels contradict themselves, so one or more are in error;
- The disciples couldn’t have written the New Testament because they were ignorant fishermen, or ignorant tax collectors, or ignorant whatevers.
And, that’s only part of what he says. You should read the entire book and read all the technical stuff he throws out.
“Why did you read a book like that?” you might ask. Well, I wanted to see what he had to say. I wanted to see what the competition was all about. I read it for the same reason I read John Allen Paulos’ book, Irreligion, a couple of years ago. Those of us who believe need to know what those who do not believe are thinking.
Now, I am not equipped academically to take on a guy like Dr. Bart Ehrman. He knows stuff I will never know, and that’s as it should be. He’s a specialist in his field and apparently a well-respected academic. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t answer some of his objections, and disagree with this final conclusion that the Bible is a totally human book, full of errors and contradictions.
Let me just address one point: Ehrman says the disciples were ignorant fisherman, which Peter, Andrew, James and John were. We have books in the New Testament purportedly written by Peter and John. And, we have a Gospel, the earliest one, written by a protege of Peter’s named Mark. Ehrman says that ignorant fishermen could not have learned the literary Greek of their day, and then penned these masterful letters and gospels.
What Ehrman fails to tell his readers is that many people employed a person called an amanuensis, basically a stenographer, who recorded their thoughts in clear and correct Greek for business and correspondence. We know Paul employed an amanuensis because at one point, Paul says, I’m writing this with my own hand, indicating that the previous lines were written by his secretary, his amanuensis, as he dictated. But, that’s one of Ehrman’s major points.
But, when it comes to Ehrman’s comparing of one manuscript fragment to another, I must admit I am lost. Debbie and I had the opportunity to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit when it came to Raleigh several months ago, and we did not see a single complete scroll. All we saw were about a half-dozen fragments about the size of a quarter to a half-dollar. That’s it. Manuscript study is like working a giant jigsaw puzzle with no box cover for guidance.
So, the Dead Sea Scrolls have been under study since 1948, and not even a fraction of the scholarship is complete. So, while I can’t dispute Ehrman’s argument about scrolls, manuscripts, and fragments, I take great confidence in this —
The books of the Bible which we consider sacred are the same ones considered sacred from about the second century A.D. and after. The entire New Testament canon of books was not even finished until almost the end of the first century, so beginning a little more than 70-years after Christ, the early church fathers were listing the same books we call our Bible today.
Actually, Bart Ehrman admits this in a sort of grudging way. He refers to a document discovered in Italy in the 8th century by L. A. Muratori, known as the Muratorian Canon. This document is a poor Latin translation from a Greek document believed to be from the 2nd century which lists all 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament. It probably listed more, but the top of the document was torn off, and it began by calling the Gospel of Luke “the third Gospel.” Which it still is. The list does include some books we no longer consider “canonical” or belonging to sacred scripture, but that wasn’t unusual either. The main point is that by the second century, at least 22 of the current 27 New Testament books were already considered sacred scripture by the early church.
While I am not afraid of scholastic inquiry into the origins, form, language, or history of the Bible, the point of Scripture is to tell God’s story. If in the second century the earliest church leaders considered the accounts we have to be reliable, and holy, then I can accept that, despite the approach of science that takes a completely different view of sacred texts.
Let me state this simply: We do still need Jesus to open our minds to understand that the Bible tells his story.
It’s Our Story to Tell, Too
But, Jesus doesn’t just leave the disciples with this new spiritual insight. He tells them “You are witnesses of these things.”
Now it’s their turn to tell the story. They saw it, they lived it, they heard it, they experienced it. They are witnesses. But Jesus makes them one final, but very important promise — wait for the power from on high.
While at The Cove two weeks ago, we heard the professor of preaching from Samford’s Beeson Divinity School — Dr. Robert Smith. Dr. Smith preached about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and said some memorable things. Dr. Smith is African-American, and he pointed out that the Ethiopian eunuch — a servant of the Queen of Ethiopia — was riding, while the apostle Philip was walking. He also pointed out that the Ethiopian could read, but he needed someone to help him understand the scroll he was reading. In my white, American perspective, those were two points I had missed. But, he also said some interesting things about the church.
One of the things he talked about, and he covered a lot of ground, was the need for the power of the Holy Spirit. He said, “If every reference to the Holy Spirit were removed from the Bible, we would still try to do church.”
In addressing the increasing pattern of churches giving to missions rather than engaging in missions, he said, “There are some things that aren’t going to happen just because you can write a big check.”
So, this is our story to tell. We are witnesses. Maybe we are not witnesses of the same events that the apostles witnesses, but we are witnesses of the same experience they had. The experience of Jesus opening our minds to understand scripture. To understand that when Jesus said,
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that meant Jesus.
When Jesus said,
That whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life, that means us.
It was then, and only then, that Jesus ascended into heaven. Scripture tells his story; the disciples witnessed his story; we have experienced his story. Now we need that power from on high, the Holy Spirit, to equip, empower, and embolden us to tell the story.
And, how did they tell it? The same way Jesus did — they healed people, they loved people, they made friends for God, they preached the good news, they lived the gospel, they bore hardship, suffered opposition, endured persecution, but still they told the story that had changed their lives. That’s what we are to do now. We are witnesses, too. We are telling the good news by the way we live, the values we hold, the difference we make in the lives of others.
Living By Faith
Romans 1:16-17, 3:22-31
16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. 29 Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, 30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
Becoming My Grandfather
When I was a kid, I remember going to work with my grandfather, who ran a feed-and-seed store in South Carolina. I was old enough to play on the hay bales stacked up in the back room of the store, so I must have been 7 or 8 years old. I remember watching the men who came into the store — farmers all of them as far as I could tell. Most wore bib overalls, and all wore some kind of hat. Now this was long before everybody started wearing baseball caps, so the hats these farmers wore were straw, because it was summertime. (My grandfather always wore a hat — felt in the winter, straw in the summer.)
I noticed one straw hat in particular. It had a wide brim, and set into the front of the brim was a green plastic piece like the plastic eyeshades card dealers wore. I had seen card dealers on TV shows, but I had never seen a hat with the green-tinted piece where the brim should have been. I thought, “That’s a really dumb looking hat!” I would have been embarrassed to be seen in one when I was 8.
Now that I am 50-years past that experience, guess what I found one day at Southern States? A straw hat with a green plastic piece sewn into the front of the brim. And, guess what else? I bought it. My old straw hat, which I wear working in the yard and garden, had recently expired and I was in the market for a new one. Somehow when I saw that straw hat with the built-in eye shade, I knew that was the hat for me. It’s actually very practical because you can see through the green eye shade when you look up, which you wouldn’t be able to do if the brim were solid.
So, I have now become that old man that as an 8 year old I made fun of!
On The Other Side of the Fence
When we lived in Greensboro, our girls were both in high school and attended Wesleyan Christian Academy in High Point. For one of Amy’s first dates, which was a school function that was highly chaperoned, I had to drive her and the boy she was with to the school. She had warned me ahead of time not to embarass her with any parental comments. So, I was on my best behavior as a father, trying not to embarass my daughter, who was already embarassed by just having to ride to the school with her father.
At the time, we owned a Buick Rivera, which Debbie drove, and I drove a much smaller Nissan Stanza. So, I was somewhat unaccustomed to the wider path the Buick needed. (You can see this coming, can’t you?) As I pulled into the school driveway, and attempted to position the car to stop right in front of the door, I miscalculated, and rode the right front wheel up on the curb and onto the sidewalk. The car bumped up on the sidewalk, and then bounced back down as I corrected my turn. Needless to say, I heard about my poor driving skills after the date was over. I had embarassed my daughter despite my best intentions.
So, two stories from my own life illustrate today something of what Paul was getting at in Romans 1.
Paul Is Not Embarassed By the Gospel
Which brings us to our text today, Romans 1:16-17, and then a portion of Romans 3. The key statement Paul makes in the first chapter is,
Paul has spent the first part of this chapter recalling what the gospel story is. For a quick refresher, let me remind you here that the word “gospel” simply means “good news.” We could translate Paul’s assertion as –
The question, then is, Why would Paul need to say this? Why would anyone think he was ashamed of the good news?
What is the Good News?
To answer that question, we first have to answer the question, “What is the Good News (gospel)?” Most of us might equate what we call “the plan of salvation” with the good news. A good example of a plan of salvation is the Four Spiritual Laws, distributed widely by Campus Crusade for Christ. The Four Spiritual Laws go something like this:
- God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
- Man is SINFUL and SEPARATED from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life.
- Jesus Christ is God’s ONLY provision for man’s sin. Through Him you can know and experience God’s love and plan for your life.
- We must individually RECEIVE Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.
But, while the Four Spiritual Laws contain some of the Gospel, or Good News, this really isn’t the good news. The good news for Paul, and for the entire first century world was — God keeps His promises. Let’s look at Acts 13:34. Here Luke quotes Paul, and defines for us what the gospel, the good news really is –
” ‘You are my Son;
today I have become your Father.
The good news is God keeps His promises. The promises God made to the nation of Israel, the promises God made to Abraham, the promises God made to David. God keeps His promises, and He keeps them through his Son, Jesus. That is the good news.
Why Would Paul Be Ashamed of This Good News?
If the Gospel — the good news — is the story of God keeping His promises, why would Paul find it necessary to state “I am not ashamed of the gospel?” Growing up, I heard more than one sermon on this subject. Just about every youth camp or youth revival I went to the preacher would work this text in. It was a great text for teenagers, and the preachers encouraged us to live for Jesus, and not to be ashamed to stand up for Him in front of our friends and classmates. Which is a really good thing to encourage kids to do, but it is not what this statement means.
Here’s why Paul had to say, “I am not ashamed of the good news.” The gospel is a story. It is the good news of God. The good news that God keeps his promises. And God’s promises include blessing Israel so that Israel can be a blessing to the nations. God’s promises include “making all things new.” God’s promises include restoring the kingdom of heaven to God’s creation — “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” So, the story, or narrative as social scientists call it, is the story of God creating, correcting, and redeeming his creation.
But, there was a competing story in Paul’s day. The story of the Roman empire. Paul, even though a devout Jew, was a Roman citizen. Paul had bought into the story of the empire. It was the Roman empire that had put this revolutionary called Jesus of Nazareth to death. For Paul that was a good thing, because the empire had used its might and power to help the Jews in Judea. The empire had done what the high priests and Sanhedrin had been unable to do — silence forever the voice of Jesus, who was a threat to the Jews and the Jewish way of life.
Until Jesus appeared as a dazzling light to Paul on the road to Damascus, the story of the empire was the only story that made sense to Paul. And, so Paul was party to the persecution of those who called themselves Christians — the little Christs. These Christians had to be eradicated just like Jesus was because they persisted in spreading the message of Jesus — that God had other plans for the Jews. That God wasn’t pleased with the religious leaders of the first century. That God had a new plan to tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days. It was all blasphemous to Paul, and he went about living out his belief in the empire story.
But then Jesus met Paul on the road to Damascus. Jesus, who identified himself to Paul. Jesus who made a point of telling Paul, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Paul just thought he was persecuting the followers of Jesus, but now Jesus says Paul is persecuting Jesus himself! Jesus gives Paul instructions to find Ananias who will help Paul understand that there is a new story, a story of good news, the gospel story. And the gospel story is in direct contrast to the empire story.
Not Ashamed of the Gospel
Of course, there are also competing stories in our world today. Some are very much like the empire story that Paul grew up with. Others are stories of consumerism, fear, exclusion, or conflict. These stories are the prevalent narratives in our world today, and because we read about them, hear them, and see them in action, these competing stories are very easy to make our own. But the story of the gospel, the good news, is that there is another story by which we can live. A story of hope, of peace, of abundance, of good will, of love, and of service. A story of God saving us from the other stories, the false stories, that can distract us from the purposes of God for our world and ourselves.
To be ashamed is to be embarassed by, to apologize for, to shift awkwardly in our seat when we hear the name of Jesus, or the story of Jesus. Paul was way beyond that. He had embraced the good news story with his whole being. Paul realized that the gospel story was in direct contradiction to the values of the empire. He realized that the emperor of Rome thought that he was god, and demanded that his subjects profess, “Cesar is Lord.” Instead, Paul realized that the new story, the story of God, the story of the Good News was the true story. And so Paul asserts dozens of times in his letters to the churches of the first century, “Jesus is Lord.” Why? Because Paul believes the story.
Paul believes the story of God, the good news, in spite of the fact that circumstances in the world contradict the good news. Paul believes the story of God, the good news, even though he sees little of it coming to pass. Paul believes the story of God, and not the story of the empire, and it changes his life. And the course of history. For the empire will yield to and embrace the story of God itself in less than 300 years, under the emperor Constantine. All because one man believed that the story of God was the true story, and it was indeed good news. That is living by faith. Living our lives around the story of God. Living in the light of the story of love. That’s what Paul did, that’s what Christ calls us to do.
When our lives center around an alternative story, the story of God through Jesus, then we are not ashamed of the good news. We’re not embarrassed to be counted with the followers of Jesus. We have found a new center, a real savior, a true story in the good news of God.
This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, January 27, 2008. The lectionary reading comes from Matthew 4:12-23, where Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John, to follow him and he will make them “fishers of men.” Have a great day tomorrow!
the way to the sea, along the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”[a]
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
Our Theme for 2008
Today we’re on the third part of our three-part theme for 2008 —
- Tell the story.
- Invite others.
- Bless the world.
We took the first two Sundays in this month to say we need to “tell the story.” And, here’s what we said about “telling the story:”
- The story we tell is the story of God.
- The story we tell is found in the Bible.
- The story we tell is accepted by some and rejected by others.
- The story we tell is our story, too.
Last week we talked about inviting others. Remember the key point last week? Let me remind you —
- Andrew invited Peter after Andrew himself had met Jesus and spent the day with him.
So, here we are at the final third of our three-part theme — bless the world.
Jesus Tells the Story
Matthew tells us the story of how Jesus begins his ministry. Matthew’s perspective is a little different from Luke and from John, and includes more detail than Mark. That’s to be expected because if any four of us were asked to tell the story of a person we all knew, we would each have different memories and stories to tell.
Matthew begins by reminding us again that Jesus fulfills the prophecy of the Old Testament. This was important for Matthew’s readers, and Matthew is establishing the legitimacy of Jesus to do what he does next. And what is that?
Jesus begins to preach, or better to “tell out,” God’s story. When we hear the word “preach” now we almost always conjure up something slightly unpleasant. Like the experience you’re having now for instance. But, back to my point. We think of someone in a pulpit talking to us in a one-way monologue that we hope ends before noon, or the Methodists get to Pino’s. (A restaurant here in our town) Or, even worse, we think of someone who is fussing at us, or correcting us, or speaking down to us. Years ago, Madonna recorded, Papa Don’t Preach, to express that exact sentiment. We don’t usually like for someone to “preach at us.” I am aware of that, by the way, and appreciate your showing up here most Sundays.
But, back to my point, again. Jesus begins to proclaim, to tell out, to make sure those he encounters hear what he has to say. And, what does he preach about? The kingdom of God.
Mark makes this very clear very early in his account when he says,
Jesus does what we have chosen to do this year, tell the story. But, here is how Jesus does it: Jesus tells a story his hearers aren’t ready for. Jesus tells a story too good to be true. Jesus tells a story that few believe, even though they hope it is true. Jesus tells God’s story about God’s creation.
“But, wait,” I can hear you thinking, “didn’t you just tell us that Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God? Now you’re saying Jesus was preaching about creation. Which is it?”
Well, it’s both because creation is tied up in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is, broadly speaking, God’s will for God’s creation. That’s why Jesus teaches the disciples, and us, to pray,
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
The coming of the Kingdom and the doing of God’s will in His creation (on earth) are virtually one and the same. That explains why Jesus preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” The accomplishment of God’s will in God’s creation is quickly coming about.
Jesus Invites Others
Which brings us to what Jesus does next — he invites others. Matthew records the account a little differently than Luke’s Gospel, which we read last week. But, again, Matthew remembers different details than Luke does, so we don’t need to worry about that. The point is that Jesus sees Andrew and Peter casting their fishing nets and says to them,
“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”
Jesus also invites James and John, sons of Zebedee to come and follow him also. Are you beginning to see where I got our theme for 2008? Jesus tells the story, Jesus invites others, guess what’s next? Jesus blesses the world by
healing every disease and sickness among the people.”
But, I’m getting ahead of myself, again. Let’s back up and look at Jesus’ invitation. “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” What does that mean?
Of course, it’s obvious that Peter and Andrew were fishers of fish. They were casting fishing nets into the Sea of Galilee when Jesus sees them and calls them. They were fishermen who made their living in the world of fishing. They fed their families from their fishing. They bought new nets and boats, and possibly clothes, with the proceeds from their fishing. The houses they lived in, the sandals they wore, the offerings they gave in synagogue or at the Temple all were the result of their fishing for fish.
So, it is not small thing that Peter and Andrew leave their livelihood to follow Jesus, who promises to make them “fishers of men.” James and John also leave their father in the boat while they are mending nets to follow Jesus. If James and John were called the Sons of Thunder, do you think Zebedee was happy with their leaving him to repair nets and fish by himself? Maybe Zebedee was the Thunder that James and John were the sons of!
In any event, the inner circle of disciples — Peter, Andrew, James and John — two sets of brothers leave their livelihoods to follow Jesus to a new vocation — being fishers of men.
Fishers of men, not for men
When we read Jesus invitation, “Come and follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” we hear it probably like it was first explained to us. Instead of fishing for fish, Peter, Andrew, James, and John, are now going to fish for men. I’ve even preached entire sermons on this idea of fishing for men. Here are three points –
- When you fish for men, you have to go where they are.
- When you fish for men, you have to use the right bait.
- When you fish for men, you’ll land some, but some will get away.
Obviously, that is not an expository outline from this passage, but all of those ideas are inferred from the idea of being a fisherman. We take the fishing analogy and extend it to the gospel. Which makes really great preaching, but really bad Biblical exegesis and interpretation, because that is not what Jesus is saying.
In New Testament Greek, which was the common language of the civilized world at the time, there is a word for “for”, but Matthew doesn’t use it here. Matthew literally writes the words of Jesus this way –
I will make you fishers belonging to men.
Which does not mean fishers for men. So, what is Jesus saying? Something like this — “You’ve been concerned with the world of fish, now you’ll be concerned with the world of mankind.” In other words, the focus of Peter, Andrew, James and John will turn from the fishing industry, to God’s purpose for creation, mankind included.
Jesus Blesses the World
Do the words you say ever come back to haunt you? Maybe preachers have that happen to them more than most, because we talk more than most folks, publicly at least. I remember saying a long time ago in an energetic discussion with someone over healing, “Well, Jesus didn’t heal everybody!”
Matthew contradicts me in verse 23 — “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” But wait, there’s more. Before you think, “Well, curing every disease and every sickness” is not curing “everybody” — which is a logical thing to think, Matthew goes on in verse 24 –
So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.”
All the sick…and he cured them.
If you were deaf, don’t you think that Jesus would be good news to you ears? If you were blind, don’t you think Jesus would be good news to your eyes? If you were demon-possessed, don’t you think Jesus would be good news to you when he frees you from the chains of demonic slavery?
The word we translate as ‘gospel’ is euanggelion, literally, ‘good message’ or ‘good news.’ And the gospel has to be good news or it isn’t the gospel. It isn’t about the kingdom. It isn’t the message of Jesus. But, the good news is not what we think the good news is. That’s why we have to repent — turn around in our thinking and acting — which is what repentance means. Change our minds and our ways. Do a 180. A u-turn. An about-face.
Why? Because we often think good news would be we get to do what we want to do. We think good news would be if everyone saw the world like we do. Good news would be that I’m okay, you’re okay. But, that’s not the good news. That’s old news, and it’s neither good nor true.
Jesus came with some real good news — God’s creation is going to be what God intended all along. Thousands of years ago, it was not in the will of God, or the plan of God, that sickness would afflict humankind. So, when Jesus comes preaching good news, preaching the kingdom of God, he demonstrates that the kingdom is near by healing everyone he can. Why? Because the good news is “God keeps his promises” — Acts 13:32. Look it up, if you don’t believe me. What could be better news than that?
Because up until Jesus comes, everybody is doubting if God is even interested in them anymore. Where is God while the Roman army occupies Jerusalem? Where is God when God’s people are harassed, arrested, and killed for wanting their homeland back? Where is God when the Temple is used as a place of commerce and merchandise? Where is God when the High Priest is in the pocket of the emperor along with their own king, King Herod? Is God going to do anything? Is God going to keep His promises?
So, Matthew reminds the people that Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecy. Then, Matthew tells the story of Jesus, who tells God’s story, then invites others into it, and then demonstrates the story by blessing the world — healing every sick person. God is keeping His promises, that’s the good news.
We bless the world, too
Last Monday, we hosted a community-wide event celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. As I greeted the group that was assembled here last Monday, I noted that, as far as I knew, this was the first time in this community that white congregations and African-American congregations had come together on Martin Luther King Day. Applause broke out when I said that, because we all realized that we had made history that day. One of the organizers of the event, Mr. Cedric Hairston, assistant principal at Dan River Middle School, and formerly at Chatham Middle School, spoke toward the close of the service.
Looking at me, and in front of the whole assembly, he said, “Your church is doing good things in this community, and people notice.” We are blessing our world by uniting our community. We are blessing our world by inviting white children and children of color into our building to study and learn, to play, and to have a safe place after school. We are blessing the world when we open our doors to little children who are learning to play music and sing. We are blessing our world when we invite teenagers into our old fellowship hall to sing, and read poetry, and talk to each other, and have an event where they get to express themselves. We are blessing the world when we support the Northern Pittsylvania Food Bank, and provide emergency relief to neighbors in our community who need food and gasoline. We are blessing the world when we literally set prisoners free from the wrong thinking that has put them behind bars, to find new life in Christ, and new skills for living, like Karen Hearn does. We are blessing the world when we visit the sick, comfort those who mourn, and care for those who need our loving care.
So, we are doing all these good things, but we must remember the first thing — We are blessing the world, and will continue to bless the world, because we have found our place in God’s story. We know God is making all things new. We tell it over and over again. And we do it by crossing the old barriers of race and class that belong to a world that does not know God. And we do it by giving away what we have, rather than hoarding it to ourselves. And we do it by thinking of others first, and ourselves last. And we do it by giving of our time and our possessions because we know that Jesus did that and more for us. This is the kingdom of God, we are God’s people, we are to be a blessing to all God’s world.