Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Best News Ever

I am a news junkie. It may be because, as he got ready for work, my Dad used to listen to KMOX, the radio station that pioneered the news/talk format. Today when I wake up at 5 am, I listen to NPR for 2 straight hours. If I time it right, I hear the last story, which starts at 6:50, before walking in the door at work. It is my morning coffee, if you will. Still not every story grabs my attention. Many wash over me. I always hope for one that will pique my interest, get my brain working and wake me up. It can be something from a field which I know or follow like medicine, science, psychology, religion, history, films and the like. It can be a human interest story that is heartwarming, weird, funny, or even tragic. But sometimes the news is more than just interesting. Here in the Keys, we might hear a report that we are under a Hurricane Watch. That means we must take action, get our homes ready for a possible storm, maybe even prepare to evacuate. On the other hand, you may hear the meteorologist say that we are well out of the cone of possible tracks. That means you can relax and say a prayer of thanks.

So there are 3 types of news stories that we hear: the ones that go in one ear and out the other, the ones that interest us and cause us to listen, and the ones that cause us to act. Which kind of news do you think the Gospel is?

The Greek word for gospel is euaggelion. It literally means "good news." Originally, however, it referred to the reward given a messenger for bringing good news. Then it came to mean the sacrifices made to the gods when good news was received. Finally it came to mean the good news itself--that of a victory or announcing the birth of the emperor's son or the inauguration of a new ruler. And you can see why this rapidly became a specifically Christian word. When Jesus was born the angels (literally "messengers") announced to the shepherds that they were bringing them good news--the birth of a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. Christ is simply the Greek for Messiah, the Anointed One. The shepherds could have said, "Thanks. Good to hear." But instead they made a beeline to see this special baby. The birth of God's promised Prophet, Priest and King was not just interesting news but news to act on.

Jesus began his ministry by announcing, "The time is fulfilled; the Royal Reign of God is near! Repent and put your trust in the good news." To the oppressed people of Judah and Galilee, this was not merely interesting news but something to act on. Jesus in fact includes a call to action. "Repent" in Hebrew means "turn." In a moral sense it meant turn away from sin and turn towards God. The Greek word for "repent" means "change your mind." So Jesus first was telling people to turn their lives around and change their thinking. If God's Reign was about to begin, the people had better start acting like citizens of his Kingdom. Those Arab nations that recently forced out their dictators are now trying to turn their countries around and change the way their citizens have always thought about government. But God's Kingdom only includes willing subjects. They have to be one in their desire to have God as their ruler and they have to do his will. The only slaves in God's Kingdom are those he has freed from their bondage to sin, the destructive ways we tend to think, speak and act.

Besides repenting Jesus calls people to believe the good news. And the word used for "believe" is not a passive one. For instance, I believe most everything I hear on the news cast. If there is an update in which they correct something reported earlier, I note it but it doesn't make much of a difference to me. The Greek word usually translated "believe" however should more accurately be rendered "trust." We are not being called to believe in God in the same sense that a geography teacher wants us to believe that there is a country called Australia. It's more like how you would have to believe in Australia if your plane is about to make an emergency landing there. You need to trust that it's not an illusion and that your wheels are going to make contact with dry land and not waves in the middle of the sea. In the Biblical sense, believing means relying on someone or something. If you really believe in your doctor, you trust his diagnosis and, more importantly, you will follow his orders. As a nurse, I can't tell you how many patients say they believe their doctor but still won't do what he says like give up smoking, or stick to their prescribed diet or get exercise. You have to doubt that they really trust what their physician says. A lot of Christians are like that, too. They really don't believe what Jesus says about the unhealthy ways they are living and don't trust his prescription for necessary lifestyle changes.

"Here's what's wrong with you," doesn't really sound like good news, does it? But it is. I had a friend who couldn't keep food down and was losing an alarming amount of weight. The doctors did tests, imaged her body and found nothing. Finally, they told her it was in her head, which, sad to say, is what many doctors do when they don't know what's going on with a patient. By now my friend had lost 60 pounds and was afraid it was some kind of cancer. She went to yet another appointment with her primary physician. He wasn't there but his partner was. She recited her medical history once more and the doctor had an idea. It was an uncommon condition, very hard to detect. He scheduled surgery and her condition was fixed. I've had a number of patients who were relieved when they finally got an accurate diagnosis. So finding out what's wrong with you is good news.

But sometimes that's as far as people go. They don't want to change. As part of a skid-row ministry in college, I heard many of the men we ministered to call themselves "alcoholics" in a tone that made it clear that they wanted to leave it at that. The diagnosis was the final word on them. It meant we could not expect them to change; their destiny was sealed. It was, in reality, despair, the death of hope for any better life. They confused their diagnosis with their eventual cause of death. Or rather they let it be their death sentence. They would not try to turn from alcohol and towards life.

Sometimes people accept the diagnosis but not the treatment prescribed. For a number reasons, they reject the regimen their doctor orders and search for something more amenable. They often fall prey to quacks. John R. Brinkley wasn't really a doctor but he was a good self-promoter. He used the new medium of radio to bring people from all over the country to his clinic in Kansas, where he claimed he could cure just about anything, but especially ED, by surgically implanting goat testicles into his patients. The so-called Milford Messiah made millions before he was finally shutdown by a large number of malpractice, wrongful death and fraud lawsuits. There are still quacks out there who are willing to trade false cures for real cash and patients willing to go to them for magical remedies that don't require the pain and indignity of accepted medical treatment.

Some try to treat themselves. Another friend of mine had a nasty large black irregularly-shaped melanoma on her arm. I and another friend kept asking her to get it looked at. She said she was. But being afraid of doctors and needles, she was scraping off bits of it herself. Then one day it metastasized to her brain. She suffered a bad stroke and in a month was dead. Had she gone to a doctor when she first noticed it she might have been saved.

Jesus backed up his good news by healing the blind, deaf, lame and all who trusted him. He fed the hungry. He raised a little girl, the son of the widow at Nain and Lazarus from the dead. When people heard the good news of Jesus, they took action. They flocked to him for healing and wisdom.

Others took action in a different way. They tried to discredit him, to stop him and eventually to kill him. It may be hard for us to understand why they would go after Jesus, but this was a time when there was no separation of religion and state. And what used to be the Jewish nation was occupied by Rome, which usually required its vassal states to worship the divine emperor. They had made an exception for the monotheistic Jews, but it was an uneasy situation. There were terrorists called Zealots who recognized no earthly ruler but God. The Holy Land was a tinderbox, just waiting for someone to strike the spark that would set the whole thing ablaze. So both the Jewish leaders and the Roman governor did not view anybody hailed as the Messiah as good news.

They did their best to stamp out the good news. They rewarded the messenger by killing him, in the most excruciating, humiliating manner possible. And that should have been that. His movement should have died, like those of other would be messiahs. His followers should have attached themselves to the next messiah or just gone back to their old lives. People saw no value in a dead messiah. And they were right.

So when the women came running back from the tomb, breathless and frightened, with the news of the empty tomb and the angels, the disciples weren't sure if it was good news or not. But at least 2 of them knew it was news that compelled them to act. John and Peter ran to the tomb to see for themselves. They saw the burial shroud and the face cloth, still wrapped but empty. They didn't know what to make of it. Then Mary of Magdala encounters the resurrected Jesus and the message is truly received. Mary is the first apostle of the full good news: the Lord is risen!

Contrary to what skeptics say, the disciples did not readily accept Jesus' resurrection. They knew people who die stay dead. They knew grieving people see things. They probably really had doubts about Mary of Magdala because she had been seriously ill. It was said that Jesus had cast 7 demons out of her. She was especially grateful to Jesus and especially devastated by his crucifixion. How could they trust what they saw as an hysterical woman about a friend coming back from the dead? Would that convince you?

But then Jesus started appearing to them. In the Bible's earliest account of the resurrection, 1st Corinthians chapter 15, Paul tells us that first Jesus appeared to Peter, then to the others. At one point, he appears to 500 followers. After 40 days, enough time that nobody is thinking this is wishful thinking or an hallucination, Jesus takes his leave. He kicks the apostles out of their comfortable nest and sends them into the world with the good news--the news that Jesus is not just the promised King of the Jews, not the one who frees a people from political oppression, not the conqueror of Rome, but the King of the heavens and the earth, who frees all people from spiritual oppression, the conqueror of sin and death.

A healer who claimed to be the Son of God is killed, buried and then comes back to life 3 days later. That's news that demands action. And people do act. At Pentecost, 3000 Jews from all over the empire are converted when Peter proclaims the good news. Local authorities and then the Empire itself push back. Almost all of the original apostles are martyred and none of them recant. Yet by the end of the 1st century, there were communities of Christians in more than 40 cities throughout the empire, including the capitol, Rome. In the next hundred years there were churches in Africa, Asia and deep within continental Europe and this despite the fact that Christianity still wasn't legal and more persecutions took place. By the end of the third century, there are hundreds of churches stretching from Britain and the Iberian peninsula to the Balkans and Russia. Then in 313 AD, just 2 years after the Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians ends, there are so many believers in Jesus that it is safe for the new Emperor Constantine to make Christianity one of the legal religions. Today 2 billion people, a third of the world's population claims to be Christian. And the largest growth in believers is in Africa, Asia and South America, where the majority of the world's people live. Michael Grant said that while as a historian he could not acknowledge the resurrection, without it he could not explain how belief in the deity of a dead Messiah grew so large so fast.

In the West, belief is shrinking. The good news is old news. And quite frankly we in the church keep burying the lede, as journalists would say. A lot of people think Christianity is primarily concerned with abortion or homosexuality or a certain kind of politics. Those are even deal-breaking issues for some Christians, who can get real nasty about Christians who don't agree with them on these issues or who don't agree to make them a top priority. And a lot of time and money and energy that could be going into telling and acting on the good news is being diverted into issues that ultimately spread the message that Christians are anything but loving towards others, including other Christians.

The men who saw Jesus alive and breathing, who ate with him and touched him after his resurrection, never let other matters obscure the good news. In the first chapter of the oldest book in the New Testament, 1st Thessalonians, Paul mentions God raising Jesus from the dead. It is mentioned in the 1st chapter of the last book written, Revelation. None of those books would have been written if Jesus had stayed as dead as Simon of Peraea, Athronges, Simon bar Kokhba, or the dozens of others who claimed to be the Messiah. The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the reason we are here. If it didn't happen, why did we get up early this morning to be here? It wouldn't be news that requires action. Paul said it: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins….If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die."

But if Jesus Christ has conquered death, there is nothing to fear anymore. There is nothing that demonstrates God's power over evil more emphatically. There is nothing that shows us more clearly that Jesus' death on the cross was God's love for us in action. That is good news indeed. And if we who rely on him will be raised to new life, that is news that demands action. It means that we can love anyone, even our enemies, for they can do nothing that ultimately harms us, whereas what we do to show them God's love can eternally benefit them. It means this physical world and our bodies are not despicable or disposable but precious gifts that God will redeem as well. It means that there is real meaning to this life and that there is hope--hope that would not exist even if we believed in an afterlife as mere spirits. Take the hand of the person next to you. Feel its weight, its warmth, its grip. Because Jesus has risen, I can say to you that if you die tomorrow, you will be able to grasp that hand or hug that person again some day and feel them squeeze or hug or kiss you back. And that is the best news ever.

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