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Good Newsing

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Mark 1:14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

Good news! There’s nothing like it!

Sometimes good news is a very dramatic thing—the A you worried you wouldn’t get, the bonus at the end of the year that you weren’t expecting, the test results that turned out to be negative, the news about a baby on the way, the voice on the other end of the phone that said you got the job, a new beginning you dared not believe would happen, actually happening.

Usually good news is not so dramatic. It comes in the form of kind words from a friend, or in the concern of someone who gave you a call just to let you know she cared, or in a moment when you are reminded that even though life can be a very difficult and painful thing it is a wondrous and beautiful thing as well.

I like those commercials that used to play some time back, where one person is pictured showing a kindness to someone and that prompts someone else’s kindness which prompts still someone else’s kindness, on and on. This sort of thing really does happen around us quite a lot if we keep our eyes open to it. I think of an especially kind and helpful clerk who assisted me when I was shopping during the Christmas season. I think of a professor who gave me an extraordinary amount of help and advise in answer to an email inquiry I made of him. I think of the every day things too—like the hugs and words of peace I receive here at church, the love of my wife and sons and daughters-in law, the knowledge that people will always be there to show their care no matter how difficult life can be. This is good news.

When Jesus came on the scene, we are told by Mark in today’s scripture that what Jesus had to proclaim was good news. Now Mark is not much for fluff or for saying more than needs to be said. No long harangues or excessive wordiness from this guy. He gets right to the point. He says that the nature of what Jesus proclaims is simply this: good news. To be more precise, the Greek word Mark uses that is translated “good news” is euangelion from which we get the words evangelical and evangelism. And you thought being an evangelical is about being a Christian with a certain political and theological stance, or that evangelism is about tactics for rounding up new converts! No. Being an evangelical is about being someone who is a bearer of the good news, and evangelism is what bearers of good news do. They share it. They are good newsers.

Now there are a couple of important things that Mark wants us to know about this good news that Jesus proclaims. The first thing is that it is not the same as optimism. It is not the same as denial in the face of reality. It is not the same as the flowery stuff that we spray in the air that will hopefully make us forget about the rotten smell under the refrigerator. It is not the same thing as nice words that reveal a fear of facing a bad situation. Such words as, “Doesn’t the body look natural.” Or, “There’s no need to cry honey. God needed another angel in heaven.” Or, the crowning jewel of them all: “God doesn’t put more on us than we can bear.”

Several years ago, some of us studied a book by Kenneth Haugk, written out of his experiences both as a psychologist who is a Christian and as a husband who lost his wife to cancer. The title of the book is Don’t Sing Songs To a Heavy Heart, inspired by words from Proverbs: “Like vinegar on a wound is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” (25:20).

In this regard I remember a former pastor of mine, Bob Shelton, sharing at a gathering of Cumberland Presbyterian ministers about a time when his wife Barbara was battling cancer—a battle she would lose. She shared with him words that changed his preaching forever: “Bob, don’t ever say anything in the pulpit that you couldn’t say to a person who is dying of cancer.” I have thought of her words often as I have prepared my own sermons. The good news of Jesus Christ must be proclaimed in the light of the fact that there are people who are dying of cancer, that there are people whose marriages and families are falling apart, that there are people dying tragically in places like Puerto Rico and Nigeria and Haiti and Afghanistan. If one has to ignore the reality of tragedy and evil, if one has to ignore Auschwitz and the killing fields of Cambodia and, more recently, the treatment of the Rohingya community in Myanmar in order to proclaim the good news, then from the perspective of the faith of Jesus the news we have to proclaim is not good news.

Just before Jesus comes on the scene proclaiming the good news of God, Mark tells us that he was in the wilderness. And Mark makes clear in his usual sparse and pointed way that this wilderness experience was no vacation at a spiritual retreat center. It was tough. It was gut-wrenching. He was with the wild beasts in a bare and treacherous land. And there he confronted and wrestled with the darkness of evil. There he confronted the beast that wanted to consume him. There he looked into the face of hell—his own hell and the hell that is life for so many people in this world. And Mark wants us to know that he came out of that experience—he came out of the wilderness—with good news to share.

Which brings us to the second thing that Mark wants us to know about this good news that Jesus proclaims: It is about God’s breaking into the world as it is. It is about God’s dream for the world manifesting itself in the realities of this world. Not in the sweet by and by. Not in some idyllic future. But here and now. In the rough and tragic places of the world in which we live. The good news is about God, or what Jesus called God’s kingdom or reign, manifest in the here and now.

In these troublesome times when cynicism is often seen as a virtue of insightful and intelligent people, hope does break through. Something that speaks to our deepest yearnings and to the hopes that are central to our faith just sort of pops up like a flower in the desert.

Maybe you are worried sick about something really painful that is going on in your life, and a friend takes off an afternoon or evening just to be with you and to listen.

Or maybe you are on a walk one day stewing and full of anger about how unfair things are in your life and in the world, and suddenly out of nowhere a sense of peace comes. It is as if the Spirit of God wraps you in a warm embrace and assures you that all will be well and that you will be able to handle what you are up against.

Or maybe you drag yourself to church one Sunday, not really wanting to be here—full of everything that seems anathema to what the Christian faith is supposed to be about. And something happens. Maybe not anything dramatic. Maybe just the goodness of being in community with other people you care about and who care about you. Maybe a feeling or a thought that comes in Sunday School or Worship. Whatever it is, you leave feeling like you were reminded of something that you had forgotten—a goodness, a calling, a wonderful way to live your life.

Or maybe you find yourself disgusted and cynical about what is going on in the world. Politicians turn you off. Efforts to make a difference seem futile. Everyone in power seems on the take or out for number one. And then you hear about a ministry with the homeless that is making a difference or people who are putting their lives at risk to care for displaced persons in war torn countries or a ministry in the inner city that seems like it might make a difference or the incredible dedication and heroism of people who care all over the world. And it dawns on you that God is indeed breaking into this world. It’s really like Jesus said: “The kingdom of God has come near.”

But, when confronted with the reality of the good news that Jesus came to the world to proclaim with his words and his life, Mark wants us to know that we find ourselves in the place of decision, critical decision, that will make all the difference in who we are and what becomes of our lives.

The first decision that the good news sets before us is will we repent, and believe in the good news? And the Greek word that is translated as “repent” in Mark’s gospel is not calling people to be good little girls and boys so that they will be acceptable to God. The repentance that is being called for by Jesus in light of the good news he is proclaiming is a total reorientation of life. It means taking on a new way of thinking and living that is completely and utterly oriented toward the good news.

To repent means you can no longer be driven by cynicism. You can no longer pride yourself on how brilliantly realistic you are about the way things are in this world. You can no longer shrug your shoulders and take a seat on the bench while the game of life is being played. Repentance means taking on an orientation to life that is open to good news, that is looking for God’s new thing to break in, that is expectant and ready for what God may yet do in our lives, in troubled situations, even in the most dramatically terrible situations in this world.

And then the final decision that the good news sets before us is will we jump on board the good news train? Will we answer Jesus’ call to join with those who follow him on the path of good newsing?

The fact that Jesus’ first four disciples were fishermen, according to Mark, gives us some great imagery to work with here. What Jesus does is cast the good news net over Simon and Andrew, James and John, catching them up in its meshes. And then they are invited to follow Jesus in his continuing work of casting the good news and fishing for people.

What in the world that meant for Simon and Andrew, James and John, they couldn’t say. What in the world it means for us, maybe we are hard put to say too. Like the disciples, we will learn more as we follow Jesus. But I think we all know what it means to be in the presence of good news. I think we all know what it is like to have good news break through, even if only momentarily. The question is will we join with Jesus and the people who seek to follow him in sharing and being good news ourselves?

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, January 21, 2018

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