October 16, 2016

The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God

Passage: Jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Mark 1:1-15
Service Type:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The television show SuperSoul Sunday is advertised as “designed to help viewers awaken to their best selves and discover a deeper connection to the world around them.” The programme features conversations between Oprah Winfrey and top thinkers, authors, visionaries and spiritual leaders exploring themes and issues including happiness, personal fulfillment, spirituality, conscious living and what it means to be alive in today's world.

I think that this is a show aimed at what perhaps many think of as human spirituality. In a 2012 survey of Canadians 65% considered themselves spiritual. Indeed there is some ambiguity about the term. Anyone who thinks about liberty, desires justice or experiences love is a spiritual being because these things cannot be measured out in crude matter. Even so, 26% of survey respondents described themselves as not being spiritual. This is likely an indication that, to the extent they think about purpose or mission in life, they are content with the necessary but superficial pursuits of commercial life.

I wonder often about how to announce the gospel is such a culture. Is anyone interested in talk about God? There seems to be a comfort with conversation about spirituality and personal fulfilment and what it means to alive in today’s world. This may include talk of God or it may not. Jesus did say that he came that we “may have life, and have it abundantly.” But our Lord never offers himself as the best kind of personal fulfilment. The gospel is ever at odds with the world’s self-understanding.

How is Mark’s gospel heard in our world? Mark asserts that it is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He wants hearers to know the subject of the story right from the start. It is about God coming among us in the person Jesus Christ. There were competing religions and ideologies in the Roman world of his day, not unlike ours. I note that he does not begin with a generic—let me tell you a story about a spiritual man. No. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Now I believe that the church ever needs to adapt articulation of the gospel to the era in which she finds herself. However, the core of the message doesn’t change. We must be careful not to adopt the culture’s self-understanding. As Mark makes clear what the church has to say to any culture is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Our culture may speak of purpose and personal fulfillment and spirituality. The orientation of the gospel points us to the person of Jesus Christ.

1. In this opening sentence Mark makes clear that story he wants to tell is about the person Jesus Christ. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” is how Mark puts it. Permit me a brief note about grammar. When Mark writes “the good news of Jesus Christ” he uses the genitive case which can be read two ways. It can be read subjectively meaning “the good news proclaimed by Jesus Christ” or it can be read objectively meaning “the good news about Jesus Christ.” I take Mark to have meant both things. Jesus is both the proclaimer of good news and is himself that good news.

Because this good news is the person Jesus Christ, the question that the gospel puts to people is “do you know him?” Or, “do you believe in him?” John Wesley, after preaching at one open air gathering (field-preaching, as he called it), wrote in his journal, “I offered then Christ.” Christian witness is ever pointing to Jesus. Christian witness does not say that God isn’t free to disclose himself as he wishes. Nevertheless, the witness of Mark and the other gospel writers and the church over the centuries is a conviction that in Jesus Christ God can always be found for sure.

What the gospel offers the world is a person, Jesus Christ. In the church we use the word Christ as if its meaning were self-evident and it is good to clarify on occasion. Christ is not Jesus’ surname. Christ comes to us from the Greek word that means anointed or messiah. Its meaning is loaded with the promise of God in his faithfulness to his people to send a messiah to rescue and redeem. The story of the gospel is that God came himself in the person Jesus. Jesus is God’s rescue mission.

I invite you to continue to reflect with me on this theme that the gospel announces a person Jesus Christ, the son of God. I point out to you that to be introduced to a person is a different category of thing than say something like purpose, or personal fulfilment or even spirituality. The gospel cuts through all these things and offers something else. It is of another order of thing, so to speak. To compare purpose to knowing Jesus is to compare apples with oranges, in another manner of speaking.

Consider the work of a contractor building houses. The contactor may well consider it his or her purpose to provide well-built homes for people. The contractor may well find it personally fulfilling to see the house finally complete, a physical manifestation of their purpose achieved. Indeed this same contractor may feel a certain spiritual euphoria as she hands the keys to the new home owners and feels their delight in making this house their home. There is also the ancillary purpose the contractor senses in earning a living to provide for family.

When you think about our employment most of us have this sense of purpose about our work. We see, or at least know, the intended good it is designed to bring. Some of us even feel personally fulfilled in our work because we genuinely by in large enjoy what we do. That work has purpose is a creaturely good and worthy of our efforts and reflection. That one can find some sense of personal fulfilment in what they do is another of those creaturely goods. Yet, the implication of the good news of Jesus Christ is that we make a category mistake thinking that creaturely goods are the good; confusing the penultimate with the ultimate. In a word, a sense of purpose will never rise to the level of ultimate; the ultimate being the person Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

In announcing the good news of Jesus we are not saying that a sense of purpose about your work is unworthy of your efforts nor that the joy of a sense of personal fulfilment is an illusion. In Jesus Christ we find something of a different order entirely and something that can only be found in him. It is relationship with God.

So the question of the gospel is do you know him? And the promise of the gospel is that God does everything so we can “yes”. The story of this good news is that God comes seeking us. Even though humanity turned away from God it is God propelled by his love who can’t leave things that way. Recall, as we have noted many times, that faith is a kind of knowing—the knowing of relationship. The most common metaphor for faith in the bible is marriage. There are indeed moments in marriage where we are consciously enthralled with this one we love. But most of the time during our day we aren’t thinking about the marriage yet the marriage, the relationship, is going on all the time even when imperceptible. Faith is like this. We have moments of heightened perception of Christ’s presence but much of time it seems imperceptible, yet the relationship is going on.

2. When Mark took up the pen to write his gospel the city of Rome had one million inhabitants. Like any huge city, it had large slum areas. In July, 64, fire broke out and destroyed 70% of the city. Nero, the emperor, set about rebuilding the city on a grandiose scale, hoping to make the new construction a monument to himself. Rumour had it that he had started the fire. Fire, after all, is always the quickest and cheapest method of slum clearance. The poor people of the city, homeless now, despised him for his callousness.

Nero wanted above all to regain his heroic stature with the people. He had to shift the blame for the fire to a group so marginalised that it couldn’t protest. He blamed the Christians launching unspeakable cruelties against them; Peter and Paul lost their lives in this wave of persecution.

Shortly thereafter a man named Mark came to Rome. He wrote his gospel in the year 66, shortly after Nero’s cruelties had begun to brutalise Christians in Rome. Mark wrote it believing that the One from Nazareth who had sustained harassed people during his earthly ministry in Palestine was still present, 35 years later, to sustain men and women in the empire’s pressure-cooker.

Why does Mark relate the incidents in our Lord’s life that he does relate? Of the hundreds of incidents in the public ministry of Jesus, why does Mark bring forward only two dozen? From among the hundreds he could have selected Mark selects those stories from the life of Jesus that he thinks will be of greatest help to the Christians in Rome in view of the particular trials and torments of the Christians there. For instance, among the many stories concerning Jesus available to Mark, Mark selects the one about the stilling of the storm. He knows that this incident in the public ministry of Jesus will help persecuted Christians on whom a dreadful storm has descended and who may feel as abandoned in it as the disciples felt when Jesus was asleep in the boat.

The gospel of Mark is richly textured, and therefore there are many themes coursing throughout it. Nevertheless, there’s one major theme only: Jesus Christ is victor. Wherever Jesus comes upon sin, sickness, sorrow, suffering, the demonic and death, he conquers them. Jesus triumphs. He vanquishes the hostile powers that break down men and women, push them toward despair, impoverish life, undermine hope, collapse resistance. Jesus vanquishes every hostile power that afflicts us, torments us, fragments us. Jesus is victor.

One-half of Mark’s gospel concerns only one week of Christ’s life, the final week, the week that builds toward the climax of his death. In other words, death is the big event, the big power, the biggest enemy of all.

Now while death is the big power it is not alone; death’s has errand boys, “flunkies” who do his bidding and anticipate his work. Death’s errand boys soften us up so that death can intimidate us throughout our life. Death’s “flunkies” are sin, sorrow, suffering, the demonic (radical evil.)

Think of how suffering, especially protracted suffering, wears us down and distorts our thinking and usurps time and energy, simply preoccupies us, until we seem to have nothing left to give away, nothing left for Kingdom concerns, nothing left with which even to try to gain perspective on our suffering.

Sorrow continues to afflict bereaved people long after they thought sorrow would have ceased haunting them. Sorrow steals back over them and even whispers propaganda in their ear: “Your life is over; you will remain miserable; now that the person dearest you has died, you might as well die too; in fact you already have.”

The demonic? Widespread, virulent evil that seems to extend itself everywhere and claims unwary victims? Evil for the sake of evil; evil for the perverse pleasure of sheer evil? Ten minutes’ reflection on the state of the world and its convulsions in the twentieth century alone and we ought to be convinced about the fact and virulence of radical evil.

All of these powers, says Mark, are gathered up in the power of death. They are death-on-the-way, death-around-the corner, death as the ruling power throughout the universe — except for Jesus Christ who bested it once and brandishes his victory in the face of death’s refusal to quit although defeated. For this reason while Mark never undervalues, makes light of, or trifles with death and his many manifestations, Mark always has more to say, and more to say more emphatically, about the conquering one whose victory is the ultimate truth and reality of the universe and whose victory, now known only to faith, will one day be known to sight as the defeated one is finally dispersed.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is the thesis of Mark’s gospel. In our small group study material author Nate Morgan Locke makes the observation that according to the gospel we don’t start living until we know God. To cling to Jesus in faith is to know life, and that eternally. It is to be assured that death has no dominion over us as we are included in his resurrection to life. Death has been rendered powerless and for the believer becomes the moment of going from life to life in Him. … the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.