What Kind of Gospel Are You Living and Preaching?

Sermon delivered on the last Sunday after Trinity A, October 26, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Deuteronomy 34.1-12; Psalm 90.1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8; Matthew 22.34-46.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning I want us to take a hard look at our perceptions of the gospel to see if we think and behave as people who really do have Good News or whether we think and behave like people who grimly go through life trying to live up to a standard that is basically out of our reach but which we try to achieve anyway because we are terrified of what might happen to us if we don’t. This is important to us, not only for our psychological well being but also because each of us is called by our Lord to proclaim the gospel to the world, i.e., to the folks around us with whom we live and interact. What Good News could we offer, for example, to the young woman featured in yesterday’s Dispatch who has terminal brain cancer?

In our psalm lesson the psalmist muses about God and humans, observing the eternal nature of God and lamenting the human condition under which we labor as a consequence of our sin and rebellion against God. He wonders out loud how long it will be before God relents, i.e., removes the curse he imposed after the Fall, and shows us his compassion by delivering us from the curse of evil, sin, and death? At first blush we are tempted to say a LONG time because we look around our world and don’t see God’s healing love and redemption occurring on a wide scale. But then again the psalmist reminds us that because God is eternal, what seems like forever to us is but a blink of the eye in God’s eternal perspective and timeline.

Neither do we find much apparent relief from Scripture because many stories don’t ostensibly offer us much hope about finding God’s relief. Take our OT lesson for example. Here is Moses, the prophet of God who has seen God face-to-face, at least as much as any human can possibly see God and still live, and what happens to him? He has spent the majority of his adult life trying to lead God’s people to the promised land as God called him to do. But God has denied Moses the opportunity to complete his life’s work. Why? To find the answer to that question we have to look at Numbers 20.2-13. There we learn that Moses failed to trust God to show God’s holiness to his people Israel. And how did Moses do that? He had “helped” God provide water for his grumbling people by striking a rock in the wilderness instead of allowing God to show his gracious power to provide for his ungrateful people unaided. In other words, Moses basically acted like God needed Moses to accomplish his work. Forty years of faithful service were wiped out in one mistake and Moses found himself barred from the promised land. This is one tough Boss to work for and if it went that way for Moses, who knew the Lord face-to-face, most of us break out into a cold sweat as we wonder how it will go for us who don’t come anywhere close to being Moses! There doesn’t appear to be a lot of Good News in that story.

Or consider Jesus’ command in our gospel lesson to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbors as ourselves, even those who treat us badly or ignore us. If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that if this is what it takes to inherit eternal life, we’re toast because our hearts are just too hard and dark for us to be able to fulfill this command. This is not unlike our reaction to the seemingly impossibly high demands contained in Jesus’ sermon on the mount (Matthew 5.1-7.29). Where’s the Good News in trying to follow a set of moral and ethical demands of the Law that we are inherently not equipped to follow? If we care at all about our relationship with God as well as our eternal destiny, we can be hard pressed not to lose all hope and fall into despair because Scripture as well as our own life experiences are full of examples of us failing to hit the mark of living holy lives in accordance with God’s Law.

But of course, God’s word in Scripture always invites us to read at a far deeper level than a superficial one, which is what we have just done. So let us go back to these stories and see if we can glean any Good News from them. While it is true that Moses was denied an entrance into the promised land, his people were not. Despite their sin and rebellion against God as they wandered through the wilderness for 40 years, God appointed a new leader to fulfill his promise to them to bring them to the promised land. And what about Moses? Like all of us who are mortal, he was destined to die. But the text here is ambiguous enough to help us think about the fact that it was God himself who buried Moses because no one knows where his grave is. We shouldn’t think God used a shovel to bury Moses, but rather that God brought Moses to himself in a special way and to the hope of an even greater promised land. How do we know this? Because in the gospels we read about Jesus’ Transfiguration in which Moses himself spoke with Jesus about an even greater exodus he was going to accomplish at Jerusalem with his death and resurrection. Moses did not get to enter a temporary promised land because of his sin and the sin of his people. But even that did not separate Moses from God’s love and faithfulness, and the promise of entering a permanently renewed world. But we have to read the whole narrative of Scripture to understand this.

Turning now to our gospel lesson, as we have seen over the last several weeks in reading Matthew, Jesus has been trying to help both followers and opponents think about who he truly is and today’s arguments with his opponents are really the culmination of these ongoing disputes. When Jesus asks his opponents about the nature of the Messiah, he is inviting them to see that the Messiah is more than just a son of David, i.e., more than just a human descendent and future king. The Messiah is God’s son, the very embodiment of God who had come not to destroy the ethnic enemies of Israel but rather the real enemies of not only Israel but of all humankind: evil, sin, and death. And how would Jesus destroy those enemies? By going to the cross for us. In doing so, Jesus took all the power of evil and sin on himself to reconcile us to God and transfer us out of the darkness of our sin and into the light of his kingdom. If Jesus was the embodiment of God, which Matthew claimed in his birth narrative (Matthew 1.23), then we see God himself fulfilling his own command to love him with our whole being and others as ourselves. God did this because he knows that by our own power and strength we are unable to do so. Here we see God showing us his holiness just like he did with his people Israel in the desert by fulfilling the righteous demands of the Law on our behalf so that we would not have to engage in Mission Impossible, to do the things we inherently cannot do. And in raising Jesus from the dead, God gave us definitive proof that Jesus is who he claimed to be and that God’s promises to redeem his sin-sick world and its creatures were true and underway.

This is the kind of Messiah, rather than a military one or one of our own making, that can change hearts and minds because when we finally understand that on the cross God has done for us what needs to be done so that we can be healed and reconciled to him, it takes us off the hook of trying to earn our way into the promised land of eternal life and new creation. This in turn makes us want to follow Jesus’ example and we have been given the Holy Spirit to help shape us bit by bit, day by day, so that we can gradually leave behind our darkness and hardness of heart for the new reality of love that is characterized in Jesus’ summary of the Law.

This, folks, is what the gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ is all about! In Jesus we see God answering the psalmist’s complaint about acting on our behalf to bring relief and release from God’s curse. We are no longer required to hit an impossibly high mark in order for us to enjoy healing and reconciliation with God because God has done that himself on our behalf. This doesn’t mean we are not called to abandon our old selfish ways and replace them with a lifestyle that gives abundant evidence that we love God with all our being and others as ourselves with the help of the Spirit living in us. To the contrary, this is the lifestyle we are invited to live out all our days as Christians. But our entry into the promised land, the new heavens and earth where we will live with new bodies in a completely healed world and directly in God’s presence, is not contingent on our ability to “follow all the rules.” It is by God’s love and grace alone.

Living in this reality is why Paul could say what he does in our epistle lesson. Unlike Moses at the waters of Meribah, Paul understood that the gospel is God’s free gift to us because he wants each of us to live and enjoy the life he created us to live. That’s why Paul didn’t have to rely on trickeration or deceit or self-gain as he told people about God’s great love for them lived out in Jesus. To do any of that would have made it about Paul, not Jesus, and Jesus was far too real for Paul for him to do that. That’s why Paul could gladly suffer for Jesus because he knew that his suffering would be transitory whereas life with Jesus would be forever.

And this is our challenge as Christians today: to live and preach that gospel. So how are you doing? Is the power of God’s saving love real enough for you to change you so that you want to share it with others in how you speak and act? Too often we allow ourselves to get silenced and cow-towed by our opponents, all in the name of toleration and inclusivity. But do our opponents have the words of life? Will any agenda other than the gospel’s reconcile people to God and assure them of God’s presence in the midst of life’s troubles as well as through all eternity? I’m not talking about advancing some pollyannaish vision where everything is always hunky-dory. Life is not hunky-dory. We live in a broken world where bad things happen on a regular basis and we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking otherwise. Instead, we should be amazed at how so much happens to go right in a good world gone bad! What I am talking about is inviting people to become disciples of Jesus so that they too can tap into his power to help guide them through the storms of life and the promise of a real future and hope that is seen in Jesus’ resurrection and the new creation, a hope just like (hopefully) each one of us has.

Only when we live like folks who know we have been given an incalculable gift rather than as folks who must trudge through life engaging in Mission Impossible so that we don’t incur God’s wrath, can we live as people who have Good News, now and for all eternity. My prayer for each of us is that we come to know the amazing love of God the Father made manifest in Jesus the Son and given to us by the Holy Spirit. This is the gospel and hope we should proclaim to any who suffer in body, mind, or spirit (ourselves included) because when we know God intimately enough, we will learn to trust him to use our efforts great and small (as well as our brokenness) to help bring about his kingdom on earth as in heaven. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.