By Pastor Cherie Johnson
Isaiah 25:6-9 NIV
6 On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine– the best of meats and the finest of wines.
7 On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken.
9 In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”
What is the Gospel? We hear and use the term all the time, but how many of us know what it really means? Just in everyday life, what does it mean when someone says “It’s Gospel,” or “The Gospel Truth?” In the Bible we have the Gospel According to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” More recently, some writings have been found such as the Gospel of Thomas and others. It can be very confusing. In Greek, the word gospel simply means good tidings or good news. In today’s Scripture passage, Isaiah talks about the good news, the gospel, when God will put all things right again. How God will conquer death, the death that exists because there is evil or sin in the world. That’s why we need it. The world is corrupted.
Where did it start? The Bible is full of stories of the People of God. Are they stories of perfect people? Abraham did a lot of things right, but also lied about Sarah not being his wife, not once but twice. He tried to “help God” fulfill his promise of having more offspring than there were stars in the sky by having a child with Hagar. (And that’s a whole other story …)
Moses was a murderer, for crying out loud. David, not only slept with Bathsheba and had her husband killed, but did nothing when his daughter was raped. Peter, oh Peter always putting his feet in his mouth, but God did not abandon them. God did not throw them into the outer darkness.
So no, the Bible is not about perfect people. It’s about people time and time again messing up, even “the best” people, and God rescuing them time and time again … People who take this creation that God pronounced “good” and “very good” and filling it with corruption and decay.
We need the Good News because the world is messed up. We’re messed up. We need Good News because so much of what we hear every day is bad news.
It started at the very beginning. Whether you consider Adam and Eve the first two human beings or more of a story, the narrative illustrates the human condition. In Genesis chapter 3 Adam and Eve are in the garden, and Eve and the serpent have a chat.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden?”’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.”’ [Here she’s already adding onto what God said because they were never told not to touch the tree.] “‘You will not surely die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Genesis 3:1-5 NIV Emphasis mine.)
BAM! “You will be like God.” That’s it. That’s the issue. We want to be like God. We want the control. We want the independence of doing it on our own. But, because we are not God, we mess up, and we need God to rescue us. And that’s the story of the Bible. People, even good people, trying to be like God, thinking they have it under control and don’t need God, and messing up.
God promises to be there for us over and over again. Here is a small sample of these promises:
- I am the LORD your God, the Holy One, Your Savior. (Isaiah 43:3)
- I, I am the LORD and besides me there is no Savior, I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator, your [Sovereign]. (Isaiah 43:11, 15)
- [I Am] The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6)
- I have loved you with an everlasting love. (Jeremiah 31:3)
- You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)
- You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. (John 15:16)
- My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness. (II Corinthians 12:9a)
- I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine. (Isaiah 43:1)
- I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built. (Jeremiah 31:4)
- I will never leave you or forsake you. (Hebrews 13:5)
So, what is the Good News, the Gospel? In the Gospel of Luke, it starts off with a public proclamation that Jesus makes in the synagogue in Nazareth.
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:14-21 NRSV)
Jesus states that He Is It. He’s the one that Isaiah was talking about in the scroll that he read. He is the fulfillment of God’s promise to rescue the world. The Good News is that with Jesus’ death and resurrection, don’t forget the resurrection part, the restoration of the world has begun, and we can be a part of it!
Why don’t we see the Good News? The world still looks corrupted. Politicians are still grandstanding. Wars are still being fought. The Lord’s name is still being taken in vain. We still have a hard time getting along with our neighbors. People are still hungry. Why is that? We are still trying to be God! We’re still trying to be independent, in control. In short, we don’t accept the full grace of God.
Grace is another of those churchy words like Gospel. We hear it all the time. We may even use it, but do we really know what it means? Grace is being loved when we are unlovable when we have nothing to offer in return. It is being loved when we deserve punishment. It is being loved regardless of how well be measure up, no matter what we do or say. It is love that has nothing to do with the receiver and everything to do with the giver. It is offered without conditions. It is completely free, and we can do nothing to lose it. We only have to accept it.
Who needs grace? The answer is everyone, even the people we consider the best. A great example can be found in Luke 18:10-14.
[Jesus says,] “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” [Now, tax collectors are not what they were in Jesus’ day. Now, they are primarily honest people doing an honest job. The general public may not like what they have to do, but most of us agree that it’s a job that needs to be done. It was very different in Jesus’ time. It was more like a protection racquet. Tax collectors could exhort people for as much as they could, and whatever extra they made they could keep. This is the kind of tax collector Jesus is talking about here.]
[So these two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector went to the temple to pray.] “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evil doers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”
I’ve mentioned it before; I have sympathy for the Pharisees. They were trying their best to do what they thought God wanted. Obviously, this one thought he succeeded. That’s where it goes horribly wrong. Perhaps, this Pharisee needs more forgiveness because at least the tax collector knows he has a problem.
Today, we’d probably consider Pharisees good people. They’d be the kind that kept their lawn mowed and return tools after they borrow them. They’d return extra change that they accidently get at the grocery store. They’d drive the speed limit and never even think of cutting someone off. We’d like to have them as neighbors … right up until they say a prayer like this right next to us.
After all of this, it is the repentant tax collector that goes home justified before God. That even with all of his good deeds the Pharisee still needs the forgiveness and grace of God. It is something that we cannot buy. It is a free gift.
What does living in grace mean? Grace is free. It doesn’t matter what we do, but in today’s society, that doesn’t compute. Don’t we have to earn things? Don’t we have to measure up? We’re told that there is no free lunch. That’s the world.
No one deserves it, no one, not even the Pharisee. I’ll say it. I’m probably the modern equivalent of a Pharisee. I try really hard. I try to help other people on the path of discipleship. I’m one of the people praying to God, “Increase my faith!” because I try to be independent.
The Apostle Paul calls himself the chief of all sinners near the end of this life. As he’s writing, he says he is, not that he was. We never stop needing grace though the reason we need it may change.
That is the Good News. God has rescued the world, and through Jesus we are invited to live in it. Why doesn’t it look like the world has been rescued? We have not listened to the Good News, or hearing it, we don’t really believe it. As Jesus says over and over, the kingdom of heaven has come near. If the realm of heaven is where God is, and God is everywhere, what keeps us from experiencing it?
Our separation from God. Our spiritual death in our trespasses, our mistakes. Our desire to be like God and retain our independence. Our refusal to accept the grace that Jesus bought for us through his death and resurrection. We have been redeemed. The price has been paid to remove us from slavery to sin and death, as the Apostle Paul puts it. Yet, we often act like we have to earn our way in. We all have been offered a free ticket. All we have to do is take it.
Now, I hear you thinking, “But Cherie, what about this Top 5 Ways to Serve you have here in the bulletin? What about Bible studies and small groups and UMW and all the things we do here at the church? You mean that you don’t care whether I do any of them?”
That’s both yes and no. I go back to the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus didn’t say that anything the Pharisee taught was bad. In Matthew 23:2-3 Jesus tells the people, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”
In the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the problem wasn’t the things the Pharisee was bragging about. It was his attitude, frame of mind, motivation. He was ticking off a list.
The Good News is that grace is extended to you whether you can tick off the list or not. The standard in fact is so high that no one can reach it. What Jesus offers us with grace is illustrated in Isaiah 55:1-3 God invites us:
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you my faithful love promised to David.”
With that kind of welcome, no matter what has happened in your life, who could not help but be grateful. As Roy Harrisville puts it, “God never leaves people where [God] finds them. A change in condition always accompanies an encounter with the divine. Radical change is what Jesus proclaims and will perform. Jesus does not merely affirm the condition of his children. He is about the reversal of fortunes that results not just in a change in one’s environmental state, but in the person itself.”
In other words, Christianity is not about burdensome rules and duties. It is about spreading the news of the freedom available in Jesus Christ and what we are inspired to do out of the gratitude of the love that God has for us.
When James says that faith without works is dead, he is not saying that we have to do certain things to qualify, but that our changed behavior is the evidence of the acceptance of the grace of Jesus Christ, the free gift of the forgiveness of God … This encounter with the divine will be a desire to help the children of God, in fact to shout it from the mountaintops. They say that there is nothing like a new Christian in enthusiasm and excitement in the Lord.
We do things because we can, and we desire to. So, lists in bulletins and newsletters, or a call to serve on a ministry team or a committee is not a guilt trip about why you’re not doing more. I’m here to tell you; you can’t do enough. What it is, however, is an opportunity to say “Yes.” “Yes, I can do that!” You have been redeemed and are free to accept and participate with joy.
The first question is not what would Jesus do? But what has Jesus done? The Bible is not about the redeemed but the redeemer. As Tullian Tchividjian puts it:
One way to summarize God’s message to the worn out and weary is this – God’s demand: ‘be righteous’ [be perfect]; God’s diagnosis: ‘no one is righteous;’ God’s deliverance: ‘Jesus is our righteousness.’ Once this good news grips your heart, it changes everything. It frees you from having to be perfect. It frees you from having to hold it all together. In the place of exhaustion, you might even find energy.”
So, that means that what we do doesn’t matter because of grace, right? As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 6:15, “By no means.” We have been redeemed, saved by Christ. We have continuing encounters with the divine. We are changed. Why would we want to go back to the slavery of the competitive, performance driven “I win; you lose” world? We have been invited into the new world that we find when we look at Jesus.
That’s the Gospel, the Good News. The question is, will you take it? As Heinrich Schilier said, “Christ has left the devil only what power our unbelief allows him.” (Emphasis mine.)