Well, I am a bit of a news junkie and so it's a good day for me when I go out to the mailbox at the end of the driveway and there waiting for me is the "The Week" which is this news magazine I get. It's always good to sit down with that. Last week, I opened this issue and the first story I read was "Super Pacs, Funding the Dirtiest Campaign Ever." That ought to help our national political discourse—more underhanded and deceptive videos out there. Then I turned the page to the sports section to read the story about pro football's "Deflategate." At this point, no one seems to know what happened, but at some point someone probably tampered with at least 11 footballs in order to give the New England Patriots an advantage. Well, that's a little shocking, I thought, maybe the international news is better. Instead, I found an article on the recent terrorist attacks in France and another article on 30 people killed by rebel forces in the Ukraine.
Had enough? Yeah, me too. We live in this bad news world. If you have any kind of longing, at times you think, When is this world going to get getter? What is going to change its course and how do we bring about something better than that? This kind of longing for the new world, a better world, is not just with us. I think everybody has felt this in all times, all places.
In this passage, the bad news that everyone was wrestling with was that John had just been arrested. John the Baptizer is the first real prophet to come on the scene in 450 years, and he's the authentic deal. Like a prophet does, he speaks truth to power. So he says to the petty despot over that area, "It's not right for you to be sleeping with your brother's wife." They can't take that, so they arrest John, and throw him into prison as a way to silence him. That's bad news. But that bad news becomes the trigger for what is the greatest news ever.
John's mission, was to be the announcement. He was like the go ahead, and explain that Jesus is coming and get everybody ready for the anointed one, who would come. Now that John's announcements are over, it's now time for the main event. Jesus is not scared of this bad news world. He is not intimidated by its culture of death. Even though his cousin has just been arrested in order to silence him and shut him up, Jesus boldly, visibly steps out into public ministry and brings the greatest news the world has yet heard.
Jesus proclaims something new
"Now, after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God." Now, gospel means "good news" or "good story." It's good news from God, it's good news about God. What is the good news? The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, this better world, this new world, this world in which God's goodness and mercy rules and reigns over all people and all things—you've been waiting for it, you've been longing for it, you've been praying for it—is here. It's here in me. It's now here. You have this wrecked, weary world; good news, it's now here.
Jesus quotes in his first sermon the prophet Isaiah, and he describes his mission this way: He says, you know, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He's anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He anointed me to bring release to the prisoners. He's anointed me to bring sight to the blind and liberation to the oppressed, and to announce that right now is the year of the Lord's favor. He then sits down and he says, "Everything you just heard is fulfilled now in me." It's as if this future that we've all be longing for that is somewhere and we're hopeful and wishing we could have it, has all of a sudden slammed into the present and it is right here now.
As I was preparing this sermon I was trying to think, How could I explain something that's future and yet has slammed back into the present and alters everything that we live with right now? When Karen and I were young marrieds, we wanted to have a family, and after months of that, nothing happening, and years of trying, nothing happening. The doctor prescribed medication and nothing happening, and a different doctor with a battery of tests, different medications. All the charts and the basal thermometers—I know some of you have suffered through this. When we finally got that good news—you're pregnant, you're expecting—even though we didn't have that baby in our arms, it was as if that future had just slammed back into our present world, and everything we thought and did and spent was changed by that. All of a sudden our thinking became, Hey, how are we going to rearrange that room to get in a crib and a changing table.
What Jesus is announcing to this wrecked and weary world is that God's new world is here now, and all of a sudden it starts to hear words it has never heard before. Words like, "Neither do I condemn you." Words like, "Your faith has made you well." Words like, "Your sins are forgiven." Or, "Lazarus, come forth." Or, "He is not here, he is risen." It's a new world now in Jesus Christ.
Now, ever since Jesus made that announcement, people who live with Jesus and for Jesus bring that same good news to the people around them. Sometimes I think we Christians get a little confused about this good news that we're bringing. I feel like our message goes like this: Hey, everybody, we have good news for you, you're a sinner. That's not good news. Here's what is good news: Liberation for the oppressed, release for the prisoner, sight for the blind. I'm here to help enter your bad news world and bring God's good news for you now. That's good news, and how it happens is just amazing.
'Repent and believe'
Verse 15 says "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; therefore, repent and believe the gospel." "Repent and believe the gospel," what does that mean? If you've been in church for a little while, you've probably heard people explicate the word repent. The Greek word for "repent" here is metanoia, meaning "to change one's mind." What it really means is "change." Change your life. Stop pretending as if God has not come and invaded this planet in the person of Jesus Christ. Stop pretending as if your life is all about you. Because when you realize that God's new kingdom starts now, it changes the way you're going to live.
The guy who helped me get my first job in publishing was a guy named Joe, and he was an executive so he did a lot of business travel. One day he was on a flight and thought to himself, I cannot believe this flight crew, they are the most attentive, responsive flight crew I've ever seen. So toward the end of the flight he stopped one of the flight attendants and he said, "Excuse me, I don't mean to bother you but I just have to say I fly a lot and I have never seen a flight crew like you guys. You are the most attentive, polite, engaged, service-oriented flight attendants I've ever seen." She smiled and she said, "Well, for that you can thank the lady in 12B. She's the supervisor who inspects all the flight crews and she's on our flight." Jesus is announcing that God is on this flight. How are you going to treat the fellow passengers.
In the second century there was a great letter called the Letter to Diognetus which shows how from the earliest days Christians understood this. The writer is trying to explain to Diognetus how to you figure out these Christians and what they are about. His explanation was interesting. It's hard to actually distinguish the Christians because, they don't have their own ethnicity. You find Christians in all different ethnic groups, and they don't even have their own country. They're in a lot of different countries and they don't have their own language, they speak the language of whatever country they happen to live in. He said here's how you tell them apart: The Christians have children but they don't expect them to die. The other thing is they have a common table, they'll share their food with you, but they won't share their wives. Ever since then, Christians have understood, If I'm going to be part of bringing God's new world now and enter into this great good news that Jesus Christ has announced and inaugurated, I've got to repent and I've got to believe the gospel.
The opposite of 'repent and believe'
There is an alternative to repenting and believing in the gospel. It's actually an alternative that has become ever more popular in our time. The alternative to repent—which means change, change your life—is to stay the way you are now. The alternative to believing that God's good news is coming now is to think, You know, the world has never changed, never, it's never going to either. I'm sorry, it's just not. This is actually quite attractive.
In 2009 there was a major study done called The American Religious Identification Survey, and the fastest growing group in that survey were the people who when they were asked what religion are you, checked the box, "No Religion." The researchers called this group "The None's." Back in 1990, when the survey was first done, only eight percent of the population checked "None." Less than two decades later, that number almost doubled to 15 percent. "The None's" are growing in every single state including the Bible belt states where you wouldn't think that would be the case. They're especially popular among the 18-29-year-olds, which begs the question, why is that? Why would our bright, young, future leaders of our society be so attracted to and drawn to the None's? I have a thought on that. I hope I'm right; if I'm wrong, correct me afterward. I think one attraction is if I have to choose between staying the way I am and repent, I'll stay the way I am, because repenting is hard.
We all have this self-absorption. I do, it sneaks up on me, it takes me over. To repent of that is hard. To change that is hard. To pray and confess, I have to start over every day. So I can see why staying the way I am actually has a reward to it. To believe that this world is going to change, there's a mountain of evidence that says it never will. So you look at that and decide, I think I'm just going to do that. Then you look over at the church and the church has some issues and you end up checking the "None" box. But here is what makes that choice—as rewarding as it can be—not so appealing for me. It is rewarding for the individual who chooses it, but how rewarding is it for the people around that person?
The gospel brings change
Let's say that I believe I just want to stay the way I am and I don't think this world can really change. Am I going to make the world a better place? Not likely. Who is going to change the world? The crazy people, the Christians who repent and believe the gospel that God's new world starts now in Jesus Christ. They're the ones. If you could get in my car, I would drive you around Chicagoland and we would just stop at every hospital and point up at the sign and read them. Lutheran General, Provena Mercy, Adventist Healthcare systems, Rush Presbyterian, St. Luke's. Who started all these hospitals that we depend on? Was it the atheists and free thinkers? No, it was the Christians, because they believe, I have to repent of my own selfish thing and I have to bring God's good news to people who are suffering.
Why was it that Christians were the ones who made most of the advances in the treatment of leprosy, what today we call Hansen's disease, a hideous, smelly, and disfiguring disease? Because they were the only ones who were willing to say, "I have to repent of this thought that because I have a comfortable life I don't have to think about you and your suffering." They said, "I want to bring God's good news now to you." Why is it that the founder of the modern hospice movement came up with a way that terminally ill patients would not have to die alone, in pain, and in indignity? Instead, she came up with a way to show them love and care in the final hours of their life. That person was a Christian, Cicely Saunders. What is it that makes these people? It's because they are crazy enough to believe the gospel that God's new world starts now in Jesus Christ and they repent it and they bring it.
Now, when Jesus announces this, he doesn't stand off in the wilderness as a solo prophet and if you're interested you go out and listen to him. No, he is the leader of a new movement that is going to change the world. So he doesn't wait until you come out to him; he comes to you. If he has to interrupt you at your workplace, he will. It says he walked along the Sea of Galilee and he sees Simon and Andrew and they are there fishing. He says, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." He comes to you and he recruits you for this, and he says, I want you to be part of this. There is a wrecked and weary world here and I am bringing the new world, God's kingdom, now; are you in? You have to respond. What are you going to say to him?
God has a plan for you
I think there is a very important clue here in the way he approaches these commercial fisherman, guys who haul in loads of fish out of dragnets all day and night for their living. He says, "If you follow me, I'll make you fishers of men," which is an interesting phrase. He doesn't say to these fishermen, I'll make you tenders of vines, I'll make you growers of wheat, I'll make you herders of sheep. No, what he is saying is you already have in your background and in your experience some skills, some learning, some attitudes, some abilities that can be used to help bring in God's new world now, follow me and I'll show you how. What is it in your life that you already have that could be used to bring God's good news to somebody who is suffering in a bad news situation? It's already there. Some people will think, That's not me, I don't have the time or energy to start a coffee company, I have a lot of limitations, I don't have a lot of money, I don't have a lot of talent, I don't have a lot of energy, I don't have a lot of health. Listen, on the authority of the Scriptures, every single one of you who follows Jesus Christ, he'll show you how you can bring good news to people in a bad news situation.
Carissa Smith is a doctoral student in psychology and she is also a new mom. In some ways her life is pretty limited. She's got to spend a lot of time in the library and she is sleep-deprived. How could God use what she's got as a way of bringing a new world? Well, if you're open and attentive, he'll bring it to you. She was in the library one day and her daughter, Tegan, who was then 4 months old, was babbling away like a 4-month-old does. A man standing there in the library said to her, "Tell that kid to shut up or I will." All of her mother bear qualities rose up within her and all of her psychological training rose up within her and she said this: "I am very sorry for whatever occurred in your life that would cause you to be so disturbed by a happy baby, but I will not tell my baby to shut up and I won't let you do that either."
She thought he was going to rage on her, but instead he looked down, took a breath, and said, "I apologize." Then he looked over at Tegan and got a little tear in his eye and he said, "I lost my son when he was 2 months old." She said, "Sit down here, tell me about that." He said, "Well, he died of SIDS and it was over 50 years ago and I couldn't get over it, and I was so angry about it, and it broke up my marriage and now I'm alone." She asked him questions about his son. Finally he looked over at Tegan and he said, "Can I hold your daughter?" When he held her for just a brief moment, he laid his cheek against her head and then he passed her back and said, "Thank you."
God's new world starts now. Repent and believe the gospel.
Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,