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The Challenge of the Gospel

A talk presented at the Courage Discipleship Group Meeting, 9th January 2009

by Jeremy Marks

Reading: Luke 2:1-20 (ANIV) The Birth of Jesus; Shepherds & Angels

The Birth of Jesus

1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. ( 2 This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

The Shepherds and the Angels

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests."

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told the about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

 

This story will have been read out in churches across the world this past Christmas, and is likely to be a very familiar one to us all. In fact, the birth of Jesus had such a world-wide impact on human history that our date in January 2009, follows an annual count that began approximately at the time of Jesus’ birth. It later transpired, as it happens, that this early calculation was inaccurate by about 3- 5 years. Also, if the shepherds had been out in the fields at night, Jesus’ actual birthday was unlikely to have been in December, because it would normally have been too cold for the shepherds in wintertime. Tradition has placed the birth of Jesus in December. But those details are a red-herring where our subject is concerned.

Amazingly, those shepherds received a personal announcement of this stupendous event—brought by an angel, who was then evidently surrounded by a heavenly host praising God. It must have been an awesome, totally unexpected sight—one that terrified the shepherds.

In those days, shepherds were a poor and often despised group in society. It is perhaps reassuring for those of us who are lesbian/gay—despised and ostracised by many in our churches today—to learn that it should be a group of shepherds who were chosen by God to be among the first to receive this good news. Reassuring because, when we experience a sense of God speaking to us, we should not allow our own faith in Christ to be undermined, when we are judged to be second-class Christians in the eyes of others. Nor should we be put off the pursuit of our own spiritual journey just because our story is ignored by the Christian community. We believe the Hebrew-Christian God to be the one true God—who is renowned for reaching out to those who are despised—even when such condescension comes from highly revered religious leaders.

What would the shepherds have made of this announcement, one wonders? Certainly they visited the baby Jesus, according to the Gospels. And, although not educated men, they had probably heard of the prophecy concerning the coming of a Messiah—who would be a saviour. But (if they’d thought in these terms), when visiting Jesus and seeing him as a baby, they might have realised that this salvation was not going to come about quickly; indeed with the dismally short life expectancy most poor people had in those days, they were unlikely to live long enough to see any personal benefit from his coming in their own lifetime. The outworking of God’s strategies in human history do tend to be spread over a long-term! We may witness the unfolding of God’s plans but not live to see their fulfilment. That is life, for finite human beings, and the fact is a salutary reminder to use our time-limited life-span for the best.

However, as we shall soon see, the outworking of salvation that Jesus had in mind would not be like anything those shepherds or anyone else had ever imagined.

Thirty years later (Luke 3:21), we see that Jesus was baptised, along with others. And on that occasion, we read (ANIV) that:

21 When all the people were being baptised, Jesus was baptised too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’"

So, in the Gospel accounts, Jesus Christ was warmly affirmed as the Son of God. And that intimate sense of connection with God as Father became a theme that Jesus communicated to his followers throughout his ministry, as we know from the Lord’s Prayer that opens by addressing "Our Father . . .". Also Jesus said to Philip, at the Last Supper, (John 14:9) "Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father". So if we want to understand the true character of God, we only need to look to Jesus.

After Jesus’ baptism, and following the time of his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus next appeared teaching in synagogues. Notably, on one Sabbath day in Nazareth, as Luke describes in Ch. 4:18,19, Jesus read from the book of Isaiah, declaring:

"18The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour."

At that point, Luke notes, "the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him", as Jesus continued with the words "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (vs 21). The significance of these words may become clearer when we note that the verses Jesus was quoting, from Isaiah 61:1,2—well-known to his hearers no doubt—not only announce the year of the Lord’s favour but also go on to declare "the day of vengeance of our God". Why did Jesus leave those words out? Everyone knows that God does not only bless those who serve him faithfully; he also punishes those who rebel and pursue a life of sin. If not, society’s rebels could simply get away with—murder! Many traditional Christians would add, ". . . and gay people could get away with having same-sex relationships." Surely we all know that there has to be judgement for sin and punishment to follow!

But is that the way that God thinks?

The Christian faith is known, above all, for announcing a message of forgiveness and reconciliation, a message from God—who IS love. God may be angry over sin at times, even very angry many times—and from the state this world is in, it is not hard to see why. But he is never defined in those terms. You never read "God is wrath". But the bible authors do define God by saying God is love. Love is the very nature of his being.

Perhaps we mortals are the ones who are so keen to make sure that everyone is reminded of God’s vengeance? Because later in the Gospel accounts we see that, following a sham trial, Jesus took upon himself the worst kind of punishment and death known to man—scourging and crucifixion—vengeful retributive punishments reserved for the worst of criminals. Yet Jesus was widely acknowledged as being a truly innocent man. In this astonishing, courageous act of surrender to his enemies, Jesus somehow broke the power of sin and death, we are told. This is a great mystery that will confound the greatest of intellects, yet bring a profound sense of wonder and awe to us all.

Whatever this means and however it actually works out in practice, however, it is an unassailable Christian doctrine that the Cross of Christ ended God’s anger against sin forever. Which is an astounding revelation. Moreover, Jesus’ submission to the cruelty and hatred of man somehow breaks the power of that anger, which is what makes this event so revolutionary. When one looks to the Cross and considers what Jesus suffered as an innocent man, such contemplation can melt the hardest of hearts.

This is surely why Jesus did not need to remind his hearers on that Sabbath day, recorded in Luke Chapter 4, that there was a day of God’s vengeance to come. That would be fulfilled in Jesus’ lifetime—which is why he could say, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

So how do we, or anyone, benefit from this Good News—2000 years later? There is still so much oppression around us today! Like the shepherds who were despised in Jesus day, we know what it is like to be despised and oppressed as lesbian and gay people—in churches that believe and teach that same-sex relationships define sin and must be opposed. (This is surely because they do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. Jesus described a similar misunderstanding in Matthew 22:29.)

Yet oppression today is, as we know, much more far-reaching than the oppression of gay people; we see this every time we switch on the television news. Tragically, in spite of the Christian Gospel having been taught across many parts of the world for centuries, the majority of people still apparently believe that, in the end, we must resort to forceful means to resolve the world’s problems. It is a belief common to all three Abrahamic religions including, tragically, a great many Christians. The Palestinian leaders of Hamas believe that the only way to bring attention to their grievances is to fire rockets on Israeli territory—daily. And the Israeli government believes that the only way to resolve this problem is to destroy Hamas by using the vastly greater fire-power at their disposal, practically bombing the inhabitants of Gaza off the map. And many Christians across the western world support this. "Enough is enough," they say. Where will we end up if God takes that attitude with us? Hell will need to be a very big place, whilst Heaven will be very small indeed.

The Kingdom of God

In Jesus’ day, freedom from the tyranny of Roman occupation and religious oppression never came about as anyone had imagined. Jesus did not raise up an army to throw out the Romans; he did not rob the rich to redistribute their wealth to the poor; he did not throw out all the Jewish leaders from the synagogues and appoint new Christian leaders. No—instead he taught everyone who would listen about a new kingdom, which he described as the Kingdom of God. A kingdom that was, and is now, "at hand", as Jesus put it.

In modern literary parlance, the Kingdom of God is a bit like a parallel world. It requires a little imagination to understand it and a sincere faith to believe in it. The cynic would say that the notion convinces none but the credulous. But some of the greatest things in life, like love, can only be understood through the eyes of faith. Belief in something incredible becomes possible when the revelation is given by someone who is truly good and absolutely trustworthy—like Jesus. This was proved by his suffering and death on the Cross where, as an innocent man he prayed to the last, "Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing." (Luke 23:34) A small child hearing Jesus’ words can both understand and believe in him; so can any adult with a heart and mind open to listen. This way, we too can enter this new Kingdom.

L.P. Hartley, author of the well-known novel, "The Go-Between" wrote, "The past is another country. People do things differently there", reflecting on how social attitudes can be so very different from one generation to another. In the same way, the Kingdom of God is another country, where people do things differently—completely differently—operating according to a new paradigm that is impossible even to conceive of, without getting to know the King and people of that country intimately.

So the Kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of this world—many of which are still ruled by tyrants and despots, usually men, who are callously indifferent to the sufferings even of their own people. Such oppression is obvious with despots such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, who cares nothing for the people; the fact that they are profoundly weakened by enforced homelessness, hunger and disease, hundreds needlessly dying of cholera, poverty and starvation, merely ensures they are powerless to oppose him and his rule. Similarly, the lives of people in the—laughingly called—Democratic Republic of the Congo, are destroyed by others who seek power and control at any cost. There can be no doubt that the rulers of the kingdoms in this world are absolutely convinced that power is established through control, often necessitating violence. If people won’t do what their leaders command, they must be made to carry out their wishes, or be imprisoned, tortured and ultimately killed if they don’t comply. With so many of the practitioners of such a philosophy claiming allegiance to one of the Abrahamic religions, it is hardly surprising therefore, that so many people believe that God must think this way too. They simply cannot envisage life working in any other way.

But it is not only in those countries far away from us; all around us in our secular culture, we see that people believe in the survival of the fittest. Those who fight to come out on top will naturally be the ones in control. The cleverest and most able will own all the wealth and position—and in turn they will control others. The Christian church down the ages may have brought a modifying influence on society but really it hasn’t changed people’s fundamental belief system. Rather it has colluded with much of the same thinking. Because even in churches today, we see that discipline is often enforced by ostracism — excommunication without ceremony.

Not so in the Kingdom of God—the kingdom that Jesus preached is a kingdom where goodness, truth, kindness, acceptance and understanding reigns! The kingdom of God is open to all—good and bad (Matthew 22:10). This is the kingdom that Jesus modelled. And the values of his Kingdom are established not by rulers but by those who are prepared to be servants of all; not by powerful and impressive people, but by the humble and meek. Not by brilliant well-educated people, the rich and famous, nor by celebrities or politicians. But by followers of Christ—that is to say, all those of us who are sufficiently convinced of the values of the Kingdom of God that we are prepared to change our lives and our lifestyles to model that Kingdom . . . as Jesus did.

Freed from SIN

You see, the salvation that Jesus came to offer, first and foremost, was salvation from SIN, not salvation from a wrathful God and threatened punishments, although a careless reading of the Bible might leave you thinking so. Jesus came to save us from our sins—because the nature of sin causes us to perish (John 3:16). By sins, I am not referring merely to the transgressing of a list of do’s and don’ts according to biblical law. Such transgressions are indicative of sin, but they don’t represent the heart of the problem. There is something much more fundamental than that.

From the first sin committed in the Garden of Eden, we can recognise that this was not merely a story about capriciously choosing to eat bad fruit rather than good fruit. The symbolism of the story of the Fall of Man must surely be about man deciding to take his destiny upon himself rather than walk in relationship with God. The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was the one forbidden fruit. What does that tell us about sin? That our obsession with the fruit of knowing good and evil—foolish gossip and speculation uninformed by godliness, mixed with ambition and pride—actually destroys us and the society we live in. So I believe that sin is better defined as that ego-driven, self-centred agenda, that puts me as No. 1 and everyone else, including God, into the position of serving me—to fulfil my needs and desires.

Whereas the follower of Jesus Christ—the true Christian disciple— recognises that whilst our own needs are actually as important as those of the next man or woman, they are not more important. Rather, we are called to live as a community, where our desire is to live and work to serve one another, as Jesus did. First and foremost, those of us present here tonight (at a Courage meeting) may want to consider the needs of our gay Christian sisters and brothers, because it is in fellowship of this kind that we find a sense of belonging and support. But unless our concern embraces all of our neighbours, whatever their background and whether we find them congenial or not, our claim to having a Christian "faith" is humbug—a vacuous posture. Because if our claim to be Christian is to have any credibility at all, the values of the Kingdom of God must be evident in our lives; they must be seen to be a working model, as we live and work in this world today. At this point, we should perhaps stop to ask ourselves, "What (or perhaps Who) is it that truly motivates us?"

The trusting little children to whom Jesus so often referred, had nothing but what their parents provided. As we respond to the challenge of the Gospel, we too find that the things that really matter in life are not the material things that the world runs after. What really matter are the values that Jesus taught and shared with his followers. We see that, if there is to be a day of judgement, (Matthew 25:31-46), it is those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, offer hospitality to strangers, care for the sick, visit people in prison—who are recognised by Jesus Christ as the true citizens of the kingdom of God.

There can be no doubt that Jesus’ teaching was radically different to anything else we’ve ever heard in this world—before or since! The famous Sermon on the Mount makes that clear: Luke 6:20-36. Who else has ever taught us to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, or reward evil with good? Grace is the essence of all Jesus’ teaching.

Grace and Truth

The Good News is that all the teachings of Jesus to those who follow him are prefaced by the message of forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. Moreover, there are sometimes miracles along the way that demonstrate the authority of Jesus’ message. But true miracles are, more often than not, given by God to help kindle the faith of those who are seeking the truth, who want to believe in Jesus and his kingdom. They are not provided in order to prove Jesus’ authority to cynics—by offering spectacular and persuasive demonstrations of power, of a kind that the world around us adores. Our Christian witness has no real credibility in the eyes of anyone, if it is presented as a performing circus.

I believe I experienced a miracle last October, when my life was saved— for perhaps a few more years, God willing. Initially this was thanks to the prompt action of my wife Bren who, out of love and concern for me, called for an ambulance . . . that led me to having an emergency life-saving operation the same day. Whilst I experienced the National Health Service working at its very best in an emergency situation, and I am enormously grateful to all who cared for me so wonderfully, above all I must give thanks to God for sparing my life. In hospital, I saw many other wonderful things happening, relieving suffering and brining healing to people in dire straits. This all came about through a Health Service that is provided in this country (the UK) for all, without discrimination and without price—and that includes all men, women and children, young and old, rich and poor, clever and not so clever, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or non-believer, straight or gay. Of course, some people would dismiss that life-saving incident as the work of man, not of God. But the whole experience led to my reflecting on the fragility of life and I recognised that our lives are very much in God’s hands.

For those brought up to believe that there must be a penalty for all sin, it is an inescapable fact that, sooner or later, we are all going to die and leave this life. None of us will escape having to pass through the doorway of death. So to prepare for that event, whenever it comes, is a serious issue for any thinking person. For me, as a man of faith, it is easiest to interpret the events in my life of the last few months as miraculous, because the outcome was that I am here today to tell the tale, spurred on to live for Christ. But when the day of our death does come, it is what happens next that is the big question. We have the story of Jesus’ own resurrection, but other than that we know very little—and nothing at all with the kind of certainty that can be empirically demonstrated before our eyes. Yet our hearts surely tell us that death is a strange interruption to a conscious life that should surely be ongoing. Why else would we mourn someone’s death if it were merely a natural conclusion to their life? I find that as I get older, if I had no hope for something better beyond this life, then my own life today would seem mind-numbingly pointless. The Christian faith gives us great hope—because we have a Saviour who returned from the dead, after we crucified him. To all who listen and believe, the Holy Spirit confirms the truth of that in our hearts today.

Reconciled through forgiveness

The Good News of Jesus Christ takes away the fear we might otherwise have had—of judgement to come and then eternal punishment to follow—a doctrine that portrays God in our image, a harbinger of death not life. Instead, through the Cross, Jesus brought the good news of forgiveness and reconciliation—the way to Life—that we might be restored to God’s image. And our commission is to be the messengers of that fantastic Good News.

If anyone is still afraid, let them consider the words of Jesus’ disciple John, who wrote in his first letter, chapter 4:18,19 "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us."

It is ironic, but sadly all too typical, that most people who are prepared to listen to Jesus at all, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or from other faiths, are easily able to recognise the prophetic wisdom, indeed the truth of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. I have personally met some Muslims who show more reverence and respect for Jesus than some Christians. But it is the embracing of those teachings, those values, that sets apart the true believer, the true disciple of Christ from the religious dilettante—who perhaps like to discuss or even play with the ideas, but altogether fail to change the values they live by, and continue, by default, to exploit and oppress others.

Repentance: a change of heart and a change of mind

This brings us to the need for repentance; and repentance in essence means having a change of heart and mind. Embracing the Gospel means allowing a paradigm shift to take place in our thinking, as we are taught by the Holy Spirit. Such a shift reveals that there is a better solution to the world’s problems than simply visiting apocalyptic disaster upon sinners who deserve judgement (like all of us).

One of the great strengths of the evangelical church has been that in preaching the Gospel, people come to recognise that there comes a time to soberly consider the claims of the Gospel. The great value in facing the truth of God at such a time is that we come to realise there can be a new beginning—a new life to start with. I recall quite vividly when this happened for me about 35 years ago. When I heard the gospel, I knew in my heart that I wanted to become a Christian. My heart and mind began to change as I heard and embraced the Good News of Jesus Christ. I actively sought to make a confession of faith and was subsequently baptised as a believer. This was a life-changing event for me, marked by a clear decision. I did not know what I was letting myself in for of course. But I have never regretted making that decision to follow Christ, even though a very tough and challenging spiritual journey has followed.

Commitment: Faith is for a lifetime, not just for Christmas!

It always amuses me to see the bumper sticker on cars that declares, "A dog is for life, not just for Christmas"—emphasising the important message that you must not take on the ownership of a dog as a Christmas present, and then forget the responsibilities that go with dog ownership. Well God is for life too—not just for Christmas! God is for LIFE! As Jesus said, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." (John 10:10 ANIV)

Turning to Christ is not a whimsical response to a carefully-crafted marketing ploy in the modern hyper-market of religions. It is a decision that requires commitment. And that will be an ongoing commitment—for life. It requires the sacrifice of all we once held dear—for the much greater prize of knowing and following Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the One who lives and reigns forever, long after the despots and tyrants and democratically elected, pragmatic politicians of this world have died.

Meanwhile, there are many people in this world prepared to recognise the teachings of Jesus as prophetic, even the way of salvation (for Christians). But when one group fights for their assumed territorial rights by aggressively attacking the land of another, clearly their fundamental belief system remains as it has always been throughout the tragic history of mankind. One can understand the angry responses. It is indeed very tempting to react in kind under such pressure, since most people basically believe in their hearts that victory over aggression can only be achieved by force. But ultimately this is the projection of a doctrine of judgement and damnation. Hell must be the destiny of all who do not conform to the assumed will of God (i.e. my will). Since this belief is shared by so many Christians, who cheerfully declare "the year of the Lord’s favour" as the hope for repentant professing Christians, whilst believing that "the day of vengeance of our God" is for everyone else, it is small wonder that this "gospel" has neither appeal nor credibility outside the cultures that have grown out of a Christian traditional framework, as in the West.

Whereas Jesus, accepted fraudulent accusations, torture and crucifixion at the hands of his enemies, rather than choose violent confrontation. The outcome is a triumph, opening up the way of salvation for all mankind. Yet his message, indeed his whole life, poses a very great problem for us —because his approach subverts and works in opposition to our understanding of the world and how it must operate. His is a philosophical and practical challenge that requires absolute surrender of our own ego-driven aims in life.

Of course, Jesus’ way was never one of passive aggression; even less one of acceptance of evil. He never hesitated to confront greed, exploitation, the wrong use of authority, power and force. But nor did he ever propose the use of force to build his kingdom. Rather he confronted in humility and truthfulness, with goodness and generosity of spirit, always willing to pay the price. That has a way of disarming enemies who only seem able to understand the way of coercion. And Jesus taught with a natural authority that was astonishing to all who heard him.

To truly hear the message of Jesus today is to discover "the truth that sets you free" (John 8:31,32)—with no sub-text that would create a stumbling block to lesbian & gay people from entering the kingdom of God.

Saved by Grace

Through him, we discover that the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ is gracious to all. Contrary to the ways of our world, God does not use threats or fearful demands to make us follow him. Rather it is the experience of God’s goodness that reveals to us the way of Christ.

So which way shall we go, as we begin the 2009th year of our Lord?

If you would like to make this moment the time of decision for you, then open your heart to Jesus Christ and ask him into your life as Saviour and Lord. Or maybe this is the moment to re-affirm the commitment you made years ago.

Let us remember the prayer our Lord taught us:

"Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins,

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours

now and for ever.

Amen"

Jeremy Marks/Courage: January 2009

 

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