Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Good News Is Not Jesus (Mark 1:14-20)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on January 21, 2017, Epiphany III)

Scandalous Church Signs

You know how some churches have fancy signboards out front, updated weekly with alluring sermon titles and pithy proverbs?  A number of these have made internet fame.  You’re probably familiar with some of their messages: “Don’t let worries kill you.  Let the church help.”  Or, “The sermon topic will be, ‘What Is Hell?’  Come early and hear the choir sing.”  Or this one, whose sentiment some of you might share: “Whoever’s praying for snow, please stop.”

I’m grateful right now that we don’t have such a signboard outside.  With a sermon title like today’s, I would worry for my future as a minister.  If word got round to the seminary, they might worry about just how I passed through their doors.

But we don’t have such a signboard outside, thankfully, so all that’s left is for you to worry about the state of my soul—and perhaps for the pastoral search committee to worry about how my heretical faith went undetected.

Good News

Good news is what the gospel of Mark is all about.  For one thing, it’s practically the first word of the book.  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,”[1] Mark says, as he launches into his story (1:1).  But it’s not just one of Mark’s first words.  It’s also the subject of Jesus’ inaugural address.  Mark says that when Jesus began his ministry, he went about “proclaiming the good news of God” (1:14).  “The time is fulfilled,” Jesus says, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:15).

What is the good news?  If you had asked me twenty years ago in Sunday School, I probably would have said “Jesus.”  And not just because “Jesus” was nearly always the correct answer in Sunday School.  Maybe I would have quoted John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”  In other words, Jesus was the good news because Jesus was my ticket into eternal life. 

But that good news was only half of the story that I learned.  The other half of the story was not very good.  Some might even call it bad news.  The other half of the story was that I was born dirty—or sinful—and God would not have me unless I were cleaned up—or forgiven.  If I remained sinful, then God would have no choice but to condemn me to hell for eternity.  So Jesus was good news, but only because God was bad news.  If it weren’t for Jesus, then God would have no choice but to throw me into the flames forever.

The Self-Silence of Jesus

In today’s scripture, Jesus proclaims the good news.  Interestingly, he doesn’t say a word about himself.  If he were the good news as I had been led to believe years ago, I’d expect him to say so.  I’d expect him to announce himself as the superhero messiah, to give everybody fair warning that he was their ticket into heaven.

But he doesn’t do that.  When Jesus proclaims the good news at the beginning of Mark, he doesn’t say a word about himself.  In fact, throughout Mark he is markedly silent about himself.  This strange silence has perplexed readers long enough that it has been given a name.  Scholars call it “the messianic secret.”  Several times throughout the story, when Jesus heals someone or when his own disciples talk about him being the messiah, Jesus shushes them and urges them to tell no one.[2]  Jesus, it would appear, does not want this story to be about him.


Have you ever tried to point a cat or a dog to a distant object?  Instead of looking at the object, they look at your finger.  You may be pointing to something infinitely more exciting than a finger, a toy, perhaps, or a treat.  But your pet misses out on the promise, because all they look at is your finger. 

When Jesus came “proclaiming the good news of God,” he was pointing.  Not at himself.  Listen again to the good news he proclaims: “The kingdom of God has come near” (1:15).

What is the kingdom?  How is this good news?  The way that Jesus will describe it, the kingdom of God is where the poor are blessed, the hungry are filled, the lowly are lifted up, the grieving are comforted, the stranger is welcomed, the enemy is loved, offenders are forgiven, peace is made, children are cherished, the sick are cared for, the nobodies and nothings are given pride of place at the table.  That is good news if I’ve ever heard it. And it is has arrived, Jesus says! 

Stop looking at my finger.  Look at where with all my words and all my deeds I’m pointing.

Putting the Emphasis on the Wrong Syllable

My grandfather was fond of saying, “We put the emphasis on the wrong syllable.”  When we turn Jesus into the good news and don’t look beyond him to the good news that he’s actually proclaiming and living, that’s what we’re doing.  We’re putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable.

The good news is not Jesus alone, as though simply saying “Lord, Lord,” would secure our salvation,[3] or as though faith is about having the right membership and being on the winning side. 

When we proclaim Jesus as the good news, as the password for eternal life, as the membership club of the winning team, we make the good news infinitely smaller than it is.  We make it about “me” rather than “us,” about personal security and satisfaction instead of familial and national and cosmic salvation.  We make it about being right instead of about being reconciled and restored.  We make it about joining the in-crowd rather than living with the down-and-out.  We turn the good news from a bountiful feast beyond our wildest imagination into a measly, greasy, mass-marketed happy meal.  The question is not, “Are you saved?” “Have you prayed the right prayer?” “Are you on the winning side when eternity arrives?”  The question is, “Have you heard about the kingdom of God?  Where forgiveness triumphs over retaliation, where the least and the last are the leaders, where everyone is welcome at the table, where death is the not final word but in fact the seed of new life?  Have you heard about it?  It’s arrived, if you could believe it!  It’s here, now!  Let’s live together in it.”

Jesus’ Invitation

That’s essentially what Jesus says when he proclaims the good news.  “Repent, and believe in the good news,” could be translated more literally, “Change your mind, and trust in the good news.”  In other words, change your mind from the ways of this world, where you seek control and security and your own interests, to the radically different way of the kingdom.  Trust in the kingdom, in the way of self-giving love and mercy and servanthood and hospitality.

Jesus calls to us today in the same way that he called out to the fishermen in the second half of today’s scripture: “Follow me,” he says.  He’s not calling for fanboys or groupies.  He’s not calling attention to himself, proclaiming himself to be a hero who will independently solve our problems.  Rather he’s inviting us on a journey and pointing us to something.  He’s inviting us to leave behind our old ways and to follow him into the kingdom, into a new way of living, where the poor really are blessed, the sick are cared for, the grieving are comforted, the stranger is welcomed, the enemy is loved, children are cherished, the nobodies and nothings are given the best seats at the table.

If You Would Believe It…

I hope by now I’ve dispelled any concerns for the state of my soul or for the search committee’s competence.  I believe that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life.  And for precisely that reason, I believe that the good news is not Jesus.  That’s putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable.  The good news is the way that he walked, the truth that he embodied, the life that he lived.  It’s what Jesus was pointing to. 

The good news is the kingdom of God.  And if you would believe it, it’s here today.


Jesus Christ,
Our way and truth and life—
Grant us the courage
To do more than proclaim your good name;
May we leave behind
Our old ways,
Follow you,
And trust in the good news of the kingdom of God—
Which is here and now,
If we would believe it.  Amen.

[1] The syntactical ambiguity of the phrase to\ eujagge÷lion touv qeouv, “the good news of Jesus Christ,” raises the question of what the good news is.  “Of Jesus Christ” may be read as a subjective genitive or objective genitive, which is to say: it may be read as “the good news from Jesus Christ” or as “the good news about Jesus Christ.”  Several modern translations indicate a preference for the latter, but this homily will explore Mark 1:14-20 as hinting toward the former.
[2] Cf. Mark 1:40-45; 3:7-12; 8:27-30.
[3] Cf. Matthew 7:21; Luke 6:46.

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