The gospel here is not just Jesus (1:1), but also the gospel-of-God kingdom that Jesus himself proclaims (1:14-15) and its resultant faith/ repentance, too. — David Schnasa Jacobsen, Mark (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries)
Revivals are hindered when ministers and churches take the wrong stand in regard to any question involving human rights. — Charles Finney, Lectures on Revival
I heard the story once of a national Assembly meeting where some representatives were feeling introspective, but not in a constructive way. “What have we got to offer?” said the speaker.
The reply from someone in the cheap seats came: “What have we got to offer? What have we got to offer? Eternal bloody life, that’s what we’ve got to offer!”
We have wonderful good news to offer. I love the way Mark’s Gospel begins:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The grammar nazis among you will tell me that’s not a sentence because there’s no verb in it.
And I shall reply that’s because it’s not meant to be a sentence. It’s a title. And it’s best understood as the title to the whole of Mark’s Gospel. The title tells us that the whole Gospel of Mark is just the beginning of the story of Jesus; we are continuing that story today.
Perhaps we’re still at the beginning. Who knows? “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day”. (2 Peter 3.8) Maybe we’re still in the early days of the Church.
Perhaps we’re still learning how to get it right. Maybe we’re still learning how to speak of the good news of Christ into the world. Maybe we’re even having to learn whether some things are good news or bad news.
During the week, Donald Trump formally recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He has indicated that in the next few years, the US embassy will be relocated there from Tel Aviv. There are Christians who have hailed this decision as very good news indeed. Why?
It’s not about the politics.
It’s because it fits with their their theology of the return of Christ. They want an Armageddon. A real Battle of Armageddon, a battle in the Valley of Megiddo right in the centre of Israel that will result in huge losses of life. And they want it as soon as possible. Then Jesus will come, according to them.
Some of these people have Donald Trump’s ear.
Jerusalem is a mixed city. The west of the city is controlled by Israel; East Jerusalem is under the Palestinian Authority. To make the whole of Jerusalem the capital of Israel is to deny the Palestinians a future in the city.
I think that’s a dreadful abuse of theology. It’s also disastrous politics. And it’s bad news, in my view.
What would be good news?
The story is told (in the Bereishit Rabbah) that two righteous men, Abraham and Shem, called Jerusalem by two different names. One called it Yir’eh—meaning God will show—and the other, Shalem—meaning wholeness. God did not want either to feel wronged, so he compromised and called the city Yir’eh Shalem, or Yerushalem.
Or for us, Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is meant to be a city of peace, of shalom. How far short we fall of that.
It is meant to be a city where all people come to worship God. That’s why the Bible speaks of the New Jerusalem, coming to earth, a city whose gates are always open.
The early Christians, who were all Jews, found this out. It was disturbing to them when Gentiles started turning in faith towards Jesus Christ. Some of them wanted Gentile believers to become Jews, to be circumcised and give up bacon sandwiches. (I don’t know which would be harder!)
But in the end, they realised that if the Holy Spirit has produced faith in Gentile people as they are, then it is not our place to criticise the Spirit’s choice.
Yitschak Rabin was a prime minister of Israel, and a great worker for peace in the Middle East. He signed the Oslo peace agreement with Yasser Arafat, and was committed to withdrawing Israel from the occupied territories. Tragically for the world, he was assassinated on 4 November, 1995.
I had the privilege of representing the Uniting Church at the memorial service for Yitschak Rabin in the Mary St Synagogue in Brisbane. After the service, as we were leaving, I heard one of the members of the synagogue say to another, “It almost makes you wish the Messiah would come.” And I have since reflected how similar our hope is. We are both looking for the Christ who is to come; we Christians name him Jesus.
Jerusalem is a city of many people, who must learn to live together in peace.
The first-century church was a church of two groups, Jews and Gentiles, who had to learn to be one people together.
The kingdom of God consists of people of all races and colours and tongues, all living together in peace.
It is given to the Church to learn and relearn that truth, generation after generation. It is given to Christian people to learn how to live with those who are different.
Last week saw another event here in Australia, the legalisation of civil marriage between same-sex couples. For some Christians, this is a painful decision; for others, it is a relief or even a cause for celebration.
I want to invite you to reflect on what happened this week with me, just for a few moments. After a postal survey that many people found very stressful, we saw an eruption of joy this week. People were crying. I read of a 98 year old man who is looking forward to marrying his partner.
One thing that touched me this week was the reality that many people are wanting to have their relationships recognised as marriage. They want the security of marriage, the knowledge that the law upholds them. That they are each other’s undisputed next of kin.
Is this good news or bad news?
And how can we bring the Good News of peace to bear on this?
We could try condemnation. Years ago, someone told me—as she left my church for good—that I should do more ‘denouncing’ in my sermons. But I don’t think denouncing brings good news into the situation.
We can’t respond by marrying the same-sex couples. The Uniting Church still reserves marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman.
We could simply see the joy, and be glad for those who have long hungered for the covenant of marriage to be something they could share in. We could be glad that people are willing to commit themselves to one another to the exclusion of all others.
Or is that a step too far?
I have to say that I know a number of gay and lesbian Christians. Just as the Spirit of God drew Gentiles to faith in the first century, to the Spirit draws these people to faith today. The Spirit also gives some of them gifts and graces for ministry.
If the Spirit has drawn them, I can’t deny them full inclusion in the Body of Christ. It’s the same principle as Gentiles being included 2000 years ago.
And personally, I am glad that they seek to live in a covenant commitment with one another in civil marriage.
In July next year, the Assembly will be asked to determine whether ministers can be given permission to conduct same-sex marriages according to their conscience. Personally, I hope they are.
One thing is sure: Jesus is the Good News of God and he calls us to be a people of Good News. How do we bring the Good News of Jesus Christ into the Australia we now find ourselves in?
However we do that, we must look for the Spirit of God in working in the lives of others who are quite different to us.
And we must long for the time when it may truly be said, as Psalm 85 says:
Love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will embrace.
Human loyalty will reach up from the earth,
and God’s righteousness
will look down from heaven.
10 December 2017, Advent 3B