Jonah 3:1-10; Mark 1:14-20 In a former Presbytery of mine there was a minister who would ask of ministry candidates a certain question. He would cite some bible passage in which there seemed to be no redeeming qualities, and then peer over his glasses to ask the candidate, “Where is the gospel in that scripture.”
I didn’t care for it much, I still don’t, I don’t much care for looking to catch people in some mistake. But, at the very least I learned from him that whatever we read out of this book, it ought to be about good news. In this case it is the good news, the gospel, which is what the Greek word means, according to Mark. We read that Jesus went to Galilee, his home region, calling on people to believe in the good news.
So that’s what he’s about, that’s what we’re about good news. But, the beginning of the good news that he gives us to tell, is a warning that sharing such good news can be dangerous. Because before we get to our good news about Jesus, we have to deal with John the Baptist’s arrest by Herod Antipas, leading to John’s imprisonment and eventual execution.
“Now after John was arrested,” begins our passage, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” We have to come to grips with that, you and I, that sharing good news can be dangerous. Jesus, hearing John’s message, upon hearing that John was arrested, then took his message to his own territory, that of Galilee, to share good news, the same good news that got John arrested.
John’s arrest is meant to put a stop to good news. That is what Herod Antipas intends, he wants to arrest John, and he wants to arrest John’s good news. He doesn’t want something different. That is why civil rights protesters were thrown in jail on any pretext, why Nelson Mandela was locked away in Robben Island for 30 years, to keep the people from hearing good news, to keep them from having hope that life as it is, as it is under the control of the Herods of the world, can be changed, can be different.
There is a reason we imprison people, and it has little to do with making us safe. It can, but often it has more to do with shutting up any voices that are different. It is criminal justice Sunday, an we are reminded that our national absorption with building prisons and placing people in them has gone from 300,000 imprisoned in 1972 to over 2 million today, making us among the highest industrial nation in prison population.
John the Baptist was arrested, which tells us the action was somehow lawful. Arrest is a loaded term, it isn’t just being pulled over, it is the word for being handed over to the power of another. Arizona sheriff Joseph Arpaio believes that the prisoners in his jail have been handed over to him so that he can serve them only bread and water. He believes they are handed over to him and he has power to do with them as he wishes.
In time Jesus will also be handed over, just as John was handed over, placed in the power of another. It’s the reason that Christians through the centuries have had a particular sympathy for the prisoner, not treating them as people who deserve whatever comes to them, but seeing them as people who just might be locked up for no good reason, who need our love and our help and our concern.
That’s our history. The good news can be dangerous, it can get you arrested, it can hand you over to those who don’t want to hear that there is a better life, a better way of doing things, a better solution then violence, and prison, and executions, remembering that our own savior, just as was John the Baptist, were both unjustly arrested, imprisoned, and executed.
That’s what good news does. And yet, it still is good news, isn’t it? It really is good news. Jonah goes to Ninevah planning to pronounce judgment, repent or your days or numbered, and much to his surprise, and maybe horror, they hear him and believe him and receive what he has to say as good news.
It is interesting that Jesus believes that his good news is basically the same as John’s good news. John doesn’t strike us as a good news bringer. He warned of the future in dismal tones of judgment, living and eating as an ascetic, people thought he was mad. His message was repent, the end is near.
I remember one time hearing a sports talk show carrying on a discussion about what historical figure they’d like to invite to their Super Bowl party. Some even suggested Jesus, although after one Super Bowl half time show I would probably been glad that Jesus wasn’t around.
But, I get Jesus—he was remembered as one who came eating and drinking and gathering around him the outcasts of society and religion in joyful feasts. What I didn’t hear was someone suggest John the Baptist, the ultimate party pooper. And yet they both had the same message, one of repentance, something called good news.
My friend Pat McGeachy told me about two preachers who compared themselves this way: “One can promise you heaven, but everyone still believes they’re going to hell; and the other can give everyone hell, and everyone will believe they’re going to heaven.”
And that gets us back to our good news. Both John and Jesus preached good news, but for some it didn’t sound very good, perhaps because it wasn’t really presented as good news. Another gospel, another good news account, according to the gospel of John says when it comes to Jesus, it was a word of God made flesh, but it was a word of God filled with grace and truth.
That’s a fascinating combination for me—grace and truth. You really can’t have one without the other. That gets lost in our “tell it like it is” culture, where folks revel in leveling others with their words of so-called truth, when in fact they are telling the truth—they’re telling it as they see it, they’re telling it as they like to speak it, no matter who or what is hurt or rejected. We can be righteous, even self-righteous, when we embrace righteous and just causes. It is that ever abounding grace that takes our truth and makes it good news, or gospel.
The world begs to hear from the Word that is filled with grace as it speaks what is true. The world is begging for good news, for truth that is filled with grace. I think that is where the idea of grace gets too limited. In my own upbringing grace was only a mercy for our failings, forgiveness of sins. It surely can be that, but it is so much more, it is a way of living and speaking that embraces those who only hear judgment and instead offering unqualified and unrestricted acceptance.
Maybe that’s why good news can be, if not dangerous, at least treated with disdain, treated as weak, as too accepting, too inclusive. Everyone knows the name Brian Piccolo. His story is famous through the story and movie Brian’s Song. It is a story of acceptance as he and Gayle Sayers, a black running back for the Chicago Bears football team became roomates and friends.
Beyond that story is the story of Brian Piccolo who played for Wake Forest University in 1963. That year the University of Maryland recruited the first black player ever to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Darryl Hill. Maryland was the northern most school in the converence, and Hill suffered constant verbal abuse in the stands wherever he played.
Wafe Forest was one of the worst atmospheres imaginable and the verbal assaults were among the worst. Brian Piccolo in the midst of the abuse walked over to the Maryland bench and shook Hill’s hand. Then he walked with Hill over by the home stands and put his arm around him.
People wonder what Christians are supposed to say today. Where do we take our stand, with whom do we stand. Some want us to take strict stands on moral issues, to declare who is and isn’t in the kingdom, who is and who isn’t saved. That doesn’t sound like good news to me. That sounds like words of judgment and condemnation, words of exclusion, words of rejection. Jesus, knowing the risks involved, goes back to his hometown in Galilee and preaches good news of a kingdom where all are accepted, and none are rejected.
I think we’ll never go wrong with good news. To the successful and to those who fail, to the moral and good, and to those who come up short, to the respected and praised, and to the down and out, who are never noticed, never appreciated—the homeless, the poor, the lost, the ones called sinners, to the sick, to those who see no way out from their desperate conditions.
We have a message for them all, for us all, whether we are sick or well, whether we are free or imprisoned, whether we are defined as sinful by others, or we are considered the most shining examples of morality in town. I read once that Jesus was called a friend of sinners by his critics, but Jesus never called his friends sinners—he called them friends.
Hear the good news, let it be heard from this place in this town. Let it be heard by every needy and lost soul who comes near, let it be heard by everyone who is condemned by others in the name of a false religion of judgment, let it be heard and shared as far as we can share it. Let the others speak their words of judgment and exclusion and rejection. We have something better, something that the world needs to hear. Hear the good news, believe the good news, share the good news.
William H. Berger