Why Bother with the Gospel?

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What is going to happen when lock-down in this country has ended and COVID-19 is a thing in the past? What “world-view” will we have for what is good for people? For along with the majority in the Western World in the late 20th century, it was believed that laws and governments have to be neutral regarding views and beliefs on what is the common good.

But now in the 21st century that neutrality is seen as a myth. For secularist ideas about human nature, human good, and, human destiny have been subtly introduced that are more controversial than any Christian ideas or other religious ideas. And more serious still - this idea of neutrality has been abandoned now that a secularist ideology is controlling education, the news and entertainment industry, many professions, much of the business world and even elements in the churches.

So, there is no longer any pretended neutrality in many areas, not least in those relating to marriage and the family. There progressive ideas have resulted in social disaster – with the break-up of marriages and families.

But what is the essence of these new ideas? Answer: nothing new. For (and relevant for this morning) they reflect certain fundamental ideas and beliefs that were dominant in the pagan Greco-Roman world of the first century – and so in the time of Jesus. And these ideas were only defeated, though never quite destroyed, by the ideas and beliefs of those 3000 Jews (and their successors) who believed and were baptised that first Pentecost, which today we are celebrating. For that was the beginning of the world-wide Church of Jesus Christ now comprised of billions of people

So how do you summarize these fundamental ideas and beliefs of Christianity over against these pagan ideas – ancient and modern? Well, our series of Sunday morning studies from Mark’s Gospel, and entitled Following the King, are an attempt at such a summary. But before we look now at Mark 1.14-20, our passage for this morning let us pray:

Heavenly Father, in this confused world of the 21st Century, we pray that, by your Holy Spirit, you will open your word to our hearts and our minds; and our hearts and minds to your word, for Jesus sake. Amen.

This morning I have two, very simple headings, first, The Gospel of God, and, secondly, Fishers of Men.

1. The Gospel of God and Mark 1.14-15

"Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'"

Galilee was the region in the North of Israel, and ruled by a puppet Jewish King, Herod Antipas, on behalf of the Romans. And it was more liberal in culture and religion than Judea in the South that was ruled by a Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. Galilee’s liberalism was reflected in King Herod’s marrying a divorced woman, who was not only his niece but also his sister-in-law! And John the Baptist was imprisoned for publicly saying how wrong this was. It was then that Jesus started his ministry in Galilee, “proclaiming the gospel of God” with the “gospel” meaning, in the original, “good news.”

By way of introduction – this word “gospel (or good news)” was regularly used in state proclamations regarding a new king or emperor. But, with Jesus, “teaching” was added to its meaning.

Jesus knew that your mind matters. For what you think matters. And what you think about God matters more than anything else. And, so, Jesus came into the world, among other things, to teach us how to think about God.

The Old Testament had taught that God was the existence behind all existences and the creator of this amazing universe of space and time. And God had taught, through his prophets, that he was personal but utterly distinct in his holiness, his justice and his mercy. Then Jesus came to teach and to die for sins, showing that God was not only merciful but loving and to the Nth degree. So much by way of introduction.

But by way of the context in Galilee, we need to know there were two major philosophies at this time in the Roman world. They were Epicureanism and Stoicism. Paul referred to them when preaching in Athens (Acts 17.18). Epicureanism was effectively humanistic and Stoicism believed in a divine force but only in this world and part of it. In Tiberias, the capital of Galilee, these ideas would have had some currency, and also diluting Jewish beliefs.

So how people there needed Jesus’ teaching about God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as revealed at Jesus’ baptism - that Trinitarian moment earlier referred to in Mark 1 (verses 9-11). And how people need Jesus’ teaching now! So, “after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel [or Good News] of God.”

Mark next goes on to give Jesus’ outline of his teaching in verse 15 where Jesus says:

"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."

These are very important words because they are the very first recorded words of Jesus’ public ministry. And here too it is “gospel” or “good news”. And three things need to be learnt.

1) First, from Jesus saying “the time is fulfilled,” people have to understand that God has a plan for this world. History is not just one thing after another. No, as the old hymn says:

"God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year."

And with the coming, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, a cosmic event occurred such as is only paralleled by the creation of this space-time universe. And much of the world acknowledges that. For we say, this is the 21st century – from when it all happened. And what happened was that with Jesus coming into this world, God the Son (the agent in the creation), “the kingdom of God was at hand.”

God, of course, had already been ruling over this universe. But Old Testament prophets foretold a time when he would reign over it more directly. An “anointed one” (in Hebrew, a Messiah; in Greek, a Christ) would inaugurate this kingdom. It would be marked by righteousness and peace. And there would be new life and a new or renewed community.

And Jesus’ “good news” was, that this “kingdom of God” was “at hand” – an interesting expression. It means something like logging on to this streamed service. If you use an amazon firestick on your TV like me, it is with difficulty. Eventually you get to the right screen, and press the button. Then, wonder of wonders, eventually there is some movement - the streaming “is at hand” and then you see the service leader and hear the welcome. Similarly, with Jesus; yes, the kingdom was supremely real already, but there was much more to come. Its fullness was in the future.

So, first, God has a good plan for this world and Jesus is at the heart of that plan.

2) But, secondly, it needed a twofold response. What was that?

One thing was: “to repent”; the other was “to believe in the gospel.”

So, first, what does “repent” mean? Literally, the word means “to change your mind”. So, suppose you were in Galilee and you’d been influenced by the teaching of Epicurus. Well, repentance then was (and still is) to reject the philosopher’s “four part cure” – I quote Epicurean actual words:

“Don’t fear god,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure.”

Instead you come to accept the biblical worldview that takes account of the fact of human sin. And you admit the folly in the Fathers of secularism (a modern Epicureanism). For they, taught two basic things: first, that man is born not with an inherited habit of sinning but born perfectible by evolution or education. And secondly, God, if he exists, doesn’t take any interest in this world.

But you reject that and believe the biblical ”four part view of things” namely, the reality of:

  • first, the Creation by God (by whatever method);
  • secondly, the Fall of mankind when Adam and Eve thought they knew better than God;
  • thirdly, the Redemption by Jesus Christ (the divine Son) when he came that first time, taught, died for our sins in our place, and then rose again proving his deity and then sent the Holy Spirit that first Pentecost; and,
  • fourthly, the Consummation of all things when, and after, Christ comes a second time both for judgment and for God to establish a new heaven and a new earth. But you don’t just need to repent and change your mind.

But you don’t just need to repent and change your mind.

You, secondly, also need to “believe in the gospel” (says Jesus) and note the word “in”. What does that involve? Well, you trust in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, and seek to follow his example. For he had an intimate relationship with his Father in which he used the Aramaic word “Abba” for “Father” – the intimate word used by a child. And he taught his followers to have a similar relationship with the Father, by praying the Lord’s Prayer with its invocation, “Father, hallowed be your name.” And as you believe in Jesus, who forgives you your sins, you receive his Holy Spirit who, we are told is “the Spirit of adoption and by whom we cry, ‘Abba!’ Father!” (Romans 8.15).

I wonder who needs to believe in the gospel like that this morning and begin a new relationship with God? Why not do so on this Pentecost Sunday 2020? And remember how Peter finished off the first ever Pentecost sermon. It was with these words:

“Repent and be baptized … in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2.38).

And Jesus’ message today is still, “repent and believe in the Good news.”

That brings us, and more briefly, to our second heading:

2. Fishers of Men

Look at Mark 1.16-20:

"Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he [Jesus] saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, 'Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.' And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him."

If Pentecost was the birthday of the Church, here was its conception. Note four things about this 'ecclesial embryo'!

1) First, it is a church of people. Yes, individuals are precious to God. Jesus said, “even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10.30). But individuals are to be in a larger body or fellowship - the Church. It seems God is a God of relationships, as seen in the Divine Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So here was an embryonic body of Christ and four members!

2) Secondly, this group was inclusive – not in the sense that all could believe theologically what they liked or do morally what they liked. But here were different temperaments (we know from later on), and, it seems, different backgrounds. It looks as though Andrew and Peter were on their own, with perhaps a small boat. But James and John were in the fishing business of “Zebedee and Sons” – a bigger affair with “hired servants” (verse 20). Perhaps they were richer. So, Jesus is for all – and always remember, no one is too bad for him to forgive or too good to need his forgiveness.

3) But, thirdly, when Jesus said, “Follow me” they all immediately obeyed. That proved their faith in Jesus was genuine. Saving faith and love for Christ is evidenced by obedience. Christ died not only to open the gate of heaven to all believers, but also that they should live for him now in this life. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5.15:

"he died for all that those who live for him might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised."

4) So, fourthly, these followers were to follow Jesus to “become fishers of men.” This is Jesus’ very first parable and the very first title for ministers – “fishers of men” (not “shepherds of sheep”, but “fishers of men”). “Fishing” is the task of winning men and women for Christ which involves sacrifice. It did for these first disciples. And it may involve direct opposition as John the Baptist experienced.

Of course, fishing can be on your own on the banks of a river, like the Tweed. But the only fishing I’ve ever done is in an Artic trawler from Hull in 1959 as a student, before the days of factory ships. I was cutting ice in the hold. That sort of fishing involved team work and all sorts of different skills. And fishing from a Church like Jesmond, similarly, needs many different gifts and skills. So, God needs us all in his work.

I must sum up: the church is people; it is to be inclusive; it is to be obedient; and it is to grow by fishing - if we follow Jesus. And may we follow Jesus.
Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, we pray that we may store up your word in our hearts that we do not sin against you; for Jesus sake, Amen.

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