December is here. The Advent Season has arrived. As Luke says, it’s time to “be on guard.” “It’s time to be alert.” “The Son of Man is coming!” It’s time to get ready! It’s time to make some preparations! It’s time to get our homes, this church and this city looking more like Christmas!
In just a few weeks, wherever we are, standing in line at Wal-Mart, sitting in the office or sitting in church, people will start asking us the question, “Are you ready?” “Are you ready for Christmas?”
Of course, what they mean is: “Have you finished all of your Christmas shopping? Have you purchased all of our groceries? Have your wrapped all of your presents? Is your house decorated?”
But the question that we probably should be asking, and especially be asking here in church is: “Are we ready for Jesus?” “Are we really ready for the Advent of the Messiah? Are we really ready for the gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ?”
“The gospel”—that’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it?
The problem is that it is this word, “gospel,” is one of those words that we have heard and used so much as Christians, that it’s meaning has been distorted, diluted and even lost.
For some the word “gospel” only means some kind of individual, private relationship. It means the forgiveness of personal sins. It’s an individual’s ticket to heaven. It means that a personal transaction can be made with Jesus to avoid going to hell.
For others, the word “gospel” means the “right thinking about the Christian faith.” When some say “gospel,” they mean the body of doctrine that a person is expected to believe to be a true Christian. It’s a list of things we are supposed to be against as Christians, and most of it is individual, personal things.
However, the truth is that if we take the Greek word, evangelion, the word we translate “gospel,” many theologians agree that the word would best be translated as “revolution.”
In Jesus’ day, it meant “good news.” But evangelionwas not just any good news. And it was never understood as individual, personal good news. But was good news that had political and social significance.
When one nation was at war with another, fighting for its civic freedom, evangelionor “gospel” was what was the report that was brought to the General. “Good news, the battle has been won!”
Or when a son was born to the king, ensuring the political stability of the kingdom, evangelion or “gospel” was what they announced to the public. “Good news! A child has been born to the king. Our reign is secure.”
Mary’s gospel song at the news of Jesus’ birth is an example of such good news proclamation. “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” The good news, the evangelion continues: kings are being cast down from their thrones, the hungry are taking over, and the rich are being sent away empty.”
Her song is nothing less than a battle cry!
The song of her kinsman Zechariah at the birth of his and Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist, is a similar gospel song: “as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us…”
And when that baby grew up, when John began his own preaching in the wilderness, Luke literally described it as “gospeling.” And what was the nature of his gospel or` good news? “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire.”
“And the crowds asked him, ‘what then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food, must do likewise.’”
In his very first sermon, Jesus proclaimed, in terms almost identical to John’s, that “the kingdom of heaven is near,” and then more precisely, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And by the way, this year of the Lord’s favor, this acceptable year, is what is called in Leviticus “the year of Jubilee.”
According to Leviticus, slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest.
It would involve turning the world upside down, the redistribution of wealth and power.
Do you detect a pattern to this good news? When God comes into the world, when God moves against the present order, it is always good news for the poor and the oppressed, and bad news for the proud and the powerful—it’s political, economic, social good news, much more than individual, personal good news.
Evangelion means the end of the world as we know it. Evangelion is what is described in our scripture lesson this morning: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations.” Our Savior is the one who saves the world by disrupting the old order of things and bringing a brand new order. And his reign, his dominion, is going to be so adversarial toward dominion of the powers-that-be, that his work among us is nothing less than a revolution.
No wonder that there were many in Judea that thought that good news really didn’t sound that good news at all.
No wonder John the Baptist ended up dead shortly after his sermon.
No wonder Jesus himself found himself hanging on a cross between two thieves just three years after first announcing this good news.
This is the good news of the gospel. This is the good news that John and Jesus, Mary and Zechariah proclaimed. It is not individual, personal good news that changes our hearts saves our souls. It is revolutionary good news that changes everything and saves the world!
Which begs the questions: Is this our idea of good news?
I suppose that the main difference between good newsand bad newsis where you happen to be standing when you get the news.
Here I stand. My life, my world is not too shabby. It’s a pretty good world, a pretty good life. I’m benefiting fairly well from the present order. I am pretty well-fixed, fairly secure, quite cozy. I have warm clothes, a warm home, a warm car, and warm food to eat and drink. I have never felt oppressed, hated, or discriminated against. I don’t need a revolution. And I don’t really want a revolution, especially if that revolution will come cause me to sacrifice something in my life, if it is going to mean the end of my world as I know it.
No wonder the meaning of the word gospel has been changed over the years from revolutionary good news to merely individual, personal good news.
“Good news! The Messiah’s coming and he’s going to finally set right what’s wrong with this world! He’s going to do justice where injustice has been done!” “He is going to change everything! He’s turning this world upside down. “It’s the end of the world as we know it!”
“Well, please forgive me for not rushing over to Bethlehem for the party!”
When Jesus was born, according to Luke, people like me missed the whole thing. The angels’ heavenly message of evangelion came to none of them. Rather, the heavens split open, songs filled the air, and an angelic army appeared to who? To lowly, poor shepherds out in the fields working the night shift.
And the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to those with whom God is well pleased.” Did you know that this phrase is almost a direct quote from the decrees of Caesar Augustus, one of the world’s most powerful and ruthless dictators?
When Augustus made some imperial decree to support Roman occupation of the Near East, the following were the words which opened the decree: “Glory to the most august Caesar (who was otherwise known as God in the Highest), and peace on earth to those with whom the god Augustus is well pleased.”
Do you see what’s going on here? Christmas angels now sing the Emperor Augustus’ imperialist words. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was a royal decree: “Glory to God in the highest. There’s a new king on the throne, and Jesus Christ is King!” Therefore, Augustus is not.
Love is King. Selfishness is not.
Generosity is King. Greed is not.
Humility is King. Pride is not.
Social justice is King. Inequality is not.
Mercy is King. Putting yourself first is not.
Grace is King. Judgment is not.
Selflessness, sacrifice and self-expenditure is King. Self-protection and self-preservation is not.
Being a church that is about feeding the hungry is King, coming to church to get fed ourselves is not.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s good news. I guess.
Let us pray together.
Come Lord Jesus. Expectantly, eagerly, we await your advent among us. And when you come, give us the courage to receive you, to open our doors to you, and to open our hearts. Give us the grace to receive you as you are, not as we would imagine you to be. Give us the strength to step up, to let go, to move out, and to become citizens of your reign. Amen.