Believe in the Good News (Third Sunday after Epiphany)

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I honestly can’t remember the last time I shopped in a Kohl’s Department store.  It’s not that they aren’t a decent store, or that I don’t like them.  It’s just that most of my shopping is now online.  It’s usually not convenient for me to go there.  And whenever I have gone there, I have never, ever given them my work email address.

And yet, over Christmas I began receiving multiple emails to my work email address claiming to be from Kohl’s!  “Good news,” they all told me, I was a winner!  I was selected to receive a free – something – the thing was different in the many emails I received and they all ended up in my spam folder. 

There was so much “good news” in my spam folder, that I couldn’t keep track of it all!  Except that it really wasn’t from Kohl’s.  And it wasn’t really “good news”.  It was a scam.

But around that same time, the year was ending and politicians of all parties were claiming that the economy was doing much better – or much worse – directly related to specific policies they had enacted, or if it was bad, because of specific policies their opponents had enacted. 

But there was “good news” they all told me!  I had a chance to vote for them and continue the good stuff in the coming year, or vote out the current office holder and usher in a new era of good stuff!  Good news was all around.  But eventually, all of these claims get fact checked.  Usually, the claims are exaggerated, or at least lacking important context.  And in some cases, the claims of “good news” have been fact checked many times before and debunked, but they continue to be made anyway!  “Good news” they keep telling me!  But it’s not really good news, it’s a lie, or at least an exaggeration.

But every once in a while, I think I see some objectively good news.  A couple of weeks back, it was reported that the barely Republican controlled House and the barely Democratically controlled Senate had come to a budget agreement so that we all don’t need to live through more “shut down” drama.  And while passing budget bills is one of those basic, low bar things that Congress is supposed to be able to do in its sleep, it often doesn’t, so this seemed like genuinely good news!

But then, immediately there were stories about people who might tank the agreement, and others who were unclear about what was or wasn’t included, so maybe they wouldn’t be on board either.  Now, we’re back to more drama.  Yes, it WAS good news, but the “good news” was fleeting.  Who knows what will really happen next?

And all of these things are still in my mind as I read the beginning of today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus has returned from the wilderness and proclaims, “Repent, and believe in the good news!”

Often, we have a tendency to focus on that first word, “repent.”  We often think it means “stop doing bad stuff.”  And that can be part of it.  The word actually means, “turn around”, and it does imply stopping what you’ve been doing.  That is often harder than we admit, as any of us who are trying to wean ourselves off of holiday overeating can attest!

But to me, that’s NOT the hard part!  The hard part is, after stopping what you’re doing, “believe in the good news.”  Really Jesus, that’s the part that takes work.  There’s a lot of “good news” all around me, but so much of it is a scam; or it’s a lie; or it’s fleeting.

Although unfamiliar with spam emails and mass communication, I suspect many of Jesus first hearers experienced “good news” in the same way that we often do.  And they would have been skeptical as well.  Were they just supposed to blindly believe whatever came out of Jesus’ mouth?  Was Jesus trying to sell them something?  Or was Jesus running for office?  I’m sure these thoughts ran through peoples’ minds, and for good reason.

And yet, it’s interesting that the phrase Jesus uses is unique.  He doesn’t say “believe THE good news.”  Instead, he says, “believe IN the good news.”  The good news Jesus brings isn’t a sales pitch you’re supposed to buy.  And it’s not an idea that you’re supposed to intellectually accept.  Instead, it’s an experience Jesus calls his followers to live into.

And living into the good news is different from buying into so much of the alleged “good news” that we hear about in our daily lives.  Rather, living into Jesus’ good news is about:

  • Growing in relationship with the bringer of the good news – one of the sure signs that “good news” may be a scam is that the promoter of “good news” doesn’t really know us, and doesn’t want us to get to know them, either (you know all those text messages that say, “I’m really busy right now so don’t call me!”); Mark doesn’t report any content of this “good news” but says that the final words of Jesus were “follow me.”  That is, come and be with me.  Don’t just listen to words I say.  Watch me.  Follow me.  Learn from me.  Grow in deeper relationship with me.  And that’s because Jesus himself – the very living presence of God in your life – is the good news.  But that can’t be experienced simply by reading an email; that good news has to be lived into…
  • Participating in the good news – often, when politicians promise us “good news”, it comes without needing to do anything other than “vote for me.”  Somehow, all of our ills can be solved simply by somebody else “fixing” things, without any cost or effort on our part. And that is deceptively tempting!  But when Jesus called his first followers, it wasn’t simply to come and watch (or vote for him for Messiah!)  He made them participants in the mission of making God known and real in the lives of others.  They themselves participated in the good news – they didn’t just hear about it; and often, it was through participating in the good news that they themselves experienced good news, instead of just listening to it…
  • Sharing good news with others – those scam emails I was telling you about always seem to appeal to the idea that I alone am special, and am about to receive this thing that nobody else can have!  Maybe they’re appealing to vanity or the need to feel special.  But real good news has a broader appeal than just me.  And when Jesus called his first followers to live into the good news, he always made them sharers of the good news.  Even in Mark’s Gospel, where he tells them to keep quiet for the time being, he always in the end sends them out to share good news with others.  Real good news can’t be lived into by keeping it for yourself or your small band of family and friends…

Today, as we gather for our congregational meeting, we hear again these words of Jesus to “believe in the good news.”  And as a community of Jesus followers, that means we get a chance to celebrate how we’ve actually lived into the good news of Jesus in the past year, and to commit ourselves to continuing to live into the good news in the year ahead.

And for us, just as for Jesus’ first followers, that doesn’t mean simply hearing or repeating words of good news.  Instead, for us too, believing in the good news means living into the good news by deepening and strengthening our relationship with Jesus each day.  For us, too, believing in the good news means opening ourselves up to being active participants in the work that God calls us to be about in our community and our world.  And for us, too, believing in the good news means being sharers of the actual love and presence of Jesus with one another and with the community around us, so that we make it clear that the good news isn’t just for us.