The calendar threw a curveball at pastors this year by making both Christmas and New Year’s fall on a Sunday.
So we obviously could not use the first Sunday of 2017 to start a new series, as you want to do that on a high attendance Sunday.
Instead, I decided to continue God Drops into the first Sunday of the new year by playing off the obvious metaphor of the Times Square New Year’s Ball and its midnight drop.
How do you live after the ball drops?
Most of the time, you’d expect a message on turning resolve into results, on making resolutions into habits, on something about the future.
But I didn’t want that cliché. Instead of looking ahead, I wanted to exhort the people of the church to anchor from behind. I wanted to remind them that our faith is rooted in history, not philosopy, and it’s a history that grows in power with each re-telling.
And pastor J.D. Greear’s words formed the ideal bottom line: Jesus was punished for everything we do wrong. We are rewarded for everything he did right. And that is the Gospel.
By the way, for the first time in my time at Good Shepherd, our bishop came to church. Yikes! I was nervous as a cat. This is one of those messages where the content was superior to the delivery.
So after the ball drops – as it did last night (and how about Mariah Carey’s night?!?! – what do you do? Isn’t it always the same? 1. Find someone to kiss (or awkwardly high five if you’re not sure you’re on kissing terms with one close to you). 2. Make a resolution about next year. 3. Have a moment of silence in honor of Dick Clark who certainly cheated Father Time but could not cheat the Angel of Death. 4. Sleep it off. The ball drop – not the same as when you “drop the ball,” which is of course what you do when you forget something – almost always signifies looking forward, planning ahead, resolving towards goals, charting a new course.
And so for those of you – we’ll call you the GS Remnant today – who trudged into church on New Year’s Day . . . you most likely expected some kind of message along those lines. And so it might surprise you that instead of looking, charting a course, and casting a vision, I want to look back. Yeah! On 1.1.17, I want to look back, not so much at 2016 (RIP) but back back back to the origins of our faith. To look at what many experts think are some of the first WORDS written in the New Testament, from I Corinthians (these are not the first EVENTS, those are in Mt Mk Lk Jn. The stuff in the Gospels HAPPENED earlier but were recorded in Gospel, written form LATER.) And specifically, I want to look at I Corinthians 15, which if you were to make a Mt. Rushmore of bible chapters, I think it belongs on it.
Look at how it starts in 15:1:
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.
Note: remind. I love that. So Paul is taking this opportunity AT THE END OF HIS LETTER to remind them of the Gospel. And how did that Gospel get to them? Did they figure it out? Did they reason it out? Did it come to them as a philosophy? NO! Because it’s rooted in history, not philosophy (as we’re gonna see), they got it by preaching. Hallelujah! Job security for PREACHING!
Then look at 15:2: 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
So by that Gospel you are saved, meaning your eternity is somehow wrapped up in your response to history (think about THAT for a few minutes!) but then here’s what’s interesting: “if you hold firmly to the word.” So: hold it. Hold it tightly. And this reminder, this encouragement to HOLD the word, the history, means that it is entirely possible to DROP it! So after the ball drops you for darn sure don’t want to drop the ball of the Gospel!
Then Paul gets down to brass tacks, the nuts & bolts of what this Gospel is in 15:3: For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, How great is first importance? This is it, people! What I am fixing to tell you is not optional; it is foundational. Of all the things about Jesus you have to get right, nothing is more important to get right than this.
Check 15:4: that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. It says “was buried” because in that time most people would have assumed someone who was crucified was NOT buried – they were instead left on crosses for days where animals and birds would devour all the flesh and all the entrails leaving, literally, just the bones for the Roman gov workers to dispose of (and you think YOU have a bad job!). But unlike almost every other crucified person ever, Jesus was buried, and to Paul it is necessary to tell us that.
Because that’s vital to his next assertion: raised on the third day. To be raised you gotta be buried and not eaten, apparently. And then Paul piles on all the appearances of Jesus in the rest of the paragraph:
and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Whew! I’ve said it before but hear it again: the first importance stuff of our faith is NOT a philosophy you figure out; it’s a history you factor in. What we do in Xnty is not follow a man’s teaching about loving neighbors and doing good; it’s about somehow uniting with that man’s gruesome death and glorious resurrection. He invaded history as a precursor to investing in our lives.
So then skip to 15:20: But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. First fruits of those who have fallen asleep. Do you know what that means? That what happened to his body – resurrected, walking through doors ability, never to die again – will happen to the bodies of those who die in faith. I tie that in with 15:3 & its gruesomeness. Then 15:20 and its glory. And then I remember this WHOLE SECTION is the Gospel. The brass tacks of what is this “good news” that makes people come out even on New Year’s Day. This invasion into history which happened once but has an impact for all people for all time. Verse 3 he died for our sins. Gruesome. Verse 20 he is resurrected as an appetizer for our own. Glory. This incredible symmetry: he took our place, bore our penalty & the result is we get the same glory he does. So it’s like I heard: Jesus was punished for everything we did wrong. We are rewarded for everything he did right. And that’s the gospel. Yep. God forbid we ever get too sophisticated, too modern, too forward thinking to anchor ourselves in that. God forbid we ever spend so much time crafting a vision for tomorrow that we don’t REPEATEDLY look back to our roots & gain strength from it. Jesus was punished for everything we did wrong. We are rewarded for everything he did right. And that’s the gospel.
Listen: we can’t repeat it enough. We can’t recite it enough. We can’t begin enough days with it or end enough nights with it. It is the story that defines you, that redefines you, and it is a story that increases in power with each re-telling. This is so essential because life crowds out the gospel. But here’s what I want this series to do: [VIDEO of clamor chaos crescendo which then vanishes/silences like at the end of “Day In The Life” making way for CHRIST HAS DIED. CHRIST IS RISEN. CHRIST WILL COME AGAIN.] That’s it. I want us all in awe of those events, that story, and to know that who I am can never be separated from what happened that weekend. This is not history as in the mere reciting of facts; this history, unlike any other, has enduring living power simply in its own re-telling. We recite and re-tell the story of that weekend with any passion at all and watch the power inherent in it be released. Jesus was punished for everything we did wrong. We are rewarded for everything he did right. And that’s the gospel.
This is why we baptize like we do! (AV of immersion?) Because that’s what water baptism is – look at Romans 6:3-5:
3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.
It is the Easter weekend in a single, decisive moment. United in death. United in resurrection. United with Jesus. Every time we have an immersion baptism here it is a collective reminder that newer is not better, younger is not smarter, that ancient weekend is the governing factor of my life here and now. Jesus was punished for everything we did wrong. We are rewarded for everything he did right. And that’s the gospel.
I have to tell you, though: at almost every level this Gospel Truth is deeply offensive. Look at what it says: Christ died. That was actually a loaded statement in Paul’s day. Why? Because there were in the Corinthian church & other churches a group of people known as the Docetists which means “to seem.” They believed that Jesus didn’t really die; it just looked like he did. He just seemed to. Paul’s words it that way as a direct refutation of that group; you know it offended them. You know who it offends today? Muslims, who while they like & respect Jesus also believe that he didn’t REALLY die on the cross – he either just passed out or someone else was up there dying. “Was buried” – you know who that offended? The early conspiracy theorists who were trying to persuade people that the church & the Romans were in alliance pulling off this great deception.
“Was raised” – you know who that offended? The group in the Corinthian church who held that your body didn’t matter; it was only your disembodied soul that counts. Paul’s like “oh no, that’s not the gospel. The gospel is that you’re getting a newer, better, eternal body . . . but it’s a body nonetheless.”
And this Gospel is offensive in today’s pluralistic, relativistic world because it says this is the ONLY history, the ONLY story that makes this impact. Not Buddha’s history. Not Mohammed’s history. Not Krishna’s history. Those may have some good in their news but they are not THE Good News because those leaders ultimately are not God while Jesus is. Goodness, it broke my heart to hear about the woman in western India who in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety of how she would provide threw her six month old baby into the Ganges River. She said, “The problems in my home are too many and so I offered the best I have to the goddess Ganges: my 1st born son.” No no no! God doesn’t demand your first born from you; he gives his first born to you. That truth separates THE Gospel from all other faiths, beliefs, and philosophies. Jesus was punished for everything we did wrong. We are rewarded for everything he did right. And that’s the gospel.
And this Gospel is offensive to YOU. To ME. Why? What does it say? Christ died for our sins. What does that assume? That you and I are sinners in need of redemption. To any among us who move blithely through life, assuming we’re OK, the Gospel says no you’re not. We are not good people in need of a tune up; we are sinners in need of a Savior. God is good but you stink and you need a way out. Before the Gospel is good news about Jesus, it’s bad news about us. And for many, that’s offensive. Get over the offense, acknowledge you are a sinner in need of a Savior, and love the Gospel. Jesus was punished for everything we did wrong. We are rewarded for everything he did right. And that’s the gospel.
While we’re at it, can I mention a well-known line you may have heard, one attributed to St. Francis of Assisi? Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary use words. (AV) That sounds so good and it speaks to our desire for integrity and subtle witness to the world, but ultimately it’s . . . BULL. Why? Because the Gospel is an announcement. It IS words! Words that tell a story! A story about a weekend and if we don’t tell it people won’t know it. We want to live according to its truth and beauty but don’t put a false choice before me. Do you share the Gospel with words or deeds? YES.
The story needs to be told and re-told and re-told every day. I don’t want us ever to get away from the wonder of telling it, hearing it, singing it. Because it’s history that lives today! It’s a story done and then told on our behalf. For us and for our salvation. We’re never too “deep” or too “mature” in faith to hear it one more time. You don’t ever get beyond it; you go deeper into it. It’s history that makes you, defines you, and your response to that history determines your eternity. So tell it we shall. Tell it we must.
Moms and dads: you especially need to be about this. Even more than the principles from the bible – things like honesty, generosity, and chastity – your children and grandchildren need to hear the stories from the bible and of the gospel. Your kids need to see how their individual story connects with God’s bigger story – the one of Abraham and Isaac, Moses and Aaron, Jesus and Paul. Ground them in that story because power flows from it. Jesus was punished for everything we did wrong. We are rewarded for everything he did right. And that’s the gospel.
So after the ball drops, we’re not looking ahead. We anchoring from behind. We reciting, repeating, celebrating, and even TASTING history. Yeah, tasting history … (Communion)