WHAT IS GOSPEL?

By Jim Jordal

 Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and news about him spread through all the surrounding area. He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. He entered, as was his custom, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. The book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. He opened the book, and found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, Because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim release to the captives, Recovering of sight to the blind, To deliver those who are crushed, And to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began to tell them, "Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."     Luke 4:4-21 WEB

Today I once again feel impelled to discuss the biblical concept of gospel and its use in modern churches---which seem to be on a long, slow slide toward irrelevancy. It’s not scripture that prompts that slide, but rather our outmoded interpretation of it and our inaction in applying the portions we do believe.

Gospel means to announce or bring good news, and it is certainly that, but to many conservative Christians and churches the myriad of blessings covered under the concept of gospel seem lost amid the explanation that gospel simply means good news, or salvation, limited to the poor in heart and possibly the poor in wealth.  

Limiting salvation to the poor sets up the problem of defining poverty. Does it mean those lacking in financial resources, or perhaps it might mean those who are merely “poor in spirit,” as I’ve often heard. And what of those obviously not poor, can they also be saved under the cover of gospel? Yes, the good news of the gospel does cover financial as well as spiritual poverty. But it also covers much more, as we plan to investigate.

Jesus said he came to bring the gospel to the poor. But he then adds healing of the broken hearted to his intentions, as well as release to the captives, sight to the blind, deliverance to those crushed, and the proclamation of the prophesied year of the Lord’s favor. Since these additions also sound like good news, they must then fall under the concept of gospel. So gospel is much, much more than providing forgiveness and personal salvation to the poor. Gospel is the good news of God’s plan for the healing and salvation not only for individuals, but for nations and eventually the entire creation

If that last provision of the gospel is too much for you, read Ephesians 1:10, Philippians 2:9-1l, and Colossians 1:20. These verses reveal God’s plan that Christ’s shed blood at Calvary provides that in the timetable of the ages God will gather and reconcile all creation into a restored relationship with God through Christ, under the cross of universal peace.

Jesus’ other comments on his power to deliver the suffering masses of humanity place blame more on oppressive world systems than on individual miscreants. These evil systems will also fall under God’s displeasure, as you see happening as nations and world systems shake apart and descend into chaos as God brings his earthly kingdom ever closer.

The scope of God’s plan is really beyond human understanding. That we should participate in such an awesome action adds new meaning to the idea of working with Jesus toward salvation and deliverance---not just for the suffering individuals we hear of so often, but also for the anguished nations and the belabored earth. The gospel includes the last phrase of Jesus’ first sermon, announcing the acceptable year of the Lord, otherwise known as Jubilee.

That’s how wonderful God is!

DOES GOD HAVE EXPECTATIONS FOR CHRISTIANS?

By Jim Jordal

“Unto whom much is given, will much be required…” Luke 12:48b

“ He who received the five talents came and brought another five talents, saying, 'Lord, you delivered to me five talents. Behold, I have gained another five talents besides them.' "His lord said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a few things; I will set you over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.' “     Matt. 25:20-21 WEB

Darrell Royal, the great Texas football coach of the 1960s and 70s was noted, not just for his powerful teams, but for his philosophy of coaching and of life. His life and personal philosophy stood out even among the legendary players and coaches of his era. His loyalty to the state of Texas and the University of Texas will be long-remembered among his players and fellow coaches.

Each year his scouts and assistant coaches would gather hopeful players from around the nation, and when they arrived on campus, Coach Royal would call them individually into his office and say: “Son, they tell me yuh got potential. Well, potential don’t mean nuthin’ to me except that yuh ain’t done it yet. Now get out there on the field and do it!”

Now I’m not a great student of football, but after a long career as school teacher I think I know a bit about some factors that lead to success in any field. They don’t always guarantee success, but they make it more likely. Among many factors or abilities leading to success, expectation stands as being vital to success. Potential leaders soon find out that if they don’t expect anything from players, students, or workers, they won’t get anything. Participants in any game or task rise toward expectation and fall toward mediocrity under its absence.

Christians, like talented football players, have great potential, but unfortunately, for various reasons some of it never gets used. Our potential lies in the power of God revealed and applied by spiritual leaders having exceptional wisdom, huge expectations for “what could be,” and righteous foresight coupled with an ability to nurture meaningful relationships.

History records many great leaders who succeeded in building institutions and groups of highly respected people. Much depends upon the performance expectations of leaders who can set examples, provide support for team members, judiciously apply discipline, and succeed in building that “one for all and all for one” attitude.

Yet today we miss much of that wisdom in our society. Politicians, who formerly worked only for their constituents and their nation, now seem to exist only to raise sufficient money for reelection. Money is now king of the commercial side of the nation, while fame-seeking and constantly falling moral standards define our entertainment. The citizens able or willing to consider this moral quagmire often tend to turn away from involvement in disgust over the chaos now impersonating good government or leadership.  

Sociologist Margaret Meade said: “Never doubt but that a small group of dedicated people can change the world. In fact, nothing else ever has.” Too many of us think we can be successful only through a large group of like-minded people.

There is great need today for small groups of concerned people to gather and organize around the pressing need to identify and practice what God expects of his people. Some of us get turned off to religion early in life due to overly-strict, literal-minded, cold-hearted parents or important people like teachers and religious workers who spoke of God’s love, but didn’t let much of it show. Others of us never really get “introduced” to Christ in the first place, and so feel a sort of alienation from serious believers. Others of us grew up under a sort of “feel-good” gospel that never established either viable goals or spiritual commitment. And some of us watched expectantly for evidence that faith actually meant something to its proponents, and were let down.

But whatever your angst concerning religion, there’s a place at the table for you---fears, doubts and all. The idea that God may have expectations for his people scares people because it seems to contradict what we understand to be the full acceptance by God for his children, no matter what. 

Micah 6:8 puts God’s expectations this way: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Not many words, but great impact if we would just “do” them.

FATEFUL WORDS OF JESUS

By Jim Jordal

 “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will tell me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, didn't we prophesy in your name, in your name cast out demons, and in your name do many mighty works?' Then I will tell them, 'I never knew you. Depart from me, you who work iniquity.' “   Matt. 7:21-23 WEB

These fateful words of Jesus set forth qualifications for entry into Christ’s earthly kingdom. They express human frailty and failings in ways that strike deep into our human prejudices, fearfulness, arrogance, and pride. They express God’s values rather than ours as they push us towards action rather than words. And they separate rather than unify, based upon clear recognition of and obedience to God’s often-expressed desires for human behavior.

Matthew 5 through 7 set forth God’s plan for his kingdom on earth, headed by his Son, Jesus Christ. They specifically speak of the importance of “doing” God’s will rather than merely speaking of it.

It’s not human nature to directly act on God’s will---we prefer to talk, ponder, plan, and pontificate. Talk about faith is cheap; action according to faith is often very costly.

The Book of James, chapter 2, details perhaps the best scriptural rendition of human faith in action as it reminds us of the Patriarch Abraham who as yet has no children of his own, but is promised by God that his seed would eventually be as numberless as the stars of heaven. Soon his wife Sara is blessed with a son, Isaac, who in their eyes would fulfill God’s promise. Abraham’s testing came when God sent him off into the wilderness to sacrifice with Isaac, even though he had no animal to offer. As they drew need the chosen site, as young Isaac asks where they will gain a sacrificial animal, and Abraham responds, “My son, God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” When no animal appears, Abraham has Isaac lay out the wood, binds Isaac upon the altar, and takes up his knife to complete the sacrifice. At that crucial moment Abraham spots a lamb caught in a thicket, and offers it rather than Isaac. Abraham obviously had great personal faith, yet he was called upon to show his faith by his action, which he did to our eternal benefit.

James 2 goes on to ask, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself…. But do you want to know, vain man, that faith apart from works is dead? Wasn't Abraham our father justified by works?... Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness;’ and he was called the friend of God. You see then that by works, a man is justified, and not only by faith… For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, even so faith apart from works is dead.”

The Protestant Reformation brought the issues of faith versus works to the forefront of Christian thought. After 500 years of struggle we today seem to have come to the simple truth that we are justified by faith, which then frees and directs us to act on this faith, not as a source of salvation, but in response to our gratitude for salvation.

In the opening Scripture, we note Jesus knew that someday there would be people who would substitute “flashy” religious behavior as evidence of their faith and source of their salvation. Thus they would fall short of his expectations for Kingdom membership, and be unacquainted with him in a spiritual sense. Their error would be disclosed by the final phrase, “I never knew you, depart from me, you who work iniquity,” or as another translation says, “practice lawlessness.”

Modern Christians exist in a world of often pointed disagreement and conflict. Too many of us claim justification by faith while conveniently ignoring God’s clear commands that we practice not only righteousness, but justice---political, economic, social, military, medical, and all other types of human interaction. Passivity in the face of great evil is not a virtue!

“FOR YOU SHALL GO OUT WITH JOY…”

By Jim Jordal

For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace. For the mountains and the hills shall go before you with singing, and the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”                                                                                              Isaiah 55:12 WEB

This Bible verse is probably better sung than read. In music its joyful lilt transfers the overwhelming joy present as the great prophesies of Isaiah bring the wayward sons of God out of their well-deserved bondage and oppression.

As you perhaps know, the history of God’s people is cratered with disaster and suffering, almost always connected to their forgetting of God’s law. This time it was deliverance from the Babylonian captivity. Several thousand years earlier it was from slavery in Egypt, and in several intervening accounts it was from many of their host of enemies. But the principle remains: God’s people lurch from egregious sin, through punishment, then deliverance, usually by some great leader like Jehoshaphat, then God’s favored people, then back to sin again.

The first 39 chapters of the Book of Isaiah constitute a sad rendition of Israel’s sins and God’s anger at their perfidy. From the 40th chapter onward, Isaiah becomes a beacon of hope as God’s people march forward into the deliverance promised for centuries.

Israel’s first and perhaps most notable experience with divine deliverance was its miraculous journey out of 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Later God shared his intent for this anguish by revealing its purpose to create a national memory so graphic that they would never again ignore the cries of sufferers under political, economic, or social oppression.

But the hundreds of biblical references concerning suffering and deliverance can be misapplied in many ways. For example, although the deliverance was national, its principles can also be applied to individual predicaments. As we see every day, individuals also move from sin through punishment through deliverance and back again to sin. It seems to be the nature of the human race. We find deliverance from sin through faith, but then as trials and tribulation arise we sometimes lose confidence in the power of God to keep us on track, so we begin anew on the path of waywardness.

People of faith can be sidetracked in their Christian journey by giving too much attention to the cascade of disaster and human failing revealing itself daily in the news media. Scripture shows that God has reasons for what he does, although we do not often perceive what these reasons are.

Today we see revelations of all sorts of chicanery by public figures prominent in entertainment and politics. We tend to react to these revelations with the faulty view that God has somehow lost control over an immoral, lost world. We forget the promises that I’ve quoted before where God says that “nothing will be hidden that shall not be revealed” as the end times approach and the millennial kingdom of God on earth gains traction.

Deliverance is the message of the hour. As Isaiah says so plaintively, “For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace…” That’s why all the evil and turmoil exists---to identify the many violations of God’s law and to prepare us for the joy and peace soon to follow as God deals once and for all with human waywardness.

The text ends with the beautiful phrase, “the mountains and the hills shall go before you with singing, and the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” In biblical symbolism, “mountains” usually are nations and “hills” are smaller governmental units, while “trees” symbolize nature. Imagine if you will the awesome scene of forests of trees literally waving their branches in joy as Christ’s kingdom moves in with Christ sitting on his throne. Imagine the peace and joy that will replace the turmoil and suffering of the present age.

Consider again the deliverance from financial, legal, moral, environmental and political oppression that will occur as God’s people (that’s us) at long last discover the full meaning of the historic Exodus---the development of a national vision and ethic of creating peace and joy through deliverance and healing.

This isn’t mythology, folks, because it’s really on the way.

CONFESSION POINTS THE WAY

By Jim Jordal

Several Sundays ago we used this confession in our morning services at Trinity Lutheran in Lindstrom. As we confessed our failures and frailties the thought struck me that this short passage was much more than a confession of sin---it also was a signpost pointing the way into the prophesied Kingdom of God on Earth.

The portion of the confession that struck me so forcefully was this: “Reform us to be a church powered by love, willing to speak for what is right, act for what is just, and seek the healing of your whole creation. Amen.”

I don’t know who wrote this, but it has immense power to transform our religious community if we took it seriously enough to act on its words. Confession has little power unless accompanied by sincere contrition matched with an intention to remedy the situation leading to the confession. This portion of the confession calls for intent to better follow the Lord as evidenced in the phrases “willing to speak for what is right, act for what is just, and seek the healing of your whole creation.”

In another prophecy in which God appeared to Solomon by night, the message is similar: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal there land” ( 2 Chron. 7:14). The motivating concept in both of these writings is God-directed action to speak, act, seek, pray, and turn away from present values and behavior.

Some of us take the position that we can’t seek God, he only seeks us. But I’d be careful with this view because it seems to remove any responsibility from us in the God-human equation. It sort of enables us to blithely continue religious posturing about the love-based demands of God for the human condition, without the necessity that we act in response to that love.

If we wish to be a church “powered by love,” as the confession maintains, then to complete the cause-effect relationship we must obediently respond to that love, not only with our minds, but also with our hands and hearts. It’s easy to “play church,” but harder to “be” church.

To “speak for what is right” means to cease being quiet and accepting in the presence of great evil. Our example for this kind of resistance to evil is found in the life of Jesus, who on many occasions publicly criticized the Jewish temple authorities for their connivance with Roman political power in cheating and oppressing the common people through their forms of taxation and extortion. In the end Jesus was killed mainly because his continuous agitation for justice and his ability to bring it to public attention greatly threated the existing power structure.

Proverbs 31:8-9 puts it this way: “Open your mouth for the mute, In the cause of all who are left desolate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, And serve justice to the poor and needy." Social status systems tend to structure themselves based on money, power, and prestige. Groups at the top have immense say in what happens in the society, while those further down the pecking order are often denied a voice in events. That’s why we open our mouths in support of and service to those who have no voice and are left desolate in society.

“Justice will finally come when those who have not been harmed become as incensed as those who are” (author unknown). Obviously it helps more when the people speaking against injustice hold positions of power in the government or within institutions committed to the formation of morality in the public arena. But generally it is people rather far down the status structure who cry out at their oppression and marginalization because those at the top either don’t care or are afraid that speaking out might cost them friends or position. So it’s the little people who often ignite the fires of change.

To “act for what is just” means to take action against oppression and injustice. You can literally “vote with your feet” as you walk away from what is oppressive and unjust. “Without justice, there can be no peace. He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps perpetuate it” (Martin Luther King).

We’ll save the phrase “to seek the healing of your whole creation” for next week.