From the Housetops
I’ve been thinking a lot lately, and unsurprisingly, about ministry and preaching and about my years as a pastor and preacher. And I’ve been thinking about “good news” - what it is when we’re talking about life with Jesus, and how and why we share good news. Way back when I did my Women in the Bible sermon series a couple of summers ago, you might remember that we talked about Deborah and Jael from the book of Judges. Their story is a really compelling one, and worth our learning about, but it’s also vivid, we’ll say, when the story describes Jael killing Sisera, bringing victory to the Israelites. I told you then that I had been having trouble figuring out how to preach on the text, even if I wanted you to know about the events Judges described. I was sharing about my struggle with a group of clergywomen on facebook, and one of them asked me, “What’s the good news in the text?” Her simple question really helped me refocus, and remember: whatever else preaching is about, it needs to be about that: sharing good news with people who need to hear it.
A couple of weeks ago I preached on the Parable of the Rich Fool and his bigger barns, sharing with you that it was the first text I ever preached on. This week I was reflecting on what we think of as Jesus’ first sermon: Jesus going to his hometown of Nazareth, and reading from the scroll of Isaiah. Jesus’ first text was about good news: “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.” After sharing those words from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus said to the people, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-19) He preached good news and he was good news. That’s what the angel - a news deliverer - tells the shepherds about Jesus at his birth: “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:10) When disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus on John’s behalf if Jesus is the Messiah, he replies that they should tell John what they’ve witnessed Jesus doing. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Luke 11:4-5) What is that good news? Jesus tells the disciples, “Proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” God’s reign is not far off, it’s here and now, ready for us to be part of this instant, when we make God’s ways our ways. The good news is that we can be home with God not just in eternity, but now too. The good news is that God wants not only life for us eternally, but life for us now. Good news. Whatever else Jesus is preaching about, he’s preaching that: good news for people who need it.
You know that I always want us to be more specific when it comes to our commitments to God about what we’ll do to live as disciples of Jesus. I want that because I know if I’m not more specific with myself, it’s easy to make broad generalizations about loving God with my whole heart and loving my neighbor that have no real impact and let me off the hook too easily. We have a good example in Jesus of someone who tells us and then demonstrates what he means when he talks about good news. Jesus says that the humbled will be exalted and the exalted humbled, and we see him confront the religious leaders about the ways their teaching and interpretation ends up being bad news for people who are hurting and vulnerable, weighed down by their requirements. And we see him dismiss opportunities to increase his personal fame and status, whether tempted by Satan in the wilderness, or pressed by crowds of followers who adore him and want him to be king. He says that he comes not to be served but to serve, and we see him wash the disciples’ feet, and eat with those labeled sinners, and heal and cure and tend to even when he seems exhausted and longing for rest. He says that those who would be first shall be last, and the last first, and we see him bring to the center women, and children, and foreigners, and the disabled, and the diseased, and the destitute. And he says that whoever wants to save their live must lose it, and whoever loses their life for the sake of the good news he brings will save it, and we see him unwavering before the Council, before King Herod, before Pontius Pilate, and so many who hold his life in their hands, until he is put to death on a cross. In everything Jesus is about, he’s about that: good news, living it, embodying it, sharing it with those who need it.
Sharing the good news is the work to which he calls us too. In our gospel lesson for today, we find ourselves jumping in part way through a conversation Jesus is having with the twelve disciples. He’s given them authority - the power to do what he does, to cure, and cast out demons. And he sends them out with this mission: “Proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” Only, for some people, the good news of Jesus feels more like a threat than a promise. Good news for the poor can sound like bad news for those who have been hoarding, and accumulating, and taking more than their fair share. Liberty for those who are oppressed is bad news to those who are oppressing, enjoying their power over others. Even the healing that Jesus does, as we saw last week when we talked about the man blind from birth, was a threat to the status and authority of those who usually controlled how others could acceptably relate to God. And so even as Jesus sends the disciples out to preach good news, he sends them with warnings, too. He tells them they’ll be like sheep in the midst of wolves. Jesus anticipates that they’ll be brought before governors and kings because of him, persecuted because of him. That’s where we pick up in our reading for today. If we’re disciples of Jesus, then the more we preach the same good news he did, the more likely we are to face the kinds of consequences he did, as we encounter those who hear bad news where Jesus announces good.
Nonetheless, Jesus tells the disciples, tells us, “Do not be afraid.” He says, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” I think Jesus means for the disciples to be bold in exposing, uncovering the evil and injustice they encounter. And I’m reminded yet again of our baptismal covenant, words that Hannah and Tucker affirmed just last week in their confirmation, and Lindley’s family affirmed at her baptism yesterday: We renounce the forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, repent of our sin, and accept the power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression. But even when the disciples confront what’s been kept in the dark, and even when we confront injustice, we shouldn’t be afraid. God knows each hair on our head. God treasures us. Disciples’ souls are safe even when their physical lives are in danger. Don’t be afraid. Oof.
Jesus, Prince of Peace, has more hard words.”Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set family member against family member. One’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” He says that whoever loves their family more than they love him isn’t worthy of being his disciple. And he concludes, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus has such good news for people who so need it, and he asks us to be part of sharing it. But sharing that good news? It is such hard work, and carries a great cost. Is it worth it? How good is this news?
To share the good news, we must reject the evil powers of this world. We resist evil and injustice and oppression. We tell in the light anything that’s trying to work against God’s plan. We proclaim from the housetops the falsehood of anything that tries to convince us our value is determined by anything other than our identity as a beloved child of God. We know, deep in our souls, that following Jesus means putting him first, even if prioritizing discipleship causes a rift between you and the people you love the most. How good is this good news?
Today, God-willing, is not my last sermon, but it’s my last sermon as your pastor, and maybe my last sermon for a while as a pastor of a congregation (I remind myself as I remind you never say never to God.) What can I say in a last sermon? I think I want you to hear this: Being a committed, all-in disciple of Jesus is hard. But Jesus isn’t kidding when he says “Don’t be afraid!” He says it twice just in this text, just in case we missed it the first time. It is going to be hard. It’s going to be like sometimes Jesus has brought us a sword instead of peace. Or like you have to choose between your family and God. Or like you have to take up a cross, an instrument of death, and follow Jesus down that painful road to be a disciple. Or like you have to lose your life, in fact.
And maybe you wonder: Is Jesus’s news so good it is worth all this? Is Jesus such good news that it is worth all this, all we have, all of us? Only something that’s worth everything would be worth all this. And that’s exactly Jesus’s point. The good news he shares is the only thing that’s worth our everything. The news that’s good enough to make us unafraid despite it all. The good news that offers the only life that is really life. The way that will set us right, set the world right with God. The way that will bring us deep and lasting joy and peace. Friends, I want you to know that the good news Jesus shares with us is worth your everything, worth your persistence, worth your struggles, worth changing your life for, worth giving your heart and soul for. Worth everything. In some ways, our paths are diverging. We’re heading in different directions, and I’m grieving that deeply. But in another way, in the way that counts the most, as long as we are taking up our cross and following Jesus? Then we’re always on the journey together, together in the body of Christ, bound for the same destination after all. And that is very good news for people who need it. Let’s proclaim it from the housetops. Amen.