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Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16 * Psalm 25:1-10 * 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 * Luke 21:25-36

Here, at the beginning of the Christian year, notice the theme of God keeping God’s promises and how this is tied to the idea of God’s coming among us. In the Jeremiah text, God fulfills God’s promise to raise up a righteous Branch who will execute justice and righteousness in the land. This will result in Judah’s “salvation.” In the psalm, the psalmist counts on God’s “steadfast love” (hesed) for his salvation. He asks God to teach him God’s paths, which are “steadfast love and faithfulness.”

Our New Testament texts take us into the eschatological future and anticipate God’s coming. Paul prays that God will increase the Thessalonians’ love and holiness so that they will be blameless before God at the coming of Jesus. And the Luke text is one of those apocalyptic passages that seemingly combines a prediction of near-term calamity (in the OT prophets, cosmic turmoil represents the downfall of earthly political powers) with the eschatological arrival of Jesus.

What to make of all this? I argued in my six-part series on the gospel that the gospel is good news because its central focus and starting point is God’s action, not me and whether I end up in hell. These passages reflect that belief. Throughout the Bible, one of the writers’ major theological convictions is that God is righteous precisely because God keeps God’s promises (or shows hesed, steadfast love). God keeps God’s end of the covenant even when we don’t. As the psalmist declares, God’s mercy and steadfast love are “from of old.”

This theological conviction is also central to the New Testament. For example, Matthew regularly declares that certain events in Jesus’ life happened to fulfill OT Scripture. All the writers, in one way or another, interpret Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection in terms of God’s action in the world. Thus, in light of Jesus’ resurrection, the early Christians came to believe that he was God’s promised Messiah. God keeps God’s promises.

And one of those promises is that God will come among us in such a complete and final way that justice and righteousness will have complete sway over the earth (see, e.g., Rev. 21). God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, dwelled in the tabernacle during the wilderness wanderings, directed Israel through the giving of the Torah, took up residence in the temple, and, Christians believe, dwelled among us bodily in the person of Jesus and dwells among us still through the presence of the Holy Spirit. All these are signs and promises of God’s eventual coming in fullness and power.

So here, at the beginning of the year, we remember that God kept God’s promise to Israel by sending them the Messiah, and so we remember Jesus’ birth. But this annual Advent reminds us of that Advent that we ultimately wait for, and that we anticipate here, now, as we are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Amen.


Bringing It Home

Obviously, there’s no way to say in one post everything that needs to be said about the gospel. And there’s no way I can say in this post everything I’d like to say. But here are some thoughts about the implications of the gospel as I laid it out.

  • The gospel begins and ends with God. That is, the central focus of the gospel is on what God is doing in the world, not what my eternal salvation will be, as important as that is (to me). This is what distinguishes the gospel from other gospels that come to us in culture or other places. The good news isn’t only good news in relation to bad news. The good news doesn’t begin with shame or fear. It begins with God. And it has to do with what God wants for all of creation (and thus us individually as part of that creation).
  • The gospel is rooted in Scripture—all of it, not just the New Testament, and not just Paul. If we miss this point, we risk excising Jesus (and Paul) from his Jewish context, and when we make Jesus the first Christian—that is, picture him as overthrowing, denigrating, or making irrelevant the religious tradition that shaped him—then terrible things happen, and have happened. The center of the gospel is God; and Scripture witnesses to the enduring faithfulness and righteousness of God. Anyone who isolates the New Testament from the Old will miss this basic point, will not come close to understanding the New Testament, and will risk misunderstanding just how good the good news is.
  • When in the last post I said I struggle to believe the gospel, I don’t mean by “believe” simply giving mental assent to it. I mean giving my whole life over to it. As should be clear from that post, I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is about more than simply adhering to Christianity as opposed to some other religion. I believe it has to do with what it means to be truly human. I believe the gospel is meant to re-form us into the image of God, tying together God’s initial creative purposes with God’s eventual redemptive intentions and giving us a frame in which to live, move, and have our being—or not. The power of sin is still within me, continually tempting me away from the path God would have me walk. A reason to keep asking “What is the gospel?” is so we help each other remember where the path is when we’re tempted to step off it.

Well, there’s so much more to say, and I’ll probably return to this topic explicitly from time to time. But I wanted to kick off this blog with this series because it really provides a frame for what I want to do with the blog, that is, explore where hope is peeking through in the despair around us. In the end, I think the gospel may be the only legitimate reason for hope or faith.

But that leads me to one final point, and one more reason to keep asking “What is the gospel?” That is, the gospel—indeed, God—is always at risk of being drowned out, ignored, overwhelmed, distorted, abused, coopted, misheard, misinterpreted, and on and on. God comes in weakness: in the still, small voice; in the Spirit that hovers over the waters; on a cross; in a box (the ark); through other people, particularly the poor and oppressed; and through Scripture, which does not speak with one voice but many, which tends to obscure rather than clarify, and which offends us on so many fronts (e.g., the violence of Joshua and Judges, the patriarchal attitudes of Paul) that we may be tempted to say, “Umm, no thanks.”

Apparently this is the way God works. God takes the chance that we might be so offended, so hard-hearted, so churched, so educated, so Christian, so righteous, or so fill-in-the-blank that we might miss what’s good about the good news. And so we need as individuals and as churches to keep asking each other “What is the gospel?” in order to hold open the possibility that we haven’t heard all of the good news yet.

So I ask you: What is the gospel?

The Gospel I (Struggle to) Believe

I believe that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the same God who, in love, created all things. I believe that God created human beings in God’s image. I believe that being made in God’s image means that humans were and are meant to live in relational shalom with God, each other, and all of creation.

I believe that when humans decided to walk a different path, God, in love, did not destroy creation but worked redemptively to preserve it. I believe that one way God did this was to call a particular people to walk in the way God intended all humanity to walk. I believe God delivered Israel from oppression and slavery; God then freely entered into covenant with this people. I believe that when Israel chose a different path, God did not abandon them but continued to speak through prophets, whose messages not only exhorted repentance and return to the one God but also promised that all nations would eventually do the same.

 I believe that when the right time came, God sent one uniquely anointed to proclaim to Israel that God’s kingdom was at hand. I believe that what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of God” was that, just as God had been present in Eden, in the wilderness wanderings, in the tabernacle, and in the temple, God would now be present in Israel in such a way that God’s redemptive intent for all humanity would be revealed—that, in fact, it could be seen uniquely in Jesus’ healings, teaching, and ministry.

I believe that the path Jesus walked was the path God intended for all humanity. But the authorities of Jesus’ day, particularly the Roman authorities oppressing Israel, recognized that path as diametrically opposed to their own and crucified Jesus in an attempt maintain their own systems. I believe that God, as the creator of all things, decisively vindicated Jesus’ path and refuted the path of oppression by raising Jesus from the dead.

I believe that in the light of the resurrection and in the experience of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the eyes and hearts of the early Jewish followers of Jesus were opened such that they saw in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection the working of the one God, the God who created all things, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I believe, with these early followers, that God’s promises of salvation and deliverance were being fulfilled in new and unexpected ways—including the prophetic promise that all nations would feast at God’s banquet. I believe that Jesus’ death atoned for humanity’s sins so that, free from the power of sin and death, humanity would be free to walk in the path God intended.

I believe that God’s promises to Israel have not been negated but that the church, even now in its primarily Gentile form, has been invited to the same task God has always given to God’s people: to proclaim the redemptive intentions of God for creation and to model those intentions by living in shalom with God, each other, and all creation. I believe that the church is empowered to do this by the presence of the Holy Spirit—the presence of the creator God, whose Spirit hovered over the face of the primordial waters.

I believe that the church best proclaims and models God’s redemptive intentions by following the way of Jesus—that is, bringing good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. I believe that the kingdom of God comes partially through this Spirit-empowered work, but only partially; because, finally,

I believe that God will one day redeem all of creation in a decisive way. I believe that the presence of God in Eden, in the tabernacle, in the temple, in the person of Jesus, and in the indwelling Spirit will be consummated by God’s full, complete presence among us and that the image of God in us will be perfected—that we will be like God because we will see God as God is. I believe that in the new creation, all things will live in the relational shalom for which they were intended.

I believe Revelation 21 points us toward this day: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

The Gospel in a Nutshell

Many of us got the impression from our churches over the years that the gospel could be shrink-wrapped, shrunk down, and stated in brief summary form, usually along the lines of “Jesus died to save me from my sins.” (Frank Schaeffer has a funny take on this in his novel Portofino, in which the missionary family evangelizes using a “Gospel Walnut Witnessing Kit.”)miniature_bible

As I said in a previous post, Jesus’ death on the cross is clearly part of what the New Testament means by “the gospel.” There’s no giving that up. But watch what happens when we say that the essence of the gospel is “Jesus died to save me from my sins.” First, I’ve just referred to myself (twice) more than Jesus (once). Second, I’ve focused on the cross; I’ve said nothing about the resurrection, much less Jesus’ life and teachings. I’ve said nothing about the kingdom of God, which is what Jesus proclaimed as the gospel (Mark 1:15). Third, then, is it any wonder that many of us grew up wondering why we needed that Old Testament in front of our New Testaments? Was it just a paperweight? (Fortunately, or unfortunately, Bible publishers helped us out of this jam by printing Bibles with no Old Testament, just a New Testament and Psalms.)

The problem with—and solution for—saying that the gospel can be summed up in this way is that neither Jesus nor the Gospel writers nor Paul nor any of the other New Testament writers interpreted Jesus’ mission only in terms of a single event. No, they spoke about Jesus in terms of what the one God, Creator of all things, was up to in the world (for example, Matthew constantly refers to how Jesus’ story fulfilled Old Testament scripture; and Jesus said that he came to fulfill the law, not overthrow it). So we might begin to suspect that freeze-drying the gospel into one simple sentence about Jesus and me may be missing the boat.

So here’s another reason to ask “What is the gospel?” We need a starting point, a focus for the gospel that’s more grounded in the biblical narrative as a whole. Yes, Jesus’ saving death is crucial. But while saying “Jesus died to save me from my sins” is good news, it’s really only good news for me. So am I at the center of the gospel? Somehow I doubt it. We need to keep going.

Question: What other ways of summing up the gospel were you taught?


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