Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Search this site.View the site map.

A Story Worth Hearing

 

Luke 1:26-38 and Romans 16:25-27

 In some ways, the letter to the Romans might be the best letter of the New Testament for the Church today.  I say that because Romans was written to a church in the midst of a culture that was similar in many ways to our culture today.  

 We often say that we live in a small world.  The internet, the media, trade, and travel have all shrunk the world.  We don’t think it’s unusual when someone we know travels to Brazil or Australia.  We don’t think it’s unusual to hear a story on the news about something that happened in India.  We don’t bat an eye when the television we bought at 4 AM on Black Friday was made in China.  And many of us keep track of people we know all over the world through social media.  I have friends on Facebook who live in Canada, Taiwan, Germany, and Venezuela.  It’s a small world, after all.

 We also live in a multicultural world, a world of diverse cultures.  Now the word multiculturalism can be used in two ways.  First, it can be used in a descriptive way.  It can be used to say that there are many cultures in the world.  And that’s obvious.  Even in New Florence, we have a Chinese restaurant.  It’s a small world, after all.

But multiculturalism can also be a philosophy.  The philosophy of multiculturalism says that there are many cultures, and each one is equally valid.  There is no one story, no single truth in the world.  What is true for one culture is not necessarily true for another.  You have your truth, and I have my truth, and to each their own.

We also see that in our world today.  And part of the philosophy of multiculturalism is that messages that presume to be true for all people are now intolerant messages.  The gospel is an intolerant message because it says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and “There is no other name given among men by which we might be saved.”  The gospel presumes to be a universal truth, and that is now intolerant.

This situation is not so different from 1st century Rome.  At the time of the New Testament, the Roman Empire was only a couple of generations old, but it had already redefined the world.  

The Roman Empire was a vast empire.  It was about the same size as the continental United States.  It stretched from what is now England to Egypt, and from Morocco to Iraq and the Ukraine.  Its population was about 100 million people, which

was about ¼ of the population of the world at that time.  And the Empire traded with lands as far away as India, Germany, Ethiopia, Russia, and China.  So even then, the world was a pretty small place.  It took longer to get around, but it still happened.

And the Empire was very diverse in terms of language and culture and race and religion.  There were dozens of religions in the Empire, and hundreds of gods.  For those who believed in no god, there were atheistic philosophies like Stoicism and Epicureanism.  But there was no attempt to unify them.  The first Emperor, Augustus, revived many cults and religions that had become extinct because he believed that religion was important for peace and prosperity. But he didn’t care what religion people held to, as long as they gave lip service to Rome.  To each their own was the religious and cultural motto of the Roman world.  Just pay your taxes, and you were free to worship and live as you chose.

Rome itself was a microcosm of this world.  Its population included people from all over the known world.  It was the world’s first major city.  At the time of Jesus, it had about a million people.  Some historians think that no other city grew to that size until London 19 centuries later.  

Now for most of Western history, we had an idea in Europe and the Americas called Christendom.  Christendom was a unified culture built around the Christian faith.  There was a belief in Christendom that the Christian story was THE story.  But Christendom has fallen.  It’s no longer true of our culture.  So now we’re back in Rome.  We’re back in a world where our story is just one of many stories.  

That means that we don’t get as many chances to tell our story as we used to.  Most people won’t come to the Church on Sundays to hear our story because it’s no longer THE story.  So we need to take advantage of the chances we do have to tell our story.  Two of the best chances we have are at Christmas and Easter.  Those are the two of the times when the world still looks at us and says, “Okay.  It’s your turn now.  Do you have anything to say that’s worth hearing?”  

I think we do.  I hope you do, too.  I think we have a message worth hearing.

The gospel tells us that nothing is impossible with God.  God can even give life where there should not be life; for example, in the womb of Mary, a young virgin from Nazareth.  Life shouldn’t be there.  It’s impossible. 

God gives life, abundant life, eternal life, to you and I.  That is also impossible.  From a natural perspective, you and I shouldn’t have eternal life, since we are supposed to grow old and die and be gone forever.  From a spiritual perspective, you and I shouldn’t have life at all, because we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and the wages of sin is death.  And maybe most of all, from a practical perspective, we should not have abundant life.  I think many people feel so beat down and stuck in their routine existence that the thought of abundant life is impossible.  “How can I have abundant life when I’m poor?  How can I have abundant life when I’m addicted?  How can I have abundant life when I’m lonely?  How can I have abundant life when I’m in prison? How can I have abundant life when I’m out of work?  How can I have abundant life when I’m sick?  How can I have abundant life when I’m depressed?”  And so on in a hundred different ways.  From a practical perspective, it’s impossible.  But with God, all things are possible.

The gospel also tells us that God is not distant or unknowable or uncaring.  I think those are all common perceptions of God.  “If there is a God, how can I know him?  If there is a God, he must not care.  If there is a God, where is he?  If there is a God, why doesn’t he do _______________?”

God does care and he is not distant.  He shows us he cares by coming to us in the flesh.  He shows his love by dying in our place.  And he is knowable.  As Jesus told us, if we know him, we know the Father who sent him (John 14:7).  

And the gospel is a message for all people.  It is a unifying story.  The vision we see in that benediction of the Roman letter is that of a community that is united by common worship and shared faith, a faith for both Jew and Gentile alike.  

Paul calls this universal aspect of the gospel a “secret,” or some translations render it as a “mystery.”  The word mystery in the New Testament refers to something that is hidden in God’s ultimate purpose until it is revealed by his Spirit, and thus becomes the property of all his people.  

The idea of a universal message is there in the Old Testament.  When God called Abraham, he said that Abraham’s descendants would be a blessing to all the nations of the earth (Gen. 12:3).  And Isaiah foretold that the heir to David’s throne would be “a banner of salvation to all the world” (Is. 11).  Those ideas were there in the Old Testament, but not fully understood until revealed in Jesus Christ and the gospel.  

And finally, the gospel is not just a message about God’s power to save all people, but also about God’s power to strengthen and sustain each of us through all of life’s struggles.  Even as a saved people, we are still subject to suffering and difficulty.  But God’s Spirit can bring us through difficult times.

This evening’s Blue Christmas service at the New Florence UMC is about that very thing.  Our lives are not always easy.  We do suffer through hardship, loss, grief, and pain.  But God is with us in the midst of suffering.  And he can bring us through it by his Spirit that sustains us.  If we turn to him in our distress, we find him to be a limitless source of help and strength.

The gospel is a message worth hearing.  It’s worth hearing about how God can give us life and sustain our life, how we can know God, and how God wants to be part of every human life.  

But the gospel can only be heard if it is proclaimed.  The proclamation of the gospel is both our duty and our privilege.  As Paul says in chapter 10 of Romans, “How can they call on him if they don’t believe?  How can they believe if they’ve never heard?  How can they hear if no one tells them?”  

Many people in this world will look to us at this time of the year and ask, “I wonder if they have anything to say that’s worth hearing?”  Don’t fail them. 

Verse of the Day...