Mark 1:14-15
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 18, 2018

A follower of Jesus Christ named Steve Brown wanted to apologize to a Jewish friend of his for the atrocities Christians had committed against the Jews.

After saying how sorry he was and how ashamed of the people of his faith, Steve held his tongue and waited for his friend’s response, not knowing whether he’d tell him to get lost or express forgiveness. The man surprised him by breaking into tears. When Steve asked him why he was crying, he said, “Steve, I didn’t hear a ‘kicker’ in your remarks. I’ve heard other Christians say something like what you said, but there was always a kicker: I have to get saved, or apologize for what ‘we’ did to Jesus. I waited for the kicker and it didn’t come. Thank you for giving me a straight apology.”

That got Steve to thinking about how we Christians often betray the gracious messages we have to share with our “kickers”. We deny out of one side of our mouth, albeit with a truth, what we have affirmed out of another side of our mouth. “Jesus loves you…but you mustn’t presume upon His love.” “God forgives you…but it’s important you don’t do it again.” “God accepts you just as you are…but you need to strive to become a better person.” “God is patient…but you’d better get going on the spiritual disciplines.”

I am not saying that there is no truth behind the second half of those statements; but the effect is that, if we say the second half too quickly on the heels of the first, we don’t give time for the first and foundational truth to sink in; and we fail to convey what is in fact so good about the good news Jesus came to proclaim: that God’s love and God’s offer of forgiveness and redemption are unconditional.

Mark’s Gospel starts off telling us how, from the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus proclaimed “the good news of the God” straight. There was no kicker there. His message was a simple declaration followed by a simple elucidation of what to do to give that good news opportunity to work its wonders on us. Because the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, all we have to do to make something good come of it for us is to repent and believe: something anyone can do who is of a mind to. It’s simply to quit resorting to what we’ve always resorted to, and instead to relax and to rely on God’s goodness alone. This change in basic orientation is crucial, but making the change is no impressive accomplishment. It’s just choosing, likely out of desperation, where our final reliance will rest.

Though we have to make a decision whether we will bank on the good news of God’s loving grace, there’s no kicker to the offer. There’s nothing to achieve; just everything to receive!

Maybe it’s our fear that it really id too good to be true, or maybe it’s our pride wanting to steal back some credit; but we Christians often resist giving up our kickers to the good news. How often, for example, have I seen Christians go over the story about Jesus’ telling a woman caught in adultery that He does not condemn her – only to see them give no time for appreciating the gracious magnanimity of that message in the rush to add the kicker, “But He also told her to ‘go and sin no more.’”

Yes, Jesus proclaimed both her freedom from condemnation and her call to reformation, and both are important. Yet, they are important, not only for their content, but also for their order. For not until a person gets hardwired into their soul the message, “neither do I condemn you”, can their heart get fully engaged with the message, “go and sin no more”. We are able to change decisively only when we depend utterly on grace – on God’s unlimited, unconditional, gratutious goodness.

Jesus conveyed that when in John 15 He compared Himself to a vine and each follower of His to a branch that can only bear fruit by abiding in the vine. Christians produce improved lives, not by prioritizing their bearing fruit, but by prioritizing their abiding in Christ. And if a branch is not abiding in Him, no amount of verbal pounding can flog fruit out of it – though many a Christian keeps trying!

Keith Miller tells of eating in a cafeteria with a man from his adult Sunday School class, when a young woman, an occasional class participant, walked over and told them there was something she really wanted to talk with Keith about.

Keith invited her to sit down and join them for a minute. Almost immediately she announced, “It’s about the Apostle Paul! I think he was a sexual deviate.” Startled, Keith listened as she ranted about Paul’s views on sex. It soon became apparent that Paul was not the problem she wanted to talk about. Keith said as much.

Hearing his gentle observation, her attitude changed. She paused, and then said almost wistfully, “I truly believe you’ve found hope in your faith, and I’d honestly like to commit my life to Christ…but I can’t.” “Why not?” Keith asked. “Because I’ve got a personal problem I can’t resolve.” She was biting her lips and looking down at a napkin she had folded into a small tight square.

“But the good news of Jesus,” Keith replied, “is that when we can’t solve our basic problems, God offers us grace to cope with what’s impossible for us. That’s why,” he continued, “I’m such a nut about Christianity. I can’t promise to change anything. I can only accept God’s love and grace.” “But,” she said, “I don’t feel acceptable until I whip this problem.” To which Keith answered, “Listen, the old song doesn’t say, ‘Just as I am when I whip my major problem.’ It says, ‘Just as I am without one plea,’ one promise, one guarantee!” She gazed intently at Keith and a look of hope dawned on her face. “Do you really believe that?” she asked. “I’m betting my life on it,” he replied. She looked down at her napkin for a moment. “All right,” she said with a heavy sigh and then a fierce challenging cast of eye, “I’m committing adultery every Thursday with a man who has a wife and several children. And I cannot quit. So, can I still come to Christ and into your family of faith just as I am?”

Keith stared at her. He hadn’t seen that coming. He began to feel the Pharisee rise up in him and wanted to suggest that maybe she should wait to give her life to Christ until she had at least cut it back a little. But then he realized that by saying that he’d be contradicting the good news he’s staked his life on: that God loves us irrespective of whether we straighten up and quit our major sin, that God offers us everything He has before we have any chance of living up to His standards. So Keith told her the good news straight, with no kicker, with warmth in his voice and with a smile on his face, “Of course, you can commit your life to Christ right now and come into His family just as you are. He knows you have no hope of finding the security and strength to quit this man apart from Him. So if you commit your life to Christ now, then Thursday, if you find you can’t help going to your friend, take Christ with you in your thoughts – and see what happens.”

That night, in a cafeteria, a lost soul bowed her head, dared to believe the good news of God’s grace, crossed the line into faith, and embarked on the adventure of a lifetime. Her life has never been the same. That’s what’s so good about the good news!

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