text :: Mark 1: 14 - 15
theme verse :: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." (Mk 1:15)
What do you believe? When the question is asked, we are usually prepared to offer some sort of mental checklist of ideas that we accept as true. But when it comes to faith, Jesus makes it clear that beliefs must be transformational to our living. Is there really any Good News to be shared with the world if it doesn’t change our own lives for the better? Join us in worship for the Backpack Blessing for students who will begin a new school year, as we consider our own commitments to the transformational teachings of the gospel.
anthem :: 'I Believe' (E.Drake) :: Benjamin Schwartz, vocal; Susie Monger Daugherty, piano
special music :: 'Cornerstone' (Hillsong) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
reader :: Susan Gross
preaching :: Rev Kevin Howe
offertory :: 'Where There is Faith' (B.Simon) :: Kelly Ford, vocal; Susie Monger Daugherty, piano
Mark 1: 14 – 15
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Let’s talk politics. Bet you didn’t see that coming! To be sure, it’s a risky place to start. As a pastor living in the same world that you do, I am deeply aware of the taboo nature of such discussion, especially from the position I stand in. In part, I think that stems from the belief by many in our country that there is—or should be—a wall between faith and politics, as a commitment to separation of church and nation-state. But another thing that is making things so uncomfortable already is that you know good and well that we come into this sacred space, each of us, carrying different beliefs about the way that this place we all call home should be governed. And we see and hear the hardened rhetoric around us, and we feel our own deep-seeded convictions welling up in the form of visceral reactions. Perhaps your heartrate has increased by now or your body frozen in anxious anticipation about what I will say next. Will you stand up and applaud it? Will you need to storm out as protest? Will you find that it has anything to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Okay, everybody take a deep breath. Because what I really wish to illustrate here is that real beliefs, those we have become convicted of—that we have come to trust—are not just mental checklists or private opinions. Real beliefs, whether they be right or wrong, healthy r destructive—are profoundly influential in shaping how we see the world and how we react to it. And so it is that the way we think, feel, and act are nearly always closely related to our deepest convictions.
Of course, we don’t come out of the womb pre-loaded with the beliefs that we are carrying today. I’m wondering with you could name some of the things you believed as a child? A while back, Reader’s Digest invited people to submit some of the funny things they believed when they were young and here are a few that caught my eye1:
And my favorite, to date, Rebecca :
Fortunately, our beliefs develop and shift over time. Belief as it turns out, is first and foremost, a process. We may not be joining our students in the classroom setting this year, but life itself is a school. The culture we live in a curriculum with its own sets of values and creeds that shape our ways of thinking. But somewhere along the way that process begins to take a turn. As we grow older, we tend to become more hardened in our habits and ways of operating. Years of habitual actions and practices calcify our beliefs—hardening us to the possibilities that there is something worth trusting outside of what we have come to know best.
Perhaps you have heard this modern-day take on the beatitudes of Jesus: “Blessed are the distrusting, for they will never be disappointed.” Well, a cynical view akin to this seems to have gained popularity in our culture. We live in an era of distrust and suspicion and not without good reason. All around us are examples of infidelity, mismanagement, deceit, and scandal. Institutions and professions that were once assumed to be beacons of ethical responsibility are no longer immune to the deep distrust that permeates our culture. Last December, the results of a annual Gallup poll2 were released, asking Americas how they would rater the honesty and ethical standards of people in different fields. I was disappointed, but by no means surprised that clergy received the rating of “very high or high” from only 37% of respondents. I suppose I’d take that over the 8% response that the group “members of congress” received. But we don’t just carry distrust of people out in the job field. We live in the world of private investigators and prenuptial agreements. Studies show we have less trust in our teachers, colleagues, neighbors, and family members. It seems to me that distrust has become a virtue.
It’s precisely within the context of distrust and our own hardened positions that Jesus walks out of the wilderness and into our worship this morning, proclaiming the message of God. He says, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ Another translation says it this way “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe in the gospel.” Either way, his message should probably make us a bit uncomfortable.
Scholar David Ewart says that the words here “Believe in the good news” is perhaps better translated as “Trust in the good news,” since the whole point is not to have an opinion about it.3 He says “Jesus is calling for a radical, total, unqualified basing of one’s life on his good news.”4 It’s easy to believe, intellectually, that there is a gospel, but it is another thing to believe in gospel. Jesus’ call to believe in the Good News is a call to come to trust it enough that we might risk our living on it. It is to be the fundamental posture of our lives. Here at Harvard Avenue, this is the task we have committed ourselves to with the core value BELIEVE.
You know, there are a lot of misconstrued notions of what it means to believe and how we come to believe as a people of faith. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote that “Christians in America do not have to really rely on God, because what they really believe in is their own belief.”5 Some communities have come to understand belief as unwavering and unquestioning adherence to a compilation of tenants and credos. But a church that stamps out all uncertainty with pedantic and simplistic answers is one that seeks conformists and not disciples.
Being certain in your beliefs doesn’t require any faith. And when you what you hold in your mind holds more power than God’s prerogative, you may have an idol on your hands. Because God is always greater than our ideas of God. And being in relationship with an great and mysterious God means we must come to expect that our ways of thinking and living will be continually shaken to the foundations. You may come to doubt, at times, the faith that you carry. But having questions or even doubts about your faith is not to be confused with giving up on it. Writer and theologian, Philip Yancey has a great deal to say about the positive power of doubt. He says,
“I’m an advocate of doubt because it’s why I’m a Christian in the first place. I’m also impressed that the Bible includes so many examples of doubt. Evidently, God has more tolerance for doubt than most churches. I want to encourage those who doubt, and also encourage the church to be a place that rewards rather than punishes honesty.”6
Indeed, some of the greatest defenders of the Christians faith came to be more convicted of it because of their doubt. Doubt is not the holdup to belief. Having doubts and asking questions comes with the territory of seeking belief. In fact, I would like to think that learning to believe in the good news of God’s kingdom means that we will no longer have the satisfaction of unexamined beliefs and unchecked practices. That it will necessarily cause us to question the gods of power, wealth, nationality, and race that clamor for our allegiance, too.
If we are to position ourselves to believe more deeply in God’s kingdom, then we must carry a posture of humility about what it is that we believe right now. Notice that Jesus not only calls for belief in the gospel but also calls for repentance. The act of repentance—of changing one’s life—is a necessary part of coming to believe more deeply in God kingdom. Let’s face it, we carry many ways of living and moving in this world that are not yet representative of what we are coming to know about what life looks like when God’s in charge. A call to repentance is a call to make the necessary changes in our lives so that we are in the best position to trust more deeply in the gospel.
We must also devote ourselves to the study and practice of our faith. I invite you to imagine for a moment how you have come to established trust with people in your life. I would wager that you engaged and invested the relationship and, only over time, you came to trust. So it is with our faith: we must invest in it, spend time it, and get to know it well, if we are going to come to trust it more deeply.
Talk to any professional athlete, who has spent most of their life shooting three pointers or kicking a ball, and they will tell you that we come to know and trust the things that they devote themselves to in continual engagement. What you spend most of your days doing with your body, you subject your mind to. That was something that the Apostle Paul had come to know. I imagine why he makes the strange request of us in the 12th chapter of his letter to the Romans to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” He says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what the will of God is—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
You can spend two hours a week in church, but if you spend five hours a week shopping, then the shopping will disciple you in the habits of consumption and desire more than any sermon on emptying yourself. You can spend an evening and a morning every week in church but if you spend six hours a week listening to news that teaches you to be cynical and wary of others then no Bible study on community is going to out-disciple the person who gives their body to the TV and the couch and their mind to the voices of suspicion that instruct them. You spend a few minutes in the morning praying, and you would be doing better than most of us in doing so. But if you give your body to fitness or the gym more than you do your inner life with God, you’ll find that you are still more concerned with your outer image than the quiet spirit urging us certain directions.
What Paul knows is this: what you devote yourself to—what you choose to engage in—is shaping your belief. And so to give our bodies away as a sacrifice to God—to devote our energies to the study of God’s word and prayer and serving—is to invest in our faith in such a way that may lead to deeper trust in the gospel. Active engagement in our faith is the stuff that leads to us to believe—to trust and risk more—in faith and in a God who risks everything on us.
Prisoner 16670, a polish priest named Maximillian Kolbe. I wish I had to time to tell you how a Christian priest who ran a hospital in Poland ended up in a German concentration camp intended for Jews, but we don’t have time for that this morning, though the story is compelling. He was arrested by Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. Continuing to act as a priest there, Kolbe was the target of many beatings by the guards. Strangely, the suffering he endured seemed only to make him more resolute and focused and his ministry to other prisoners grew more courageous over his time there.
Near Christmas of 1941, a prisoner escaped from the camp, prompting SS Karl Fritch, to select 10 men to be starved to death in underground bunkers as a way to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, “My wife! My children! I will never see them again!,” Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to take his place. And so it was that, Franciszek Gajowniczek would be spared a miserable death. Not because another Jewish prisoner took a risk, but a catholic priest. Eventually, Father Kolbe would die in the cell, but preaching and praying through cracks and openings of his confinements until his end.7
Now if you’re of the opinion that the power of gospel is a matter of checklist beliefs, then you might wonder about Kolbe’s choice to take a stranger’s place. And you might wonder about what his thoughts were about the precise nature of faith, or love, or resurrection. But if you were to have tracked down Franciszek Gajowniczek, who lived to the ripe age of 93, you would have surely heard him speak not of Kolbe’s doctrine but instead of a man who had come to know and trust his faith in such a way that he was willing to stake his life on it. And that gives us pause to wonder: on what we will stake ours?
Jesus came, proclaiming the good news of God, saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
1 Morgan Cutolo, “41 Hilarious Things People Actually Believed as Kids,” Reader’s Digest online (https://www.rd.com/funny-stuff/ridiculous-beliefs-as-children/).
2 Megan Brenan. “Nurses Again Outpace Other Professions for Honesty, Ethics.” December 20, 2018. (https://news.gallup.com/poll/245597/nurses-again-outpace-professions-honesty-ethics.aspx)
3 David Ewart, Holy Textures. “Mark 1:14-20.” (https://www.holytextures.com/2009/01/mark-1-14-20-year-b-epiphany.html).
5 Stanley Hauerwas. The Guardian. “How Real is America’s Faith?” October 16, 2010. (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/oct/16/faith-america-secular-britain)
6 Philip Yancey. “Faith and Doubt.” 2009. (https://philipyancey.com/q-and-a-topics/faith-and-doubt)
7 “Maximillian Kolbe.” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilian_Kolbe).