Home » Sermons » New Testament » Mark » The Message on a Billboard


The Message on a Billboard


Mark 1:14-15

I: — I often find myself feeling haunted. Much haunts me these days.I am haunted by the “free-fall” decline of our national denomination, The United Church of Canada. I don’t pay much attention to membership statistics, for I know how inaccurate membership figures are and how easy they are to inflate. I take much more seriously the figures concerning Sunday worship attendance. No doubt they can be (and are) somewhat inflated too, but with them there isn’t the same tendency to gross exaggeration. In 1965 the average Sunday worship attendance was one million and sixty thousand; in 1996, thirty years later, it is 300,000. The Sunday worship attendance of our denomination today is only 28% of what it was thirty years ago. We have declined 72%. What is the future of our denomination? Since Sunday worship attendance declines by 25,000 people per year, how long will it be before no one is left? I shall leave the arithmetic to you.

I am haunted by the pronouncements of denominational spokespersons. In a recent position paper on scriptural authority the strongest affirmation the spokesperson could make concerning Jesus was that he is “mentor and friend.” Mentor and friend? This falls abysmally short of what the apostles knew Jesus Christ to be, what they gladly confessed before the world regardless of cost to them: he is Son of God, Saviour, Lord, Messiah of Israel, Judge, and Sovereign over heaven and earth. Mentor and friend? My favourite school teacher is that!

At the most recent meeting of General Council a former moderator declared, “Our church is dying; since it is going to die anyway, let’s use its remaining resources to drive our favourite agendas.” This is shocking. The church of Jesus Christ cannot be co-opted in the interests of socio-political agendas. The church is the body of Christ. To co-opt it (or try to) is to co-opt the head, Jesus Christ himself. As sole, sovereign head, our Lord will not be co-opted. Anyone who thinks that the body can be co-opted while the head remains complacent; anyone who thinks this is going to find herself sifted.

I don’t wish to suggest that all worshipping bodies throughout the church are shrinking. On the contrary, many are swelling. At the same time, the international bodies in the English-speaking world that have parented The United Church (such as Church of Scotland Presbyterianism and English Methodism) are dying too. Both the Church of Scotland and the English Methodist Church will disappear, virtually, soon into the next century.

When Maureen and I were in Oxford this summer I spoke with some British Methodists about their denomination’s morbidity. They laughed (blasphemously!) and chortled, “About the time we’re all washed up we’ll unite with the Anglicans.” I said nothing, but I couldn’t imagine a corpse marrying a corpse and bearing any kind of offspring.

I am haunted by our situation here in Streetsville. Our Sunday attendance is smaller now than it was fifteen years ago. On those Sundays when we receive new members, twenty or thirty people are added to the membership roll. This being the case, we should be having to hold three or four services every Sunday to accommodate the crowds. But no one had any difficulty finding a seat this morning.

I used to be haunted by the falling away of so many from each year’s confirmation class. I used to be haunted that we were “confirming” so many young people in a faith they didn’t possess. My disquiet here, however, has given way to a much greater disquiet: I am much more haunted now upon observing that when young people are confirmed, frequently their parents disappear. It seems that the parents attended worship for years only until their child could get “certified” in some sense, and then the parents disappeared, plainly possessed of no throbbing faith themselves. I am driven now to ask many questions about our congregation. For instance, what is the spiritual temperature here? Is it high enough to warm a cold heart to that heart’s flash-point? Fire we know has many properties; but surely the most characteristic property of fire is that fire sets on fire. Is the spiritual temperature here high enough to ignite someone?

I am haunted by myself, haunted by suspicions that niggle me concerning myself. On the one hand I am sure of — have never doubted — the truth and reality of Jesus Christ, my inclusion in him by faith and therefore my salvation from him, and my vocation to the ministry. While I am certain of all this I fear that the gospel-message is frequently obscured when it leaves my lips. I can’t help my philosophical turn of mind; I can’t help having to think critically. Nonetheless, by the time I have discussed life’s problems and perplexities; by the time I have anticipated objections and misunderstandings, does the gospel of Jesus Christ sound more complicated than the wiring diagram of a computer? In my efforts not to sound simplistic, has the simple truth of the gospel been clouded? Has that word, sharper than a two-edged sword, according to the book of Hebrews, been rendered more blunt and more flaccid than a frayed length of old rope? I fear that the weekly 2500-word sermon appears to be written on the head of a pin, when all the time the truth of God needs to be painted on a billboard.

II: — Our Lord himself frequently painted the word on a billboard. He never painted it more starkly than the day he declared, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” This one sentence from Mark’s testimony is as simple, as unadorned a declaration of the gospel as we’ll ever hear. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is upon you; repent — now!, and abandon yourself to God’s deliverance.” Jesus announces, “God has brought his patient yet anguished involvement with a wayward people to a climax; he has brought it all to a climax in me. The kingdom of God is here. It’s the new reality. Give yourself up to it, and never look back!”

(i) The English word “gospel” translates a Greek word that means “good news.” In the Hebrew bible (which Jesus knew rather well), “good news” always has to do with deliverance at God’s hand. The good news of Jesus, the good news of the kingdom, is God’s definitive deliverance. God’s ultimate deliverance is deliverance from sin, judgement, condemnation, death (so far as individuals are concerned); and deliverance from evil in all its manifestations, subtleties and repercussions (so far as the creation is concerned.)

God made you and me to be glad and grateful covenant-partners with him. Instead he finds us wayward, defiant, disobedient. Finally, however, there appears one human covenant-partner who renders the Father the glad and grateful obedience the Father is owed.

God is frustrated and saddened over and over as humankind succumbs to temptation as readily as a bear eats garbage. Finally, however, there is given to the world one human being upon whom temptation is concentrated and yet who does not yield.

God is shaken at the way evil scourges his creation, disfiguring people and warping nature. At a point in history chosen inscrutably by him he appoints his Son to be that agent by which the ironfast grip of evil on the entire creation is broken. In his Son God has established a beachhead where evil concentrates its assault yet doesn’t triumph, a beachhead from which the conquering one moves inland undoing evil’s disfigurements, exposing evil’s subtlety, besting evil’s persistence. Everything has changed now that someone greater than our cosmic foe has taken the field on our behalf.

Yet there remains one matter to consider. What is the fate of humankind in view of the fact that sin is endemic in humankind, sin is a contradiction of God’s holiness, and God finally won’t tolerate it? What is the fate of humankind in view of the fact that were God to wink at sin or ignore it or overlook it he would possess a character no different from Paul Barnardo’s? Of his incomprehensible mercy God has identified himself fully with the one whom he has given to us. God has so identified himself with the Nazarene that when that one bears in himself the Father’s just judgement on sin, the Father himself is bearing in himself his own judgement on sin.

It all adds up to something huge: in Jesus Christ a wholly new sphere has been forged for us. In him a new environment has been fashioned. Nothing less than a new world, a new creation, surrounds us. The kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ. The kingdom of God occurs wherever God’s will is done perfectly. In Jesus Christ the Father’s will for his creation is done. Then in Jesus Christ new “living room” has been fashioned where sin doesn’t pollute and evil doesn’t disfigure and hopelessness doesn’t dispirit and defeat itself is defeated. No wonder our Lord announces good news. Deliverance is now the sphere, the environment in which life unfolds — or at least in which it may. All we need do is enter the new sphere, enter the new environment, that now surrounds us.

(ii) To enter it is to repent. To repent is to turn, to make an about-turn. To make an about-turn is to return. And in fact everywhere in the Hebrew bible to repent is to return. To turn into the kingdom of God is to return to the God who made us, who laments over our departure from him, and who longs for our return.

When our Lord cries, “Repent, return”, he has in mind three startling images cherished by the Hebrew prophets before him.

(a) The first image is that of an adulterous wife returning to her husband. Adultery is horrific at any time. For adultery is the betrayal of the most intense intimacy; adultery is the violation of a promise; adultery is personally degrading; and adultery is a public humiliation of the faithful partner.

When Jesus cries, “The kingdom of God is upon you: Repent!”, he is urging us to return to the God whose son or daughter we are meant to be. To return is to recover that intimacy with God which is nothing less than our greatest good and our fullest humanity. To return is to uphold the promise we have made to him on countless occasions throughout our lives. To return is to leave off our self-degradation (for make no mistake: however much our society ridicules a doctrine of sin as “Victorian” or “Puritan” or even “mediaeval”, sin remains invariably degrading.) To return is turn from publicly humiliating God to publicly praising him for his incomprehensible patience.

(b) The second image of returning that the prophets cherished is that of pagan idol-worshippers returning to the worship of the true and living God. The Hebrew word for “idols” is “the nothings.” Idols are literally nothing. At the same time, only a fool would pretend that “nothing” is inconsequential. A vacuum is nothing, yet a vacuum has immense power: it sucks down everything around it. A lie is nothing, for a lie is a statement without substance. Yet lies destroy people every day. Delusions are nothing, for a delusion is without foundation. Yet deluded people are at best utterly misled and at worst out-and-out insane. Most tellingly, perhaps, is the fact that we are inevitably conformed to what we worship. To worship any of the “nothings” is to become nothing ourselves.

Since stubborn refusal of the kingdom of God is self-annihilation, why don’t we repent, return, and become someone, that child of God created in his image and impelled to cry, “Abba, Father”, eternally? When our Lord pleads with us to repent he is pleading with us to renounce our pursuit of nothing (the lie, the delusion, the spiritual vacuum) only to find ourselves plunged into truth and reality, the kingdom of God.

(c) The third image of repentance, return, found in the prophets is the image of rebel subjects returning to their rightful ruler. The rebel subjects have thought they could rule themselves, only to find that their inept attempts at self-rule left them chaotic and fragmented. Their rebellion was born of ignorance of themselves, and their ignorance was born of ingratitude to their sovereign. Grateful now to that rightful ruler who alone can subdue disorder, and possessed now of the self-knowledge that without him they are ungovernable, they return.

To repent is to return to that king apart from whose rule disorder will engulf us. Then the only sensible thing to do is suspend foolish rebellion and fall at the feet of the king himself.

(iii) “The kingdom of God is upon you; repent, and believe in the good news.” Everywhere in the Hebrew bible “good news” has to do with one thing: deliverance. To believe in good news is to welcome the deliverance; more than welcome it, abandon ourselves to it. We western people who are imbued with so much Greek philosophy that we assume that to believe something is to add it to our mental furniture; to believe is to increase our reservoir of ideas. But to eastern people, Jews, to believe is always to trust. To believe in the good news is to trust — entrust ourselves to — the deliverance that God has wrought for us.

For either we trust the righteousness of Christ in which we are clothed as we “put on” him in faith, or we hold up before God the rags of our self-righteousness, ragged and dirty in equal measure. Either we trust the victory of Jesus Christ over all that aims at sundering us from him forever, or we persist in attempting our own victories in the face of cosmic forces that laugh to see us so stupid. Either we trust the amnesty that the judge presses upon us just because he has absorbed into himself his own judgement upon us, or we try to exonerate ourselves before him, even as our defilement leaves him gasping in his holiness.

To believe in the good news is to renounce all pretence of self-deliverance and all delusion concerning the need for deliverance; to believe in the good news is to embrace the deliverer himself, to give ourselves up to him.

From time-to-time I feel somewhat alone in my zeal for the gospel and my passion to see people captured by the gospel. Whenever I begin to feel alone I recall Elijah, who felt similarly lonely, only to have God tell him that there were 7000 faithful Israelites who had not bowed their knee to Baal. As I recall the story of Elijah I remember that there are dozens in this congregation who have already heard our Lord’s announcement of the kingdom, returned in every sense cherished by the Hebrew prophets, and abandoned themselves to him in the new world he has fashioned.

Dozens here have already done this. Some, however, have not. Won’t you join us? Won’t you join us today?

                                                                       Victor Shepherd    

September 1997