<--- back to sermon list

Download: MP3

First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

July 17, 2016

Back to Civilian Life

Psalm 23; Colossians 1:21-23

            When I was in high school, long before someone had the gumption to tell me that I had not only a voice made for radio, but also a face made for radio, I aspired to be a t.v. news anchor. One of my friends and I joined the Explorers Club at the local t.v. station, where we got the chance to practice.  Once a week, we would meet the anchor of the six o’clock news, sit on the set under the lights, and read from the teleprompter scripts we had prepared from Associated Press wire copy.  We had a ball!

            Unfortunately, the Explorers Club lasted only one year, I think because only three students signed up and the station decided it wasn’t worth their time.  I did go on to be a disc jockey, introducing records for the next six years with a voice (and face) made for radio.

            I’ve sometimes wondered how things might have gone, had I pursued work in the media. I was a news junkie throughout my twenties, especially when I lived and worked in Washington, D.C.  But I confess a real alienation from news media at this point in my life.  I find most t.v. news to be sensationalistic and shallow, more infotainment than information and analysis.  It was in college that I first heard the phrase, “if it bleeds, it leads,” and that still fairly describes much of the news.  And so, I largely avoid radio and t.v. news.  I read a weekly newsmagazine and a monthly magazine that offers analysis.  I do so because I do not trust what I see on the screens that line the wall in the fitness center to accurately portray what is going on in the world.

            I guess you could say that while I didn’t end up in the media, I did end up working for a faith-based news organization.  Twice in three verses the apostle uses that word “gospel,” which we understand to mean “good news.”  But I would dare to say that none of us fully appreciates that the Bible means what it says when it uses the word “news.”  Leslee Newbigin, the late missionary, believed that.  He urged preachers to remember that the gospel is just like a “secular announcement;” it is worthy of Associated Press copy and announcement from under the lights, with the cameras rolling. God has done something in Jesus Christ, and it affects the whole world.  This is news, and it is good.  As Josh declared last week, “through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.”  All things.  God in Christ, and him crucified, made peace with the world.  That may be the most astounding claim in the whole Bible.  I hope it makes you raise an eyebrow, and causes you to question it.  God has reconciled to himself all things?

            Since faith is the conviction of things not seen, I do not expect television news to be able to share this gospel.  All the reporters embedded with cameramen all over the world could not catch this event.  Still, it is real, and it is news.  And the apostle understands it to be his job to announce it: “I, Paul,” he says, “became a servant of this good news.”  And anyone who stands in a pulpit Sunday after Sunday learns soon enough that he or she is such a servant, of this faith-based news organization.  The war between heaven and earth is over.  There is no animosity on God’s side.  Jesus in his death made peace on our side.  And servants of this gospel have to keep announcing it, because who else will?  The major networks don’t have this job, and they are not equipped to do it even if it were their job.

            But here’s the problem: most of us are saturated in bad news.  Most of us are so swamped by bad news that we can’t hear the good news.  Our reality is distorted because we’re soaked in bad news.  If all you knew about the world were what you saw on t.v., you would conclude that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.  If all you knew were police shootings of African Americans, and African Americans shooting police officers; if all you knew were a terrorist driving a truck through crowds in Nice; if all you knew were the conflict and the violence, you would conclude that the world is going to hell.  You would conclude that the world is at war, and the best thing to do is build a fence around your property, buy plenty of ammo, and be on alert.  And that’s the problem we face.

            You and I come here on Sundays, because we believe that there is another side to the story, and it’s far bigger.  There is news fit to hear, that we hear almost nowhere else.  The war is over.  We are summoned to stand down, to return to civilian life, if you will.

            In the movie American Sniper, we saw how hard it is for a soldier to stand down.  When you live for months on high alert, ready to kill or be killed, it’s not as if you can just go home to the suburbs and forget.  Your dreams wake you in a cold sweat.  A surprise in the grocery store can activate your instincts.  You can try to tell yourself you’re home and you’re at peace, but habits of conflict don’t just switch off like that.  What used to be real for you can remain real, even when it isn’t real.  And when the apostle speaks to the Colossians, he offers them a similar assessment of things.  Once you, just like the world, were estranged and hostile in mind.  Once you, just like the rest of the world, were not at peace with God.  But now you are.  Now you have been reconciled in the death of Jesus.  And the rest of the letter gets into the specifics of going back to civilian life, of claiming peace, of living in the reality that the news is good.

            Robert McAfee Brown said, “We can never penetrate fully into the mystery of the reconciliation between God and man.  But we can at last see that at the very heart of all things is a God of suffering love.  We can have the overpowering realization that God has paid us the almost intolerable compliment of loving us that much.  He has offered us himself.”

            Imagine t.v. news outside Jerusalem, there at Golgotha, cameras rolling.  What would they report?  God has reconciled the world to himself?  I doubt it.  It wasn’t that obvious.  They would report Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, surely.  And Peter’s denial of him.  And the trial would have made for great t.v.  And then the crowds shouting for his death, and the soldiers binding him, and taking his clothes, and flogging him, and then executing him.  I’m sure even that the audience would have heard Jesus’ cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”  And they would have concluded that the world, in fact, is godforsaken.  But that is not the whole story.  Betty Achtemeier once said to me that any thirteen-year-old can tell you what’s wrong with the world; it takes a preacher to tell you what God is doing about it.

            And my fellow preacher Sam Cooper said on Friday that when you think about it, even the bad news we’re hearing these days is not as bad as the news was on that Good Friday.  Is anything worse than the world executing God’s Son?  He was stripped of his property, deprived of his liberty, robbed of his life, on the day the church calls good.  God reconciled the world to himself by means of the worst that the world could do to him.  The war is over.  Come home, soldier.  Stand down.

            Now I’m not stupid.  I know that there are terrorists in the world.  I know that evil is real.  I’m a Calvinist!  We’re the folks who continue to give the world the doctrine of total depravity!  Yes, there is evil in the world.  Yes, there is animosity toward God.  But God refuses to let that evil and animosity dictate how he will relate to the world.  God gives himself to the world.  God pays his enemies this almost intolerable compliment: loving us that much.

            When you recite the 23rd Psalm, does that occur to you?  “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”  Does it occur when you read of the Last Supper, how Jesus served bread to Judas, knowing full well what he was about to do?  God communes with his enemies.

            Clearly, what God did in the death of Jesus was not to eliminate evil from the world.  God did not eliminate danger, or give to anyone a bulletproof vest.  Instead, God gave his Son, to do what it takes the ears of faith to hear: peace on earth.  And God gave to the church the meal we share, in remembrance of that.  Miroslav Volf says that when we eat that bread and drink that cup, we remember that all of us were God’s enemies, but for us all Christ died.  Even for our enemies today, Christ died.  He made peace with them, peace with us.  This is the gospel you and I serve.

            We have to serve this gospel, because the world is so soaked in bad news that we forget that God has declared peace, called us back to civilian life.

            In January, the media did a good job of reporting some good news.  It was in Fayetteville, North Carolina, at a little church of about sixty worshippers on New Year’s Eve.  A man walked in with a gun and an ammo magazine.  The pastor of the church is a retired Army sergeant first class.  He walked up to the man and said, “Can I help you?”  The man asked the pastor to pray for him, which was good, because the pastor was ready to tackle him if the guy made any trouble.  The pastor took the gun and handed it to a deacon.  One by one, the deacon and three others hugged the man, and the pastor began to pray for him.  They seated the man on the front pew, continued with the sermon, and then did an altar call.  The pastor, Larry Wright, says that the man responded to the call and gave his life to Christ.  They embraced, he says, like a father and son.  Then the man asked to speak, and apologized, telling the church that he set out that evening to do something terrible.  But the Lord spoke to him.

            Friends, this is the gospel that we serve, that we have to serve.  God has declared peace, called us back to civilian life.  God embraces the enemy who comes armed.  God takes the worst that the world can do – far worse even than any news we hear today – and makes it peace.

            Do you remember the response of the Christians at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, to the young man who shot and killed nine people at their Bible study?  Do you remember the human bridge that area people formed, black and white, that stretched from Charleston to Mount Pleasant?  How different is that to the long hot summer of anger across America?  And which is the news?  Which is the gospel truth?

            Time Magazine described it this way:

            At a time when the violent deaths of African Americans were triggering protests and even rioting from Missouri to Maryland – and a national movement sprang up to proclaim that Black Lives Matter – here was a cold-blooded attack by an avowed white supremacist intending to provoke a race war in the heart of the old Confederacy.

            But instead of war, Charleston erupted in grace, led by the survivors of the Emanuel Nine.  It happened suddenly, and not every survivor was on board. For some it was too soon; for others, too simple.  Even so, within 36 hours of the killings, and with pain racking their voices, family members stood in a small county courtroom to speak the language of forgiveness.

            Not everyone is on board with such audacious peace.  Not everyone can rejoice that God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, embracing his enemies through the blood of the cross.  But this, friends, is the gospel, the news that is good, the news we are called to serve.  The world is not going to hell.  God still takes the very worst that the world can do and makes it our peace.  The war is over.  Stand down.  Come home.  Be steadfast and rock solid as servant of this good news.  The world desperately needs you.

© 2022 First Presbyterian Church | 4815 Franklin Pike, Nashville, TN 37220 | (615) 383-1815
Website By Worship Times