"Does "Good News" Save Us?"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 15, 2002

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

     Everyone in the sanctuary this morning enjoys hearing good news.  Most of us can recall our response when we heard that the pair of snipers had been arrested while napping in a rest area just off I-70 between Frederick and Hagerstown.  Everyone's fear of possibly being the next target ended.  The visible signs of that good news were everywhere. 

     The other night Tom Brokaw had a small piece on NBC Nightly News that featured the Florida couple who had purchased two winning lottery tickets.  The total of those two checks was in excess of 17 million dollars. Tom indicated that the odds of someone doing that were one in 24 trillion. When the improbable happened, no doubt the couple looked upon their financial windfall as good news.

     Last week we discussed how joy is often an emotional response that can be here one moment and gone the next.  The same is true with receiving good news.  We really enjoy hearing it but our minds are quick to move on to the next stimulus package.  No matter what the good news is, we know that we have to greet tomorrow only with the life-skills we have thus far mastered.  

     Neither the good news of captured predators nor the results from receiving instant wealth will cause anyone's spirit to evolve faster than their choices allow.  If this is true, has the "Good News" of Christ's coming changed our lives?  In truth it can, but only when we understand that it is not some magical formula that will recreate life the way we would prefer it to be. 

     We expect a lot from our faith particularly during times of personal crisis.   When the Heavens appear silent or our trust does not deliver on what we believe are "God's promises," we can feel abandoned.  

     There is a very curious element in the Christmas story that can be missed when we read it. In the Gospel of Luke it is written that the angel Gabriel came to Mary and said, "Peace be with you!  The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you!"  Notice Mary's immediate response to hearing this fabulous news. Her reaction was not one of peace. The next verse reads, "Mary was deeply troubled by the angel's message."  Isn't that interesting? 

     Why such a less than enthusiastic response? What did Mary understand about "good news" when it came from God or one of God's messengers that made her cringe?  From her Hebrew tradition, "good news" was everything but a recipe for a joyful, peaceful life. 

     She might have remembered that God had chosen Moses to face Pharaoh in Egypt.  Upon hearing this good news Moses was quick to back away from such "favorite son status."  He said, "How can I go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? I am nobody." (Exodus 3:12).  He wanted no parts of God's plan.

     Mary might have remembered what happened to Job.  In the very curious dialog with Satan, God asked, "Have you noticed my servant Job?  There is no one on earth as faithful and good as he."  Satan asked God a very provocative question that set up a contest between the two.  He said, "Would Job remain faithful to you if he got nothing out of it?" (Job 1:9)  Mary knew what happened to Job. 

     These and a number of other references would have been more than enough to taint Mary's enthusiasm for Gabriel's "good news."  She understood that those who had said "yes" to God often experienced very difficult and challenging lives.  Hindsight tells us that if this understanding was the basis for Mary's response, she was absolutely correct. 

     Early Christian traditions suggest that Mary was a single parent with five to seven children.  She watched as her eldest engaged in a very brief itinerant ministry before being crucified between two criminals. She and Job had something in common -- lives that were a challenge to understand.  The writer of Job has Satan ask a question that we might ask of ourselves.  Listen to it again, "Would Job remain faithful to you if he got nothing out of it?"

     As we continue our walk in Advent, what are we celebrating?  What was the "Good News" that Jesus taught his listeners?  Will that "Good News" be enough to "save" us?  The seeds that will formulate an answer for us are found in the Isaiah passage for today.

     The words of our lesson describe one of the early predictions of Israel's coming Messiah. As we review this passage, listen closely to the action verbs describing the direction in which God's Spirit flows.  "God has filled me with his spirit.  God has chosen me and sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to announce release to captives, and freedom to those in prison.  God has sent me to proclaim that the time has come when God will save his people."

     When we look at Isaiah's description of what the coming Messiah would do, we immediately see a recipe for discipleship -- "to heal, to announce, to proclaim."  Such words tell us who we will be rather than what we can expect from our faith.  For some of us this understanding may require a shift in our thinking if we are to be bearers of Isaiah's "Good News." 

     Come back again to Satan's question to God, "Would Job remain faithful to you if he got nothing out of it?"  If you have ever been troubled with why "bad things can happen to good people," the answer is that discipleship is not about us but about how we carry everything going on in our lives.  If we do this creatively, in spite of Job-like circumstances, God's Will is being done.

     A year ago Howard Lem loaned me a book entitled Fish by Steve Lundin, a book he said is the current reading-rage in a number of Federal agencies.  Last week I had an opportunity to see a short video about the workplace that inspired this book. 

     The story revolves around Seattle's world famous Pike Place Market and the way its workers inspire each other and the crowd of customers that gather.  The video and the book describe what happened to a common fish market when the employees learned to radiate a contagious spirit rather than expecting something wonderful to happen to them because they showed up on the earth.

     Listen again, for the direction in which their spirit flowed.  When Steve analyzed that fish market he discerned a number of principles that were being observed by all the employees.  The first is learn how to play.  The employees everyday have a playful attitude about every aspect of their work. 

     For example, one guy would pick up a heavy, slippery salmon and throw it 8 feet to a co-worker who had the ability to make spectacular one-handed catches.  This is the way fish are transferred from their bed of chipped ice to those who are packing them for customers.  The observers stood enthralled by the show unfolding before them.  The employees play constantly. The result is enormous productivity. Everyone is having a good time.  Laughter is constant.  

     The second is make your customer's day.  The employees grab unsuspecting people out of the gathered crowd, put an apron on them and have them get involved.  They started tossing salmon to one woman who could not catch any of them. It was so funny to watch.  One of the workers yelled out, "She's out of here!" Everyone laughed.  The crowd loved it.  

     The third is be there.  In other words, show up wholeheartedly when you are doing your work or engaging someone in conversation.  Help them understand that you are interested only in them.  Focused energy is powerful. When people feel valued, they come back.

     The fourth is choose your attitude.  All the workers in the market discovered how exhilarating it is to learn the freedom of taking responsibility for how they feel about life.  No one can make that choice for them. If they are irritable, hurt or angry, that is a choice that shows in their spirit and is reflected in their face. Such a blank, absent presence will not sell many fish. 

     The fifth is commitment.  All the workers are committed to the mission and vision of the fish market. They express this orientation in their own unique style.  Steve writes, "When a group has this level of commitment powerful things happen.  Employees trust each other and thus collectively they move toward achieving their common goals." 

     The key that makes the process work is the sixth principle, be the message.  They do not expect anyone to apologize to them, give them a warm fuzzy, hold their hand or make their day.   They are the only one in charge of being the message.  It is up to them to determine the quality of the message they wish to send. Steve writes, "Every moment you are awake is an opportunity to "be the message," i.e., to be what you want to create in the world."

     Finally, the seventh observable "law" is coach it.  Everyone in the fish market coaches all the others every day; even the owner can be coached by one of the newest employees.  Everyone recognizes that they are a student who has much more to learn. When someone is not doing well, it is either because no one is coaching them or they are refusing to be coached.  The latter response is unacceptable in the productive environment they want to create.

     One of the employees said, "You know you have been successful in creating a wonderful place to work when you go home at the end of the day energized, not drained, and when you find that not only do you have time for the rest of your life, but you also have abundant energy to live it."  What a statement!  Again, observe the direction their energy flowed.  This environment could be said about the St. Matthew's church family.  All we have to do is continue to work at it.               

     We have now become the bearers of the "Good News" just like the words of Isaiah described. The "secular setting" of Pike Place Market has become a spiritual environment where the Kingdom of God is clearly visible. The only difference between that fish market and a church like St. Matthew's is the words used to describe what is happening.  The result, however, has all the markings of exactly what Jesus described as being essential for effective living. 

     When our creative energy flows toward others, we become the "Good News" that will save us from frustration, feeling abandoned, hostility and an entire host of complex feelings that has no other source of resolution.  Isaiah's words describe how spirit and energy must flow when we are being creative in our responses.  After all, this is exactly what God was doing in Bethlehem.  God was giving humanity a gift that would keep on giving, guiding and encouraging people for thousands of years.  That gift of God's love came packaged in a baby.

     The "Good News" that Jesus gave to his disciples and listeners to spread was the same as Isaiah's words described. When we do not expect anything from the world's people, we are giving without counting the cost. God's Will is done. 

     The flow of our creative  energy must always travel away from us, the source that generated it.  This is what gives light its property of illumination.   The "Good News" is that we can do this too.  As we do, we give to others the gift that came in Bethlehem.  Our symbol of love may be different but it will have the same power behind it that created the universe.  Together we can change the world.


     Our minds and hearts have been touched, O God, by the season that is upon us.  There have been times when it was your presence that has sustained us during some fragile moment.  It has been our remembrance of some element of faith which has helped heal our aching heart.  May the pageantry of Christmas serve to remind us that Mary and Joseph experienced as much uncertainty as we do.  Let us join them in a faith that lets go and trusts you to lead.  Amen.


     Our lives are always full of things to do and places to go and yet, O God, we do not always remember what you taught us when you gave us the gift of life and all the signposts along the way that help us to live it creatively.  Sometimes we do not remember that we can be extensions of your gift by being the embodiment of the Good News ourselves.  We often forget that we are the only Body of Christ the people of this world will ever see.     

     People listening to our worries and fears may wonder where you are in the galaxy of our priorities.  Others finding us aloof, resentful or impatient may not see the importance of St. Matthew's.  People who know us may wonder what faith means when they do not see what we claim to believe at work in our lives.  Spare us from ever sending a message that hides our ability to love.

    During these Advent days, help us to focus on giving the gift of spirit to everyone.  May our smiles speak volumes about how peaceful we are.  May our words encourage and support.  May gratitude and gracious acceptance of life be our declaration that Christ is alive within us.  May we learn to rise above the pettiness that always develops into a cancer of the spirit.  Help us become for others a step-ladder from their experience to their experience of you.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .