- Written by Kevin Derksen Kevin Derksen
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Windows in the Word:
This morning our windows into the word make the leap from the Old Testament to the New. From the Hebrew scriptures to the early writings of believers and Christ-followers in the years after Jesus’ life on earth. We’ve come from Torah and History and Wisdom and Prophets, and we turn now to Gospels.
But in many ways, the leap is not so great. The Old Testament tells of the relationship between God and God’s chosen people. It’s about promises, peoplehood, salvation, instruction, justice and land. It reveals the ongoing struggles of a people to remain faithful to God in the midst of social and political upheaval. It also stakes its hope in the power of God to redeem and make things right.
And this is the same setting in which the gospels begin. The gospels have become Christian texts, but they take place in the context of Jewish life in the promised land. Jesus was born a Jew. This is sort of an obvious statement, but it does kind of change how we think about his life and ministry. Jesus was heir to the Hebrew scriptures, to the covenants made with Noah, Abraham and Moses, and to a land that has never failed to be contested space since God’s people crossed the Jordan out of the wilderness.
The Old Testament history and prophets describe seasons of destruction and exile at the hands of foreign powers – the Assyrians and Babylonians. They also describe a return to the promised land and a re-building of the temple for the worship of God. But in the time between the Old and New Testaments there was yet more turmoil. The rise of Alexander the Great and the expansion of his Greek empire brought the land and people of Palestine again under the rule of a foreign conqueror. And among the Jewish communities there were revolts and rebellions and plenty of painful history. By the time of Jesus’ birth it was the Romans who occupied Palestine and kept the Jewish people under their thumb.
So the gospels take as their context this ongoing struggle of God’s people to navigate faithfulness in the midst of a complicated social and political world. How do you follow and obey God when there are foreign soldiers wandering around enforcing a different set of laws at the point of a sword? What does it mean for God to save and redeem? For promises of restoration to come true? What is it we should be looking and waiting for?
The gospels make a strong claim to one particular answer to these questions. And it’s certainly something new. But just as importantly, it’s something deeply rooted in the hopes and promises and scriptures that had shaped God’s people already for centuries.
According to the gospels, the answer to all these questions is the person of Jesus. Jesus who is the Messiah, the Christ, the promised and the anointed one. The saviour who comes to rescue and redeem his people, as the prophets had promised and foretold. So we leap from Old to New, but we are still within the same Bible. Still within the same grand drama of God and God’s beloved creatures.
And yet, as we take up the gospels, there is a new focus. A new and decisive chapter in God’s relationship with creation. And it’s all there in this regular looking person named Jesus. The gospels recount, each in their own way, the stories of this Jesus. The things he did, the things he said, the things that were said about him. They tell of his encounters with people, both men and women, rich and poor, powerful and on the margins. They describe the threat he became to both the religious and the political systems of his day, and how he was arrested, tried and hung on a cross to die. And they proclaim that this Jesus who died was raised to life again.
In and through all these stories, the gospels make the case that this is where all those promises and hopes and scriptures of old have been headed. This is the Messiah, the promised one, the hope of the nations; this is the shape and the face of God’s salvation for us. This is God’s own word from eternity become human just like we are. God with us forever.
The rest of the New Testament reflects on the meaning of Jesus and offers both guidance and encouragement to the church as it seeks to be faithful to its Lord. But it’s only the gospels that tell the stories of Jesus. And that makes them especially endearing and beloved, because it’s stories that often speak to us most deeply and profoundly.
The tricky thing, of course, is that we have more than one gospel and they don’t all tell exactly the same stories. So let’s take a look at what we’ve got here. Open your Bible if you have one, and see if you can find where the New Testament begins. You’ll find four books there that are called ‘gospels’: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Chances are, the title at the beginning of each gospel in your Bible says: “The Gospel According to...” and then the author. This way of describing the books is maybe a reminder that there is only one gospel of Jesus Christ, but there are multiple accounts. Different perspectives and tellings as particular people saw and heard and wrote things down.
The gospel according to Luke begins this way:
“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”
This is Luke’s introduction, but it helps to give some explanation for why any of the gospels might have been written. There are lots of stories out there, but here is my attempt to put everything together as I’ve understood it. That’s what these gospels were written to do – bring together and make sense of the stories about Jesus, so that present and future believers might know the truth and grow in faith. And so there is some variation in the telling, but also lots that is parallel and consistent as the gospels set out their accounts.
Three of the gospels are especially similar. Matthew, Mark and Luke are sometimes referred to as the “Synoptics”, meaning that they hold together. These three share lots of parallel material, often the same word for word. Most scholars now figure that Mark was probably written first, and that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as one of their sources. But they each have their own way of structuring the narrative, and some elements unique to their telling. Only Matthew and Luke include anything about Jesus’ birth, for instance, and they include very different stories about how it came to pass.
The fourth gospel, John, is the odd one out. It was likely written a little later than the other three, and it has a very different tone and feel. John often feels more poetic and more theological. It reflects a deeper kind of reflection on the meaning and the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Together, the four gospels offer a multifaceted set of windows into the life of Jesus and the experience of his followers. And I think we’re richer for the different narratives that they offer.
Now, the word ‘gospel’ itself simply means “good news”. It’s a word that has come to describe this genre of biblical writing and this collection of four books at the beginning of the New Testament. But it’s also the word used within these books use to describe what they’re about. They are about the good news of Jesus Christ. And that’s maybe as good a summary as any. In their different ways, they tell of the good news that Jesus is and brings and makes possible for us.
So as a way of exploring some of the particular character of these four gospels, I thought it might make sense to ask what the good news is for each gospel writer. What is the gospel according to Matthew, according to Mark, according to Luke and according to John?
Well, let’s start with Mark because it is likely the earliest.
And here we find our word “Gospel”, or good news, in the very first line. Flip to Mark chapter 1, and let’s take a look together. Mark starts off with a sort of heading or title: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And then he jumps right into the proclamation of John the Baptist.
Mark is the shortest of the four gospels. It’s the tightest structurally, and moves quickly through the narrative with a sense of urgency and tension. The word “immediately” is used often in Mark to describe the pace of events. And early in Mark we find a key summary statement that gives us the good news in a nutshell. Stay with Mark chapter 1, but skip down now to verse 14. This is how Mark describes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry:
"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.'" (Mark 1:14-15)
The good news of God is that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near. This is a really important idea for the gospels, especially the first three. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spends a lot of time talking about the kingdom of God.
So what does that mean? What is the kingdom of God, and how has it come near? In truth, it’s a bit of a tricky thing. The gospels describe all kinds of people who struggle to understand what Jesus is talking about. And to be fair, he tends to speak about it a little cryptically – often in parables. Take a look at Mark 4:26:
"Jesus also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."
Well, there you have it. That should about clear everything up! It was especially confusing for Jesus followers and listeners who as Jewish people had been waiting for a return of an independent Kingdom for the people of Israel that would throw off the yoke of all these foreign oppressors. And there’s no doubt that what Jesus is talking about has social and political implications.
But the kingdom that Jesus describes is not like other earthly kingdoms. It’s not built on human concepts of power and law. It’s God’s kingdom. And it doesn’t compete for space among all the other kingdoms of the world. God’s kingdom can be present and realized even in the midst of Roman occupation.
We sometimes talk about the “upside-down” kingdom. God’s kingdom as a place where roles are reversed and power dynamics are subverted. Citizens of God’s kingdom play by a different set of rules and see a different reality. Not because they’re lifted out of the world as we’ve known it, but because in the presence of Jesus everything looks different.
And so Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God, but Jesus isn’t just a messenger. He brings the kingdom close. He is the good news, that God’s purposes are being realized and worked out right here where we are.
The gospel of Matthew includes lots about the kingdom of God as well. But for Matthew, a key part of the good news is connecting this new reality back to the hopes and promises of the Hebrew people and scriptures. Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ Jewish heritage, tracing his lineage back to Abraham in the genealogy that begins his gospel. He makes it clear that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. He didn’t betray the hopes of his people, but widened and deepened them to include all nations. Jesus as the completion and the fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures.
The kingdom of God is key to the good news in Luke too. And for Luke, himself a physician, the kingdom is announced as Jesus extends love and compassion to all people. It’s Luke who includes the reading from Isaiah that Jesus takes as his own statement of ministry. And we heard it in the readings already this morning. From Luke 4:18-19:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
What a beautiful description of what the kingdom of God looks like. It’s where there is good news for the poor. And release for captives and sight for the blind and freedom for the oppressed. And we see this kingdom taking shape as Jesus ministry unfolds. A ministry of healing and compassion and love among the people he encounters.
And then there’s the gospel of John. You don’t hear Jesus talking about the kingdom of God in John. Instead, Jesus talks much more about eternal life, and about the possibility of a new and close and intimate relationship between God and humanity. For John, the good news is that in Jesus Christ the Word has become flesh and walked among us. That heaven and earth have come together. That through Jesus we can come to know and dwell in God. And John shares this good news by including long passages of teaching where Jesus describes these things to his disciples.
So those are some of the ways that the four gospels describe the good news of Jesus – with some variation of theme and emphasis, but also much continuity.
Where all the gospels are absolutely in sync, however, is in the movement of the narrative towards the arrest and execution of Jesus. Each gospel contains a substantial passion narrative that describes Jesus’ final days and his death on a cross. Each gospel understands that something about this good news of Jesus was not welcomed and accepted by all. It was threatening. Unwelcome. Met by the power of sin that turns us away from truth and reconciliation.
And for all these gospel accounts, the death of Jesus was absolutely in keeping with his life and ministry. This is what it means to offer good news. Unreservedly. Fully open to the range of human response. This is what the prophets foretold. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Don’t you know that the Messiah must suffer and die? This is the kind of king I am, and the shape of my kingdom. The ultimate upside-down, where victory comes through death.
But victory does come. And on this all four gospels also agree. Jesus dies on the cross, but then on the third day he rises again. The tomb is empty. Death cannot hold him. God’s power to save and redeem crosses the final barrier. There is nothing that can get in the way of God’s salvation. The power of sin is broken. There is the possibility of forgiveness and new life. Of eternal life together with God. The possibility of a kingdom that bridges divides of race and history and borders of all kinds. The beginning of a new community of the redeemed in Christ that proclaims the reign of God no matter what madness might still continue on this earth.
All this is proclaimed as the gospels celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Another way of summarizing the good news in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is simply that Christ is risen. This is what we are to receive and pass on. Good news for all of us living in the shadow of death and weight of sin.
There is so much more that one could say about the gospels. This is the heart of our faith and the God-breathed mystery that continues to reveal itself in our lives. This is the good news that we carry and cherish and share as freely as Jesus himself did.
Today we have the opportunity to receive and experience this good news in our own hearts and bodies. Our sharing in the Lord’s Supper is a sharing in Christ’s suffering, but it’s also a sharing in the resurrection that makes of us a new community and one body in Christ. As we eat and drink we proclaim and we become the kingdom of God. That where we are, Christ is also. That in spite of all that might be happening around us, there can still be good news shared. The bread and the cup transforms us and it transforms our world. The voice of Jesus calls us to the table and invites us to become a gospel people once more. A people of good news, for us and for all of creation.