Pentecost 11: Game-changing good news

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Luke 12:32-40)
When is the last time that your good news needed a warning label?

“Do not be afraid, for you just earned a promotion!”
“Do not be afraid, for we just picked a wedding date!”
“Do not be afraid, for I baked you cookies!”

It sounds pretty silly to begin a statement of good news with the disclaimer “don’t be afraid.” And yet, in the Bible and especially in Luke’s gospel, good news is often prefaced by those four words:

The angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.

The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

But the angel said to the shepherds, "Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

And today’s gospel: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Why do all of these proclamations of good news come with the preface “do not be afraid?” Is it just that people tend to get spooked by angels? Or is it just that people get nervous around miracles? Or is it something bigger?

All of the “do not be afraids” in Luke’s gospel introduce game-changing good news. Proclaiming the birth of John the Baptist changes the game. The birth of Jesus changes the game. Being called as a disciple changes the game. “Do not be afraid” is our hint that God’s good news to us comes with consequences - that God’s good news shakes things up and changes the game and turns the world upside-down.

Today’s gospel is no different. We begin, right off, with words of grace: the Father has given us the kingdom. We are told, quite simply, that by God’s grace, we have a treasure in heaven that can never be taken from us. Reflecting on today’s text, one writer says, “In these days when anxiety and uncertainty over the stock market keeps people up nights—and in which altogether too many people have seen a lifetime’s worth of savings evaporate overnight—the promise of a portfolio that is rock solid eternally is a mighty delicious promise to savor.”

But there is a risk in receiving the kingdom. There’s a reason that the good news of our inheritance needs the preface “do not be afraid.” The kingdom is not merely our promise to savor, it is the starting point for turning the world upside-down. God has chosen to give us the kingdom: our broken-down, fragile, crabby selves. We have the kingdom because God is gracious, not because we’re any good. And this news is game-changing. It gives us a new lens through which to see the world. We no longer see and speak and act as ourselves, but on behalf our gracious God. The kingdom might have been given to us freely, but inheriting it is costly.

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus says, “for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. So therefore, sell your possessions, and give alms. Therefore, be dressed for action and have your lamps lit. Therefore, be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Sell your possessions. Turn faith to action. Live every day for Christ’s return. None of these are new themes. We’ve heard Jesus talk about them many times before. We’ve heard sermons preached on these themes and studied them in Bible studies. It would be easy to skim over today’s gospel and not really pay attention to it. But what if we took seriously the idea that God’s good news always changes the game? What if we let Jesus’ words, familiar as they may be, become real to us?

In today’s gospel, Jesus again asks us to give up stuff, and instead to be generous toward those whose basic needs are often left unmet. What would our world look like if we took that challenge seriously? When the news story broke this week that billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet had contacted four hundred of the wealthiest people in the world, asking them to pledge away half their wealth to charities, my first thought was “wow, good for them!” And my second thought was “I’m glad no one called and asked me to do that!” But Jesus’ imperative to sell our possessions and to give alms is just as real as a phone call from Bill Gates. The hard task of generosity makes us nervous, especially in an anxious economy. But Jesus says, “do not be afraid.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus again asks us to be bold in living out our faith through service. A man on the radio last week told the story of how he once was walking in Chicago and encountered an elderly woman who was asking passers-by for money - not an uncommon sight in the city. And as he usually did in this sort of situation, he walked past her without much of a thought. He made it to the corner, just far enough away from her to be out-of-range of her pleas, and then turned around to see her face. He back looked at that old woman, and suddenly wondered whose daughter she was. Whose sister or mother or friend she was. He thought about her as a child, on the playground, full of dreams and plans for her life, none of which, presumably, involved begging for food money under the elevated train tracks. And so he walked back to the woman, looked her in the eye as a fellow child of God, and gave her the money that was in his pocket. We always have reasons to be fearful or complacent. We always have reasons to walk on by. But Jesus says “do not be afraid.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus again encourages us to live honest and holy lives, knowing that his return could happen at any moment. He asks us believe that everything matters, and pushes us to see God’s grace in every person and corner of our world. As inheritors of the kingdom, it is no longer good enough to seek pleasure if it comes at the expense of others, to value fast and cheap over fair and good, to seek the resources of the earth rather than the care of it, or to value comfort rather than justice. It is hard work to reorient our values, and hard to live them out. We fear that we’ll be the unpopular kid at school. But Jesus says “do not be afraid.”

The point of today’s gospel is that God’s good news isn’t actually good news if all we do is hear it and ponder it. God’s good news for the world is only good if we act on it. It’s the only way for the world to see that we have received the treasures of the kingdom.

Don’t you feel God’s good news here, buzzing around you? Don’t you feel the ground trembling beneath your feet as God moves the foundations of the earth? Don’t you feel the dust in the air as the old structures of the world order crumble to make space for God’s kingdom to be built?

Jesus was born and the skies split open to make room for a star and for angels. Jesus died on the cross and the earth shook, and the temple curtain that divided human space from God’s space was torn in two. Jesus rose from the dead and the stone of death was kicked away from the mouth of the tomb. God’s good news does not stand still. It changes the game. It turns everything upside-down. And yes. It is scary. But Jesus tells us “do not be afraid,” because God’s good news always wins. By grace, we stand firm, even on trembling ground, looking forward to the new city that has eternal foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Do not fear, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom; now go, and share it with the world!

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