Wednesday, February 01, 2006

“Too Good to be True” [1]
Mt 13:31-33, 44-46; Rom 8:31-39
©2005 Alan Brehm

In the 1999 Columbia movie “Jakob the Liar,” Robin Williams plays a resident of a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland who happens to stumble upon a piece of good news. While being interrogated in the Commandant’s office, he accidentally hears on a radio broadcast that the Russians are only 400 kilometers away. When he shares this piece of news with a friend, it soon spreads all over the ghetto. Jakob has to make up the story of a secret radio he’s hiding, because he heard this news in the German Headquarters, and as another friend reminds him, “the only ones who come out of there after curfew are informers.”

When he tells one of his closest friends that he really doesn’t have a radio and he doesn’t have any idea where the Russian army is, the man just gives up hope and dies. Jakob finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place—that one piece of good news has put him in the position of being able to offer hope to his friends in the ghetto. At that point, Jakob begins to invent stories about their impending liberation, and by so doing he transforms their lives from misery to renewed passion.

Too Good to Be True? The good news Jesus shared with his people was that God’s reign had begun. That meant that God would set things right and establish a kingdom—a new world order in which true righteousness and justice would prevail. For many it was the hope they had been awaiting for years. For others it was simply too good to be true. The Romans were still in power. The aristocrats and the high priests were still as corrupt as ever. None of the signs of God’s kingdom were visible.

Do you blame them for doubting? Would you have believed if you’d been there? The heart of the good news in the New Testament is that God reigns over the whole world and is working to redeem all creation. As Paul puts it, God loves us with a love that will not let us go. In all that God is doing in this world, God is “for us.”

If you look around at the reality we face every day, at the all the ordinary and sometimes destructive events of life, it may seem too good to be true. And yet we pray “Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.” Do we believe it, or is it too good to be true?

A Kingdom that Is or that Is To Come? Part of the answer to this mystery is the fact that Jesus proclaimed a Kingdom that is in a very real sense present but also in a very real sense it is yet to come. Was Jesus confused? Although many of his contemporaries may have thought he was, this tension runs throughout the NT.

Simply put, the good news of the New Testament is that God reigns now, but not completely. That’s why the whole matter is such a mystery.

But what do you do with such mysterious good news? To share it with others might run the risk of putting yourself in the position of looking gullible enough to believe something that’s too good to be true. Faced with that prospect, many come up with all kinds of arguments to prove its credibility.

But Jesus took a different approach. He was content to proclaim the mystery and leave the sorting out to God. After all, we are talking about God’s kingdom, about God’s reign. Maybe there is wisdom in the notion that we can trust that God through Jesus Christ is competent to carry out his purposes as God sees fit.

And yet, we still have to find a way to make it through life in this world that seems at every turn to refute hope in God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness.

A Kingdom Based on Hope. The power behind Jakob’s little fabricated pieces of news was not that there actually was some truth behind them, but rather that they generated hope. They gave people something to live for.

I think there is a sense in which that is true for us as well. I think we have to realize what we’re up to when we believe that God is working to redeem this world. We’re trading everything we have for one flawless pearl of hope.

And to some extent we can never really know with absolute certainty whether any of what we hope for is true or not. I know all the arguments for the truth of the gospel. I believe that to claim that the good news about Jesus Christ was an elaborate hoax is itself an elaborate hoax. The good news is more than just “wishful thinking.”

But at the end of the day, what it boils down to is that this good news gives us hope—the best hope we’ve ever found. And without being able to conclusively, objectively, scientifically prove one way or another whether it’s true, we’re called to stake our lives on that hope, trading in every other basis for living for one flawless pearl.

Conclusion: That’s what it means to be a Christian, to trust in Jesus Christ, to live as a disciple. Henri Nouwen, in his famous book The Wounded Healer, described the Christian ministry in terms that I think reflect this aspect of the Christian life. When we follow Christ we stake our lives on a story that gives us hope that “there is light on the other side of darkness.” The Christian life is based on “promises, not concrete successes”; looking for “concrete results” inevitably leads to bitter disillusionment. Rather, it is hope that serves as the foundation for the Christian life: “Hope prevents us from clinging to what we have and frees us to move away from the safe place and enter unknown and fearful territory.” We all have our “safe places” that cannot compare with the one flawless pearl we’re called to embrace.

We stake our lives on the one piece of legitimate good news we’ve heard—that God’s new world is in a very real sense present already in our lives and that one day that it will completely transform all of creation.

In the short run, it’s easy to lose sight of that good news. You don’t have to look far to find evidence that what we do here and now can thwart God’s purposes—at least in the short run. But in the long run, the Bible’s promise is that “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). And I choose to believe that good news and stake my life on the hope that it is true, even though none of us can prove it.

At the end of the movie, the hope Jakob gave to his friends was vindicated. Just as his whole ghetto was loaded into a train and on the way to the gas chambers, the Russian army came to the rescue!

I believe our hopes in the good news of Jesus Christ will be vindicated as well. Perhaps not in the way or at the time we would like, but ultimately, in God’s time and in God’s mysterious way, I dare to believe our hopes will be vindicated. God will set things right. God will establish a new world based on true justice. And God will redeem everyone for “every knee will bow” in humble adoration before Jesus Christ and “every tongue” will worship him as savior and lord! It may seem too good to be true, but that’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

Thanks be to God!
[1] A sermon preached 7/24/05 at First Presbyterian Church, Baytown TX.