The Message - Romans 1:1-6

This is a sermon by Chris Hobbs from the morning service on 7th November 1999.

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No doubt you've had that experience of talking to someone, thinking you're getting on fine, having a good conversation, when suddenly it dawns on you that you're talking about completely different things.  You're using the same language and even the same words, but what you each mean is something utterly different. 

Such misunderstandings are the source of some of the best comedy.  Maybe you remember this sketch of The Two Ronnies?  [That dates me, doesn't it?] A man walks into a hardware store, an ironmongers, and asks for "Four candles."  The other man, behind the counter, duly finds the candles on the shelves and lays them on the counter.  But only to hear  the first man say, "No, fork 'andles.  'Andles for forks."   And so the sketch continues.

But some misunderstandings are more serious.  Nowhere is this more true than in the church.  We share the same words and the same language.  It's only when you get talking with someone in more detail that you discover what you both really mean.  The word 'gospel' is a key example.  You'd expect all people who call themselves Christians to talk about the gospel. We believe the gospel.  We proclaim the gospel.  We stand for the gospel. But how many of us have stopped to ask what exactly is this gospel that we believe, proclaim and stand for?  When we use the word 'gospel', are we all talking about the same thing?

As a church, we've set aside a whole week next February for making this gospel known to the people of our parish, under the title 'Jesus 2000'. We're planning to deliver a copy of Luke to every home in the parish and we need to raise about 6000 to cover all the costs.  Wouldn't it be a good idea for us to be sure what it is we're giving all this time, money and effort to?

Fortunately for us, there are numerous places in the New Testament where we could go to to get  clear on what this gospel is which we're to give ourselves to.  One of those is in Romans 1.  This book is not a doctrinal treatise.  It's a letter from Paul to the Christians in Rome.  He's trying to enlist their support for his work of world evangelisation, and to get them committted to the same work.  So he introduces himself in terms of the gospel - the gospel he wants to get out to the whole world.  There are at least four great truths about the gospel which he gives the  Roman Christians - and we'd do well to hear them too.....

1.  The gospel is a message

Paul doesn't use the actual word in these verses, but it's everywhere assumed in what he writes that the gospel is a message.  The problem today is that not everyone shares his assumption. It's always a good idea to check what the  assumptions are when you're talking to someone, so that you can be sure you share them - or else you'll soon find you're talking at cross purposes.

The very word gospel means good news.  So the gospel must be a message, because good news is a message, a proclamation, an announcement.  When you hear the news on the radio or watch the news on televison or read the news in the paper, what are you doing?  You're giving yourself to a message which comes to you in words.  There may be pictures to along with it, or music in the background, but the news itself is a message in words.

See how that comes out in what Paul says he's doing.  He tells us, verse 1, that he's been called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God. Then, verse 5, he returns to the same theme and says, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.  His apostleship involves calling people to obedience, which he does with the gospel. 

Now how can he call people to obedience except by speaking (or possibly writing) to them?  Have you ever tried to call anyone to obey anything except by speaking to them - or writing a note or a letter?  Of course, it doesn't always work even then.  [Does it, parents?].  But it certainly doesn't work any other way. Why do I labour this point?  Because we need to remember it.  The gospel is not a presence, as if it somehow gets to people by us Christians just being here.  It doesn't just ooze out of us, like some kind of odour.  Now, my presence may commend the gospel to you, or it may repel you, but my presence is not the gospel.  If anybody embodied the gospel, it was Jesus. But even he didn't just come to be among us.  He didn't even stop at dying and rising again.  He also spoke - the message of the gospel. 

Nor is the gospel an action, something we do - such as loving my neighbour, or visiting the sick, or feeding the hungry.  Those are things we ought to do if we believe the gospel.  They are the proof that we do believe it, but they themselves are not the gospel.  Nor can the gospel be adequately conveyed in pictures.  They can help to get the message across, just as pictures of the Paddington rail crach helped to get across the horror of what had happened.  There's nothing wrong with using TV and video and pictures to help communicate the gospel message.  [Two Ways to Live, the
gospel outline that many of us use, does exactly that].  But pictures on their own can never be enough, because the gospel is a message.

2.  The gospel is a message from God

That couldn't be clearer than it is in verse 1: the gospel of God.  It's God's gospel, the message is from him.  So, when Paul talks, as he sometimes does, about my gospel or our gospel, he doesn't mean that there's any difference between his gospel and God's gospel.  No, heaven forbid! What he's saying is that his gospel is God's gospel.  The message he proclaims is the one he got from God.  If it's God's message, we're not at liberty to change it.

That's always the case if it's someone else's news we're telling - we can only pass it on.  We're not at liberty to change it.  If we do, it's no longer their news,  but my corruption of it.  The other day I received some good news by e-mail.  Some friends (also called Chris and Helen as it happens) had just had a baby.  [That's the new way to make birth announcements].  It was a baby boy called Jonathan.  Now, if I decided to announce that it was a baby girl called Rebecca, because I'd been hoping all along that they'd have a girl, and I went on to change the eye colour to brown and reduced the weight a little so she didn't sound too heavy, what would they think?  You might not know, if you hadn't heard the original announcement.  But it's no longer Chris and Helen's news.  It may go by the same name, but it's another thing altogether.

It's the same with God's good news.  We don't have permission to change it, because it's not ours.  That's a challenge to us to get it right - especially when we find parts of it that we're not all that comfortable with.  One thing that some people pull up short on is the cross.  They baulk at saying that Jesus died for our sins - because that means that we're sinners and that God's angry with us, so that either we ourselves bear the punishement for our sins or Jesus bears it for us.  Another thing people pull up short on is the resurrection.  They think it's just too hard to believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead, so they decide to leave it out.  But they forget that Jesus' own disciples didn't find it easy to believe at the time.  And they ignore the fact that without the resurrection there is no gospel.

But it's not just a challenge that the gospel is a message from God - to get it right.  It's also a massive relief, because it means I don't have to make it up.  I don't have to keep working it out and thinking "Now what's the gospel here - for this person, or this situation, or this city, or this time?"  It's God's gospel, I just have to get up and get going and get it out.  I suppose that has its own problems, but at least I don't have to
work out the message.  That's given.

Another consequence of its being God's gospel is that  it's to be obeyed. Do you see that from verse 5?  Paul sees himself as calling people to the obedience that comes from faith.  If the gospel is a message from God, it isn't just there for our interest [although I don't know of anything which is more interesting]; it isn't just for our information [although I can't think of any more important information anywhere in the world]; it isn't even just for our improvement [although nothing will improve us like believeing this message will].  It's for our obedience, because God has spoken it.  It's his message.

3.  The gospel is a message about Jesus

I haven't actually said very much about the content of the message so far. It's God's message, but what is that message?  The God's gospel is, verse 3: regarding his Son.  It's a message about Jesus - and not just any Jesus either.  The Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus who as to his human nature was a descendant of David - a man who was a king.  And it doesn't stop there. He's no ordinary king, because he was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead.  That's the gospel Jesus.Because the gospel's about Jesus, the announcement could only be made when Jesus himself came on the scene.  That's why the gospel was promised beforehand through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures. 

Sometimes you hear an announcement to the effect that a statement is going to be made at a later time.  So, it's announced that there'll be a press conference later in the day to explain the politician's resignation; a date is given when the final report is going to be published; a day is set for the England football squad to be announced.  It's the same here.  God declared through his prophets beforehand that an announcement would be made.  But he can't make the announcement itself until Jesus comes, dies and rises again. Because the gospel is all about him.

We're given about as brief a summary of the gospel as you can get in verse 4:  Jesus Christ our Lord.  The Jesus who died for our sins and who rose again to give us new life is Lord.   The one who brings us back to God and gives us new life with him is the one who commands our obedience and demands our allegiance.  He's the one to reckon with.  That's why Paul can say that it's through him and for his name's sake  that he does his gospel work - because the gospel is all about Jesus and it calls people to trust and obey him.  Preaching the gospel always brings honour and glory to Jesus.

So, we need to make sure that our gospel presentations are about Jesus.  In our little training course, Help for the Reluctant Evangelist, we've been learning how to tell our own story, the story of how we became Christians. We've seen how important it is not just to talk about ourselves and the changes in our lives, but about Jesus and what he's does for us - because that's the gospel.

4.  The gospel is a message for everyone

I vividly remember an incident from theological college.  It was the start of the year and various people were giving reports on things they'd been involved in over the holidays.  Several had been on missions of one kind or another.  One member of staff reported on a mission they'd been a part of in quite a posh part of London.  I recall him saying, "We've now discovered the gospel for the rich.  We knew the gospel for the poor, we now know what it is for the rich."  Does that sort of talk start the alarm bells ringing in your read?  It should do.There isn't one gospel for the poor and another gospel for the rich, one for white people and another for black, one for men and another for women.

As soon as people start talking like that, you know they're not talking about the gospel.  Sure, the gospel will have different implications for different groups, but the gospel is the gospel is the gospel.  The message that Jesus Christ is Lord commands obedience from everyone without distinction - even if that obedience may take different forms.

Pauls says that he has, verse 5, an apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.  The striking thing here is that this gospel, which is now for all the Gentiles, is the same one which was promised beforehand in the Jewish Scriptures.  Now you cannot get two groups of people more different than the Jews and the Gentiles.  So, if one gospel is all you need for both those groups, then it's good enough for anyone.  In any case, you can't be anything other that either a Jew or a Gentile.  If you're not a Jew, you're a Gentile, no two ways about it.  It's one gospel for everyone.

Besides, we all too easily forget that God's gospel doesn't first of all address us as rich or poor, black or white, male or female, but as sinners. We have rebelled, without just cause,  against a good and holy God.  We've angered him by our rebellion, and we desperately need his mercy - a mercy he's shown to us, with justice, in Christ.  God's gospel is for sinners - rich sinners, poor sinners, black sinners, white sinners, male sinners, female sinners.  The sinners in our families, the sinner who lives nextdoor, the sinner you work with, the sinners here this morning.  There's only one kind of person the gospel isn't for.  That's the person who isn't a sinner.  But I haven't met such a person yet.  Have you?

In 1954, Billy Graham preached night after night for three months at Harringay Arena in London.  An old Methodist preacher came to see him and said, "I have come here every night for ninety-three nights, and I have heard only one message." [Just As I Am, p727].  It was meant as a compliment!  It doesn't mean that Billy Graham had given only one talk night after night.  [Who'd have kept coming back if that was the case?]. It did mean that he only had one gospel, and however he presented it, you always got that gospel:  the message that Jesus Christ is Lord -  and he's the one to reckon with.

Let's give ourselves to being gospel men and gospel women, committed to this message from God (and not of our own making), a message about Jesus (who is the Lord, the one to reckon with), a message for everyone (because we're all sinners) - committed to knowing it ourselves and committed to making it known.
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