An Old Gospel for a New Day

1 Corinthians 15:1-4 

I’ve spent a good deal of time in hospitals – twice as a patient, occasionally as a parent, most often as a minister. Hospitals are strange and deceptive places. There are smiles and encouraging words. In the lobby there’s a coffee bar and a lounge area (complete with a grand piano) that reminds you of a high class resort. You are surrounded by white walls, antiseptic smell, clean sheets, and the distracting sound of TV’s lingering in the background. You pass by a food cart where delicious smells hint of gourmet meals being served. What a nice place.

But then, you will hear the cry of a child across the hall, the wail of the ambulance siren pulling up to the ER just around the corner, the voice on the intercom signally code blue and the rush of doctors and nurses to a patient’s room. As you walk through the ICU waiting room you see the worried faces of a family for whom life hangs in the balance.

And you come back to reality – this is a hospital. For all of its ambient pleasantness, its sole function is to bargain with death. The walls can’t be white enough, nor the staff polite enough to hide the stark reality of the bottom line: People come here to give all they have to postpone the inevitable.

A hospital is really a microcosm of the world itself. Have you ever noticed the endless extremes to which a person will go to hide the realities of life? Cosmetic surgery, hair transplants, teeth caps, creams and colors, vitamins and potions, and a growing supplies of pill bottles on our bathroom counter. All that to hide what everybody already knows – we’re getting older. Slowly, but surely, each of us is edging closer and closer to the inevitable. One day, we will no longer be able to postpone it anymore – death.

The tragedy is not that people die – not that life is so short – but that so many are already dead. Oh, their hearts are still beating, breath is still in their lungs – but physical death will only usher them into an eternity of spiritual death.

About now some of you are looking back at the title of the sermon and thinking, an old gospel for a new day? I thought the gospel was about good news – you’re supposed to cheer us up and make us feel good about ourselves.

Hang with me a little longer, because good news isn’t really good news until you understand how really bad the bad news is. Think about how the Bible presents the good news – how often it is preceded by the bad news:

Rom. 3:23-24 “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 

… and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

 Gal. 3:10-14 “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” 

… Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”

 Eph. 2:1-5 “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live  

… But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”

Only when we see the enormity of our sin can we begin to appreciate the wonder of God’s grace.

The good news didn’t begin at the cross, but in the garden, when Adam and Eve first transgressed that relationship with God. They took and ate the fruit that God had specifically forbidden them to eat. And with that disobedience severed their once intimate relationship with their creator.

You remember, how God cast them out of the garden, away from his presence. But in that 3rd chapter of Genesis, we have a brief glimpse into the plan of God for his creation that would heal the wound and reconcile the relationship: Speaking to the serpent who had tempted and betrayed Eve, “and I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.”

And with that little note of hope, there in what was surely the most tragic moment in human history, God let us in on the mystery – that all is not lost – he has a plan for the redemption of mankind – that one day this offspring of woman, the very son of God himself will crush the head of the serpent, Satan.

Through the long years that God’s people struggled with their inability to remain in obedience to God – rebelling against him, rejecting him, and bearing the consequences, God’s plan never changed.

Man became so wicked that God wiped from the face of the earth all but eight, yet his plan never changed.

Through slavery in Egypt, the wanderings in the wilderness, through the faithlessness of judges and kings, Assyrian captivity and Babylonian exile, through prosperity and oppression, God’s plan never changed.

Isaiah prayed for and wrote about that one who would come – the suffering servant of God, despised and rejected by men, who would bear the iniquity of us all.

Jeremiah wrote of the new covenant that God would establish with his people.

Malachi spoke of the one who would come and turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers – who would prepare the way for the Lord. God’s plan never changed.

Then came that quiet morning in Bethlehem. So many were gathered for the census that there was no room in the inn and God’s son was born in a stable, to a teenage peasant girl. God’s plan was set in motion – Paul said it this way – “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Gal. 4:4-5).

God’s plan to redeem his creation, to reconcile the split that began in the garden and perpetuated by every person’s sin as we each individually rejected God’s rule in our lives.

Paul writes of it in Eph. 2:15-16“His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”

God’s plan, man’s sin, and Satan’s death grip on the human heart come clashing into conflict as Christ was lifted up on the cross, taking with him the sin and the guilt of every person – not just the good person, but every person, including the one who knelt and drove those nails into his wrists. No sin was too great that it could not be covered by his blood. No man, no woman was so wicked that Christ’s hand was not stretched out to them.

Here’s how Paul described the incredible expression of the love of God called grace: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8).

Three days later came the exclamation point to God’s victory. Oh yes, sin had been carried with Christ to the grave, but remember, the grave held only defeat – it was the one obstacle man could not overcome. All of man’s accomplishments fall at the foot of the grave. But when those women came to complete the burial preparations early on that Sunday morning after Passover, the stone had been rolled away and the angel clothed in white stood in the tomb and said, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, he is alive!”

Not only had sin been wiped away at the cross, but death itself had been defeated at the tomb. Satan’s death grip had been broken. Now man was free indeed.

Paul says very simply, “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believe in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…” (1 Cor. 15:1-4).

That’s the gospel – the good news – the plan of God from before the creation of man himself – yet, with a freshness for a new day and a new generation.

Here we are with all of our technology and sophistication and self-reliance – still struggling with the same problem that enslaved men centuries ago – sin. The old gospel still has the power to do what we cannot – take away our one greatest fear – the sting of sin – death.

The gospel is good news – not because we became good enough, not because we earned it, not because we loved God fervently enough, but because God loved us – he loves us so much that he does not want any of us to perish but to have eternal life.

That is the good news – period. Isn’t there more to it than that? No, that’s all. Don’t I have to do something, give something, be something? No, you can’t buy what isn’t for sale.

God’s grace is by definition a gift (that’s what the word grace means). Look at that passage we have already noticed twice in Eph. 2 – vss. 8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Paul does say, “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.” That gospel is, that “Jesus died, was buried and was raised on the third day.”

You cannot work hard enough to earn, be good enough to deserve, be obedient enough to wipe away all the sins you carry on your account. You are spiritually bankrupt with God.

And all those formulas you’ve heard about God’s part + Man’s part = Salvation. The only part we bring to the equation is the sin for which we must be forgiven. Salvation is God’s part plus nothing. Listen to Paul again – “…this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Let’s be crystal clear about the nature of salvation. It is God’s gift of grace. Having said that, the Bible is also clear that our response to that gift is crucial. Jesus himself said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 7:21).

Paul tells the Thessalonian church,  He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (2 Th 1:8).

But obedience to the gospel is so much more than a checklist of steps to accomplish, like on a to-do list. Obedience is a total and lifelong commitment to the one who gave his life for you on the cross. Obedience is not an event, but a relationship.

The essence of the gospel is described in the 12th chapter of Hebrews. The writer describes two mountains – Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion. One symbolizes law, the other grace. One brings fear, the other freedom. Listen:

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel(Hebrews 12:18-24)

You have seen the terror, you have known the fear of the Lord. That’s not what we are here for. You have come to Mt. Zion – the heavenly Jerusalem.

The writer takes us by the hand and leads us into the very throne room of God. Through the gates, past the myriads of singing angels, past the countless number of the church of the firstborn. Into the presence of God, the judge.

But that’s not his focus. Even as you are standing in awe and wonder at the throne, you notice the drip, drip, drip into a pool. And you look, and it is Jesus, the lamb that was slain, and you notice the blood that pours forth. And the writer says, this blood is not silent, but calls out to you a better word than the blood of Abel. And what is the better word? Abel was murdered by his brother – and his blood called out to God, “revenge, revenge, revenge.” No, this blood calls out to you, “forgiveness, forgiveness.” That’s the better word.

You stand here this morning, listening to the call of the blood of Jesus Christ. Not in condemnation and terror, but in pleading, forgiving love.

 And as the Hebrews writer pleads, don’t refuse the one who calls you – don’t shut your hearts. You have come for this very moment – don’t let it pass you by. Come to Jesus and obey the gospel.