Do You Want the Good News or the Bad News?

Heritage Presbyterian Church

January 19, 2020
Second Sunday After Epiphany
Scripture readings – Isaiah 49: 1-7 and John 1: 29-42

In the past, here at Heritage, I have stepped up before you and asked the question that is the title of today’s sermon. Each time I do this, I pause and watch your faces clearly and carefully. You never announce your preference; instead, you just wait for me to get to the point of the question. Also, you tend to wait with a painful look on your faces, almost telling me you hope the good news is REALLY GOOD and the bad new is NOT TOO BAD. It is something – you may have noticed – that I don’t do any more. That includes today’s message. I won’t ask you if you want the good news or the bad news.

But I will use that question to point out something significant in the Scripture readings that we heard for today. In them, the Lord is telling the people that He is coming, that He has a plan, that they need to remain faithful, and that in the end, in God’s good time, everything will work out just fine. He is also telling his believers that He needs them for the work ahead.

I consider that the good news. Indeed, don’t we often refer to the basic message of Jesus’ ministry as “Good News?”

Yet, we didn’t exactly get a clear description of the bad news in either reading that we heard today, but the implication is there. Perhaps you didn’t see it.

In the reading from Isaiah, the people of God are told that a “servant of the Lord” will be sent to them. They are further told that this servant will also make God’s people a “light for the Gentiles” so that all people may be saved; for all us Gentile Presbyterians, that is good news indeed!

But notice that God never told the people that between their time and the time of his Servant’s appearance, they would go through multiple wars that they would lose, multiple occupations – each one more terrible than the one before, and that by the time the Servant arrives, their religion would be a shell of its former reverence and glory.

In other words, God didn’t have Isaiah tell the people the bad news. I doubt they would have been able to handle it if he had.

Also, look at the reading from John’s Gospel. What a wonderful story! Jesus has been identified by John the Baptist at the “Lamb of God.” John also pointed his own followers toward Jesus and away from him…because John’s job is finished. Jesus is calling his first three followers: Andrew, Simon Peter, and probably John. Three of his most loyal and trusted followers. That’s the good news.

But again, the Lord doesn’t tell those early followers the bad news. He didn’t tell them at first that they would watch him suffer and die on a cross for everyone’s sins. He didn’t tell them at first how he would be rejected by the same people who cheered his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He didn’t tell them until much later how each of them would suffer and die on his account, or that only John would die an old man in his bed…on the Island of Patmos…where he had been banished for refusing to stop preaching about Jesus.

In other words, initially…those early followers didn’t get the bad news.

But that’s how it goes sometimes, doesn’t it? God calls us to do something or to be somewhere and to be his servant. We respond, and then we discover that there is a lot more to that call than we first believed. Or there is much that we never saw coming. It’s almost like we only hear the good news and can’t even imagine the bad news. That’s how it goes sometimes…I guess.

To illustrate this, let me tell you three brief stories. In each, someone is called to do something, to serve in some way. But in each case, the call turns out to have a lot more bad news than is first visible.

The first story is about a football player named Gayle Sayers. Sayers was the fastest running back most people ever saw carry a football. He came out of

Kansas in the early 60’s, where set records that still stand today. He was drafted in the first round by the Chicago Bears, who immediately started him in their first game. Sayers led the NFL in rushing for several years in a row and received several awards such as Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and won the NFL rushing title.

After playing only a few years, Sayers was hit in the knee during a game. The ACL in his knee was torn and his season was over. He rehabbed and returned to the Bears the following year. However, he had lost some of his speed and quickness. The year after his return, his other knee was severely injured and he was out again. After that, it was only a matter of time before Gayle Sayers had to retire and face life without football. What would he do?

He returned to college and got his degree in business. He went on to work in several businesses and investment firms. Along the way, he began to give back to the sport that he had loved so well. He created foundations that gave scholarships to promising players and students. He mentored young people and young players. Many of them didn’t remember him because his career had been cut short, and because he still had a limp when he walked. Gayle Sayers spent the rest of his life serving others.

He even wrote a book that illustrated his relationship with the Lord. It is called “I Am Third.” The title means that God is first, his family and friends are second, and I am third. By living this way, Gayle Sayers showed the world that the good news about life and belief and hope was much more important than the bad news of double knee injuries that ended his football career.

The second story is about someone most of us have never heard of. His name is John Thomas Downey, and he was a CIA agent during the Korean War who was on a secret mission into Chinese held Manchuria. Downey’s plane was attempting to pick up a Chinese agent who was helping them with Korean war intelligence when his plane was shot down. Downey was captured and held prisoner by the Chinese for 20 years, 8 of those years in solitary confinement. Because he was not a soldier, he was not a prisoner of war, so the Chinese held him as a political prisoner. He was only released when President Nixon visited China in the early 70’s and helped to secure his freedom.

Upon returning to America, Downey went to law school, and became a lawyer. Later, he was appointed by the Connecticut governor to be a judge. His specialty was serving as a judge for juvenile matters. He spent the majority of his career helping young people who had gotten into legal trouble. During his career, he earned multiple awards for his work and his judicial record.

If you were to ask John Thomas Downey about good news and bad news, I think he might name surviving the plane crash that took the lives of some his crew, surviving 20 years of Chinese imprisonment, and still being able to serve as a judge who made a difference in the lives of others. Perhaps it took the bad news to point Downey to a life spent serving others who were in trouble early in their lives. Perhaps we will never know.

And the final story is one you may have heard me tell before. I call it “Sandra’s Father.” Early in my teaching career, I had a young girl in my fifth grade class named Sandra. It was obvious from the first day that Sandra was going to have a hard time in fifth grade. She did every task very slowly and not that accurately. She was probably my weakest student that year. But the school had a good plan for helping her, and during the school year, she began to make good progress…not great, but certainly more than she had made before. I had a conference in the fall with her mother who was very supportive of our efforts and seemed pleased with what we were doing and how Sandra was doing. In the spring, toward the end of the year, fifth grade teachers had what was usually called the “placement conference.” At this meeting with the parents, we would identify the special programs and specialized assistance that their child would receive upon transitioning to middle school. Again, we had worked hard to make sure Sandra had a good plan waiting for her. But at this conference, I met her father…or so I thought. After we finished all the business, this tall, dignified man told me a little more about Sandra. Turns out he was her uncle, not her dad. No one knew who her dad was. His wife was her aunt, not her mother. Her real mother was a heavy drinker and had been drinking through most of her pregnancy with Sandra. Her mother would often ask her sister to babysit Sandra while she went off partying and drinking for days on end. Sometimes Sandra would stay with her aunt and uncle and their three daughters for weeks on end. Then her mother would return and take the child away again.

Sandra’s uncle – I mean Sandra’s father – told me that one day, he just couldn’t do it anymore. He went to see a lawyer, got the courts involved, and took that precious child away from her drunken mother. Most of that woman’s extended family fought him and bad-talked him. But his wife, Sandra’s aunt, stood by him and took on her whole family.

Sandra was adopted by her aunt and uncle. She became the fourth of their daughters. She because part of the family.

When I heard this story, I shook the man’s hand and told him what an amazing man I thought he was. He smiled sheepishly and just said, “What could I do? I love that girl like she’s my own.”

So let’s review this story: bad news: drunk mother, daughter with fetal alcohol syndrome, child dropped off with relatives while mom partied.

Good news: someone loved her enough to rescue her from harm, loved her enough to take on his entire pack of in-laws, loved her enough to become her real father. But at the beginning of this story, we mostly knew only the bad news…

In our lives, sometimes Jesus doesn’t tell us everything. We might only hope for the good news and no bad news, thank you very much. But that’s not how Jesus always operates.

We are never NEVER told that just because we are believers, nothing bad will happen to us. We are told that Jesus will always be with us. We are told that God’s ultimate plan is for us to be with Him in Heaven. We are told that we are loved, even when we don’t always feel it. But we are also told that God needs us…and it won’t always be easy.

We are told bad news…but we are also told that the Good News is there too.