Sermons That Work

People Don’t Like to Hear Bad News…, Proper 10 (B) – 2003

July 13, 2003

People don’t like to hear bad news. That’s so obvious it almost seems funny to say it. Bad news is depressing. It’s the sort of thing we want to avoid if we can. In the Broadway show The Wiz one of the characters sings a song whose title is “Don’t bring me no bad news.”

There are all sorts of things we would rather not hear about. Sometimes they relate to acts of nature. The weather this spring has been memorable for its ferocity. Terribly damaging tornados have wreaked havoc through many of our states. We shake our heads in wonder as we look at the images on television of paths of destruction where houses have been lifted out of the ground and torn to bits or sometimes just placed down on the ground in another place. Nothing is left but foundation walls. Cars are blown blocks away. And we are amazed at the power of nature when it exerts its full force. We feel sad for the people who have lost their homes and wish it were not so. If we were one of the people directly affected, either personally or through an immediate member of our family, our sadness may know no bounds.

Sometimes the things we would rather not hear about relate to health issues. Someone close to us is diagnosed with cancer. Or we ourselves are told that we have diabetes. We’d rather not hear that; the new makes us sad, or worried. We know that a lifestyle is going to change now. Our friend will have to go through extensive and unpleasant medical treatments. We will have to change our diet, or take pills every day, or do something else different than we used to do. And, perhaps most importantly, it reminds us that we will not live forever. We all know that on a philosophical level, but we would rather not have it staring us in the face all the time.

Sometimes our bad news is political. Humans have been searching for peace for thousands of years and still it eludes us. There are certainly more people who want peace than there are who don’t. But part of the problem is that people want power or influence and will do what they think is necessary to get that, and this drive for power can get in the way of peace. Today’s story about Amos and Amaziah is an illustration of this dilemma. Amos is telling the King of Israel, Jeroboam, that his kingdom is going to collapse. And Amaziah, the priest, in his desire and obligation to defend the king, tells Amos to leave the country and go back where he came from. “Don’t bring me no bad news!”

It’s important, though, to know that sometimes bad news is not only necessary; in the long run it is for the best and can actually be interpreted as good. Not good news, but good for us to know. The example of the person who is given a diagnosis of diabetes is an illustration. Sure, the news is going to require a change of some habits, and sure, the person’s health is now not as good as he thought it was, but with careful monitoring, diet changes, maybe some medication, that person is in a position where he can live many, many years. That would not have been true if he had not learned about the disease in time. So the bad news can actually be good for the person involved.

Saint Paul touches on this kind of situation in his letter to the Ephesians when he says (vs. 11) that the Lord “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” Please don’t think that this means that God actually controls every single thing that every one of us does every single day. Some people down through the years have interpreted that statement of St. Paul to mean that we have no free will; that God controls everything in the world. That presents the problem of how we are to understand the evil that undeniably exists around us. Does God intend evil? Does God control the world in such a way that evil happens to us?

You cannot read that verse and at the same time ignore the verse that comes immediately before it where St. Paul says, “God has a plan for the fullness of time.” (vs. 10) We have not yet come to the end of time although there are self-styled prophets around who would like us to think we have. What it means is that God has a “grand design” and gives us the option to choose to be a part of that design or not. We have the ability to ignore the advice of our doctors, to not make the lifestyle changes, not take the medications and so on. In the long run, this course of action (or inaction) will harm our health and probably shorten our life, but God permits us to choose that option. God has not given us the illness, as so many people have chosen to believe. What God has given us is the ability to manage the illness in the larger context of our life — if we choose to do so.

So, bad news can sometimes be good for you. And you can ignore it if you choose to do so, but you do that at your own risk.

There is one more dimension. And it comes from Jesus himself in today’s Gospel. If we want to consider ourselves to be followers of Jesus, we are required to be the messengers of the news, whether it is good or bad. Jesus sent his disciples out on their own, giving them authority over unclean spirits and instructions to preach the news. If they saw evil, they were to cast it out. If they saw sin, they were to call people to repentance. But, here is the significant part: Jesus made no attempt to ask his disciples to coerce anyone. In fact Jesus clearly said if people were unwilling to listen, the disciples were to “shake the dust off their feet” and move on.

When we are confronted by the evils that exist in our world today, we should be bold to say, “that is wrong — change your ways.” Where we see sin, we should say so. Where we see wrong, we should condemn it. We may not be successful in the battle against sin and wrongdoing, at least in the way many in the world measure success. We’ve tried for centuries, for eons, to bring peace to the world. And it still eludes us.

But our faith, and our assurance are not based in this time or this place. Jesus told us that we could trust in God to provide. “Take nothing for the journey …” (vs. 8) The measure of our success will be judged in another time and another place when we have come to the end of this journey. In St. Paul’s words, God’s plan is a plan “for the fullness of time, to unite all things in heaven and on earth.” (vs. 10) The joy that we have in this life is the knowledge that God will provide for us in a future life, if we are faithful.

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Christopher Sikkema


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