As residents of the 21st century, we have inherited the word “gospel” with thousands of years of traditional meaning already poured into it, and we’ll address a lot of that today, but first I want to make clear what meaning the word had in it before Christianity adopted primary use of it. When a word is used in the first sentence of the first book of the New Testament, we have to recognize what it meant to the author and original audience before we start reading it through the lenses of theologians (which is a good thing, by the way, we just have to have a decent historical/cultural hermeneutic as well). The word euangelion, or good news, was used 2000 years ago as a report of a king’s military victory. Not a surprising word choice when you realize that the author takes great pains to ensure that we see Jesus as just that: a conquering King. “Christ”, or “anointed one” and “Son of God” were both loaded with royal meaning for Jews and Gentiles alike, and they are two other phrases that are even more richly infused with meaning when they refer to the person Jesus.
But now I want to look at what the word Gospel has come to mean to us in light of Who the Word revealed Himself to be, particularly within the themes found in this short passage. They are: Incarnation – God with us; Initiation – God for us; Imitation – God through us
Incarnation – God with us
We see in this passage that the Lord is on his way. Here. That’s a big deal. To give us some context, let’s imagine our chief executive, the president, was able hand down an executive order that dismissed the legislative branch of our government and gave him full legislative power. He then wrote a law making himself the supreme judicial power, and to top it of, he claimed full authority over the religious sector. How are you feeling so far about our nation’s state of affairs? I know, some of you are thinking: that depends. Is it Obama? Now what about this: This supreme ruler has all this power and you’re a dissenter, and He’s coming your way. Terrifying, right? To bring it back to the Old Testament, their supreme ruler was the kind of guy whose very presence, his glory, would melt your face off.
Initiation – God for us
We get near Christmas time and we’re so excited to sing about Immanuel, “God with us,” but let’s be real. If we’re at odds with Him, we don’t want Him around, especially not with that face-melting thing he’s got going on. But we look at this text and we see something beautiful: He sends a messenger. Why is that awesome? Because He could have sent a mercenary to take us out. He could have just shown up and we’d all have been destroyed. He’s showing us that there’s hope. His message? He’s preparing your way for you, if you’ll accept it. God’s initiation is what makes His incarnation such a desirable thing.
Now what’s the direction He is initiating? Well ultimately it’s Revelation 21. Many would be content to go straight there, but Jesus didn’t. He had His sights fixed on a more immediate destination. John elaborates a bit more on what this way is in the parallel passage, John 1:29 when he says of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, who comes to take away our sins.” Now this is great, because it’s our sins that are making God’s presence so devastating to us. That’s why part of the message John was proclaiming was repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness! God is for us! He’s taking the initiative to pursue us! We don’t have to be the ones to send a messenger to Him begging for terms. He sought us out while we were a long way off.
You see the best part about this whole passage, I think, is the setting. We’re in the desert. Isn’t that great? What I mean is, God only interacts with one group of people in the desert: His family. Everyone is pretty familiar with the desert motif in scripture as a place of testing and discipline. Hebrews 12 says that He discipline those he calls sons because He loves them. He’s preparing His heirs to reign with Him, just like he used the desert to purge Israel of her Egyptyness before she entered into the land he wanted to be a City on a Hill. But a lesser-known use of the desert motif is found in Hosea 2, where He says He will take His bride, Israel out to the desert to seduce her: to win her back after she had abandoned Him. You see, ultimately we will reign with Him, but before that happens, He has to take the initiative to win us back from our slavery and bondage to sin. The Lord Jesus was blazing a path straight to the cross where He would lay down his very life for his bride’s sake, so that he could take her with him to inherit the earth and reign with Him forever. He has the heart of a Father and a Husband, and I can tell you: that is a furious and unrelenting passion, especially if your wife or child is in danger.
Imitation – God through us
So He has prepared our way for us, but that’s not the end of the message. He’s got some things for us to do, too. He says, “Prepare the way of the Lord, and make His path straight.” He wants not only to be reconciled with us and take us with Him where He’s going; He also wants us to be, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:20, His ambassadors, through whom He is making His appeal, that all would come to Him and be satisfied. We’re not just beneficiaries of the message, we’re bearers of it! Imagine, the very thing that was a terror to those in the Old Testament, the Glory of God that would wipe us off the planet if we even saw it, His GLORY, is now seen through us!
How do we bear this message? It’s pretty clear that we do it by imitation. We get a hint of this in this passage when we go from having a way prepared for us to being preparers of ways. Monkey see, monkey do. That’s actually what we mean when we say disciple, or discipleship: to become more like someone else. We’re becoming more like Christ, and through that, His glory is revealed. So it comes full circle: He sends his messenger to invite us to accept His payment of debt on our behalf and then we ourselves become messengers who prepare the way of His kingdom by living the way of the cross, and then being resurrected as He was to reign forever. That’s why the story ends with the great commission. He’s commissioning the messengers to imitate Him, preparing us, and the world, as the paths of His victory over sin and death.
God is WITH us, and His glory is magnificent.
God is FOR us, and so who can be against us?
God is making all things new THROUGH us.
THAT is GOOD NEWS.