The First Sunday in Lent
Does anyone here besides me remember watching the TV show Hee Haw in its original run? It ran on CBS from 1969 through 1971, and then ran in syndication for over 20 years. It was a good show, and it introduced us to a lot of talented musicians and comedians that had spent much of their careers in the Nashville country-music circuit. Let me just tell you – whatever kind of music you like, you have got to watch Roy Clark play either guitar or banjo. It’s worth finding him on YouTube. You could make the case that he’s the greatest guitarist of his generation.
Anyway, Hee Haw is where I got my first exposure to “good news/bad news” jokes. Archie Campbell had a recurring sketch as a barber, and as he cut hair he would tell stories. One of those stories is an extended version of a good news/bad news joke.
“Hey I guess you heard about my terrible misfortune.” “No, what happened?” “Yeah, my great uncle died.” “Oh that’s bad!” “No that’s good!” “How’s come?” “Well, when he died, he left me 50,000 dollars.” “Oh that’s good!” “No that’s bad!” “How come?” “When the Internal Revenue got through with it, all I had left was 25,000 dollars.” “Oh that’s bad.” “No that’s good.” “How come?” “Well, it was enough that I bought me an airplane and learned to fly.” “Well that’s good.” “No that’s bad. I was flying upside down the other day and I fell out of the thing.” “Well that’s bad.” “No that’s good. When I looked down under me and there was a great big old haystack.” “Well that’s good.” “No that’s bad. I got a little closer and I saw a pitchfork aimed right at me.” “Well that’s bad.” “No that’s good. I missed the pitchfork.” “Well that’s good.” ”No that’s bad.” “How come?” “I missed the haystack too.”
That’s not the whole skit, but I’ll stop there. Usually it’s a little bit shorter than that. There’s a whole genre of good news/bad news jokes, and several different variations on that whole theme.
There’s a couple of good news/bad news ideas here in our New Testament reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Look again at chapter 10 verse 8: “”The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim.)” That’s good! Well, maybe. On the other hand, if the word of faith is inside me, if as Jeremiah said it’s written on my heart, then I don’t really have any reason for not remembering it, do I. It’s not like I can claim that I don’t remember because I forgot my Bible, or because I’m too far from the church building or something. If it’s on my lips and in my heart then I don’t have any excuses.”
Verses 9 and 10: “Because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” That’s good! Well, maybe. That means that the things that I say have to reflect Christ. I can’t just say whatever I feel like saying. I have to ask if it’s what Christ wants me to say. And if that’s what I need to do with my words, I probably have to do that with my actions too. I can’t just go wherever I want to go or do whatever I want to do. If I believe in my heart that God raised Jesus from the dead then I need to confess it with my lips and live it with my life. Boy.
Verses 11 through 13: “The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” That’s good! Right?
Wait. You mean that one guy at work – you know who I mean – that one guy who’s a real extremist about politics is going to be saved? You mean that cop who gave me a ticket and yelled at me last week – there’s no distinction between him and me? You mean the Iraqis, the Iranians, the North Koreans, the Israelis, the Venezuelans – we’re all the same in God’s eyes?
So is it good news? Are we prepared to love our enemies? Are we ready to do good to those who persecute us? Are we up for acting justly towards everyone, to loving mercy even for those we cannot stand, and for walking humbly with God, even when we’re right and everyone else is wrong?
In addition to the first Sunday in Lent, today is Valentine’s Day. I saw a card that someone had put on line; it had a picture of someone identified as Saint Valentine and said, “Roses are red. Violets are blue. I was beaten with clubs, beheaded, buried under the cover of darkness, disinterred by my followers, and you commemorate my martyrdom by sending each other chocolates.”
We don’t know a lot about Valentine. There are some stories that he secretly married couples so that the young men wouldn’t have to go to war. The pacifist in me likes that one. Most of the stories about Valentine say that he was a bishop and was under house arrest. Valentine was discussing his faith with the judge, and particularly the truth of Jesus Christ. The judge brought his blind daughter to Valentine, and said that if Valentine could restore her sight that the judge would do anything Valentine asked. Valentine put his hands on her eyes and her sight was restored.
The judge asked Valentine what he should do, and Valentine said that the judge should destroy all of the idols in the house, fast for three days, and be baptized. The judge did these things, and later the judge was led to free all of the Christian prisoners under his control. That’s good news. There’s no “bad news” part of it; that’s good news.
Valentine was later arrested again for continuing to preach about Jesus. This time he was sent to the Roman Emperor, Claudius II, or as some presidential candidates might say, Claudius Two. Claudius liked Valentine (that’s good) until Valentine tried to convince Claudius to convert to Christianity. Claudius refused, and said that either Valentine would renounce his faith or he would be beaten with clubs and beheaded. (That’s bad.)
As I’m sure you can guess, Valentine refused, and tradition says that Valentine was executed on February 14 in the year 269 AD. There is another tradition that says on his death he left behind a note for the daughter of the judge that we mentioned earlier, and signed it “Your Valentine.” (That’s sweet.)
The word “gospel” literally means “good news.” When I was in Sunday School in 4th grade or so, my church gave us kids Bibles that were called “Good News Bibles.” They were in Today’s English Version, and it was a much more accessible Bible for a child than the King James or the Revised Standard versions. I didn’t know back then that “gospel” meant “good news,” or if I did know it I promptly forgot it. But ever since then I have always associated the story of Jesus with good news for the world. I have thought of it ever since then as good news that was meant to be lived and meant to be shared.
But even in the good news, there is bad news. We are approaching the part of the Christian calendar where Jesus will be rejected, and tortured, and killed. We don’t think about that part of the story too much during the rest of the year. It’s more fun to think about baby Jesus, or Jesus healing people, or doing miracles. It’s not fun to think about Jesus suffering, bleeding, or dying.
It’s part of the story though. Just as Paul calls us to embrace all those people who we would rather not deal with, just as we are to love those that we think are unlovable and pray for those who treat us badly, we are to recognize and celebrate this part of the Gospel as well. Even in the midst of the good news, we must deal with the bad news.
“God’s going to come to earth!” “That’s good.” “No, he’s going to come as a little tiny baby.” “That’s bad.” “No, that’s good. He’s going to grow up into a man who does great miracles.” “That’s good” “No, that’s bad. Not everyone’s going to believe him and he’s going to make some enemies.” “That’s bad.” “No that’s good, because he’ll be doing God’s work and he’ll ride a donkey into Jerusalem while the people praise him.” “That’s good.” “No, that’s bad. Once he gets there he’s going to be arrested and put on trial before Pilate.” “That’s bad.” “No, that’s good because Pilate won’t find any fault with him.” “That’s good.” “No, that’s bad. Pilate will go ahead and crucify him anyway.” “That’s bad.” “No, that’s good. After he’s dead he’ll be in the tomb for three days and God will raise him back to life.” “That’s good.” “Yes, that’s good.” Amen.