A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, April 2, 2017
Matthew 11:2-6 GNT
We do well, every now and then, to be reminded what the New Testament word “gospel” really means. In the original Greek, the word translated “gospel” in most English Bibles means good news or glad tidings. And so, the message that Jesus came preaching to the populace of his day, and the message that the Apostle Paul and others like him carried across the Mediterranean World, was literally a word of good news. It was a message that spoke to the lives of the people where they were. It was a message that offered them a ray of hope in their oppressed lives. It was a message that brought joy in situations of despair. God’s love for all, the promise of forgiveness, the hope of life after death – such was the good news the message of Jesus brought to the world.
And such is the import of the passage read from Matthew: “the Good News is preached to the poor,” the text says. But accompanying the word of Good News preached to the poor in this passage are the physical blessings as well that graced the peoples’ lives. Wherever Jesus went, lives were touched and made better because of the Good News present in both his words and deeds.
And so, whenever people gather at a Christian church for worship, study, or fellowship, the word that should be shared and the word that should be heard is Good News! In other words, the Christian message at the heart or core is a word that should give us hope, increase our faith, and fill us with joy. And such is a standard of measurement or barometer that we should employ to critique all that we do together as a church community.
Yet, you know as well as I do that this is not always the case in all Christian churches. I have known a few churches over the years where what was preached from the pulpit was anything but good news. I have known churches where the messages you heard left you feeling much worse about yourself when you went home than before you went.
And I have known preachers who seemed to have the idea that the preacher’s task is to pour on guilt, focus on personal sins and shortcomings, and step on as many toes as possible in the course of the Sunday sermon. And if that isn’t done, then the sermon has been a failure. Now hear what I am saying: I am not trying to be judgmental or critical of other preachers. To each his or her own, I guess. I am just stating facts.
And then there are some of the television preachers. I think of one television preacher in particular who always seemed to be mad every time I heard him preach. I never remember seeing him smile. I never saw any hint of joy or love in his presentation. And I wondered if he really understood the meaning of the word “gospel.”
But we here at the United Church take a different approach. We don’t preach hell fire and brimstone, or tell people how bad they are, or use guilt as a way to motivate people. I often tell people who inquire about our beliefs or our approach to faith, we don’t tell people how bad they are; but rather, we tell people how good they can become by reaching their God-given potential. There is a vast difference between the two approaches. Our aim – as the Christian aim in general should be – is to share Good News for everyone – Good News of hope, Good News of possibilities, Good News of our potential to be the best person we can be with the grace that is given us.
Focusing on Good News is what interpreting the Bible should be about as well. And such is what the American Bible Society set out to do 50 years ago. An article in a December issue of Christian Century magazine1 celebrated the fact that the Good News Bible (which is in our Chapel pews) celebrated the 50th anniversary of its appearance in 2016. Good News for Modern Man: The New Testament and Psalms in Today’s English Version made its appearance in September 1966 following two and a half years of work.
The process behind the translation and publication of the Good News Bible was a revolutionary moment in the history of Bible translation. For you see, the translators of the Good News Bible used for the first time something called a “dynamic equivalence,” or “meaning-for-meaning” or “thought-for-thought” approach rather than a literal “word-for-word” approach in translating from the original Hebrew and Greek texts. This approach “represented an important chapter in the post-Protestant Reformation quest to make the Bible accessible and readable to as many people as possible,” and it also “set the stage for other dynamic equivalence Bibles and paraphrases such as The Message, The New International Version, and The New Living Translation.” The aim was that the English-speaking public “could read the Bible in a language that was (in the words of ABS publicity materials) as ‘fresh and immediate as the morning newspaper.’”
The Good News Bible was to become one of the most successful publications in American history. The original New Testament was priced at 25 cents. In the first year of its publication, the American Bible Society distributed over 5.5 million copies of the new translation, and by the end of 1967 that number had reached over 8.5 million. In May 1971, the book had the distinction of becoming “the all-time paperback best seller, and by the end of 1971 it had reached the 30 million mark.”
In addition to the words of the Bible in modern English, the Good News Bible included 378 universal line drawings to illustrate the text. The Good News Bible was and is, indeed, a Bible for everyone. It was adopted and endorsed by Christians and denominations both progressive and evangelical and conservative.
The translation’s name would evolve from Good News for Modern Man: Today’s English Version to Good News Bible to Good News Translation. In 1992, the second edition of the entire Bible was released, which includes some minor revisions to make the meaning of the text clearer, as well as make the text more gender inclusive when both men and women were intended in the original languages.
Generally speaking, new translations of the Bible are iffy undertakings, and new translations come and go (other than the beloved King James Version, that is). There have been literally dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different English translations of the Bible over the past five centuries. Some have proved to be short-lived, failures even. But the Good News Bible has withstood the test of time, as Bible translations go.
For those who are not bound to the Elizabethan English of the King James or Revised Standard Versions, the Good News Translation is an excellent choice for reading the Bible in today’s vernacular tongue. Such is what the early English Bible translators like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale had hoped for and were willing to give their lives for.
Yes, Christianity is all about Good News – words of Good News spoken from the pulpit and classroom, and words of Good News from the pages of scripture. Such is what we are to be about in this United Church – a refuge of Good News for all who come here. And with all that is going on in our country and world at large today, how people need to hear a word of good news! And how important is a Sabbath Day of spiritual refreshment, and how important is a place like this Chapel on the Hill that can be an oasis of good news for all of us who become wearied by life. May it always be so – may this always be a place that offers Good News for everyone. Amen.
1John Fea, Christian Century, December 21, 2016.