Rough Good News

John Spicer
December 16, 2018

Rough Good News

Sermon from Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018
Luke 3:7-18


At Fr. Jeff’s ordination on Wednesday, the preacher, the Rev. Dr. James Farwell, began with a great question:  “What did you all come out to see?”  He was asking about the ordination, but the reference was to Jesus asking the crowds about that crazy prophet John the Baptist.  And now, we’ve come out to hear John the Baptist, too, in our Gospel reading today.  It’s not exactly the Good News we might expect to hear just before Christmas.  We’re waiting for the baby in the manger, and John is getting us ready for “the wrath to come” with “unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:7,17).  Ho, ho, ho.

Last Sunday, we heard the first part of John the Baptist’s story, as Luke tells it.  Into a particular place and time, this prophet came to do what prophets do:  Speak for God.  That’s what it means to be a prophet.  It’s not about foretelling the future; it’s about telling people God’s word right now.

So, out in that dry and dusty desert, John began his message with applause lines, red meat for peasants struggling under the thumb of the Roman Empire.  That’s what we heard last week, when John was channeling the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah had brought comfort and hope to God’s people 500 years earlier, when they’d been defeated by the Babylonians and taken off into exile.  They had watched their army and their Temple crumble.  They’d been carted off to a foreign land to serve a foreign power.  But in that historical moment, God had intervened, telling Isaiah to speak words of restoration and hope:  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Luke 3:4).  The valleys will be filled in, Isaiah had said, and the mountains leveled, and the crooked paths straightened, and the rough ways smoothed out.  For the people in exile, that wasn’t just symbolic language about the coming of the Messiah, which is how we hear it.  For them, this was a promise that, literally, God would make a road across the punishing desert wilderness between Babylon and Jerusalem because God was about to free the people from exile and bring them home.

So, in last week’s Gospel story, 500 years later, John the Baptist was channeling Isaiah and promising the people that God was about to act again, as in the days of exile.  You didn’t have to be a historian to make the connection.  This time, the oppressors were the Romans, occupying God’s promised land.  And when John said, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6), the crowd heard him talking about the Lord kicking some Roman heinie and putting God’s own king on the throne.  I think that’s what the crowds went out to see and hear:  a fiery preacher telling them that the bad guys were about to get what’s coming to them.

But then, John the Baptist takes salvation in a whole different direction with the words we pick up in today’s Gospel reading.  After the applause lines about judgment against the bad guys, John turns on the crowd.  “You brood of vipers,” he says.  “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7).  Wait, what?  He’s going after us?  Yeah, and he’s just getting started about their self-righteousness:  “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now,” John goes on, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:8-9)

OK, the folks in the crowd are thinking, that’s not what we came out to hear!  We’re the good guys, John, remember?  We’re the ones struggling under the Romans, with no decent income, and no opportunity, and taxes out the wazoo.  You’re supposed to be preaching the coming vindication, John, not naming what’s wrong with us.

So, after a moment of awkward silence, somebody pipes up with the question they’re all wondering:  Well, “what then should we do?” (Luke 3:10).  I think John’s answer is beautifully, and deceptively, simple:  “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:10-11)  If you want to get right with God, get right with the person next to you, John says.  Salvation comes from turning toward God by turning toward neighbor.

That question from Fr. Jeff’s ordination, the question Jesus asked the crowds – it’s still relevant for us.  What have we come out today to see and hear?  Well, honestly, most of us have come out to see Christmas coming, right?  Even if we couch that in churchy terms, it’s still about looking forward to the baby in the manger.  To mark Advent here at St. Andrew’s, we use the color blue – in Western art, the color of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  We focus our Advent hearts on expectation, pregnantly waiting for what Jesus is about to do within us and among us.  Filled with hope, we long for the One who will save us and heal us and make us whole.  All that is right and good – and it’s how my heart usually spends Advent, too.

But then comes John the Baptist, God’s inconvenient spokesperson, crashing the Christmas party to remind us what Jesus is coming to save us from.  It’s actually not so much our enemies – whoever we see gaining advantage over us, whoever has wronged us most recently, whatever system gives its breaks to people who don’t deserve it.  Whether we’re white or brown, rich or poor, empowered or excluded, we can probably identify some people or some system that fits those categories, somebody who’s the bad guy.  These days, in our culture, we’re taking that to an art form, with everybody finding some part of the system to blame for their problems and, at the same time, implicitly justifying themselves as the injured party.

Well, out there in the wilderness, beholden to nobody, John the Baptist brings us the rough Good News of holy honesty.  We should look at ourselves, John says, not blame someone else; work on ourselves, John says, not assume we’re the good guys.

Now, that could lead us to a theologically squishy conclusion:  that God isn’t concerned with the nature of our choices or the character of our society; that any outcome is OK, as long as we’re sufficiently humble about it.  But John the Baptist won’t let us stop there.  God does have a clear agenda.  Those who have more need to share with those who have less.  Those who have the opportunity to game the system need to play by the same rules as everybody else.  Those who have power in whatever form – political, economic, social – those who have power need to exercise it following God’s own model of sacrificial love.

So, like the guy who piped up in the crowd, we might well ask John the Baptist, “OK then, what specifically should we do?”

Here’s another deceptively simple answer:  Start by recognizing that we need saving, and that what we need saving from is sin.  After all, in this season of Advent, we could just as easily have chosen to deck the halls here with the penitential purple we put out at Lent, rather than pregnant blue.

Even the name of the Messiah we’re waiting for tells this truth about our need to be saved.  “Jesus” is an Anglicized version, of a Greek version, of a very old Hebrew name, Yeshua, which is given as “Joshua” in other parts of Scripture.  Remember Joshua in the Old Testament?  He saved God’s people from their 40 years in the wilderness by leading them into the land and the life of promise.  So, when the angel visits Mary in one Gospel story and visits Joseph in another, and when the angel tells them of this baby about to be born, the angel says to both Mary and Joseph, “You shall name him Yeshua,” what we call “Jesus”; and that name means, “he saves.”

But, what does he save us from?  In Matthew, the angel tells Joseph it’s about saving people from their sins.  In Luke, the angel tells Mary it’s about saving regular folks from oppression by bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly, and filling the hungry with good things, and sending the satisfied away.

So, as we wait for the One who will chop down the unproductive trees and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire, I think this is what John the Baptist would tell us to do:  Act in ways that save us, and in ways that save God’s world, from sin.  Look into our hearts and question the self-righteous assumptions we make.  Look around us, and see who needs a coat and some food, and then provide it.  Look at the systems we inhabit, and see what’s keeping people down, and then help make changes that offer hope.  Look at the divisions that infect our city and infect our hearts – where some people with light skin see people with dark skin as inherently threatening – and work to build relationships instead.

That kind of saving action can take many forms, and no one response is right.  In fact, in a big-tent place like St. Andrew’s, we run the gamut.  I know people who volunteer in classrooms and gardens in Kansas City schools.  I know people who help educate children in rural Haiti.  I know people who work to elect candidates they trust to be agents of healing and reconciliation.  I know people who put signs in their yard to protest climate change and its effects on the people of our planet.  I know people who serve as personal shoppers at the Free Store for folks without warm coats.  I know people who show up at rallies to raise the minimum wage.  I know people who helped launch a social enterprise and now prepare people for living-wage jobs as dog groomers.  In each case, I believe, the intent is to help save us from sin – the separation of our hearts from one another, and our separation from God’s intentions for the children God loves.

We will disagree about the right paths, and I think God honors that, so long as we honor one another in the process.  Not every path fits each disciple’s feet.  But God is clear about where those paths must lead, and we proclaim it each time we gather to witness a baptism:  Seeking and serving Christ in all people, loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being.  And – when we come up short in our work to resist evil and when we fall into sin – repenting and returning to the Lord.

That’s our Christmas card from John the Baptist:  the rough good news of showing us our sin.  But without knowing that, what are we hoping our Savior will save us from?

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