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Sermon – “Good News” – December 8, 2013

Sunday, December 8, 2013

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Good News

Isaiah 11: 1-10; Romans 15: 4- 13; Matthew 3: 1-12

As a young seminarian I was struck by the message of John the Baptist as it was read, not from Matthew, but from Luke. What John says is the same, but it is Lukeʼs characterization of it that I found arresting. Here is Lukeʼs version, beginning with Johnʼs contrasting himself with the one to come: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he preached the good news to the people.” This last line is Lukeʼs summary of Johnʼs teaching. He has already told us that Luke addressed the crowds that came to be baptized in this way: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is laying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Does it strike anyone else as an odd variety of good news? To be called vipers, and criticized for oneʼs religious expectations, and told to do things worthy of repentance, with the motivation for doing something worthy being that fruitless trees are going to be cut down and burned, and chaff gathered and burned in unquenchable fire? the broad hint is that a person might well be a fruitless tree or chaff.

See, when I first noticed the juxtaposition of predictions of destruction and incineration with the term “good news,” I was a spoiled young man, and it didnʼt sound so good to me. I had outgrown the domination of parents without yet having assumed the responsibility of a career. I grew up in a rich nation, in a gentle and well-meaning family, enjoyed good health, never had been hungry, and I never had known anyone hungry. People had houses and automobiles and televisions, and people who considered themselves neither rich nor poor sometimes had more than one auto, and TV, and even home. The nation was at peace, conscription had ended years before, and though crime was in the news, it was always elsewhere.

The thing about John the Baptistʼs message for a person who has not suffered, isnʼt suffering, and doesnʼt expect to suffer any time soon, is that the crisis John is announcing– the momentous necessity to reform oneʼs life, the need to escape a certain and terrible judgment– doesnʼt seem like a deliverance from anything. It seems like a cure which is worse than the disease. It seems like a spiritual scheme best answered by the advice, “If it ainʼt broke, donʼt fix it.” Luke, however, knows it is good news for the people. The people themselves go

a long way to get this message, because John is out on the margin, away from big towns, on the banks of the Jordan. It canʼt be that people smugly presume that this message doesnʼt apply to them. They could be fruitless trees, or the chaff on the granary floor. Their destiny might be fire. John doesnʼt say, “those others need to reform to escape judgment.” John calls all of them a brood of vipers. John says their kinship with Abraham counts for nothing.

This remaining good news means that they arenʼt having life as easy as I was as a late-twentieth century white male divinity school student. Johnʼs message isnʼt busting in on a life of ease, when he hectors people at the Jordan. All those people come to John because he, at least, with his message of world-changing crisis, offers the possibility of a good outcome. Along with announcing that you may be found worthless and annihilated, he announces that you may be found worthy and spared.

Christmas comes at a dark time. Thatʼs true for us in the northern hemisphere, who have adapted the pagan solstice festival to mark the birth of Christ. The winter darkness is part of our conception of the holiday, it makes our illuminating trees and windowsills and wreaths signs of Godʼs transforming power.

Itʼs a metaphor, however, for the national and social darkness to which Christmas comes. Jesusʼ people are miserable, their being hostage to forces beyond their control exemplified in Jesusʼ parents having to travel to register for taxation, and the burden this creates recognized in Jesusʼ birth in an outbuilding. They are not being well governed,from their point of view. None of their countrymen has power except through cooperation with the foreign overlords, and those Jews thus possessing authority exploit it, not for othersʼ good, but as a desperate way to seek their own. The cult is compromised by the High Priestʼs office being bought, so that religionʼs power to offset national discouragement is weakened. Seventy years from the time of this prophecy things will be so desperate that they will prefer to rebel against the dominant military power of their known world than to keep going with the status quo.

If our lives are comfortable enough, we are unnerved by John the Baptistʼs warnings being regarded as good news. We need to remember that life for his countrymen was much closer to what Thomas Hobbes famously described, in his seventeenth-century work Leviathan, in this way:[this is what Hobbesʼ definition of life in the absence of a successful social compact empowering, by the consent of all, a single good ruler to govern]:

“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

If we accept the Holy Land of Jesusʼ time being a place of government by coercion, with a population splintered into various groups seeking a way out– would-be revolutionists, collaborators, withdrawing-from-society cults, like the Dead Sea community– and anxious mainstream elements, like the Pharisees and Sadducees and movements like those of John and Jesus, then the appeal of Johnʼs message makes more sense. That God might come into this oppressive history and establish righteousness is a welcome word, even including the grim costs of eradicating evil.

Part of this morningʼs scriptures which the young church declares as being fulfilled at Christmas is the expansion of Godʼs blessing to the Gentile world. For most of us, certainly– perhaps for all of us–there is no continuity from Judaism in our backgrounds, no direct link to Jesusʼ people. We are from other places, part of that wider human family now invited into a special relationship with God.

Have we become so self-sufficient, so complacent about our conscience, so accustomed to the power we enjoy through science and technology, that we no longer thirst for there to be justice everywhere, and expect it only to be established by God? Have enough distractions become available, to spare us confronting the hard facts of life, that we can while away our lives in front of screens, or with ear buds drowning out rumination, so that our own need for something more is obscured?

All the good news of Christmas in the gospels is in contrast to lives of drudgery and desperation, violated rights and humble hopes. From the time he is born Jesus is rebuffed and attacked by the comfortable, the privileged, and those pleased with themselves. Only those so slightly invested in the way things are that they are able to dream of a new day and new priorities ever welcome him. Those people are not surprised to hear his coming described in terms of crisis. Those people expect to hear his arrival requiring serious efforts to please God, and his advent promising–not threatening, from their perspective, but promising–judgment on the selfish, the cruel, the heedless.

Can you hope for the Christ of this season, the one who is coming, not to preserve pleasant things and privileges, but to establish justice? Can you take heart from John the Baptistʼs contempt for complacency, and his urgency about righteousness? Is the intrusion, into the ordinary business of the way the world works, of Godʼs envoy of exemplary living, stern exhortation, forgiveness of the miserable, and confrontation of the proud, something you are able to hear as good news? Examine yourself, and the wishes you have had that the world could be a better place, and see whether you can welcome Christ as the catalyst for that new reality, and hope and pray to live as one humble soul whose work and way will be established by the changes proclaimed by Jesus, that a wider world than ours still be invited into the goodness of life governed by God.


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