Luke 3:15-22

Good News Is Bad News Is Good News

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Luke 3:15-22

Good News Is Bad News Is Good News

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Every time I read this passage from Luke’s gospel I chuckle. Earlier in the chapter, Luke describes how John the Baptist lambasted the religious leaders saying, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7) John goes on to call them to repentance, warning them that, “… Even now the axe also lies at the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that doesn’t bring forth good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9) John ends by saying of the coming Messiah,

His “fan is in his hand,
and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor,
and will gather the wheat into his barn;
but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:17)

Luke summarizes John’s message by saying, “Then with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people” (Luke 3:18)

Reading this reminds me of a book by William McElvaney entitled, Good News is Bad News is Good News. It’s long since gone out of print, but here’s the thesis: Good News – the Lord is coming to save us from our fallen state. Bad News – he’s coming with a vengeance to convict us of our sins. Good News – by convicting us of our sins, he’s able to forgive us and reconcile us to God.

Good News is Bad News is Good News. That’s what I’d for us to think about in the sermon today – the balance between God’s judgment and God’s mercy; the correlation of repentance to forgiveness; the prerequisite of confession to pardon.

First, let’s be clear: This didn’t begin with John the Baptist. When he preached a gospel based on the repentance of sins, he merely echoed the psalmist, who wrote:

“Have mercy on me, God, according to your loving kindness.
According to the multitude of your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions …
Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean.
Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow…
Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a right spirit within me” (Psalms 51:1-10)

Hyssop is an herb that still grows naturally in the Mediterranean. It has a wide variety of uses, not the least of which is to clean out the digestive tract. So, when the psalmist says, “… purge me with hyssop …” he’s talking about getting rid of the toxins that build up in your system over time. If you’ve ever had a colonoscopy, you have a pretty good idea what I mean. I admit it’s not table talk, but it’s often what the doctor orders to keep you healthy and strong.

John’s call to repentance also echoes the prophet Malachi, who said,

“Behold, I send my messenger,
and he will prepare the way before me….
But who can endure the day of his coming?
And who will stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like launderer’s soap;
and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,
and he will purify the sons of Levi,
and refine them as gold and silver;
and they shall offer to Yahweh offerings in righteousness.”
(Malachi 3:1-3)

The story is told of a woman who was curious to know more about the process of refining silver. So, she found a silversmith and asked him if she could watch him at work. He said, “Sure,” and gave her a pair of goggles to protect her eyes. Then he had her stand at his side as he held a piece of silver over the flame of a torch. He explained that this was necessary to burn away all the impurities. She watched in amazement as the fire did its thing. As the silversmith worked, she asked, “How do you know when it’s ready?” He said, “That’s easy. I know the silver’s pure when I can see in it a reflection of myself.”

Here’s the point of it all: God uses the harsh events of everyday life to draw us closer to himself and, as we turn to him and live by faith, we reflect, more and more, the image of God in which we were created.

This is the story of the wilderness journey in a nutshell: The people of Israel wandered across the Sinai Peninsula for forty years before they reached the Promised Land. It wasn’t because of the distance. It wasn’t that far from Egypt to Canaan. Mary and Joseph made it just fine when they fled to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod.

And it wasn’t because they were lost. Moses knew the way. It was because they were so obstinate and disobedient. God had given them manna from heaven and water from the rock; still, they complained. So, God had them wander for forty years in the wilderness, and it was in that period of time that he gave them the Law and taught them to live by faith.

To put it this way: Had the slaves Moses led from Egypt reached Jericho within a few weeks, the walls would have never come tumbling down. They would’ve never been strong enough to take possession of the Promised Land.

God uses the harsh events of everyday life to bring us to himself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I didn’t know how I was going to get through it at the time, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.”

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know: People lose their jobs, go through a divorce, experience the death of a loved one. Just this week a friend told me that her husband’s parents lost their home to a fire. These things happen, and, when they do it feels like the rug’s been pulled out from under you: “Where do I go from here?” Yet, in time, the same event that was so devastating becomes the source of new strength.

I’ve said many times in the wake of my wife’s death that, while I would never wish this on anyone, it’s made me a stronger person. I’m more sympathetic and understanding and more appreciative of the gifts of life than ever before.

I’m not saying God causes grief or misfortune; I’m simply saying that God can use our suffering to strengthen our faith and draw us closer to himself and others.

It helps when we’re willing to do our part. In the wake of tragedy and loss, it’s easy to get bitter. But if you’re willing to turn to God instead and lean upon his everlasting arms – if you’re willing to trust him – you’ll grow more confident of what Paul told the Romans, that “nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:28).

And you’ll be able to experience a peace that surpasses all understanding. Above all, you’ll be able to know the truth of Psalm 30, where it says,

“Weeping may stay for the night,
but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5)

The Good News is this: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Corinthians 5:19). The bad news is that this process of reconciliation is often painful. The Good News is hope is on the horizon. No one knew this better than the Apostle Paul.

As a young man, Paul was on a fast track to becoming one of the great Jewish leaders of his day. He was born in Tarsus and studied in Jerusalem at the feet of the famed Rabbi Gamaliel. He had it all, or so it would seem. He told the Philippians,

“If any other man thinks that he has confidence in the flesh,
I yet more.” (Philippians 3:3-6)

Yet, God had greater plans for Paul than a seat on the Sanhedrin. And so, as he was on his way into Damascus, the Lord appeared to him in a blinding light and called his name. Paul sat in blindness for three days until the Lord restored his sight. From that day on, Paul went from persecuting the Christians to becoming their champion.

It would cost him dearly. Even before he left Damascus, the Jewish leaders plotted to kill him. He had to run for his life. He escaped in the dark of night by being lowered over the city wall in a basket. (Acts 9:25)

That would the first of many hardships Paul would suffer in the name of Jesus Christ. He was run out of Antioch on his first missionary journey and nearly stoned to death in Lystra. He was imprisoned in Philippi and nearly mobbed in Ephesus. He told the Corinthians,

“Five times from the Jews I received forty stripes minus one.
Three times I was beaten with rods.
Once I was stoned.
Three times I suffered shipwreck.
I have been a night and a day in the deep” (2 Corinthians 11:24-25)

The list goes on. But instead of breaking his spirit, the hardships only made him stronger. He told the Galatians,

“I have been crucified with Christ,
and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me.
That life which I now live in the flesh,
I live by faith in the Son of God,
who loved me, and gave himself up for me.”
(Galatians 2:20)

He told the Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) As for the trials and tribulations of his life, he told the Romans,

“We also rejoice in our sufferings,
knowing that suffering works perseverance;
and perseverance, proven character;
and proven character, hope:
and hope doesn’t disappoint us,
because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

Looking back over the scope of Paul’s life, it’s clear how God used the hardships he endured to strengthen his faith and give him all the more confidence in the power of Jesus’ resurrection and the hope of eternal life.

O.K., fast-forward to today: We’re beginning to see the effects of the downturn in our economy. Statewide unemployment is 10%. A larger number than that are underemployed. Sales tax revenue is down, which translates into less money to support such goals as higher education.

Here at home, local companies like CMC have laid off workers. Andy’s – just up the street – shut down for good last month. Others are holding the line on spending, waiting to see what the future has in store. We’re concerned about the fate of our hospital and doing what we can to be supportive of local merchants. Meanwhile, Hope in Action is flooded with requests for assistance, and we’re getting a lot of the spillover here at the church with calls for help. It’s hard to know what to say. For example,

• What do you tell a young mother of two whose husband has just walked out on her leaving her with a past-due electric bill of over $400 and a termination notice that, if she can’t come up with the money soon, her electricity will be cut off?

• What do you tell a middle-aged man who’s recently been paroled; who’s willing to work but has little marketable skills; who doesn’t want to go back to prison, but can’t find a job and doesn’t what else to do?

These are just two examples, but they illustrate the point: We’re going through some tough times, and it’s likely to get worse.

How should we respond? First, do the best you can to help those in need. It may not seem like much, but every little bit helps. Jesus said, “Give to those who beg from you and do not refuse those who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42)

But don’t stop there. Look to God to order and provide. And encourage others to look to God, as well. Trust that God can use the harsh circumstances of everyday life to bless us and draw us closer to himself and each other.

Let me speak candidly: I think the affluence and relative ease we’ve enjoyed for the past thirty years or more has caused us to become overly lax and self-indulgent. And, while it may be painful, I think having less can make us more appreciative of what we have and more generous in sharing it with others. Who knows? If the tough times last long enough, we may even see people coming back to church in droves and filling the Sunday School classes and the pews with devotion and praise. And isn’t that what we’ve been praying for all this time?

Let’s wrap it up. The Good News is that God is at work in our world today. The Spirit’s on the move. The bad news is that the days of our comfortable lifestyle may be coming to an end. The Good News is that’s O.K., if it leads us to a deeper faith, a stronger community and a closer relationship with Jesus Christ. In that hope, let us pray:

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will,
To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Blend all my soul with Thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.

(Edwin Hatch)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Copyright 2010, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.