Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Long before there were blond jokes and elephant jokes and Ole and Lena jokes, there were “Good News/Bad News” jokes. Remember that genre of humor? Here’s an example:
A ship’s captain says to his crew “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that today we get to change underwear. The bad news is that Swenson is changing with Miller and Lewis is changing with Carlson.”
The doctor says to the patient; “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that there are beautiful golf courses in heaven. The bad news is that you have a tee time Tuesday morning.”
A banker says to a troubled car dealer “The good news is that you are now the owner of a foreign car dealership. The bad news is that you’re selling Chryslers in Tokyo.”
In every one of these jokes, the common thread is that in many events that happen in this life, there is an upside and a downside. Freezing temperatures ruin the citrus crop in Florida; that’s bad news for the Florida growers, but it’s good news for citrus farmers in California. The lack of snow this winter is great news for city budgets and church budgets, but is horrible news for snowmobilers, body shops and skiers. What’s good for the goose may not be good for the gander.
And now on this unseasonably warm 3rd Sunday in the Season of Advent, the gospel lesson tells us of John the Baptist bringing good news to the people of first century Israel that doesn’t sound like good news at all. Just listen to John’s words;
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you of the anger that is coming? I can baptize you here in the Jordan River, but there is one who is coming who is so great, I’m not even fit to tie his shoes. When he comes, he will clear the deck of all the slackers. Good folks will join him in the barn, but sinful folks will be sent to hell!”
And then Luke closes this section with these words;
“So, with many other exhortations,
he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Good news! What good news? Is it good news that God is coming to earth to judge and punish sinners? Is it good news that people, who have many possessions, or those whose jobs just happen to be tax collecting, or soldiers who have been less than compassionate, will have to stand before a king and face his wrath? What John the Baptist should have done is told the people a joke. “I have good news and bad news for you; the good news is that the Messiah is coming, and the bad news is that he’s not going to like what he finds!” I saw that theology printed on a young man’s T-shirt several years ago in Oregon. The front read “Jesus is coming soon…” And the back side said “And is he ticked!”
A PASTOR SAYS: “God bless you and your valuable ministry! I am a student pastor who goes to school full‑time and serves a church part time. Many weeks I don’t have the time to do a thorough exegesis. You are a great help during those weeks!”
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John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets, and the first of the New Testament prophets. He was speaking to an audience who had lived with the image of a wrathful God who demanded righteous living or else. And when these people failed in their righteousness, they had to offer sacrifices like doves or lambs or money, in order to keep a good standing with God. Forgiveness was not a first-century Jewish concept. So of course John the Baptist’s message was a rigid one; walk the straight and narrow, in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
What he did not know – what he could not know – is that Jesus would come to be a judge AND a Savior. What he could not yet say is this: “I bring you good news, and bad news, and good news.” That it was indeed good for the long-awaited Messiah to come. It was bad news to hear that he would have the authority to point out the darkness and sinfulness of every person of every generation, but it was wonderful news to know that he would judge us “not guilty.” It was amazing news that he would offer grace to all those sinners as a gift, unmerited and free, and that everyone who believed this promise would live forever. That is the ultimate Good News of Christ’s coming.
But what is often lost in all of John’s fire and brimstone is the sincerity of the people who heard his message and wanted to change their ways. “What then should we do?” they asked. His answer not an impossible lists of do’s and don’t’s and should and should not’s. It is a simple and practical description of how the people of God ought to act in the world. Here are the three examples John uses:
If you have two good coats, give one away; and likewise, food. In Judea, the days are usually warm, but the nights get chilly. If a person of that day had two coats, it was unthinkable that one would be hanging in the closet of his home while another person shivered in the darkness. “Give one away” John cried. I counted the coats in my closet yesterday; I have six. What am I thinking.
John said the same goes for food. If a family had enough food in their pantries to meet their family’s need, but their neighbors had none, “how can you not share with them?” John asked. This time of year, our pantries are overflowing with food, yet there are people right here in the St. Croix Valley who cannot afford the basics of food and clothing. How can we not share with them? To that end, this afternoon at 3:00 and 5:00, our older children will present their Christmas program. There’s no charge for admission, no offering, no tipping for the shepherds or the Wise men; there is simply this; you need a can of food or a box of cereal to get in. John the Baptist is speaking to you, you brood of vipers!
“What can we do?” asked the tax collectors. “What can we do?” asked the soldiers. Both of these groups were despised people in the Jewish culture; outcasts actually. Tax collectors took great advantage of people, collecting much more than was required by Caesar, and keeping the difference for themselves. Soldiers were Roman citizens with little regard for the Jewish people, and would often unfairly accuse individuals of a crime and then be bribed to recant the accusation. So John offers both groups an alternative. Don’t collect more tax than you ought to; don’t swindle people.
These are simple changes in lifestyle; changes in attitude, really. But it gave the people of John’s day hope. They did not need to fear the coming of the Messiah if their hearts were in the right place. They did not need to live perfect lives; they did not need to change the world. “Love God and serve people.” That was John’s message.
Well, it’s been 2000 years, and it’s still a good question: “What should we do?” The problem is, few are asking it today. We are busy working our jobs and raising our children and maintaining our homes and enjoying our friends, it rarely occurs to us to ask “What should we do to prepare for the coming of The Christ?” Nobody is asking the question “What should we do?” NOBODY IS ASKING THE QUESTION “What should we do?” (Someone in the congregation finally asks the question.)
This is the answer: if you have two coats, give one away. If you have more food than you can eat, share. If you are a business person, be an honest one. If you are a soldier, be a compassionate one. If you are a parent, be tender and fair. If you are a pastor, be a truthful one. If you are a truck driver, drive the speed limit. If you are a child, honor your parents. If you are a husband or a wife, be a faithful one. Above all, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, be real. Love God, serve people, and remember that the Savior has forgiven you. That’s the good news that needs to be proclaimed today; that the Savior has forgiven you. Thanks be to God. Amen.