Word association. Ready? “Good News.” What’s the first thing that pops into your mind? For most of you I suspect it’s something like grace, forgiveness, love, salvation, acceptance – obviously something you’d like to hear. After all, Good News is another way of saying, “Gospel.”
And isn’t that what the Gospel is all about? It’s the Good News of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ. Good News is reason to rejoice, like when the angel proclaimed on the night of Jesus’ birth,
“Don’t be afraid,
for behold, I bring you good news of great joy
which will be to all the people” (Luke 2:10).
So, why is it that, in the gospel lesson this morning, just after we read where John called those who sought after him “a brood of vipers”; and after he warned them to flee from the wrath to come; and after he told them the demands of repentance; and after he prophesied about the coming of the Messiah who would separate the wheat from the chaff … we read, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the Good News to the people”?
“Good News … you’re a brood of vipers.”
“Good News … judgment day is just around the corner,
and, boy, are you going to get yours!”
If this is the good news, dare we ask what the bad news is?
Here’s where I’m going with this: Advent is the season in which we prepare for the coming of the Lord. It conjures up images of angels and wise men, shepherds and a heavenly chorus. The Lord’s coming is portrayed in the angelic faces of the Virgin Mary, the radiance of a star in the East, the fulfillment of prophecy, the promise of peace on earth, goodwill to all.
So, what’s the deal with John the Baptist out in the wilderness mouthing words of judgment calling us to repentance? What’s he doing there? What part does he play in the Christmas story? What good news does he bring?
My point is it’s an indictment of our westernized celebration of Christmas that we’ve virtually written John out of the Christmas story. For example, how many Christmas pageants have you attended in which John the Baptist was a central character? How many Christmas cards have you seen depicting John the Baptist prophesying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”?
Can’t you just see it? A beautiful Hallmark card with a stack of Christmas trees on the front piled up in a big bonfire. Inside, the message reads:
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.
From our house to yours, Merry Christmas!”
Are any of you into pottery or ceramics? Here’s an idea for you: Fashion a John the Baptist action figure to go with the nativity set. Expand the créche with a little sand and a few hills to represent the Judean wilderness. Then take this mangy creature breathing fire and brimstone – I’m thinking of something on the order of the Tasmanian Devil – and place him between the shepherds and the wise men and the manger.
O. K., so I’m stretching things a bit. But not too much. All the gospels agree: John is the forerunner of Jesus who heralded the coming of the Messiah. He’s a central character in the Christmas story. He told the people Jesus was coming in judgment and they asked, “What shall we do?” His answer was two-fold: Prepare and repent.
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Well, here lately we’ve been talking a lot about preparing. Remember the sermon two weeks ago? “Company’s Coming!” And what do you do when company’s coming? You clean house, get out your best dishes, polish the silverware and roll out the red carpet.
Then last week we talked about building a highway fit for a king, a highway in which nothing would stand in the way or slow down the coming of the Lord. The point of both sermons was that God comes in majesty, but you’re apt to miss him if you’re not ready. Only those who are prepared for God’s coming can appreciate the full weight of his forgiveness and love.
So, we need to prepare. But John would have us to know we also need to repent. In a word that means we need to turn from our selfish, sinful ways and live as children of God and disciples of Jesus Christ. He minces no words. He says,
“He who has two coats, let him give to him who has none.
He who has food, let him do likewise.”
Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what must we do?” He said to them,
“Collect no more than that which is appointed to you.”
Soldiers also asked him, saying, “What about us? What must we do?” He said to them,
“Extort from no one by violence,
neither accuse anyone wrongfully.
Be content with your wages.”
Where other prophets are philosophical and vague, John is concrete and pragmatic: Get your act together! He has no time for emotions, only ethics. There’s no sense wallowing in guilt and shame and remorse, just do what needs to be done!
If you have two coats, share with someone who has none. If you have food, do likewise. Don’t take more than your share. Don’t use your position or power to take advantage of others. Be content with what you have.
Then, as now, John would have us know it’s not what you say, but what you do that proves your faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus once asked his disciples,
“Do you gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles?
Even so, every good tree produces good fruit;
but the corrupt tree produces evil fruit.
A good tree can’t produce evil fruit,
neither can a corrupt tree produce good fruit.
Every tree that doesn’t grow good fruit is cut down,
and thrown into the fire.
Therefore, by their fruits you will know them”
One of my favorite questions is: If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? In other words, is the way you live your life day by day decidedly different from a heathen or an atheist or an agnostic? One of the old camp songs says it best:
“They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love;
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
It doesn’t get much simpler than that. The Letter of James puts it this way:
“What good is it, my brothers,
if a man says he has faith, but has no works?
Can faith save him?
And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food,
and one of you tells them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled;’
and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs,
what good is it?
Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself.
Yes, a man will say, “You have faith, and I have works.”
Show me your faith without works,
and I by my works will show you my faith”
John’s listeners got it right. They didn’t ask, “What shall we say?” or “What shall we think?” or What shall we believe?” or “How should we feel?” They asked, “What shall we shall we do?”
As good reformed Christians we know that we’re saved by grace through faith, not works; yet, there’s no deny the importance of good works – they’re the best indication we have of the depth of our salvation. They reflect a grateful response for the grace and forgiveness we’ve received.
So, what do you hear John calling you to do as you prepare for the coming of the Lord? How do his words speak to you? I don’t mean to step on any toes, but here’s a loose paraphrase to consider:
“You who eat too much, go on a diet. You who drink too much, practice moderation, or abstain altogether. You who work too much, leave the office earlier. You who talk too much, bridle your tongue. You who spend too much, practice frugality. You who worry too much, pray more often. You who give too little, be more generous. You who are egotistical and self-absorbed, focus on the needs of others rather than yourself.”
Brothers and sisters, I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but if you’re going to be prepared when the Lord comes, you need to repent. You need to make sure that nothing stands between you and the righteousness of God. This is what the psalmist talked about when he said,
“Have mercy on me, God … blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity.
Cleanse me from my sin….
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.” (Psalm 51)
It only makes sense: We take a bath before coming to church or going to a party. Doesn’t it stand to reason that we’d want to clean up our lives before coming into the Presence of God? In this sense repentance, when it happens, is a catalyst for good news.
I can well remember, when I was a kid, how Mom would make me get all cleaned up and dressed for Sunday School and church. It wasn’t something I did on my own. She made me. And I’m glad she did because, once I was all spic and span, I’d strut around the house like a rooster. I was fit for the killing. In this sense, repentance makes God’s coming something to look forward to – Good News – not something to dread.
Years ago, a minister attended a Face-to-Face meeting in Dallas. That’s where ministers who are looking for a call meet with Pastor Nominating Committees (PNCs) looking for a pastor. Like the others, he was hoping to receive a call from a church with a vacant pulpit. The problem was he indicated on his Personal Information Form that he’d been charged with sexual misconduct. When it came to his interview, everyone wanted to know what that was all about. He explained humbly, but candidly, that he had had an extra-marital relationship several years back and that it had cost him his job, his good name in the community, and very nearly, his marriage. He said he regretted his mistake, that he’d received counseling, and that it would never happen again. When the day was over, three of the five PNCs who interviewed him voted in favor of considering him for a call. One PNC member put it this way: “That man knows more about the grace of God than anyone else we’ve met. Others talk about forgiveness; he’s experienced it first-hand.”
Well, here’s what I hope you’ll take home with you today: Where there’s no confession, there can be no repentance; and where there’s no repentance, there can be no forgiveness; and where there’s no forgiveness, there can be no experience of love, mercy and grace.
John says if we’re to prepare for God’s coming we need to repent of our sins, and that means changing how we live to conform to God’s ways. When we do, we need not be afraid of a day of judgment when our sinfulness will be exposed. Like the minister at Face-to-Face, we can say, “Yes, I made a mistake, but that’s history.”
So, in the privacy of your own heart, what is it about your life that you need to change before you’re ready for Christ to come in all of his glory? Advent reminds us that he’s coming, and if we’re to receive him fully, we need to make those changes now. Will Willimon puts it this way:
“In order to reach Jesus, you first have to get by John! John stands in the way. He tempers our desire to enter God’s holiness ill-prepared, to participate in God’s kingdom on our terms. He calls us to prepare and to repent. The promise is, when we do, not only are we ready to receive Him, we realize, indeed, He has come.”
“What shall we do?” That’s what the people asked John so long ago. Ultimately, it’s a question only you can answer. In the name of the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2006, 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.