Luke 1: 7John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.”
“John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them,” says St. Luke. Good news? What good news? John called the crowds coming out to see him, “You brood of vipers!” Then he asked, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Now, just where’s the good news in that?
How about these words of John? “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire?” Does that sound like good news? Or, how about, “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire,” in verse 17? Where’s the good news in that?
I can think of three reasons why we might consider John and his words bad news instead of good news: One is simply the dire and dreadful diagnosis he makes of his people’s condition. Morally and spiritually, they are dry tinder. And there is a brush fire of unpleasant and unavoidable consequences coming their way, personally, and as a nation.
Lest we write John off as just a judgmental crank, consider how his warnings came true for the nation 40 years later, when Roman forces destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and dispersed the survivors across the empire. John’s diagnosis of his people’s morally and spiritually diseased condition, and his prognosis of how that disease will progress if left untreated, however true, is one item of bad news.
A second reason that John and his message sound like bad news is because, twenty centuries later, he and his message cut against the grain of this age, in which the supreme virtues are said to be tolerance, coexistence, affirmation and the celebration of diversity. But there’s little celebration today of John’s kind of diversity; in an age that values tolerance, he sounds intolerant and is therefore intolerable. Is that as ironic and illogical as it sounds?
The fact that John does not impose nor enforce his judgments at the point of any sword, nor does he take the dire predicted consequences into his own hands, but leaves them to God, is not enough to save John’s hide from the intolerance of his intolerance. Nor does the fact that he is actually condemning behaviors, while offering mercy to persons, spare him the deadly blowback. When John names and condemns the adultery of King Herod, Herod cannot simply agree to disagree; he treats John’s disagreement and disapproval as injury and offense. Herod found John’s failure to tolerate his actions intolerable, and so has him arrested, and later executed. Tell me now who was most intolerant? Yet, John’s difference from the spirit of his age and ours is a second reason that his preaching comes across today as bad news.
A third reason that John, his message and his method might be considered bad news has to do not only with the times in which we live, but also the season we are currently in. John and his message come every year in the church’s lectionary Bible-reading schedule during the Advent and Christmas holiday season. Into the season of lights,” with “glad tidings of great comfort and joy,” when the shopping sprees, the office parties, the advertisements, the lights and decorations, the Christmas wish lists, the songs about reindeer and jolly old St. Nicholas, all encourage excess, indulgence and extravagance, and a riot of nostalgia, perfectionism and sentimentalism, there comes this poor, homeless, wild-eyed, bushy-bearded prophet and preacher from the desert in only a camel hair tunic, his breath smelling of locusts and wild honey, interrupting our frenzied festivities with unwelcome words of warning and a call to reflection, repentance and amendment of life. Where’s the good news in that?
I confess that I need something celebratory, extravagant and holiday-ish if I am to get through our long, dark winters at this latitude, closer to the North Pole than to the Equator. Without this “season of lights,” I might just join the groundhogs to hide in their holes, even before February 2. How then do we square John’s severity and austerity with the season of “comfort and joy?” That’s the third reason why John and his message seem more like bad news: his austerity and severity clash with the spirit of the holiday season, in which, ironically, John makes his most prominent appearances in our Bible readings. Go figure!
But then, for there to ever be any good news, there must be at the very least the possibility of bad news. If ever we get an income tax refund after April 15 of the year, it’s all the more sweet because we didn’t get an audit notice instead. Whenever the Minnesota Vikings win a football game, that victory is all the more sweet to me because of all the games I have watched and endured ….like the one they played last Monday night.
And if you have ever had to deal with the post-holiday blues, and the post-holiday bills, you know, we need something greater and more enduring than all the enforced holly-joy happiness and a few passing pleasures of the season. We need a reason for enduring joy.
So, I can think of three reasons why John and his preaching are also good news. One has to do with the guarantee of accountability. The second has to do with the offer of mercy and a fresh new start in life. And thirdly, it’s good news because….. the Lord is coming.
As for the first item of good news, accountability in a world of laws, limits and consequences: Tolerance and coexistence are usually better than the alternatives. But no matter how tolerant and accepting we may try to be, dig around a little bit and we’ll find that everybody has some thing which they cannot tolerate, some thing with which they cannot co-exist. It’s just that we’re not always consistent nor logical about what we tolerate, or not.
For Christians and churches that tend to be more tolerant of personal sins of weakness, we’ll often find that they are less tolerant and more demanding of accountability for what we might consider social and structural sins, like oppression, exclusion, marginalization and exploitation. John the Baptist would actually affirm that kind of intolerance, if you want to call it that. We just heard him holding the powerful accountable for their oppression and exploitation of the powerless.
For Christians who tend to be more tolerant and less aware of social sins, like oppression, exclusion, marginalization and exploitation, and are harder on personal sins of weakness, like theft or adultery, John the Baptist came down pretty hard on those kinds of sin, too.
What’s different is that John was consistent. If he can be considered intolerant, at least he was equal opportunity intolerant; he was for equal opportunity accountability, for the powerful and the powerless, for the poor and the rich, for the oppressors and the oppressed, for personal sins and for social, structural sins.
John then stands in the long line of Hebrew prophets who see God as creator and master of both a natural order of the universe, and a moral and spiritual order of the universe. We can try to flout the Ten Commandments as well as the laws of gravity, but neither natural laws nor moral/spiritual ones will give us a pass nor show us any special favors. Should we test either set of laws, we can count on some very predictable, unavoidable and unpleasant consequences.
Like the Old Testament prophets, John also sees all mortals as standing on equal footing before the commandments and the judgments of God, as well as before the love and the mercy of God, with no distinction in either judgment nor mercy for king nor commoner, for Jew nor Gentile. No one stands exempt from the laws of consequences in the moral and spiritual order of God’s creation by virtue of their status, power, wealth, nor lack thereof, nor for reason of their birth, just as no one has any advantage over anyone else when it comes to the laws of gravity.
Yes, there’s something scary about the inflexibility and inevitability of the limits and laws of both the natural order of the universe and the moral/spiritual order. But I can think of one thing even scarier: a world with no accountability, no justice, no consequences, boundaries or limits, moral, spiritual or natural. When we were children we often got mad and unhappy whenever we heard the word, “No.” But the angriest and most unhappy people I have ever met are those who rarely, if ever heard the word, “No,” or who cannot say No, not to themselves nor to others. Because, deep down, we know that if there is no accountability, if there are no values, limits nor consequences for our actions toward other people, there can be no limits, values, nor consequences for anyone else’s actions toward ourselves. Then power becomes the only value, and life becomes a cruel contest of survival of the fittest, a game which all shall eventually lose. Try as hard as we like, we cannot logically say that we matter as persons, but that our actions don’t matter.
John’s severe and austere message and ministry are actually good news, because, for one thing, they imply and prove that there are meaning, value, accountability and consequences to our actions and our attitudes because, finally, there is such great meaning and value to each one of us. Otherwise, God should not have even bothered to send prophets like John our way, nor the Savior whom he announced; we would not be worth the trouble. But to God, we are worth even a cross and the Son of God nailed to it. So, the first reason that John and his message are good news is because they tell us that there is a moral and spiritual order to the universe. In this order, our actions and attitudes matter so much, because each of us matters so much.
But such accountability alone would be bad news without the second reason why John and his message are actually good news: for all the terrible sins of his people and their impending consequences, John offers something infinitely greater than mere tolerance: he offers mercy and the grace of God, not only to forgive the sins of the past and the present, but grace as the power to undertake a fresh, new start on a new way of life, now and in the future. John’s critique of his people’s exploitation, indifference and corruption only make sense if something better is even possible. So, John does not only condemn wrongful actions and attitudes, he offers forgiveness, a fresh start, and some positive, practical alternatives.
To the tax collectors who were over-charging the people and skimming off the excess, he says, “Collect no more than what is due.” To the soldiers, who functioned more like police officers, John says, “Don’t extort and exploit people with false accusations.” To alleviate poverty, let those who have more than they need share with those who have too little.
And to all people, John said, “Prepare to receive the kingdom of God and its king. Examine yourselves and make straight all that is crooked within you; bring low all that is proud and exalted within you.” If enough people were to do all that John said, not only would they be ready for the coming of Christ, not only would they be ready to receive this king and his kingdom, what a better world it would be even now, and how much more that world would match everyone’s worth and their value in God’s eyes. That, then, is the second reason why John and his preaching constitute good news: they offer God’s mercy and grace. And that grace points to and empowers better lives and a better world.
A third reason why John and his preaching are good news is simply this (and it’s the very reason for John and his preaching to begin with): the Lord is coming. And that’s the reason for enduring joy this season, and not just passing pleasures. John did not preach as he did just to improve society nor just to reform people’s manners. He might have that effect, let us hope. But John preached and taught as he did to prepare us for the Lord and the coming of his kingdom, a kingdom that would not just improve the world as he knew it, but replace it. John preached and taught with an eye toward the cosmic vision of the prophets, and not just to the short-term projects of political reformers.
That is also our role and our calling, as the church of Jesus Christ: not just to be practical reformers of this world (I hope we are), but visionary prophets and demonstration projects of a new and better world to come, whose primary allegiance is not to earthly kings nor candidates, nor to presidents, parties, princes nor policies, but to the Promised Prince of Peace. Like John, we are to be prophets and forerunners not just to any who will validate our politics and our opinions, but to One greater than ourselves, to whom we are accountable, on whose goodness and grace we rely.
And that is what Advent and Christmas season are about, too: Preparing our world and ourselves for the One who comes, as John did. Therefore, John and his message are not really in total opposition to the “comfort and joy” of the Advent and Christmas season. If anything, John heightens the comfort and joy of the season by bringing us news more comforting and joyful than anything you’ll get from advertisements about holiday season car sales, or any discount you’ll get on your holiday shopping, or anything we’d eat or drink at a holiday party. The greater comfort and joy, to which John would point us, is the Lord, who is coming.
But in the unbending moral and spiritual order of the universe, this Lord does not come wherever there is for him no space. There is no space for the One who comes if there are greed, extortion or exploitation in our lives and loves. There is no space for the One who comes if our closets and cupboards are full to excess at the expense of those without food or clothing.
To make space for the Greater One who comes, John’s advice still applies: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord.” That’s why, in longstanding Christian tradition, the Advent season has typically been a season of reflection and self-examination, not just of frenzied festivity, a season of generosity, not just of consumption, of acts of sacrifice and charity, of worship, not just activity. They are how we “prepare the way of the Lord,” and make room for him who was born among the livestock and welcomed by the poor. The relief and hygiene kits we are soliciting and collecting this season, and which we will commission on Epiphany Sunday, January 6, are one way of observing Advent after the message and the spirit of John the Baptist.
“The Lord is coming:” that’s the good news today, which John preached.