Sermon Advent III: Good News? (Luke 3:7-18)
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits 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. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “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 fire. 17 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.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
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When I first read this text this week, the question came to me immediately. In the final verse of today’s Gospel, we read that John the Baptist, in his preaching and exhorting, was proclaiming the good news to the people. That made me stop and re-read the text. So I read it again. And again. And each time I kept asking myself the question: “Where’s the good news here?”
This, after all, is a sermon that starts out with the preacher calling his congregation a bunch of snakes! He then tells them in no uncertain terms that their treasured religious heritage means nothing. And then he warns them that God’s about to come and cut down a lot of stuff they are invested in and throw it into the fire.
Some good news, huh?
So the crowd, taken aback by this message of judgment, asked John what to do. Normally, when proclaiming the good news, we would expect a preacher to call people to trust in God. We don’t believe people become righteous by doing good works. We teach that people trust God, become united to Jesus by faith, and then the good works flow from Christ’s life in us. It’s not what we do first of all that counts, it is faith, it is who we trust. Then that faith works itself out in loving actions toward our neighbors.
However, when you read the second paragraph of today’s Gospel, when the people ask John what they should do in response to his criticisms and warnings, he doesn’t talk at all about faith. Instead, he says, “Do this. Don’t do that.” Share what you have with the needy. Don’t be greedy and take more than your fair share from your employer. Don’t extort others for your own selfish gain. Be content with what you have.
I think we’d all agree that those are good things, right? No objection here to the moral teaching that John is giving. But is this good news? Lutheran tradition would call this law teaching. Law teaching is not the gospel. Law teaching comes before the good news. First we hold up before people God’s righteous standards. Then, when we all realize we fall short and stand in need of forgiveness and renewal, then we share the good news that Jesus died for our sins and rose again that we might be pardoned, cleansed, and raised to walk in newness of life with him. We call people to trust in Jesus, to be united to him by grace through faith, and then, out of that union, to live as we should.
Even when John gets around to talking about Jesus in the third paragraph, it is a rather daunting picture he paints of him. He portrays Jesus as a powerful harvester who will come to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Everything that doesn’t bear fruit is gonna get burned up. He is going to sort out what should be kept from what should be discarded.
At first blush, this all sounds pretty scary to me, and I’m not sure I would categorize it right away as “good news.” Nevertheless, note how the passage ends: “So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people.”
What’s going on here?
As I thought about this, I remembered that the Old Testament is filled with statements that go like this: “Praise the Lord, for he is coming to judge the world in righteousness.”
Now I don’t know about you, but the prospect of God coming and judging the world with righteous judgment is not exactly something I’m looking forward to. There is a lot of bad stuff in this world — and there is a lot of bad stuff in me — and none of it is going to last a second when God comes to judge. The thought of God dealing with all of that makes me tremble.
But maybe that’s the point after all. Perhaps John and the prophets and the psalmists were on to something. Maybe they were announcing good news after all! This world needs to be made right. I need to be made right. We all need to be made right. What John is announcing here is that God is coming to make the world right, and maybe in order to do that, some destruction needs to take place before the construction of something new can happen.
We know this instinctively, right? Perhaps we want to build a new building where an old one now exists. We have to make a decision, don’t we? Can we merely renovate the old building, or would it be more cost effective and better to tear the old structure down and make something new from ground up? The destruction of the old becomes necessary for the building of the new.
Maybe what John is announcing here is the start of a whole new project in Jesus. God’s going to tear down the old and replace it all with something shiny and new. And when John tells the people to do good works like he does in this passage, perhaps he’s just telling them to start practicing for the new day to come, the new way of life that’s coming.
We like to think that God’s good news is all sweetness and light, but perhaps that’s not the case. Maybe God’s good news is more about the fact that God is going to do what it takes to make all things new. And that means some destruction as well as construction. That means some tearing down as well as building up. That means weeding out the bad stuff as well as incorporating the new stuff. That means that people like you and me must face up to changes that need to be made, setting aside things we cherish and hold on to, being willing to let go of our pride and self-righteousness and our need to be in control of everything.
Maybe good news means not only rising into newness of life, but also dying first.
John the Baptist talks about fire here, and this is a good metaphor by which to communicate this two-edged emphasis. We often think of fire as a destructive force. The recent fires in California, where human homes and lives were devastated come to mind. However, in nature, fire is a good thing, a natural part of the cycle of life. Fire makes a necessary contribution to the ecosystem. Fire is vital to the survival of many species. Fire not only destroys, it brings forth new life.
In forests, fire removes low-growing underbrush, cleans the forest floor of debris, opens it up to sunlight, and nourishes the soil. This reduces the competition for nutrients and allows established trees to grow stronger and healthier.
Fires also provide habitat and shelter to forest animals and birds. Fire clears out heavy brush, leaving room for new grasses, herbs and regenerated shrubs that provide food and habitat for many wildlife species.
Furthermore, fire kills diseases and insects that prey on trees and provides valuable nutrients that enrich the soil, as the vegetation that is burned becomes a rich source of nourishment for the remaining trees.
Forestry experts tell us that change is important to a healthy forest. Some species of trees and plants are actually fire dependent. They must have fire at regular intervals in order for life to continue. The destructive force of fire is actually designed to renew life! That which we instinctively view as bad news is, in fact, ultimately good news.
Praise the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth! When Jesus comes, John tells us, he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This is the fire of renewal, the fire of purification, the fire of cleansing, the fire that brings life out of the ashes.
Good news comes in different forms, and here is one of those forms today. John’s preaching is the good news announcement that God is going to make the world right through Jesus, whatever it takes. Yes, it’s going to involve a coming firestorm, but when it is over, everything will be made new.
Isn’t that the good news we’re waiting to hear, really? One day, this old world and you and me are going to be made right and whole and new. So, go ahead, start practicing today. Show a little extra kindness. Learn to be content with what you have. Don’t treat others in a way that you would hate, if others treated you that way.
And brace yourself. God’s about to turn this whole world right side up. Amen.