Strangely Good News

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is coming? I tell you that even now the ax is sharpened and ready to cut down all the unfruitful trees among you! And the chaff, that worthless garbage, will be incinerated with unquenchable fire! So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people! Now, if this is John’s “good news,” I’m not sure I want to hang around to hear his “bad news.” He sounds angry. He sounds frustrated. John is issuing a scathing, scolding rebuke that even makes us uncomfortable sitting here two thousand years later. And to complicate matters even more, the crowd that John is addressing has come to him to be baptized. Now during my years as a priest, I have had hundreds of people approach me about baptism, and to my recollection, never once have I responded by referring to them a venomous snake! These are harsh and challenging words indeed. 

And yet, somehow, in the midst of these powerful, prophetic, words of warning and rebuke, the “good news,” the “gospel” is being proclaimed! So, what are we to make of this paradox? How do we hear these words from John the Baptist as a proclamation of good news?

Well, if we look back for moment to last Sunday, you might recall that we heard about the beginning of John’s public ministry, and in particular, we heard John describing a new reality, a new kingdom, a new vision for all of creation. And he said this new reality would be one in which the valleys of injustice would be lifted up and the mountains of pride would be brought low. In this new kingdom, everything that is crooked and out of alignment will be made straight and the even the rough patches, the potholes of life will be made smooth. That’s the vision! That’s the new reality of the kingdom of God that is even now breaking forth in our world! 

But if last week was about the vision, the big picture of God’s grand construction project for the world, this week is about how that vision is built. This is week is about the concrete ways that we are called to put that vision into action. In other words, John is saying, “here is what this new reality is going to actually mean for your life and for the life of the world.”

The first thing John says about this new reality is that some things are going to have to change! In other words, it’s TRANSFORMATIONAL. Did you notice that many of the images and metaphors that John uses describe a process of change and it’s a process of change and transformation will not necessarily be easy? It will require repentance, choosing to turn and move in a different direction. And to move in a new directionmeans that we might have to let go of some the things that we once relied upon for a sense of security and safety. In fact, there may be some things in our lives that are no longer bearing fruit and those things need to be cut down. In other words, there will be things that need to be removed in order to create new pathways, underbrush that needs to be cleared away in order for the new thing that God is doing in our lives and in the world. In this new reality, as this new kingdom breaks forth into the world, somethings are going to have to change. 

But according to John, this new reality is not just transformational, it’s also RELATIONAL. Did you notice that different groups keep asking John “What should we do?” We know things are changing, but how does that effect our lives? And in every case, the exhortation that John offers is about how to treat other people. The crowds asks, “John, what should we do?” And he says, “If you have an extra coat or some extra food, you should give it to those in need!” The tax collectors come and ask, “John, what should we do?” And he says, “How about stop cheating people on their taxes!” And the solders come, “John, what should we do?” And he says, “Well, for starters, don’t blackmail people in order to make more money!” 

In each and every case, John is telling folks that in the new reality of the kingdom of God, relationships matter. How we treat each other matters. This is not just about the piety of individuals, this is about the transformation of society. This is not just about the conversion of the human heart, this is about the healing of the human family. In this new reality some things are going to need to change and where they need to change the most is in the context of our relationships with one another! 

Finally, and I think most importantly, this transformational, relational work of the kingdom of God is surprisingly PRACTICAL.  Did you notice all the advice that John gives to the crowd is something they can actually do right now? They don’t have to quite their jobs. They don’t have to get a seminary degree. They don’t have to join a new ministry. There’s not even a committee or a task-force to oversee the progress of these initiatives! John simply says, you can participate in the new reality of the kingdom of God right where you are!“If you’re a tax collector, go and be a decent tax collector!” “If you’re a soldier, go and be a honest soldier.” 

You can fill in the blank with whatever life-situation describes you right now. “If you’re a parent, go and be a faithful parent.” “If you’re a supervisor in your company, go and be a good and trustworthy supervisor.” “If you’re a teacher, go and be a passionate and dedicated teacher.” And the list could go on. The point is that this transformational, relational work of the kingdom is something you can do today, right now, right where you are! The small corner of the world where you live and work and laugh and play is precisely where God has called you to be – and that is place where God is working in you and through you to bring about his kingdom in this world.

Our brother John the Baptist came onto the scene with a powerful, prophetic word of warning and rebuke – but he also came with a word of HOPE. He came announcing a new reality, a new kingdom, a new vision of a world turned right-side up. And John made it very clear that he was not the one to bring about this new reality – but that the One coming after him – the One whose coming we await – the One whose name is Jesus – He would be the One to bring about this new vision for the world. 

It’s a vision that’s TRANSFORMATIONAL. It’s a vision that’s RELATIONAL. And above all, it’s a vision that’s PRACTICAL – a vision that starts today, right now, right where you are. And my friends, for you, for me, and for the world – this is indeed incredibly good news indeed!!

One thought on “Strangely Good News

  1. John the Baptist preached the Good News of a new world, a new beginning, a new birth of Communion with God – and one another. He preached that one greater than himself was coming to show all of us the way to that new world. Jesus was coming with an invitation to join with him along the way. Jesus wanted our help and participation in the process of watching and helping the birth of a new way of living. How wonderful is that. We are being invited to join our LORD. Are we prepared? We can come as we are. Thanks be to God.
    MJ

    Like

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