Where's the Good News?
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?
That’s how John the Baptist greets the crowds who swarm out into the wilderness by the Jordan River to be baptized. That’s how our gospel reading begins this morning.
And this is how it ends:
“So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people”
In between that first verse and the last verse of today’s gospel, Luke is telling us that there is good news. Did you hear it?
Is it the bit where John says “even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire?”
Or is it when John tells us that it’s not good enough to be one of God’s people; for God is able from these stones to raise up a new people?
Or maybe it’s the bit where John points to the one who is to come, the one who will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire?
With these and many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.
Our task this morning is to find that good news.
One approach to finding the good news in this passage might be to assume that John’s harsh words of judgement are directed towards somebody else.
It’s a lot easier to feel good about words of judgement directed at others. And when times are hard, if you are the victim of violence, when your country is occupied by harsh enemy forces, I get why people long for justice and judgement.
Is the good news in today’s passage that bad people are going to get what’s coming to them? Like John says, there is one who is more powerful who is coming, one who will baptize with the fire of judgement, not the water of repentance, and the winnowing fork is in his hand and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. When we hear news reports of war and violence and abuse, it’s tempting to read the good news this way.
But I’m afraid that might be too simple a solution. It may work in a Star Wars movie, where the good guys and the bad guys conveniently dress in white and black so that we can tell them apart without any difficulty. But in real life I’m not so sure. Here, I’d like turn to the words of the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who was imprisoned and spent 8 years in a Soviet forced labour camp. Reflecting on human nature and the problem of good and evil, Solzhenitsyn writes:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Sometimes we hear the text about separating the wheat from the chaff, and we assume that it’s telling us that some people are wheat, and others are chaff. We think it’s about inclusion and exclusion. But that’s not the way the image works. Every grain of wheat has a husk, called the chaff. The reason a farmer separates the wheat from the chaff is not to separate the good wheat from the bad wheat, it’s so that every grain of wheat can be saved. It’s an image of purification, of repentance, not of separation. It’s an image of how each one of us has things in their life that are better left behind.
John is not talking to someone else. John is talking to us, trying to get our attention, calling us to repentance, urging us to bear fruit worthy of repentance.
And to their credit, the crowd seems to get it. Or maybe they’re so scared that they don’t want to take any chances.
“What then should we do?”
Now that’s a good question. You might expect that in response John would call for religious action, for prayer, for fasting, for sacrifice. You might expect John to call for heroic action, for rising up and changing the world.
But given the rhetoric that proceeds it, John’s response at first glance strikes me as kind of mundane.
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
And then to tax collectors and soldiers, those who collaborate with the Roman Empire, those who must have been worried that John’s judgement was directed at them, John says to them, basically,
‘Do your job. Do it honestly and with justice and never use your positions of power to oppress others. And be satisfied with what you have.”
And maybe in these simple statements, this is where we find the good news that Luke is talking about. We don’t have to be heroes. The repentance that John is calling for is something that each of us can do, it is there for us in the ordinary stuff of our lives.
Share. Be honest. Treat others with kindness and respect. Do your job honestly and with justice. Never abuse your power. Be thankful for what you have.
You can do this. I can do this. It may be hard, it may require some significant changes in our lives, that’s what repentance is all about. But it can be done, and it can start today. We don’t have to be heroes. No one of us has to save the world.
But let us not underestimate either the revolutionary nature of what John is saying. For if each one of us who has food shares it with someone who has none, there would be no more hunger in this world. If each one who had two coats shared with one who has none, there would be no more poverty in this world. If those who had power were to stop using it to oppress others and enrich themselves, there would be no more war, no more conflict, no more terror in this world.
John’s message is also good news in another way. It is a message of radical inclusiveness. In John’s vision, the people of God is not restricted to those who have Abraham as their ancestor. John is more focused on people who bear fruit with their lives, not on people with the right DNA. And his simple instruction, “Got two coats? Give one to someone who needs it” is accessible to all. But there’s even more to John’s radical vison of inclusiveness. John’s vision for the people of God includes the soldiers and the tax collectors. Soldiers and tax collectors were the enemy, the hired hands of the Roman Empire. Collaborators and traitors. When they approach John and ask “what should we do?” I imagine a hush falling over the crowd. They expect John to hammer them. To pronounce judgment. To shun them. To call them vipers again. To tell them to quit their jobs. But he doesn’t. He includes them. He doesn’t put them in an impossible situation. He gives them the same sort of simple instruction that he gives the others. Collect no more than the prescribed amount. Don’t extort money. Do your jobs honestly, act justly, don’t abuse your power. Because you too are God’s people. The good news is for all people. And all means all.
What then should we do? We don’t have to be heroes. But we are called to repent and to bear good fruit. And this, we can do.
So, with these and many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to all the people.
Homily: Yr C Advent 3. Dec 12 2021, Trinity.
Readings: Zephaniah 3.14-20; Is 12.2-6; Phil 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18