Good News!

December 16, 2018

Series: December 2018

Category: Advent - Joy

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

Luke 3:7-18 - 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? 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. 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.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 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.”

Good News!

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 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. 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.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. There is an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where the young Calvin is talking to his tiger companion, Hobbes.  Calvin says to Hobbes, "I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings.  I'm sorry I did it.”  "Maybe you should apologize to her," Hobbes suggests.  Calvin ponders this for a moment and then replies, "I keep hoping there's a less obvious solution."

 The crowds who have come to John the Baptist seem to have some repenting to do of their own.  He calls them a “brood of vipers,” telling them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.”  Like Calvin, they seem to be hoping for a “less obvious solution” to repent of their bad behavior. Maybe, if they are able to claim Abraham as their ancestor, that will make everything OK.  They won’t actually have to change any of their words or actions.  I mean, blood lines were very important in those days.  But, oh no, that won’t do, says John.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

 Isn’t this a wonderfully uplifting passage for this third Sunday in Advent, this Sunday of joy?!  I’m so glad I could bring you the good news this morning.  You may catch my sarcasm there, but the thing is, this passage from Luke’s Gospel ends by saying that John was proclaiming the good news to the people.  This is good news?  You could have fooled me.  This sounds like the people have messed up and they need to do the hard work to make it right, ASAP.  This seems to be a call to repentance, not a message of good news.

However, if we look closely at what John is asking the people to do, maybe there is some good news to be heard here.  The crowds ask, “What shall we do?” and John responds basically with three instructions.

  • If you have two coats, share with anyone who has none.  Do likewise with food.
  • Be honest. To the tax collectors and soldiers, he says don’t take any more money than you should.  Don’t use threats or false accusations.
  • Be content. Keep no more than you need.  Be satisfied with what you have.

 Share, be honest, be content with what you have.  As we prepare for the coming of the promised Messiah, says John, this is what you need to do.  Share, be honest, be content with what you have.  I wonder what Calvin would say to Hobbes about those instructions. Those don’t seem too hard to follow.  And perhaps therein lies the good news.  Preparations for the coming Messiah do not have to be difficult, or ornate, or expensive, or elaborate.  We are called to prepare for the coming Messiah simply by examining how we treat one another.  By making sure that we are generous and honest and caring in our relationships.  These instructions are so simple, that they remind me of the famous book by Robert Fulghum, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten.”  Three of those things Fulghum learned are, “Share everything.  Play fair.  Don’t take things that aren’t yours.”  Sound familiar?  The things John is asking of us even a kindergartener can do!

 Or can they?  Let us not be fooled by this deceptively simple message.  Roger Gench, who is a Presbyterian pastor in New York tells a story about playing Monopoly with his dad and brother when he was a child.  To begin the game, his dad would give he and his brother twice the amount of money the rules allowed.  Gench says he presumes the assumption was that his dad was smarter than the kids, so he was trying to level the playing field.  However, that plan often backfired, because if one of the kids landed on a prized square like Park Place or Boardwalk, that meant they had more money to buy up the property, acquire houses and hotels, and charge exorbitant fees to the other less fortunate players.           

Gench explains that he learned two life lessons from this particular version of Monopoly.  “First, that life is lived on a competitive, but unequal, playing field in which winning and losing is based somewhat on merit but also significantly on the social benefits of being born of a certain class, race, gender, etc.  Second, that God is somewhat like my dad, an uncommonly generous giver of very good gifts, the benefits of which I often exploit and misunderstand.”[i]

 Whoever has been born into a family with enough wealth to have two coats must share with anyone who has none.  Whoever has been born into the privilege of being a tax collector or a soldier must not use that place of privilege to extort or steal, but to be fair and honest with all.

 It is so tempting to use that extra Monopoly money to fill Boardwalk and Park Place with hotels.  Just ask my son … that is his most favorite move.  One he beats me with regularly.  It is so tempting to use what we have to get more.  To stockpile our resources even if that comes at the expense of others.  To hold on tight to what we have and ignore all that we learned in kindergarten.  It is so tempting to try to win at life just like we win at Monopoly.  But, John warns, it is time to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.  The one who will teach that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.  Winning and losing in the kingdom of God looks much different than it does on a Monopoly board. 

 And perhaps that is why these seemingly simple commands – share, be honest, be content – are so hard.  Because they are often in direct opposition with what society teaches.  We are so often taught that only the strong and powerful prevail, that we should look out for number one, that only the fittest survive, that the one with the most stuff wins.

I don’t know about you, but I find that exhausting.  That rat race of achievement and success at anyone’s and everyone’s expense.  So here’s the good news that John proclaims – we don’t have to live like that.  In fact, God calls us to not live like that.  Release yourself from your striving and your accumulating, says John.  Share, be honest, be content with what you have.

Although those in power probably questioned whether or not this really was good news, there was another group of people for whom this was definitely good news.  Those who had no coats and no food.  Those from whom the tax collectors and soldiers had been stealing.  Those who were the most powerless in society. Those who had been the most overlooked.  With the coming of the Messiah, all of a sudden, they were not overlooked anymore.  All of a sudden, there was someone to give voice to the voiceless, and his name was Jesus.

Edward Murrow was a broadcast journalist who gained fame in the 1940’s and 50’s for not being afraid to “tell it like it is.”  He told his writers to report the facts in perspective, the bad as well as the good, which was a departure from the propaganda-filled news of the day.  This was especially true about race relations in the country.  When some US Senators criticized his staff for not depicting things as generally rosy, Murrow responded, “We cannot make good news out of bad practice.”[ii]

That’s basically what Jesus did during his life and ministry.  He told it like it was.  He lifted up the outcast and the oppressed and made sure they were not ignored anymore.  He challenged the bad practices of those in power and insisted that the good news he had to share was not maintaining the status quo, but radically and dramatically living in God’s love.

This is the baby whose birth we await this Advent season.  This is the coming Messiah whom we celebrate.  In the Christian church, we say Advent is all about preparing for his birth.  And John tells us exactly how to prepare – by living our lives in the way that Jesus taught. 

I am reminded of a poem titled “The signs of his presence” by Graham Cook.

“The signs of his presence are blind people who can see, the lame who walk again, those whose skin diseases are cleared, the deaf who can hear, the dead who are brought back to life, and the poor who have reason for delighting in the good news they hear.

If these are the signs of his presence and we are the ones who say he is coming, what are we going to say when they ask where he is?  What are we going to do to justify our claim that he is on his way?  Singing carols with mince pies afterwards is not enough.”[iii]  That is a potent reminder that there is no getting to Bethlehem and that sweet baby in the manger without first hearing John calling us to repentance. 

Lest we be too overwhelmed by John’s words, lest we not be able to hear the good news in his challenge, may we remember the words of the prophet Isaiah.  “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might.”  Isaiah was prophesying to a deeply troubled people.  A people who had known troubled times.  And through it all, God is with them.  Through it all, they need not be afraid, for God is their strength and their might.  God does not call us to repentance and then leave us to struggle on our own.  No, we celebrate Emmanuel – God with us.  Our lives can and will be changed by the good news of the Christ Child.  And when that happens, we too shall shout aloud and sing for joy, for great in our midst is the Holy One.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Follow the light of hope’s guiding star.  Seek the child.

Listen to the words of a heavenly host.  Find the child.

Offer as gifts the best that you have.  Serve the child.

Peace be among us.  God be with us.  Amen.

 [i] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, Pg. 56.


[iii] Resources for Preaching and Worship, Year A, Pg. 13.