Advent 3C - (The Real) Good News


Philippians 4:4-7
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

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."

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.

For a significant number of years now, I have collected and shared poetry and music throughout the Advent season - words of darkness and light, songs of peace and hope, readings of joy and contemplation.

Perhaps my favorite of all the poems I have collected over the years is the poem that was among the very first Advent poems I ever collected, the poem “First Coming,” by Madeleine L’Engle:

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

I adore this poem. In our Advent waiting, it pushes us directly to the heart of the incarnation: that Jesus came - with joy! - into a world that was not fit to receive him. That somehow, rejoicing and goodness can exist and even triumph in a world that is yet dark and uncertain, unsteady and unfinished.

An unsteady and unfinished world is the context into which John was preaching, out there in the wilderness.

He and the Israelites were living beneath the thumb of a far-reaching Roman Empire under the rule of Caesar Augustus. The empire boasted a false and shallow illusion of national peace and prosperity. Peace and prosperity that were sustained through military intimidation, bribery, manipulation, and rewards for loyalty to an emperor who prioritized the needs and desires of those classes of people whom he most needed at his disposal.

The emperor was revered for this false peace, and and so called a “son of God” by the ruling classes. His military victories and his life milestones alike were announced by heralds as “good news” to the people.

Meanwhile, for Israelites like John living in this occupation, they were trying to remain faithful and loyal to God and God’s laws over and against and under the demands of the empire.

John in the wilderness is a camel’s-haired, locust-eating symbol of life lived outside the trappings of empire. He rejects injustice and oppression, entitlement and pride, devious deeds born out of cowardice and self-interest. He has little patience for those who follow him to the river out of selfish motivation.

John is in the wilderness because he has deeper things on his heart. He yearns to see goodness return to the world.

Goodness that will walk out into the wilderness in the person of Jesus.

If John is anxious, unkind, and urgent in today’s gospel, it is because he believes with all his heart that goodness can defeat evil, and that there can be real peace, and real hope, because there is going to be a real savior, and that savior is Jesus, and Jesus is right down the road so you need to get ready!

Jesus and the kingdom he brings with him is the “good news” that Luke refers to at the end of this passage when he explains, “and with many other exhortations, John proclaimed good news to the people.”

But this is not the “good news” Rome offers. The “good news” that John preaches has nothing to do with announcing victory in battle or the emperor’s birthday. In fact, if we take Luke’s gospel seriously, the “good news” that Jesus brings is decidedly not good news for those committed to the pursuit of wealth, power, and empire.

At the birth of Jesus, the angel announces to the shepherds “good news of great joy for all people,” that “a savior has been born, who is Christ the Lord”....that is, a savior who is not Caesar Augustus.

And what of this newborn king? If we skip to the song his mother Mary sang about him in utero, we hear that through this baby, God is enacting a plan to feed the hungry and raise up the lowly and to bring down the places of power.

When Jesus begins his public ministry as an adult, he will declare his mission according to the prophet Isaiah, that he will “bring good news to the poor.” And everybody thinks he’s great until he says, “no really...good news for the poor and the outsider, and not for you all who have it made already.” And they threaten to throw him off a cliff.

Because while there is a lot of good news that Jesus brings, it isn’t going to look like good news to the powers that be. It is good news for those who need good news. It is good news for those for whom the status quo is decidedly not good news.

It is good news for all who are still watching and waiting for lasting peace and true justice and real liberation.

John preaches precisely into this waiting-space, where redemption and restoration are on their way, but have not fully arrived yet. John knows that good news is not good news unless it is good for the least and the vulnerable. He also knows that the world doesn’t stop being broken just because we wait in hope for God’s kingdom to come.

And so he has an answer ready for us when we, with the crowds, ask, “What then should we do?”

How should we be hopeful in a messy world?
How should we rejoice in good news of a kingdom that is still unfinished?
How should we stay faithful under the thumb of empire?

What then should we do?

The answer, it turns out, is simple.

Do you have two coats, John asks, or extra food? Then share it. Be fair to one another. Stay honest. Consider the needs of your neighbors. Become God’s good news for one another.

Because an extra coat is good news for the one who is naked. And not being swindled is good news for the one living paycheck-to-paycheck.

We might not be able to make the world perfect – that’s God’s job – but we can be as much good news as we can muster. And we can love this world fiercely and without apology, because God loved us enough to enter into the mess with us.

And even in this still-messy world, God has not stopped rejoicing in us.

In this uncertain and unsteady world, God has given us the song of angels, a song of beautiful, subversive, holy good news of a savior, who is Christ the Lord. A savior for all people. A savior who will bring this world lasting peace and endless joy.

And while we watch and wait and hope for that day of earth’s redemption, we pass our days seeking goodness and doing all of our ordinary things with extraordinary love. And we defiantly cling to the holy joy that burns in us like a star in the night sky, for our savior draws near.

That, my friends, is truly the good news.

And we are the ones who must proclaim it.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!