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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

3rd Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015

 When Bad News Is Good News

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18

            A part of the Christmas season Connie and I love are the cards from people and families dear to us.  We love the pictures of family or pets, and the messages as well carried by them.  They speak of the joy of the season with simple words like “Joy” or “Peace on Earth,” or simply “Peace.”  We would all settle for that, wouldn’t we?  One this year says, “Love is Everything.”  It is!  I like especially one that says, “Oh what fun.”  Another says, “Noel.”  Our plumber’s said, “May the joy and peace of Christmas be with you throughout the year.”  (I hope we see less of him this year than we did last!)  Another says, “Rejoice in the Lord Always!”  Another says, “Merry and Bright.”  Friends of ours who have lost a great deal, losses that will always hang over them, said, “Because of Jesus’ birth, we have courage for today and hope for tomorrow.”  Another says, “Welcome Christmas like an old friend.”  Still another says, “Peace and Love and Laughter.”  That is a prayer for any season!

            Funny, I have never seen a John the Baptist Christmas card or message, and I think I know why.  Who wants to get a card that begins, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  Even now the axe is laid to the tree….”  “Merry Christmas!”  John does not get done in ceramic figures like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and wise men do – he is never a figure that Hallmark goes with on its Christmas cards.  And yet, all the Gospels, and especially Luke’s, have him there at the start, as if to say, “You can’t really meet Jesus until you meet John.”  As if to say, “You’ll never know why His name was called Emmanuel, God-with-us, until John tells you of how desperately you need such a God.”

            We rightly approach this season with joy, and celebrate it as a season in which we hope and pray for peace on earth and goodwill toward all.  We want it to be a season of glad tidings; indeed, we need it as respite from all the world’s harsh and bitter news.  We all of us need more hope and less fear.

            Yet I would also argue that the Gospel writers all, and especially Luke, got it right in insisting that on our way to Christmas, we encounter John the Baptist.  John tells us a part of the Christmas story that we dare not ignore.  John tells us of how desperately, how universally, how personally we need a Savior.  John tells us of how good beyond our imagining the Good News really is, by forcing us to confront how bad the bad news is first, even in the best and brightest of us, even in the lives of our children and grandchildren.  And we will never really make it to Bethlehem, to the real heart and home of Christmas, if we fail to face the truth that John’s message is meant for us, for every last one of us.

            The crowds flocked to John to be baptized.  And when they came, John said, “You brood of vipers!  …Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our ancestor.’”  To us, John might say, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘I’ve already been baptized.’”  John says we are all a brood of vipers, a bunch of snakes.  John knew that this was the message of the prophets of old.  It will always be the Bible’s word on human beings.  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  None are righteous, no, not one,” said Isaiah.  John is saying the same thing in more colorful language.  Speaking of colorful language, I remember Will Campbell’s comment on the meaning of the Gospel, when late in his life he was asked to summarize it.  Campbell, that great Baptist soul, said, “We’re all ba….”  Well, I cannot say what Will said!  “We’re all terrible, and God loves us anyway.”  But you will never know how wondrous and wonderful the second part is, if you fail to recognize how true the first word is – true of everyone, and true of you.  I know it is true of me!

            We would rather have “a Dickens of a Christmas.”  I love Charles Dickens’ story!  You know, that deep down, in spite of how crotchety and greedy Scrooge had gotten, we are all really good – that there is an innate goodness that only needs to be discovered, and remembered and then brought out of us.  The only problem with that story is that it leaves us trying to save ourselves, scaring ourselves into being good by encountering the ghost of Christmas future.

            John says we cannot save ourselves.  All we can do is repent, turn away from our selfish obsessions, and turn toward the Living God.  We need to reckon with how deeply enmeshed in our own sin we really are, so we can finally, joyfully, above all, gratefully, greet the Savior.

            We all are tempted to tell ourselves a different story, one more like the essentially good people we tell ourselves that we are.  Albert Camus knew this, which might be why he wrote his story, La Chute or The Fall, in 1957.  It is the story of the principle character named Jean-Baptiste, literally, John the Baptist.  He is a lawyer who works defending the poor and the indigent.  He is a gentleman in Paris, who sees himself as a fine man, a good man.  He is proud of the reputation he has built.  Then one evening he heard the sound of laughter behind him.  He turned around, but no one was there.  It seemed to Jean-Baptiste the laughter of judgment, as if someone, perhaps God, was laughing at his pretensions of how good a man he was.  The laughter haunted him; he could not escape it; it made him question everything about who he really was – not the image, but the real man inside.  He begins to realize what a hypocrite, what a play actor he has become.  He realized that whenever he helped a blind man across the street, he would tip his hat to him.  Obviously, the hat tipping was not intended for him, since the blind one could not even see it.  “To whom was it addressed?” he asks himself with scorching honesty.  “To the public.  After playing my part, I would take a bow.”  And so, he gets honest, brutally honest with himself.  What begins for Jean-Baptiste as a trivial incident, leads him to see who he really is.  “I was always bursting with vanity.  I, I, I is the refrain of my whole life, which could be heard in everything I said.”

            This is the gift that John the Baptist bears for us on our way to Bethlehem.  He offers us the chance to get honest with ourselves – to face how deeply enmeshed in our own sins and self-centeredness we all of us are.  John gives us the chance to repent.  That is what most of us miss about John, why we try to ignore him, and ignore or lie to ourselves about our own lives.  What we miss, besides the exquisite freedom that coming clean, that being truthful with yourself always gives, is the Good News inherent in John’s Bad News.  John really believes we can do better.  He believes we can change.  He believes we can repent, and bear fruit worthy of repentance.  John is not cynical about human beings – in fact he is quite hopeful.  When he is asked three times, by tax collectors and soldiers, by the crowds, “What should we do?” – John gives concrete answers.  “Share,” he says.  “If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have any.”  Be generous.  “Be fair.”  Don’t gouge people.  Charge them what is fair, what is lawful.  And be content with what you have – “be satisfied with your wages.”  Forrest Church would say, “Want what you have.”

            John believed we could change… (that is why he cried, “Repent!”), but the real change would come from the inside out, from the One who was to come after him, who was more powerful, “the thong of whose sandals he was not fit to untie.”  John humbles himself before the Savior who is to come, as we wisely do as well.  In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist says, “I must decrease; He must increase.”  This is a good word for all of us to take to heart.

“O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;

cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell;

O come to us; abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!”



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