Friday, December 18, 2009

Advent Lessons: Good News

The Gospel of Luke paints a very vivid picture of John the Baptist's preaching. Luke portrays John as a bit of a firebrand, calling the people a "brood of vipers" who were in dire need of repentance. All in all, it's a pretty serious and heavy message, and John doesn't pull any punches. He tells the crowd that Jesus is coming to gather the wheat into the barn, but he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. After relating this dire warning, Luke writes, "And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them." On the surface, John's message may not look like very good news. He's basically telling everyone that if they don't shape up, they're going to be in big trouble. Jesus is coming to clean house, so they'd better make sure they're on the right side or else. To the casual listener, that probably sounds more like a threat than gospel.

The truth is that God's message of love is inside John's preaching, but we have to pay attention in order to see it. Inside all that doom and gloom are several bits of good news:
  • God is going to clean up the mess. He's going to gather in the wheat and burn the chaff. He's going to get rid of that which does not bear fruit. Paul's letters address the idea of a purifying fire that will cleanse us of all unrighteousness. As Christians, John's words are not so much a threat of damnation as they are a notice that God is going to clean out all the bad stuff in our lives. The more we repent, the easier we will make the refining process on ourselves. If we corrupt ourselves until nothing but evil is left, we could be utterly consumed. But when we repent, we are forgiven through Jesus and we are purged of all the sins that plague us, leaving righteousness and unfettered joy behind. If we are willing to submit to Jesus, we can be made wheat instead of chaff, and this is a very good thing.
  • Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John is telling us we need to repent, but we don't have to do it alone. God is providing the tools and the strength we need to become better people. We are incapable of adequate repentance when we're on our own, but with the help of the Holy Spirit we can be reformed. Jesus is not just a judge—He is also a redeemer who enables us to receive salvation.
  • Being children of Abraham won't win us salvation. That's especially welcome news to people who aren't descendants of Abraham. John is introducing the radical idea that being right with God is about more than performing rituals or being born into the right family. We are justified through our redemptive relationship with Jesus, and that relationship is available to everyone. We don't have to be in the right place at the right time or pass a complicated test, but that also means that we can't rely on such arbitrary things to save us. We have to have a real and meaningful relationship with God, and that will take some effort and commitment on our parts. Still, God wants to have that relationship with us, and that's incredibly good news.
  • We need to start treating each other better. John tells the people to share more and to stop cheating each other. We don't get to be so selfish, but that means that maybe we won't be victimized as often either. John is not only encouraging us to be nice to people—he's also encouraging other people to be nice to us. If preparing for Jesus means embracing justice and generosity, then Jesus' world is certainly going to be a happier place for everyone. 
Sometimes we are like a brood of vipers, but the point is that Jesus is going to make us better. We might be terrible sinners sometimes, but it's good news that God cares enough to send someone to tell us to repent. Jesus is offering us salvation, so it's fantastic that John came to tell us about him, even if he had to use really strong language to get our attention. Luke quotes Isaiah's prophecy about John and Jesus, saying, "All mankind will see God's salvation." Honestly, that's the best news that any Christian can hope for.

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