Intro: John the Baptist is a figure that captures my imagination: before the television reality show Survivor – here is the original winner of survivor. He lives off the land – by eating wild honey and insects. He sleeps in caves and dresses in animal skins. And he preaches the Word of the Lord in the desert.
What is surprising is that people arrive to listen to him:
They have to travel 45 miles east of Jerusalem – and this is not welcoming terrain: To the east the city looks down on the Dead Sea and across the Jordan River to the arid mountains of Moab. And there at the river in the wilderness, is a preacher who looks like a Wildman. Why would anyone go to listen to him:
Luke gives us a clue: 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
John preaches Good News. And the people are in desperate need of Good News – because they lived very difficult lives: here are people taxed by a Roman oppressor, and taxed again by the temple leadership. Here are people who are trapped in the political schemes of King Herod (who is a local tyrant), and Joseph Ben Caiaphas the Chief Priest (and an astute politician), and Pontius Pilate, the Roman authority.
And John is preaching Good News at the river. And at this point we discover John teaching an important thing about good news – John says that we cannot get to the good news by ignoring the bad news. John speaks of the difficult things of life: He speaks of some people having more than they need while others have nothing; he notes tax collectors extorting the people, and soldiers using their military domination to rob people. And he tells them to change their ways:
"Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." 12 … tax collectors: "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." 14 Soldiers: "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
This is absolutely not how our culture works: we live in a world that likes to speak of the good things: this is the season of a “Jolly, holly Christmas” and “ merry festive greetings”. And in order to have a Happy Holiday - we resolutely ignore the bad stuff. This is even more pronounced here in the mid-west: what is called “Midwest niceness”. Be nice and sweep the bad stuff under the carpet. John teaches us something different.
1. Speaking about Good News does not deny the bad news.
John does deny the bad news. But, says John, there is Good News, because Christmas is coming. Well he does not say it like that : here are his actual words: One more powerful than I is coming: Jesus is on his way.
We live is a culture that has been persuaded to think that in order to be happy – we must not speak about the difficulties: not so says John: name the difficult stuff, and then discover that God is with us. Let me be clear: God does not take the difficult stuff away. Far too many preachers seem to suggest that following Jesus means that we will not have any more difficult stuff in our lives. God does not save us from our mistakes, or our stupidity. And God does not prevent the challenging stuff coming our way. But here is the Good News: God accompanies us through the difficult stuff to the other side. And for this reason we can speak about the Bad News and ask God to be with us and help us turn Bad News into Good News.
2. Speaking of Good News offers an opportunity for a New Beginning
John is preaching at the Jordan river: he could have chosen to preach in Jerusalem – but instead he travels 45 miles East to the Jordan River. This is a significant place: because he is preaching at the place where the children of Israel had crossed this River to enter their promised land 1000 years earlier. And John is inviting the nation to begin again. In essence he is saying: “Come and cross the Jordan again. Come to the river and start over. Be baptised as if you were not born Jewish – and cross the river into your promised land.” This is the good news says John: you can begin again. And at this point John helps us all to understand that in order for Good News to happen – we must speak about the bad news: The Word of God for those who have become accustomed to living unaccountable lives:
In a sentence: Do not use your power to make yourselves rich at the expense of others. If you have more clothes than you need and see someone who has nothing - then share what you have so that you both have enough. Do not use you position in government to get rich off the poor; and if you are in the military – do not use military office to get advantage for yourself.
Here is the Good News, says John: if you live your lives generously, and with compassion for the weak and the poor – you will discover that God is with you. In the light of this I invite us to expect Good News this Christmas.
Too often in our lives, we don’t expect Good News. Yet here we are, invited to not only know there is Good News intended for us – but invited to participate in it. We are invited to live with a sense of expectation: to shout aloud because our God is with us. We have a Christmas word for this: Emmanuel – “God is with us”. This is the core truth of Christmas – that God has come to live with us: and it is this that will lead us to reform our selfish ways in preparation of the coming of the Lord. We are to share our hearts and lives with one another, to show love and kindness to all people, and in so doing to become the Good News of Christmas. I close with the example of someone who made the presence of God visible around him:
José Mujica, was the President of Uruguay between 2010-15. He chose to live on his modest farm instead using the majestic Presidential residence, and drove his old car instead of using a Presidential cavalcade. Because of his simple living, he became become a topic of discussion around the world during his tenure as President.
But here is my point: he understood what he needed for his life: and so donated around 90 percent of his $12,000 a month salary to charities that benefited poor people and small entrepreneurs.
The joy and love of Christmas come alive in our acts of generous kindness. I am inviting us to be God’s sign of Christmas in our community.