Bad News

[[This sermon was given at Union Grove United Methodist Church, where I am currently serving as a pastoral intern. It was the Third Sunday of Advent.]]

Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust and not be afraid,
For the LORD GOD is my strength and my might;
God has become my salvation.

With joy you will draw from the wells of salvation.
And you will say on that day:
Give thanks to the LORD;
Call on God’s name;
Make known God’s deeds among the nations;
Proclaim that God’s name is exalted.

Sing praises to the LORD,
For God has done gloriously;
Let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O Royal Zion,
For great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Isaiah 12:2-6

“You brood of vipers!” 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 fruit worthy of repentance. Don’t BEGIN to tell yourselves, ‘But we have Abraham as our ancestor!’ No, I tell you, God could raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now, the ax is at the root of the trees; Every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit, it’s cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“What should we do?” the crowds asked him.
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none,” John said. “And whoever has food must do likewise.”
Even the tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked John, “Teacher, what should we do?”
“Collect no more than the amount you are supposed to,” John said.
Soldiers also asked John, “And we, what should we do?”
“Don’t extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations,”
John said. “And be satisfied with your wages.”
The people were filled with anticipation, and they were wondering in their hearts about John. Could he be the Christ?
John answered them all, “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 with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.

Luke 3:7-18

That is such an odd way to end this passage. “John proclaimed the good news to the people.” He starts out by saying, “You brood of vipers!” He warns them with violent images: “the ax is at the root of the trees,” “every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” and “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

“John proclaimed the good news to the people.”

What about any of this passage is good news? It may be news, but I’m not sure that it’s good news.

But maybe it’s all about how we’re seeing things. Maybe it’s all about our viewing angle. Maybe it’s about where we’re sitting. Maybe we can’t see the good news, because we’re so distracted, preoccupied, and – sadly – maybe even … fascinated with the bad news.

Bad news works that way sometimes. Sometimes, we can’t look away. Maybe it’s on the side of the road, on front page of the newspaper, or plastered in wall-to-wall coverage on television and network news. Sometimes, we just can’t see past the bad news. We become so preoccupied with one event or another that no good news can get through. An evil fascination grips us, because the bad news is … captivating. Sometimes, we can only seem to focus on the bad news. Eventually, the Bad News consumes our minds and it’s the only thing we think about. The Bad News comes to dominate our thoughts, dictate our actions, and control everything we do. Because sometimes, the Bad News drowns out everything else.

We’ve been watching this exact process unfold the past few weeks. First, we all watched in horror the attacks in Paris one month ago today. The confusion and terror was overwhelming: bombs, hostage situations, and mass shootings. We were glued to our screens, desperate to see it all end, but the attacks just kept coming and coming.

Six or seven attacks later, Paris was in chaos and so were we. As details began to trickle out about ISIS’s role in the attacks, the Bad News gripped us like few things have in recent years. After days of not being able to look away from the carnage in Paris, we couldn’t see past the Bad News. We became so preoccupied with it, that we started making wild accusations about refugees. We said we wouldn’t take them in, we’d turn them away. We’d subject them to anything from a religious test to an internment camp.

We just couldn’t let Paris happen here.

Then, San Bernardino happened. Just as we started to calm down, just as we started to see more clearly, just as we started to wrangle ourselves out of the grip of Bad News, San Bernardino happened. It happened here. But it wasn’t refugees. It wasn’t the people we wanted to turn away. It was some of us, people who live here. So instead of seeing the situation with the nuance it required, we panicked. Instead of shutting off the flow of refugees, more drastic measures came to the table. Bad News had us in its sinister grip again.

Bad News had us right where it wanted us. Instead of blaming refugees, we started blaming an even larger group. Donald Trump suggested banning Muslims from traveling into the United States. This coming on the heels of lies about thousands of Muslims celebrating 9/11 in Jersey City. And we believed Donald Trump. To various degrees, even if we said the way he put it was wrong, or he had the specifics wrong, we didn’t, in our heart of hearts, really disagree. Why? Because Bad News has us in its clutches and won’t let go.

John the Baptist, I think, was meeting people caught in the grip of Bad News, too. Lest we forget, John was baptizing people in the same wilderness where Jesus will be tempted. I’d say there was something in the air out there, but people with all sorts of temptations were coming to John from the city, too. They faced the same sort of temptations that Bad News always brings. Bad News plays on our fears. Bad News works best when we are our most afraid. Bad News convinces us that safety and security are the most important goods in a world bent on our own destruction. Bad News tempts us with security through possessions, security through excessive profit, and even security through blunt power, even violence.

John confronted each of these temptations in this passage. When the crowd first asked him, “What should we do?” he responded by saying, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none. And whoever has food must do likewise.” One of the ways we think we make ourselves safer is through stockpiling our possessions. We gather enough to our names that we have a substantial cushion that can withstand any disaster. It doesn’t matter that our neighbor is naked or hungry, we have to take care of ourselves. It’s the only way we can be safe, to have two cloaks and a whole lot of food. This was how we responded to the refugees. We kept ourselves safe by tightening our borders, minding our own house. We put on two cloaks over the United States to hoard our abundance of food. We believed the Bad News that said two cloaks will keep us safe, and we don’t have to share our food with anyone, because anyone could be an enemy.

When the tax collectors came to John and asked him, “What should we do?” he responded by saying, “Collect no more than the amount you are supposed to.” One of the ways we think we make ourselves safer is by amassing greater and greater wealth. We imagine that if we just have enough money, we will be secure. To get that money, we take it from those who have little – it’s too hard to take it from those who have much. Those who have money make sure they can always get more; those who don’t have it, too often have no way to get what they need. We justify it by saying the system keeps us safe. The system works, it benefits everyone, if they work hard enough, they can be safe just like me. We believed the Bad News that said we have to collect more than we need, because that will keep us safe.

When the soldiers came to John and asked him, “What should we do?” He responded by saying, “Don’t extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations.” One of the ways we think we make ourselves safe is through naked and blunt power. We imagine that if we have power, no one can stand against us. We believe that if we have more power than the enemy, then we’ll be safe because no one will dare oppose us – and if they do, well, we’ve got the means to deal with it. That’s the rationale behind war, carpet bombing, drone strikes, and even gun laws here at home. We believe that violence and power, threats and intimidation, are the only ways to respond. If we have all these tools of war at our disposal, then we’ll be safe. We believed the Bad News that said if we just have enough power, we can be safe.

John rejects the lies of Bad News. John says to give away the cloak, give away the food. John says to collect enough money to take care of yourself and let that be enough. John says to let go of threats of power, to be satisfied with what we have. John rejects the Bad News. This rejection of Bad News can seem so radical to us that it doesn’t make any sense. That’s how powerful the Bad News is. Anything that goes against it seems ridiculous. This rejection of Bad News can seem so radical to us, that we assign it only to those truly holy followers of Jesus, saints and such. That’s how powerful the Bad News is. Going against it is impossible. This rejection of Bad News is so profound and radical, that people thought John was the Messiah! That’s how powerful the Bad News is – only the Messiah can do it!

But wait, we might be onto something there. What does John say next? Why doesn’t he believe the Bad News? What makes John so different? “I baptize you with water,” John said. “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 with fire.”

John believed in a power greater than the Bad News. John believed in a power greater than fear. John believed in a power greater than all the lies Bad News wanted him to believe. The passage we read from Isaiah speaks to that truth:

“Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and I will not be afraid,
For the LORD GOD is my strength and my might;
God has become my salvation.”

Isaiah bids us not to trust the weapons Bad News promises will keep us safe. God is our salvation, not possessions, wealth, or power. God is our strength and our might – no weapons of war can take God’s place.

“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation,
And you will say on that day:
Give thanks to the Lord,
Call on God’s name;
Make known God’s deeds among the nations;
Proclaim that God’s name is exalted!”

This isn’t the story Bad News tells. If Bad News had its way, we wouldn’t tell the stories of what God has done. Those stories are dangerous, because they show the Bad News to be false. If we want to escape the death-grip of Bad News, we must “draw water from the wells of salvation” and remember God’s faithfulness, remember that God has been faithful and at the end of it all, God will be faithful.

“Sing praises to the LORD,
For God has done gloriously,
Let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
For great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

The writer of Isaiah knows that the Bad News lies. The writer of Isaiah knows that possessions, wealth, and war aren’t solutions to the problems of our world. That’s why elsewhere it is written in Isaiah that this is our hope:

“God will judge between nations,
And will arbitrate for many peoples;
They will beat their swords into ploughshares,
And their spears into pruning-hooks;
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
Neither will they learn war anymore.”

John believed in this hope. John believed that God would work in this way. John’s hope was answered in the one who came after him, Jesus. John’s waiting was answered not with possessions, wealth, or violence, but with the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Now, in Advent, we are reminded that we are waiting, as well. Jesus has already baptized us with the Holy Spirit and with fire, so we wait for his return. In our waiting, we are not called to believe the lies of Bad News. The waiting of Advent is not mere patience, patiently ignoring the Bad News hoping that it will just go away. No, the waiting of Advent is endurance. We must endure the constant lies of the Bad News that calls us to a life other than the one Jesus taught.

I struggle with this. Deep parts of me want to give into the fear and the anger. Significant parts of me stay awake at night wrestling with the tragedy and the violence. Advent’s waiting is not business for the faint of heart. Advent hope is not easy work. The life that Jesus calls us to in Advent is a journey that requires more endurance than patience.

Jesus’s life is the life that gives away the cloak, the food, the money, and the power. That takes courage and guts that are often hard to find. We must endure through the fear Bad News brings up in us. We must have faith in a God that’s more powerful than the Bad News, a God who will return and “clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary,” as John put it, a God who will take up the chaff of Bad News and burn it up with unquenchable fire. We can endure the Bad News because we know the Good News.

We don’t live in a world that God has made perfect, not yet. We don’t live in a world where there are no more tears, no more violence, no more death, not yet. But, as Christians, we know that Jesus assures us that this world is coming. We wait for Jesus, and as John waited for Jesus, we don’t wait for Jesus passively. We don’t wait patiently, we endure faithfully. We live a life of love and charity that seeks to help others whenever possible, love others at all times, and tell others about this good news of a better world, of a coming Messiah. We know that Christ is coming, and that’s all the Good News we need. Amen.

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