Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18
So, with many other exhortations, [John the Baptist] proclaimed the good news to the people.
Good news? What good news? Has Luke read what he’s just written? This good news includes John the Baptist calling his listeners a brood of vipers, talking of the wrath to come, saying that the axe is at the root of the trees ready to swing, that the unfruitful will be burnt in fire, and that the one who is coming will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. This sounds a long way from good news. It sounds rather closer to the religious excesses which led to some very bad news with which we are all too familiar this year, from Syria to San Bernardino.
Yet the church often does speak against things believing it is sharing good news. It is instructive to consider what the world believes about the church. Given the amount of time spent arguing about things, you could hardly blame people for thinking the church was a pressure group set up to be against gay marriage, condoms to stop the spread of AIDS, the equality of women, believers in other religions, unbelievers in any religion, dancing, drinking, sex and fun. As William Blake pointed out: As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys. The church can be a good hater.
I’m not going to defend the church issue by issue here. But on the other hand, I don’t want to say that Luke, or John the Baptist, got this completely wrong. In fact, John the Baptist did proclaim good news, and the Church does believe in it – it’s just that what gets said and what gets heard tends to be one particular rather unpleasant end of the news, which, on its own, is not good at all.
But listen more closely to John’s words. What does he speak against?
v. 8 A smugness that says we have inherited our righteousness; we can do what we like.
v. 11 The hoarding of possessions, of food – when a neighbour has nothing.
v. 13 The stealing of money in the name of the authorities.
v. 14 The stealing of money by instilling fear.
This is a prophetic tradition which is good news for the oppressed, a courageous speaking out to those in power on behalf of the vulnerable, the outsider, the poor, the weak. This is a voice which Christians and the church should adopt, facing up to the bullies in the world of politics to hideous popularity contests, from those who would exclude Muslims from a country, to those who would exclude someone from a group of friends. But it may not seem like good news to all. As Kierkegaard noticed, To the frivolous Christianity is certainly not glad tidings, for it wishes first of all to make them serious. If anyone frivolous came out to see John the Baptist at the Jordan, they’d pretty quickly realise it was time to get serious.
I’m not sure that the publishing of the Examination Timetable in the University is necessarily seen as good news. Just as in John the Baptist’s examination, it’s about judgment. John calls people for examination, under various metaphors drawn from nature – Are you trees which bear good fruit? Are you wheat or chaff? The University calls students forward for examination, judging your knowledge, memory, fluency, power of expression, and speed of thought.
Yet I think this image of exams may give us a clue into a fuller understanding of good news. For the University does not examine students in a vacuum, as if it is an institution whose only purpose is to judge, classify and dispatch young people into an indebted future. Rather the University’s purpose is to educate, to form people, to teach students how to read, think, hypothesise and write. The judgment of exams is an integral part of that formation of the whole person, who learns, grows, changes and emerges, breaking through the bubble into the new atmosphere outside.
So too the Christian faith does not teach that God examines human beings in a vacuum, as if his only purpose is to judge, classify and dispatch sinners into a fiery eternity. Rather, God our Creator is intimately involved in his creation, and longs for each person to be formed in his image, able to learn, grow and emerge as one who loves, capable of joy at being part of God’s world. Judgment of us, as we grow, sorting out what is wrong, fostering what is good, by this loving divine presence, is a necessary part of the good news which John pointed to.
Here the Old Testament lesson paired with the reading from Luke according to the Lectionary is instructive. These are the final seven verses of the book of Zephaniah, a work of prophecy which is something of an examination. It begins
I will utterly sweep away everything
and continues in similar vein for the next two and a half chapters.
But in the verses we heard earlier, the time of trial has passed. Judgment has been taken away; disaster has been removed. And why? Because the Lord, your God, is in your midst. The king of Israel is in your midst. And with his presence, the lame are saved, the outcast are gathered in, fortune is restored and fear is no more.
It is no accident that this reading has been chosen during Advent. It is the Christian faith that Zephaniah’s vision, his prophecy and his hope have been made real in Jesus, a human being, historical and vulnerable. In Jesus, we believe, God is in our midst, the King is among us, and that there is no judgment that is not found in him. Pier Francesco Mola’s painting of John the Baptist has him pointing at a small figure in blue. It’s Jesus in the blue. And in pointing, John stands for all the prophetic tradition, the history of the Jews and the Hebrews’ faith. The King is in our midst.
The good news preached by John the Baptist was couched in negative terms, which the Church sometimes copies wrong-headedly and unattractively. But the Baptist called for justice, good news for many but bad tidings for those who oppress. Examination then is part of God’s loving relationship with us, part of how he redeems us, for he longs in love for his creation to be good. The Bible sees this redeeming love as God, the King, in the midst of his people, and we believe that Jesus is the fulfilment of this hope.
The real difficulty in expressing the Christian faith, or trust in Jesus, is that there’s a knife-edge between judgment and love, and it’s nearly impossible to say something that’s not too much on one side or the other. The world hears the church being all about judgment. But I’ve heard too many well-meant sermons on love which don’t seem to realise how deep sin can go. Last week I saw that National Theatre Live production of Jane Eyre. In Charlotte Bronte’s novel she expresses the necessity for love and judgment:
Feeling without judgment is a washy draught indeed; but judgment untampered by feeling is too bitter and husky a morsel for human deglutition. (Which as those taking MD4001 Central Nervous System 1 tomorrow afternoon in the Younger Hall will know, means swallowing.)
For the good news is of love, but it is also of judgment. And the love would not be worthy of the name if it did not judge. And the judgment would be cruel if it were not loving. The Christian who writes about this better than anyone else is Rowan Williams. Some accuse him of obscurity. In fact what they see as obscurity is a courageous attempt to stay on that knife-edge, or rather to gaze at the cross from all sides and not choose one side or the other. In his book The Truce of God, he writes this:
Jesus’ Gospel is not a generalization about the state of things, it does not say, like a fatuous modern formula, that “the universe is fundamentally benevolent.” The Gospel is that Jesus’ God is King, that the source of all things and the meaning of all things is what Jesus called Abba [Father]; that his reign is at hand, that the manifestation of beauty and significance in the world is always possible and always close; and so, that we can live now under the Kingdom, in readiness and hope, alert for the vision of the Father, without abandoning our world or trivializing our history.
That’s not how John the Baptist puts it – indeed I’m not sure he would quite understand it – but it’s what he means. And in his book Resurrection, Williams writes further on the meaning of the gospel:
Human beings long to be reassured that they are innocent… The gospel will not ever tell us we are innocent, but it will tell us we are loved; and in asking us to receive and consent to that love, it asks us to identify with, and make our own, love’s comprehensive vision of all we are and have been.
Making love’s comprehensive vision of all we are and have been our own vision. Good news? Yes – what good news!