Filed under: Sermons | Tags: depression, gospel, hope, judgment, new life
Well, people of God, I’m a little confused by our text, because it calls itself something I’m not so sure it is. So I want to know if you’re with me…
Tell me- What’s good news to you?
Maybe a friend getting new job? Or a baby being born? Or a positive review or good grade?
Good news, to my ears, doesn’t sound much like John the Baptist’s tirade.
Yet that’s what the gospel calls it. The closing of our gospel reads, “So, with many other exhortations, (John) proclaimed the good news to the people.”
But all those exhortations- everything that comes before this closing verse – sounds a lot more like bad news- than good! At the minimum, it’s hard news to hear.
“You brood of vipers!” John shouts. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” He continues on and on- and all I can imagine is a crazy guy shouting and pointing fingers.
It might be like me standing up here, saying, “You nest of hornets! What got you up this morning? Are you here to make yourself look good? Wanting to be sure you’re on God’s good side, just in case this God stuff really is true? Since when did you care about anything besides yourselves? Thought you’d be good because you’re baptized? Still living any which way that feels good, thinking you’re safe because you call yourself a Christian? Buzzing around like you’re busy with God’s work? You’re not fooling anyone- God knows who you really are. God’s made plenty more faithful than you. What does God need you and all your good intentions for- I don’t think you’re going to make the cut.”
Um… is that good news?
Is that the good news that God sent a messenger to proclaim?
My mother grew up in a church that preached more hellfire and brimstone that she’s heard since in an ELCA congregation. She left that church because of the focus on judgment and fear and punishment. That’s not the good news of God through Jesus. It’s not something any of us would choose to hear.
But maybe, sometimes, judgment is the prelude that brings us into the song of life. We can need the shock of cold water to wake us up.
There’s this inertia to life. We start living a certain way and it becomes a habit and then it’s hard to question it and hard to stop.
Think about the way you eat. I always grew up with a focus on sitting down together as a family, and always thought that would be the way I live life. But then came the kids, and I’m running to feed them before they cry, or to grab the baby’s plate the minute she’s done, before she throws it on the floor… and I end up not eating, or eating later, and certainly not often enough eating the healthy food I intend to eat. Or there’s one meeting or another between the two of us adults and we end up having more conversation over toothpaste than dinner. So, little by little your intentions for a good life are eroded by an unintended way of life. But it’s not a way of living that’s any different from anyone else’s struggle, so it becomes normal. Then one day you come to a point where nothing feels right- about your priorities and your relationships – any more.
Think of the way Thanksgiving has developed, with Black Friday sales creeping in to Thursday. You wonder if we’ve really messed up when a day of gratitude is transformed into a day of discontented greed.
We all can name that life doesn’t seem right, but it can be difficult to name what it is that has to change, and even more difficult to change that habit.
John the Baptist calls the people names and tells them they’re in trouble. This isn’t really bad news, because it’s something they know. It’s the reason they’ve travelled out to see him. They know life isn’t right. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t look right. But it’s the way everyone else is living and the way everyone else is expecting them to live, and they just can’t get their minds around how to change it.
They’re not the only ones who are realizing that their lifestyle isn’t sustainable. Today, we can come to see our way of life isn’t working. What’s it for you? Where are you stuck in a rut? When have you been looking for fulfillment and not getting filled?
The good news is that there’s a way out. There is life. It comes only after God confronts you and shows you that the only life-giving option goes through the ultimate life-giver. Jesus is so ready and willing to give you the life you need.
But first comes the hard news: It’s not about you. The path to true life opens in front of those who stop seeking themselves.
John’s life changing message is the preparation for the fulfillment of the good news. There’s more to come, but it’s going to be Jesus who brings that in. John’s got his role to play. Jesus is going to be even better for us.
A wake up call has a purpose. It gets you ready to go in to the rest of your day, but it’s not like you have an alarm buzzing every five minutes! No one could function like that.
In my day, there’s only certain times I set multiple alarms- when something really important is coming up. There’s been a couple days when I’ve gotten the “World’s worst Mom” award, arriving so late to pick up Laila from school that I have to go in and find her waiting, head down, abandoned, in the office. Feeling that guilt has led me to try to change my actions, so I’ve now set at least three alarms over the course of 15 minutes to remind me that nothing else in that moment is as important as my little girl. These alarms are a signal to prepare myself for the action I need to take for the sake of another. Because without those warnings, I’m too caught up in myself- and it sometimes takes me ten minutes to tear myself away from the object of my focus.
There might come a day when I become more used to this schedule, when only one alarm will be enough to remind me of the time.
But until I’m trained into that schedule, I need all the wake up calls I can get.
John functions as the wake up call to all of us who are too caught up in ourselves. His teaching trains us toward a new focus. John calls us to examine the way we live in relationship with other people. Then he tells us to take action.
Do things that retrain you away from selfishness. Look at your stuff, you have too much, give half of it away. That’s John’s generic message, but then he names groups of hated people- tax collectors, soldiers- and he has a message of change for them. Unspoken is the message to those who have been oppressed by these groups, but John has a point for them as well: maybe you’ve never had enough, you’ve hated those who have power over you and have taken what little you have. It’s understandable that you’d have no love for those who have made you suffer. Well, now they’re going to be a part of your community, and it’s up to you to love them into a new way of living.
Hard news. Good news.
God confronts us as we coast contentedly through mediocre lives. Wake up. Get ready. Jesus is coming. Jesus is going to pull you from self-centeredness and stick you in community with people you don’t like. Jesus is going to work like fire, consuming ways of life that aren’t life giving, making room for new habits and relationships. The Christian message, the good news, isn’t the same as a self-help book. This is radical and difficult and driven by God. Through the discomfort of confronting the real news about yourself, God will bring you to the good news.
We need to be mindful of the differences between a discontent that grows out of looking for the meaning and life that only God can offer, and other feelings of unease. One closely related feeling is what is sometimes called the dark night of the soul, when we hunger spiritually and feel that there is no longer nourishment for us in the spiritual practices through which we once strongly felt God’s presence. It can feel like God has suddenly gone silent. During such a time, we need to continue to search for God, trusting that God is with us, engaging in both our regular ways of connecting with God and in new ways, pressing on in trust that God will see us through this time of testing and growth.
Feelings of depression and meaninglessness, while they can have a spiritual side, also need to be explored and healed with the support of those God has called into the medical and psychological fields. No matter how much we want to wake up and live in a way freed from depression and anxiety, this can’t be done alone, we need God, and the professionals God has blessed us with, in order to live into our best selves. Any one of us can find ourselves trapped by forces that close our ears to God’s love, to the community’s love, and to hope for life. But nothing, not even death, takes us away from Jesus.
Jesus is transforming us, in this life, and in the life to come. Jesus is moving us into a life that is centered on his love, turned towards God in praise and neighbor in service. Jesus is bringing us from death into life, and the life Jesus places us into will never be taken away. John’s harsh words prepare us to welcome the good news of new life in Jesus.
Jesus has come to bring you into new life, a life that is focused on God, is lived with love for all, and answers the needs of others. This is a life of meaning and purpose, within the great purpose of God, who is working to renew all things. You are being called into something greater than yourself. This is the good news. And the hard news.
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