Proclaiming the Good News
Sunday, December 12, 2021
Third Sunday of Advent
Proclaiming the Good News
God, our strength and shield, fill us with expectation and joy from the springs of salvation. Let us join in your dance and in your song of love.
7 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? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “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 fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
All readings for this Sunday:
1. What makes news “good”?
2. What good news have you received recently?
3. What good news have you given?
4. What good fruit is needed in the world today?
5. What good manifests from fire?
By Cheryl Lindsay
John the Baptist did not tickle any ears. His preaching was confrontational, direct, and harsh. Greeting the crowd that gathered around him, he calls them a “brood of vipers.” It’s hard to imagine beginning a worship service in a similar way. Most baptisms are happy occasions where friends and family are invited to witness, the baptismal candidates–or their parents–are delighted, and a reception follows to continue the celebration. John’s words resound with warning and border on condemnation.
Why would anyone intentionally seek that out?
In order for crowds to form, the word about John’s teaching and actions must have spread in the region. What was the source of attraction, and who responded so favorably to his message of repentance? We don’t know much detail about the crowds, but two groups get singled out: tax collectors and soldiers. Luke’s gospel points out that the ministry of Jesus (and John) privileged the marginalized and the privileged in society rejected prophets, including John and then Jesus. Tax collectors and soldiers were not esteemed members of society, but they also weren’t marginalized. Misuse of their power ostracizes them from the community, but we cannot assume that John was necessarily directing his ire at them.
Prophets speak truth to power yet both Jesus and John attracted powerful people to their ministry that did not cater to their egos or justify their fortunes. Maybe, the tax collectors and soldiers relished the frank words and wanted to hear the truth. Maybe, they were looking for another way to live and to be. Maybe, they were looking for good news to deliver them from a less than desirable life.
Close examination of their righteous anger reveals that John and Jesus targeted religious hypocrites for close scrutiny and critique. This focus upends the expectations of a people who had expectations of a conquering hero who would overcome the Roman empire and its rule rather than transform the faith community:
“What then should we do?” they ask (Luke 3:10). This is John’s cue to describe various acts of repentance. For average people, these include sharing food and clothing with those who have none. Tax collectors should gather their quota and no more; soldiers should not abuse their authority (Luke 3:11-14). The presence of tax collectors and soldiers, however, is a cause for some concern. Tax collectors, who diverted Israel’s wealth to its Roman overlords, were among the most notorious Jewish sinners. Soldiers presumably were Roman soldiers—the very Gentile occupiers that the Messiah was meant to have dashed in pieces like a potter’s vessel. What are they doing among the crowds baptized by John? According to Luke, such people are included in God’s plan of salvation, even from its very beginning in John’s ministry. (Jocelyn McWhirter)
According to Luke, no one is excluded from participating in God’s redemption and restoration. It is surprising that the account whose genealogy of Jesus goes back to the first humans would express an expansive gospel reach? Inclusion in the ministry of good news invites all of creation to reconnect and to recommit to the Creator. For John, becoming children of the covenant (established with Abraham) is a matter of heart and fruit not bloodlines and family tree.
Only those who welcome God’s gracious saving initiative belong in the people being newly formed and re-formed by God. [10–14] In an expansion of the scene that appears only in Luke, John now illustrates what the “fruits worthy of repentance” look like, as he receives three groups (crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers) that come to him with the same question: “What should we do?”…. Performance matters; forgiveness that comes with repentance must lead to action. John instructs the crowds to share clothing and food with those who lack these necessities (v. 11). Tax collectors and soldiers receive similar charges: they are to deal honestly and justly with others when they might be expected instead to exploit their positions (vv. 13, 14). A community of persons who have received John’s baptism will be marked by compassionate care for the needy and by justice. John may preach in the wilderness, but his message of forgiveness and repentance directs the people back to their homes and villages, restoring authentic community. For the first time in the narrative, tax collectors and soldiers appear, two character groups on the margins of the Jewish community that play important roles in Luke–Acts. (John T. Carroll)
Many people in that crowd were undoubtedly shocked to find their oppressors side by side with them in seeking John’s message and baptism. Some probably assumed that John’s name calling was directed at those powerful people who had tormented so many from their positions of authority with impunity. Yet, they all had the same basic question for John in response to his message of repentance, “What should we do?”
It’s a basic question that reflects uncertainty and even frustration. To admit ignorance makes us vulnerable, it does not make us wrong. Searching for truth becomes an empty exercise if it does not lead to new attitudes and behavior. We live in an era in which information is exceedingly available but the quest is often not for knowledge but for justification of what is already believed whether it is true or not. The question then becomes, “What enables me to validate what I want to do or have done?”
False prophets existed during the era of John the Baptist and Jesus, before them, and still today. Frankly, there are professed Christian leaders who express a faith that does not resemble the good news of Jesus Christ that lifts the lowly and marginalize, that moves with compassion, and that works for the wholeness and welfare of all humanity and creation. Sometimes, that false faith manifests in teaching that is antithetical to the gospel; just as often, it’s realized in actions that perpetuate the brokenness of the world. Even more insidiously, people of faith with the best of intentions can be tempted into self-righteousness that blocks our empathy and justifies it by their behavior rather than interrogating our own.
There are still tax collectors and soldiers among us who need to be made whole. Oppressors are broken people. Jesus commands us to love our enemies; it’s an act of mutual benefit. Hate has never healed anything. Love builds bridges, dismantles systems, and creates balms for healing. That table the psalmist references in Psalm 23 is not a boasting place but a launching place for communication, reconciliation, and communion. The oppressed and oppressors both found room in the crowd to hear the good news that John proclaimed. Are we, the church, creating those spaces today?
Are we countering cultural trends that increasingly move us into our own silos? Do our messages offer as much open for redemption to the oppressor as to the oppressed? Is our proclamation cultivating transformation in those who encounter it?
The gospel has the power to change lives…when we greet it with expectation. John called upon the people to repent–to redirect themselves toward God. They, in turn, asked him what that looked like for themselves. John then provides very specific and tangible ways for them to live differently and to live faithfully:
John does not state that radical change is necessary for individuals and communities to experience God’s justice. These are actually small, everyday things that can be done. This is seemingly modest transformation–share; don’t abuse power. Yet these acts can help to issue justice in the world. (Monica A. Coleman)
There was corruption in the world of John the Baptist, and there is corruption in our world today. Repentance is still in order. Power consistently generates the worst impulses in humanity. Feelings of helplessness can do the same. How many of our faith communities ponder the condition of our nation and world with a sense of inevitability? How many of us ask, in light of the enormity of problems we face, what can we do to change it?
Part of the good news is that none of us is expected to change the whole world on our own. We are called to change ourselves. When we do what we should do, share the gifts we have, treat others right, and moderate our use of power for the common good, we have done what we can. Those simple actions can transform our communities and ultimately save a world.
The crowd heard John’s message and recognized the truth in its simplicity. That didn’t make his admonitions easy, but they were accessible, contextual, and reachable. It made them wonder if John was the Chosen One. John clarifies that he is not that one but is pointing toward the Messiah. His comparison of his ministry to the promise of Jesus reflects humility and is distinctive but also demonstrates grace. John is human just like those in the crowd. John needs Jesus just like those in the crowd. John is filled with expectation…just like those in the crowd. If John can commit to this life, then so can they. His ministry is also his testimony. His prophetic teaching comes from lessons he had to learn himself. He does not hover over them but speaks from among the crowd. Having received and believed the good news himself, John was compelled to share it. And so should we.
“What then should we do?” We might ask that same question today? What should we do when asylum seekers still get turned away from the border? What should we do when income inequality continues as the gap between rich and poor gets wider and wider? What should we do when gun violence terrorizes more and more communities? What should we do when people of color continue to be demonized? What do we do with a virus that seems more resilient than we are? What do we do when faced with the enormity of the problems of the world and our own communities?
We do what we can. We share our resources and act out of the will of God for all of humanity and all of creation to be well and whole. As the writings of the Talmud exhort us, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Proclaim the good news.
Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study. For the season of Advent 2021, these passages/pericopes were curated by Rev. Mark Koyama and Harriet Ward:
Nikki-Rosa Nikki Giovanni
childhood remembrances are always a drag
if you’re Black
you always remember things like living in Woodlawn
with no inside toilet
and if you become famous or something
they never talk about how happy you were to have
all to yourself and
how good the water felt when you got your bath
from one of those
big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in
and somehow when you talk about home
it never gets across how much you
understood their feelings
as the whole family attended meetings about Hollydale
and even though you remember
your biographers never understand
your father’s pain as he sells his stock
and another dream goes
And though you’re poor it isn’t poverty that
and though they fought a lot
it isn’t your father’s drinking that makes any difference
but only that everybody is together and you
and your sister have happy birthdays and very good
and I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy
For further reflection:
“The good news is as epic as it gets, with universal theological implications, and yet the Bible tells it from the perspective of fishermen and farmers, pregnant ladies and squirmy kids. This story about the nature of God and God’s relationship to humanity smells like mud and manger hay and tastes like salt and wine…It is the biggest story and the smallest story all at once–the great quest for the One Ring and the quiet friendship of Frodo and Sam.” ― Rachel Held Evans
“The good news is: you cannot lose the truth. You cannot mess it up or miss your chance or bury the lede about what’s right for you down to your toes. The truth will go on being true, whether you want it to or not. Your only choice lies in whether or not you will meet it there.” ― Heide Priebe
“When the essence of the gospel is stripped down to the afterlife or to a glorious but strictly individual personal decision of faith, it’s not what Jesus described as the good news about his kingdom come. And predictably, there’s no real urgency to see our lives oriented toward a more loving and just way of being in the world. (…) At the core of the gospel, then, is the “making right” of all things through Jesus.” ― Rich Villodas
A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (email@example.com), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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