“So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people.” Good news. Good tidings. Do you think John broke into cheerful song when he was finished preaching? Humming, then singing: Good tidings we bring to you and your kin, . . . good tidings for Christmas and a happy new year. ???
Not likely. Not following that sermon. In John’s preaching, there was no joke to loosen up the crowd. No personal anecdote or parable to get their attention. He just got right down to business, with words that, frankly, curl my teeth: “You brood of vipers!” he shouted. “You bunch of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” he thundered. “Don’t just talk about repentance – DO something to turn your life around. And if you don’t, then watch out: because the one who is coming after me is coming with a pitchfork to separate the wheat from the chaff. That means he’s gonna separate those of you who are actually doing the right thing from those of you who are just trying to look the part or go through the motions. If you’re just talking the talk without actually walking the walk, you’re gonna get tossed . . . and toasted.” Doesn’t sound much like good news, does it?
Except that it is. John’s message is good news because it means that we are capable of change. We can be different. We can be better – more the way God intended us to be – by turning away from our own self-interest and instead turning our attention toward the needs of others. Repentance is getting our nose out of our navel and looking around toward God and neighbor. If you have two coats, share with someone who has none. Because life is about more than your comfort. If you have plenty of food, share with those who don’t have enough. Because it’s not all about your belly being full. If you’re a tax collector, don’t skim off the top, (even though it was legally acceptable to do so in those days) – but still, John said to the tax collectors, charging more is your gain, but it’s someone else’s loss. And it’s not all about you. If you’re a soldier, or anyone in a position of power for that matter, don’t use your status and authority to take advantage of someone else. It’s not all about you. It’s not all about you. Or me. And the good news is that we are capable of changing to reflect that truth. But the better news is that, just as it’s not all about us, it’s also not all up to us. We don’t have to change on our own.
A change of heart is the message of John the Baptist. And it’s also the message that Charles Dickens tried to communicate in his classic tale “A Christmas Carol.” Old Ebenezer Scrooge was the epitome of navel-gazing, self-interest. He underpaid and overworked his employees, while he himself became quite rich. He was totally uninterested in relationships with his family, preferring to keep to his humbug self. And when charity collectors approached him, saying, “At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge, . . . it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.” Scrooge retorted:
“Are there no prisons?”
“Plenty of prisons.”
“And the Union workhouses,” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“Both very busy, sir . . .”
“Those who are badly off must go there.
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
It’s hard to imagine a person more in need of a change of heart than Ebenezer Scrooge. And yet he did change – did a complete 180 and became the very spirit of generosity. But he did not change without help – the help of the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. And while we may not have the same fictional spirits to help us change, we have the very real help of the Holy Spirit. God would not require God’s people to change without giving us help in doing so. That help is ours through the power of the Holy Spirit.
So the good news is that we can change. We can learn that it’s not all about us. The better news is that it’s not all up to us. We have the help of the Holy Spirit. And the best news of all is that it is all about the one whose coming we celebrate at this time of year. Our life, both now and in the world to come, is all about him: his love for us, and spreading outward from us to meet the needs of all of God’s children; his forgiveness when we forget to keep the focus outward rather than inward; his peace in our hearts, when we realize that we’re never alone. God is with us.
John’s preaching, though harsh was ultimately good news: because the one for whom John the Baptist was preparing the way was and is the one who brings love, forgiveness, and peace. Singing: Good tidings we bring to you and your kin, good tidings for Christmas and a happy new year.
Come, Lord Jesus. And come, Holy Spirit, to change our hearts, to open them even wider, and to turn us always and ever toward the growing light of Jesus Christ, our Lord.