The Beginning of the Good News
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) After the month we’ve had, the invitation to rejoice couldn’t come at a better time. By tradition, joy and rejoicing is the tone for this third Sunday of Advent.
For sure, we heard the welcome cry of jubilation from Paris yesterday as nations of the world reached an historic climate change agreement. One commentator said, “This agreement won’t save the planet, not even close. But It’s possible that it saves the chance of saving the planet–if movements push even harder from here on out.” We needed a little good news.
While Americans are once again as afraid of terrorist attacks as they were in the days immediately following 9/11; while our state budget is in crisis; while vital services and programs are cut or ended; while our city is reeling from the American original sin of racism; as a political culture of cover-ups and hypocrisy that runs deep is exposed; and while many of us are trying to cope with our own grief, job losses and financial pressures—we really need of some good news.
Our gospel says John proclaimed good news to the people but John’s fire and brimstone seems a far cry from rejoicing—at least to us. (Luke 3:18) John came preaching a message of challenge and exhortation in a time when the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, his governor Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, and even the high priests Annas and Caiaphas were all part of a unified world order by which the elite, through force and greed, commanded the lion’s share of power and material wealth for themselves. (Kate Huey, Sacred Seeds)
In other words, the people in John’s day needed some good news too. The wrath of John’s axe struck at the root of the whole system, including the reigning religious authorities of the day. John’s message in the wilderness about forgiveness of sins through baptism in the Jordan bypassed the Temple and its elaborate system of atonement run by its powerful priests. It made them unnecessary.
“Rulers like [the high priests] Caiaphas and Annas,” William Herzog writes, “abused their position to increase the debt load on the people of the land. Rather than forgiving debt, they were increasing debt” (New Proclamation 2006).
They held the world upside down. Their abuse of position and power for profit was as common in Jesus time as it is today. (Kate Huey, Sacred Seeds). John’s message was good news. People flocked to the dessert to hear him and be baptized. The world was about to turn.
Dressed in camel’s hair, eating wild locusts and honey, John’s message was just the beginning of the good news. You are baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire. (v.16) The Lord rejoices over you with gladness, he renews you in his love; he exults over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. (Zephaniah 3:17a- 18) In wonder and mystery, grace upon grace is being knit together in you, among you, and through you. In the manger of our faithful hearts Christ will once again be born a child on earth.
Christ is born in us as we embody the hope and grace of Jesus to become a living sanctuary that keeps out the driving rain of fear and the drafty ways of greed that undermine dignity, drain our spirits, and that would make us be human resources rather than human beings. But we are filled with spirit and with fire so that no form of injustice or oppression can stand for long. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees.
Our gospel today is one of a few that specifically address the topic of faith and work. Fifteen centuries before Martin Luther, John the Baptist seems to have promoted the idea that all people, regardless of their job description, can equally be of service to God. Luther taught that all of us have a vocation, or calling, by virtue of our baptism. The theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said Luther’s concept of vocation is “the third great insight of the Lutheran Reformation,” after word and sacrament.
Before Luther, only priests and monks could have a vocation or higher calling. Luther insisted that “[e]very occupation has its own honor before God, as well as its own requirements and duties.” “Just as individuals are different, so their duties are different; and in accordance with the diversity of their callings, God demands diverse works of them.” Luther taught what makes a job into a higher calling is not the money you make or the satisfaction you earn by doing it, but how many people you serve, and how much you help them.
Every task becomes a high calling when we do God’s work with our hands. Every time you welcome a child or a family through our doors is a chance to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace in a weary world that needs it. Each time you help a child with homework, make a gift of food, greet a new parent or caregiver, or give praise to God in song and sacrament is the beginning of the good news for us, and through your hands, our neighborhood and for Edgewater.
By joining faithful hands with our neighbors, at ONE Northside more than a thousand people have homes today who would be homeless this Christmas because the city ordinance we passed a year ago prevented single-room occupancy hotels (SRO’s) from being eliminated.
As the Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne has said, “Prophets and poets lead us into a new world, beyond simply yelling at the old one.” People filled with Spirit and fire fill the weary world with hope. It is the beginning of the good news.
Starting with the Hebrew prophets of old, including a wild-eyed preacher in the wilderness, and all of us today. Because over and over again, the world gets it wrong, we rejoice in the ways God sets it right again. Bullies and terrorists will be defeated by the advent of defiant hope.
What has been born in us is love. Perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love lifts our spirits. Perfect love kindles our joy, and renews our hope. The grace of God has set our life right side up so all the world may enter the kingdom of God, by becoming the kingdom of God. This indeed, is good news.