John The Optimist: When Good News is Hard to Hear (a sermon)

Luke 3:7-18

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? 8Bear 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. 9Even now the axe 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?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers 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, 16John 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. 17His 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.


A few months ago, I lost my driver’s license while on a marathon training run on the lakeshore path. I researched the process to get a new one and learned that because my previous license had been from another state where I was no longer a resident, I would have to take both a written and driving test in order to get a new Illinois driver’s license. I’ve been dragging my feet on this ever since, in part because I don’t have a car so it doesn’t feel urgent. But, if I’m being honest, the real reason I’m dragging my feet has to do with the first time I took a driving test, 13 years ago.

I had dragged my feet then too, so I was nearly 17 when my mom finally took me to the DMV in Atlanta one day after school. When my turn came, the test administrator and I climbed into my mom’s Toyota Camry, and my mom waved goodbye and good luck before going back inside the DMV office to wait for me. After a few parking lot basics, I was instructed to turn onto the major road the DMV was located on. It was rush hour and hectic, and frankly I hadn’t had much practice on busy roads. I nervously steered us along and when the instructor told me to switch into the left lane, I turned on my blinker, took a deep breath, and looked over my left shoulder to find an opening. Meanwhile, my right hand was slowly pulling the steering wheel in the opposite direction.

“Curb,” said the DMV employee. “What?” I asked, turning back to her. And at precisely that moment, the car crashed into and then over the jagged broken curb that lined the road. After correcting the vehicle, I pulled into the nearest parking lot and put on the brakes. It was clear that the car was not okay. In fact, I had completely destroyed both right-side tires and mangled the hubcaps. With very few words exchanged, the test administrator and I left the car behind and walked the few blocks back to the DMV.

When we walked back into the waiting area, my mom looked up at me. Her face was expectant and hopeful. Clearly, she thought this would be one of those joyous milestones of life. I sighed, and said, “Well. I have good news and I have bad news.”

“What’s the good news?” she asked.

“I’m still alive,” I told her, “And I think everything is fixable.”

Her face blanched, the expectant excitement quickly transforming into dread. She didn’t say it aloud, but I could clearly hear the question forming in her mind.

“If that’s the good news, what’s the bad news?”

That is kind of the question I had in mind when I first read through our text for today. After calling his audience a “brood of vipers,” the passionate desert preacher launches into a bold proclamation about bad trees being cut down and bad wheat being burned in an unquenchable fire by the coming messiah. “And so, with many other exhortations,” the scripture tells us, “he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

“That’s the good news?” I want to ask.

I wonder if the people listening to him—those who had gathered to hear this wilderness man give them good news about a coming savior—heard what they expected to hear. I wonder if it sounded like good news to them, or if it twisted their guts a little the way my mom’s gut twisted all those years ago at the DMV. After all, the news John delivers isn’t exactly comforting and it’s bound up with some hard news too.

Even though it calls for a coming savior, it doesn’t seem to be describing the simple, innocent joy of the baby Jesus whose birth we will celebrate in just a few weeks. In fact, John’s calls for repentance seem a little jarring against the backdrop of the Christmas season.

Can I be honest with you? I could use a little uncomplicated good news these days. With so much violence and tragedy, hate and ignorance, discrimination and fear going around in our own country and across the world, the last thing I feel ready for is good news that sounds like a lecture to “be better or burn.”

Indeed, this Christmas season itself seems a little jarring against the backdrop of recent world events and ongoing struggles in our city and beyond. It feels strange and maybe even inappropriate to come together and light candles of hope, peace, and joy, to sing carols and have holiday parties—while outside of these walls friends and strangers suffer. Protestors call for justice. Muslim neighbors fear for their lives. Refugees seek sanctuary on unfriendly shores. And politicians spar over other people’s humanity. With the daily onslaught of negative news, it can be hard to conjure up the real spirit and excitement of this season. And that, in turn, makes it hard to hear words like John’s as comforting good news.

I want good news that makes everything better. I want good news that explains how it’s all going to be okay. I want good news that lets my aching heart rest for just a minute. I’m not ready for calls to repentance and commands about how to act.

In some ways, this Advent and Christmas just feel like they’re coming at the wrong time. And since we’re already waiting, maybe we should wait just a little bit longer and celebrate when there’s less violence and turmoil and more cause for joy—when the world just seems a little bit more ready.

As I was struggling with this very idea this week—struggling with how to bring the good news of Christmas into a hurting and weary world, I stumbled upon a poem by author Madeleine L’Engle. She is best known for her young adult fantasy novels like A Wrinkle in Time, but she was also a devout Christian who often wrote about faith. The poem I discovered was written for Advent and answered the question I didn’t even know my heart was asking. It’s called “First Coming” and this is how it goes:

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

The unexpected gift of this poem helped me remember an important truth. Advent is indeed a season when we wait with great expectation and prepare our hearts as best we can for the coming Christ. Advent is all about waiting, but Christmas is not.  Christmas is about a God who didn’t wait. God didn’t wait until we felt ready or it seemed like the appropriate time. God didn’t wait until we understood. God, frankly, didn’t care about our readiness or our own definitions of “good news” or “savior.”

God just came. Driven by irrepressible and unconquerable love, God came into this world as a tiny Jewish baby and crashed right into the midst of our messy, broken world. We spend Advent waiting and expecting and trying to become ready, but come Christmas Day, God comes to us in a way we could never expect and never be ready for.

John’s good news may not be the kind of good news we expect and it may not be the good news we are ready for, but it is Good News. John proclaims a savior who will come into this world, ready or not. A savior who will not care if we are children of Abraham or what kind of children of Abraham we may be. A savior who, with the sharp edge of unrelenting grace, will cut away all that is broken and harmful within us: our greed and selfishness, our fear and hate—and leave only the best within us behind so that we might become reflections of grace ourselves. A savior who will change us utterly.

A savior who will come not how we expect, but how we need. Who will come right into the very midst of wherever we are, but will not let us stay there. Given where we are as a world and a people right now—given the barrage of bad news and the seemingly endless tide of evil—I think maybe this is exactly the right time for Christmas after all.

This is a time when we remember that the same one who is coming to baptize with Spirit and fire is himself the light of this whole world. That light shines in the darkness—especially in the darkness—and the darkness did not, will never, overcome it.

John’s good news for us doesn’t just call us to passively accept this promised coming, but to prepare for it actively, by cultivating spirits of generosity and integrity and compassion. The very traits that characterize the coming savior are what John compels us to embody and be defined by. In other words, even in this waiting time, John tells us not to wait. Not to wait until we have the energy or the readiness, and not to wait for Christ to come and take care of everything. Right now, we can repent—a word which, as Shannon explained last week—really means to change or refocus our minds. We can look at the brokenness around us and choose to engage it with our minds and hearts and bodies focused on the love and hope of Christ.

What does this look like? For John, it’s remarkably simple though perhaps not always easy. Anyone with two coats must share with those who have none and likewise with food. We must also be generous and fair with whatever power or responsibility we are have. We give from our abundance and we do whatever big and small things we can do to help heal this world from our particular place and perspective.

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled on a blog post called “15 Things To Do When The World Feels Terrifying.” It suggested things like, “Open your closet, and find the first warm thing you haven’t worn in awhile and take it to a place where it can be used.” Or “buy an e-gift card for Dunkin Donuts and send it to the staff of the school where Laquan McDonald attended, knowing that this is an especially rough time for them.” “Leave a copy of your favorite book in a public place for someone else to find.” “Think of the kindest person you know personally, and write them an email letting them know you thought of them.” “Think of the people you don’t know but interact with daily, like your barista. Ask their name and then call them by it.”

At first, I thought it sounded overly simplistic. What good could some internet list do when everything in this world is so messed up? But when I read it, I was struck by how hopeful I felt just knowing that there was something—anything—I could do. A starting place.

I’ve seen other suggestions. Ways to be a Muslim-ally. Writing letters of support to your local mosque. Offering smiles or a seat to women in hijabs who may be encountering a lot of ugly looks these days. Calling out anti-Muslim sentiment from friends.

None of these things are enough on their own to turn the tide of brokenness and fix the world. But they are a starting place, and if there’s one thing this season reminds us of, it’s that even Jesus started somewhere. And Jesus calls us to start with him. We don’t have to wait, we can begin right now—we should begin right now. Right in the mess of it all. In a world that is so desperately hungry for good news, we must start by believing that it is, indeed, Good News. And with great joy we can bear that good news to the world. Amen.

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