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? 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. Even 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.’
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 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.’
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 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. 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.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
We’re very lucky in this church. Over the last few years we’ve had five people offer themselves for Reader ministry, and it’s been a real privilege to walk with each of them as they’ve wrestled with whether this was something God was calling them to do, giving them space to try it out and preach a couple of sermons to get a sense of whether there was a vocation waiting to be explored. Part of the fun of this, from my perspective anyway, has been the assessed sermons when I, and several others in the congregation, have to listen to the sermon with a critical ear and then write comments on it from a specially prepared sheet that comes from the diocese. Basically we get to mark someone's sermon!
And on that sheet there is an array of questions, and one of those questions is always ‘Where was Good News to be found in this sermon?’ Where was Good News? Suffice it to say, the Gospel reading we have today is not one of the passages that they get asked to preach on, because when John the Baptist starts speaking we have to ask the question, ‘Where is Good News here?’ Now it seems to me that Luke is an absolute master of irony (I'll explain what I mean in a moment), but I don’t think he even means to be. I'll explain what I mean in a moment, but first, listen again to the accusatory message he records John as sharing. He starts off by shouting at the crowd, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’
Great start. Could you imagine that coming from an Anglican evangelist? I am so very careful to try and say ‘We’ and never ‘You’ when I’m preaching. I am very aware of my own shortcomings so I don’t dare say, ‘You awful, dreadful people. You despicable sinners. You vile worms.’ Maybe I’m just too English, too polite, too scared of putting my parishioners’ noses out of joint. But that doesn’t seem to be a worry for John. He has no parish share to worry about, no people he has to keep ‘onside’. He feels completely free to say whatever he wants to the gathered crowd. So he starts by calling them a brood of vipers. Then he warns them that unless they do good deeds to show they’ve changed their minds about how to behave, they had better consider themselves to be trees about to be felled. And he just doesn’t let up.
After giving some very practical advice on how to live properly, by giving away what you don’t need, (there’s an anti-capitalist message if ever I heard one), by telling the truth and being fair in business, he ups the ante even further, pointing towards the one who is to come, explaining that he himself is not the Christ, but that they had better be very afraid of the one who is coming. Why? Because the Christ is coming with unquenchable fire to burn up that which is useless. And then, after all of this ‘turn or burn’ preaching, we get the ultimate in irony when Luke writes, ‘And with many other words Luke preached the Good News to the people.’
Good News? Good News? What’s good about that? To paraphrase one of my all time favourite films, that’s not Good News, that’s ‘Oh God, Oh God, we’re all gonna die!!’
And John just doesn’t know how to stop. He goes on in the same condemnatory way until he criticizes King Herod and is arrested and locked up for doing so. Where is the Good News here?
Well it is there, and actually you don’t even have to dig down very deeply. You have to recognise that there is a difference between Good News and nice news. We need simply to ask ourselves why God has sent John the Baptist. Principally he is there to prepare the way for Christ. In other words he has to get people out of the ruts they’ve got into. He has to instil in a nation the understanding that something momentous is about to happen for which they need to be ready. To do that he has to tell them how it is, with no holds barred. The people have to be shown the reality in order that they can begin to appreciate the predicament in which they find themselves. It’s a harsh message but it’s a necessary one.
Sometimes people talk to me about a dying relative, and they ask me whether they should tell them the truth about their situation. My feeling is that you should always tell people the truth about these matters, because how else can they begin to prepare themselves? It may not seem like Good News, but it’s all relative. There's a difference between Good News and nice news.
If something difficult or challenging is coming, or likely to come, you want to tell people about it so that they can make their plans about how to deal with it. John knew what was coming on the people; he was, after all, a prophet. This was his job, to warn people of what’s coming. It becomes Good News because it gets people in the right frame of mind to do something about it, but it brings us to an interesting place in good old English middle of the road Anglicanism.
When I was a curate there was a Baptist church up the road from us. It was lively and often more full than our church. Partly it was the style of music and the type of worship, and partly it was the preaching. They had a no-holds-barred minister, and people lapped it up.
Why is that? Why do we like to be told how awful we are? It’s a good question and not one that I feel qualified to answer. Is that what you want from me and the other preachers? Do you want us to tell you all how awful you are? We would of course point the fingers at ourselves too, but is that what you want?
You see there are several sides to this. They may have had a full church, but I can also tell you about the friends I have who went to churches like that, who were told over and over again that they were miserable sinners, and who left, ultimately, because there was nothing but condemnation. Some of the people in Forest Church feel that way, that it’s the only place they can feel safe to worship Christ without someone shouting at them about being a miserable sinner. Some of the people I've met in other religious and spiritual movements are there because of this kind of preaching in the church. And, interestingly, some of the people who came to St. Andrew's, where I did my curacy, came there because they had left that other church, having been condemned by the leadership for their life choices. In fact one of the most curious things about all of this is that churches like that declare themselves to be Bible-based churches, and yet a report out this week has shown that people who actually read all of their Bible, rather than just the popular bits, tend to be quite a long way out on the liberal end of the Christian spectrum, because that's what they find in God's word!
But sometimes we need to call a spade a spade from the pulpit, and it can make it very difficult to bring a balanced message when you absolutely know that what feels heavy on your heart is going to upset some of your congregation. But there's a difference between Good news and nice news. You see it can also become incredibly easy to avoid the reality of our predicament. If all you ever hear from us is, ‘Carry on chaps; you’re doing a great job of being Christians’, then that is really not going to help you at all. Nice news changes nothing, it just makes us feel good, perhaps at a time when we should be feeling bad.
We will be completely unprepared to face God if we don’t sometimes talk about the need for change, just as the Spirit speaks in to our hearts too, to convict us of where change is needed. James 3:1, reminds those of us in the pulpit of the burden we carry with these words: 'Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.'
But preaching the hard teachings always comes with a risk. In any demographic there are going to be things which congregations think should be no go areas for us as preachers, which, to be honest, tend to be the ones we get most called to speak about. I know that I have upset people in the past with some of the subject matter of my sermons, and I am not, for a moment, saying that we always get it right in what we preach, but sometimes we feel very strongly that the Spirit is saying something to us and we have to find the words to convey that. So much of the Bible speaks strongly about possessions and justice so maybe we should preach that strongly. Some things have to be said. Good news is not the same as nice news. That also means that we have to take notice of what John the Baptist says when he tells us to get rid of any excess to someone who is having to go without, because he’s right. And we have to be prepared to hear the things that hurt and upset us, because if we don’t then we will be unprepared to face God at the end of our lives.
So let me lay some groundwork for after Christmas. Let me be a bit 'John the Baptist' in preparing the way for an important message. One of the greatest problems the Church of England faces at the moment is money. I hate talking about this because I hate to come over as us trying to fund an organisation when the reality is about trying to be the presence of Christ in the parish. But in a few weeks we’ll start to tell you just how bad our finances are in this church. Some of you will be thinking, ‘You must be kidding; we’ve heard about the legacy you’ve been left. We know about the farm house you have to sell.’
But maybe you don’t know the deficit we’ve been running at. Maybe you don't know how far down we've had to run our reserves to keep going. Maybe you don't know that we've had to rely on one or two huge donations to keep going these last few years. Maybe you don't know that, even if carefully invested, that great gift we've been given will just barely allow us to keep operating as we are. Maybe you don't know how much some of us want to invest in children and families work but are struggling because the congregations are not giving enough and even the legacy we hopefully have coming may not bridge the gap.
So maybe I should preach nice, warm, welcoming, everything's OK sermons so that more people will come and feel happy. But I'm not convinced that's what John the Baptist would have done. But that is always going to be the tension between running a parish and being an itinerant preacher. I think, though, that I speak for my colleagues in the pulpit when I say that what we most want to do is to try and tell you what the Lord lays on our hearts when we preach. It may not always sound like Good News, and we may not always get the translation right, but anything which challenges us to draw near to God is surely Good News really.
And good news is not necessarily nice news, but Good News means something can be changed.