On Change and the Stern Side of the Bible
There is a Gospel reading that ends with the sentence, "Using exhortations of that sort, he preached the good news to the people."
Luke said that about John the Baptizer. And to my ear, it sounds a little strange. My customary image of John is not a purveyor of good news. It is easier for me to think of him as the classic hellfire and brimstone preacher. The word he used more than any other was "repent."
He left no doubt as to what that meant: "Change your life, turnaround, go in the opposite direction."
Lest there should be any misunderstanding, John translated that into very special terms. The person who had two coats was to give one of them to his neighbor who had none.
The person who had more than enough food was to share with someone who was hungry. The tax collector was to assess no more than what was actually due. The soldier was to stop bullying and intimidating people.
The reason for all of this moral reformation was the imminent appearing of the Messiah.
Listen to John's description of the Messiah, "His winnowing fan is in His hands to clear His threshing floor gathering the wheat into His granary. But the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire."
Then comes that strange statement about preaching the good news to the people. I find myself wondering if I have missed something.
Where is the good news in all of this? Is it good news to be called to repentance? To be told to change one's life, is that good news? Is it good news to be warned of an impending day of judgment? To be told that Christ will separate the wheat from the chaff, and will burn the chaff in unquenchable fire, is that good news?
None of this fits out standard concepts of good news. But the Gospel plainly says that John preached the Good News to the people and these are the things that He said.
Perhaps the Gospel is not all sweetness and light. Maybe it is stronger and more demanding than we know. And John, this backwoods preacher, forces us to see the stern side of the Gospel.
First is this — repent, turnaround, change your manner of living. Most of us do not welcome a call to moral reformation.
It does not strike us as good news. We would prefer to be left alone. Our lives may not be everything that they ought to be.
But we have gotten use to them. We have become established in our habits.
Ask any person who has tried to quit smoking. He or she will tell you that it is the hardest thing and too much trouble to change.
Talk to the person who has resolved to lose 20 pounds. He or she made that commitment as a New Year's resolution. And in order to keep it they will have to lose 19 pounds in the next 17 days.
Changing the way we live is hard. John did not deny that. The degree of difficulty was not his concern.
It was just something that needed to be done.
He met a man who had two coats. That man lived next door to another man who had no coats. And John said, "Give him one of yours."
Chances are, that man had been selfish all his life. Looking out for number one was his creed.
He had convinced himself that poor people where just lazy. To share would not come easy for that man but John told him to do it anyway.
He gave similar instructions to the tax collectors. Theirs was a business of graft and taking people for granted. They were committed to send a certain amount of taxes to Rome. If they could collect more than that, fine.
The Romans did not care, so long as they got their share. Anything over and above that, the tax collector could keep for himself.
Most of them were getting rich. Then John had to come along and rained on their parade. He told them to quit cheating, to start running an honest business.
Not an easy thing to do, when you have been doing it the other way for years.
Where is the good news in all of this? Changing the way we live is hard.
Surely, there is an easier way to have fun. But the good news is that we really can change.
We do not have to stay the way we are. The grouch does not have to remain a grouch. It will not be easy. But he can change. The greedy man is not doomed to be greedy. He can become generous, and giving, and kind.
This is a stern message. But it is good news. We can change the way we live. We really can change. We do not have to stay the way we are.
Well this is John's answer to that familiar question "what is the world coming to?" It is coming to a day of judgment when Christ and His cause shall prevail. Evil shall be utterly defeated.
That, my friends, is the stern side of the Gospel. But it really is good news. Christ and His cause will somehow, someday prevail. Evil in all of its forms will be utterly destroyed.