The Gospel is always bad news before it is good news

The Gospel is always bad news before it is good news

by The Rev. Dr. John Lane Denson

Advent 3C, 17xii00
St Mark / Advent 3C / 17xii00 / JLD

Bishop John Hines told of a time when he had only recently become Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and had returned for a visit to his small hometown in North Carolina. One walk along nostalgia's path took him to the village square where he encountered some old timers who, remembering him as a youth, congratulated him on his honor.

One of them said, "Say, Bishop, did you know they've put up a sign in front of your old home?" Stirred with pleasure and excitement that he might have been so recognized, he could hardly wait to have a look. When he did, he reported, sure enough there was a sign. It said, FOR SALE.

It is perhaps one of the more common facets of human nature to want to be at least a little bit proud of one's heritage and accomplishments, if any, and to be so fortunate as somehow to be recognized for them, even if only for Andy Worhol's "15 minutes." After all, what are resumes for, anyhow?

"Not much," says John, the Baptist.

"You brood of vipers," said he to those come to be baptized by him, "Who warned you to flee... ? Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham." (Lk 3.7-8)

Saturday Night Live, that durable and pointedly satirical NBC show now having a field day with our current national dilemma brought me up short the other night with its portrayal of one of the heavies in the drama. They called him "James 'The Episcopalian' Baker."

I've long thought of our communion as one of the few that seemed to have the uncanny sixth sense not to take itself so seriously, one that understood forgiveness as far easier to obtain than permission, one that, if it had not actually cornered the market on grace, after all, it at least knew how to recognize it and be amazed by it in a crisis without going all maudlin about it.

At the same time and in the midst of all this in a quite personal way, I've wondered if there is anything more crucial for the preacher to do than simply to obey the sadness of our times by taking it into account without equivocation or subterfuge, by speaking out of our times and into our times not just what we ought to say about the Gospel, not just what it would appear to be in the interest of the Gospel for us to say, but what we have ourselves felt about it and experienced of it and how we commend that to others who are kind enough to give us audience. Nevertheless, it smarts some when the SNL people and others make fun of our sometimes stodgy corporate and public persona. But then, there's always John Baptist.

John Baptist may be central to the season of Advent not only because this coming great Christmas occasion for the birth of peace and justice and good will to all is such as to require a specially anointed clarion voice to announce it. But also may John be central to remind us that it is possible to think of the Gospel and our preaching of it in both pulpit and pew as above all and at no matter what risk, a speaking of the truth not only about the way things are, but, as well, about the way we are -- and, as said one of the saints, "a speaking that even uses words if it must be."

Thus could John say that if there is to be any ecclesiastical flag-waving about who we are let it be a sign of our contrition and reconciliation and not more resting on our laurels. And thus could he say for us in our time that being an Episcopalian won't get you any more points than being a Holy Roller...  and call us a snake pit all the while.

In our current national tension, we cannot say, for example, that we have Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for our fathers and leave it at that. We cannot simply quote from some time-honored text and think nothing more needs to be said. For John's message reminds us that if we don't bear fruit here and now in the living out of freedom on this stage, then we will soon have nothing. We are different now because of these events, and a new "normal" lies ahead for us.

We ask, what, indeed, must have been John's anguish?  And we see that he and all preachers who may strive to be like him to whatever degree we can must realize that we are all of us in it together, and together it is in us all. If we are to say anything that really matters to anyone including ourselves, we must say it not just to the public part of us that considers interesting thoughts about the Gospel and how to preach it, but to the private, inner part too, to the part of us all where our dreams come from, both our good dreams and our bad dreams, the inner part where thoughts mean less than images, where clarity means less than summoning, where our concern is less with how the Gospel is to be preached than with what the Gospel is and what it is to us. We must address ourselves to the fullness of who we are and to the emptiness, as well, the emptiness where grace and peace belong but mostly are not, because terrible as well as wonderful things have happened to us all.

John Baptist is necessary to remind us that the Gospel is always bad news before it is good news. It is the news that we are sinners, evil in the imagination of our hearts, eight parts chicken, phony, slob, mixed in with whatever good there is. That is the tragedy. But there is good. And the Gospel is also the news that we are loved, anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding, to be sure, but bled for, as well. That is the deep irony and good humor of this remarkable, earthy, incarnational faith of ours.

And yet, so what?

John was furious with the religious establishment of his day for claiming descent from Abraham and otherwise living in blithe disregard of God. Bloodline isn't faith. Heritage isn't faith. Tribal identity isn't faith. It isn't that easy. For faith has to do with decisions, actions, expressions of the will. Faith bears fruit because of what it does. Sin also bears fruit. Disbelief bears fruit. Injustice bears fruit. Cruelty bears fruit.

The perceptive poet Maya Angelou tells of a woman in her audience taking offense with her and claiming, "But madam, I am a Christian!" only to hear Angelou answer, "Already?" Christian identity is an evolving phenomenon. We build our faith as we go. We can always give thanks for whoever started the process of shaping us. But if we don't take up the mantle ourselves and make our own fresh approach to the throne of grace in the ways we make daily decisions, we have nothing.

There it is, and there we are, the very mark of our sin is in turning down the love and forgiveness as fast as they come because we either don't believe them or don't want them or just plain couldn't care less. But the Gospel persists and answers that extraordinary things happen just as in fairy tales extraordinary things happen. And we remember old King David who got his mistress's husband killed so he could have her all to himself, but was still the "apple of God's eye." And we remember old Zaccheus who climbed up a sycamore tree a crook and climbed down a saint. And we remember old Paul who set out as a hatchet man for the Pharisees and returned a fool for Christ.

Perhaps whenever we're tempted to take ourselves too seriously, we can remember that Franciscan blessing that many of us seem to admire a lot. We can remember its audacity to speak of discomfort and anger and tears over the seemingly insurmountable state of things as blessings. We can remember that it goes on and dares to ask for enough foolishness to believe that we, in whatever state we find ourselves -- poor or rich, smart or not so smart, old or young, sick or well -- can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.

If Advent stirs up anything at all like this in us to get us truly ready for Christmas, so be it and amen.


I am grateful to those master phrase-makers Fred Buechner and Tom Ehrich whose work I have adapted in parts of this text. For the crafting, I must take all the blame. -- JLD


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