John the Baptist “proclaimed the good news to the people”, so the Gospel tells us. It’s not about going through rituals and sacraments mindlessly, as if an external action can really change the interior of a person automatically. John tells us that it’s our life that must change, not our external observances.
It doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past—how long we’ve been a church member, how much we gave last year, what we did to serve God yesterday. After all, God can raise up children of Abraham from stones in the desert. What God is interested in is how we are living in relationship with God right now!
“Change your lives!” John tells us, “Share what you have. Stop cheating and taking advantage of others. Be fair and just in all your dealings—even if “everyone else is doing it” another way. Someone powerful is coming, someone coming with God’s judgment, someone coming with an axe in his hand, ready to start chopping at the tree of your comfortable little life. Is this “good news”??
It sounds more like old-fashioned fire and brimstone preaching than good news. Get your life in order—or else!—John seems to be saying. Where’s the good news?
Luke tells us there were crowds of people coming out to hear John preach in the wilderness, and he says the people were excited. They were “full of expectation” because this was something new. But who was this guy John, anyway?
He sounded like one of the prophets from back in the day, with his call to repentance and his warning of coming judgment. How long had it been—how many centuries—since they’d heard a prophetic voice like that? Could John be the one for whom they had been waiting? Could he be God’s Messiah, the one who would deliver them from their enemies and bring them that elusive kingdom of justice and peace?
“It’s not about me!” , John wants them to know. He is just a messenger: “I baptize you with water,” he declares, “but One is coming who will baptized you with fire, with the Holy Spirit! He is bringing God’s judgment. His axe is already poised to strike. Unless you repent, he will do just that! He’s like a farmer, separating wheat from chaff, ready to burn the chaff, burn what’s useless. “Yes, God is up to something!” John announces. “Messiah is coming! I’m not Messiah, but Messiah is coming! And, when he does, God is going to make things right. So wake up, and get ready!”
In C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia books, the central character is a powerful and mysterious lion named Aslan. Clearly Aslan is intended to be a Christ figure. Four human siblings are magically transported from earth to the kingdom of Narnia, where Aslan rules. One by one, the four children are invited and challenged to follow Aslan. Early on, two of them become Aslan’s followers. The others aren’t so sure about it all, and one of them asks a sibling, ”Why should we follow Asan? Is he safe?”
And the reply comes, “No, Aslan’s not safe—but he’s good!”
Doesn’t the preaching of John the Baptist tell us the same thing about Jesus—he’s not safe—but he is good!”
We come to this Gaudete Sunday full of anticipation, as Advent draws nearer to its conclusion. Are we getting what we expected this Advent? Are we expecting Jesus as he really is? Or are we just expecting Jesus to wave a magic wand and make everything right? Or are we expecting Jesus to shake things up—to change the world, maybe even change us?
John makes it clear that Jesus is going to make some changes—and those changes will begin with us. Because, like Aslan, Jesus is good—but he’s definitely not safe, especially for those of us who are complacent, those of us who want only to feel comfortable with the status quo, those of us who don’t really want to have our vision of the world changed. Jesus threatens all of that because the Reign of God is something bigger than all that.
“What should we do?” the people ask John, after he announces it’s time to repent. He gives them an answer that isn’t safe at all: “You have to change your lives! Share with others. Treat people fairly. Don’t exploit them or take advantage of them. Surrender your need to control your lives and those around you. Be content with the abundance that surrounds you!”
Not safe—but good. Good, because it’s a change that will make the Reign of God dwell within us in its fullness. God is doing something new, and it will be good—but in order for that to happen, the old has got to go!
In the old movie The High and the Mighty, a plane is over the ocean when the pilot announces, “There is a problem. We cannot correct it. We are not going to make it. I want you to know, so you can prepare for the inevitable.”
A wealthy woman thinks for a second, then removes the diamonds from around her neck, as well as the large jewelled ring from her hand. She peels off her false eyelashes, and removes her make-up—revealing an old scar on her forehead, previously hidden by the make-up. In the face of certain death, she will face the moment as she really is, without any illusions, without any pretense, without any of the material things that have, up to this point, defined who she thought she was.
This is a movie, after all, so there is an unexpected twist in the story, and the plane does not crash, but lands safely at the airport after all. But the woman is changed. In a moment of grace, she was given an opportunity to be honest about who she was, and she accepted it.
That’s how it is with real metanoia. That’s how it is when we expect the real Jesus to come. We’re invited to be honest about ourselves. We’re warned that he comes in judgment, but the truth is, that judgment is already happening, it’s already in process in our hearts and souls. We already know the truth of who we are, who we are meant to become, who we came here to be. But we’ve been afraid, we’ve been locked in feelings of past regrets and hurts, we’ve not seen neither our own insignificance nor our own divine greatness. That’s why we need the real Jesus: to forgive us, to show us how to save ourselves, to reveal to us the healing power of Christ within us.
No, he’s not safe. But, yes, Jesus is good!
Author Walt Wangerin tells the story of a dream he once had.
“In my dream, a friend was coming to see me, and I was excited! I didn’t know who the friend was…but the anticipation and certainty of my friend’s coming occupied me.
“As the time of arrival drew nearer and nearer, my excitement increased. I felt more and more like a child….Laughter fell from me like rain. I wanted to stand on the porch and bellow to the neighborhood, ‘My friend is coming!’ Joy became a sort of swelling in my chest, and all my flesh began to tingle.
“A wild kind of music attended my waiting. And the closer my friend came, the more exquisite grew the music—high violins rising higher by the sweetest, tightest, most piercing dissonance, reaching for, weeping for, the final resolve of his appearing.
“And when the music had ascended to nearly impossible chords of wailing little noises…and when excitement had squeezed the breath from my lungs, I started to cry.
“And my friend came….then I put my hands to my cheeks and cried and laughed at once.
“He was looking directly at me, with affection—and I grew so strong within his gaze. And I knew at once who it was. It was Jesus.”
This is exactly the Christmas you and I have wanted all our lives, and although we have caught glimpses of it, unfortunately, it has mostly eluded our grasp. I have come to the conclusion that the reason why Christmas fails to really satisfy us is that we are preparing for the good and gentle Jesus, and that is not who he is. The real Jesus is dangerous and threatening to many of the things we hold dear. The real Jesus will not force us to make changes, but once we embrace his vision of God’s Reign on earth, our egos know very well that we will have little choice but to make drastic changes in our attitudes and behaviors. Jesus isn’t safe at all, but he’s good. And his program for saving God’s people—which has yet to be embraced and implemented despite 2,000 years of the Church—is the only viable option left for humanity if we are to survive at all.
The Christmas Spirit is, as they say, in the air. But the nagging questions remain: What are we expecting? For whom are we really waiting?