Friday, April 8, 2005

Luke 3:15–22

Huh? This is the good news? Remember those bad tracts which first start off by trying to convince you you’re going to hell, and then tell you how to avoid it, and end up with a little prayer of dedication and the address of a local church? The idea is that before you can hear the good news of salvation, you need to hear the bad news of what you’re being saved from. Well, this is crazy.

It’s a typically Protestant problem: a key doctrine was forged in a religious climate foreign to today, and that key doctrine has been elevated way out of proportion in a bad form long past its expiration date. In this case, the doctrine is that we are saved from hell through faith in Christ and through nothing else. If you think that’s all there is to salvation, then you’re kind of stuck when someone doesn’t believe in hell in the first place: hence those awful tracts. For a medieval, whose fear of hell might have been acute, this saving gospel is indeed good news. (Though I reject Martin Luther’s claim that the medieval church didn’t teach the gospel of salvation; it certainly did.)

Many of the people Jesus was preaching to didn’t even believe in an afterlife at all, and his preaching did not start out with a bunch of bad news from which the good news would save you. (And leave you where? right where you started? why bother?) Consider contemporary universalism. How is it good news to first convince somebody who trusts in a saving and redeeming God, that they might actually be tortured by that God for eternity, and then that the little prayer on the back of the tract will get them out of hell? How is this good news? for such a person? Answer: it’s not.

Ok, now what about John? Is his preaching just that kind of bad news? No. By contrast, his preaching is good news, very good news, because he says that God is going to act soon to “clear the bastards out.” To get the point, you have to get a whole lot more visceral and a whole lot less namby-pamby. The point is that if you’re upset with the way things are going in the world, so is God, and God is going to act very soon to rectify the situation. John proclaims that he is only able to get you ready, not to bring about God’s action. He warns that God’s action will baptize--that is, cleanse--you with the Holy Spirit and with fire, that is, not with the water of the Jordan. So be ready for it. But the point here is not a scary ghost story or a frightfully vindictive hell from which you can be saved, but that God is going to act to clean up all the nastiness and ugliness and hatred and war and violence and everything else in the world.

Then we are told that the one who is the agent of this transformation is Jesus Christ, and the good news is not only that the world is going to get cleaned up (and is being cleaned up), but that God will bring us (suitably cleansed and transformed) into that fresh new world.

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