Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Good News?

The word "gospel" literally means "good news." In English, that word comes from a combination of "good" and "spel," which means "news." Of course, in English "good" and "God" share the same root, so it's both "good news" and "God's news." In Greek, however, the word is εὐαγγέλιον, which is the combination of "eu," which means good, and "angelon," which means message. You can also tell that the word for "angel," which is a messenger, is part of that word. In English, we don't call the gospel the "evangelon," but we do call people "evangelists" or "evangelicals," both of which come from the word for gospel or good news.

Except in the introductory citation of each of the four gospel accounts, most translators render the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον as "good news." This Sunday, at the end of the gospel lesson (Luke 3:7-18), we hear Luke offer his editorial assessment of what John the Baptist had been proclaiming: "So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people." But, when we hear John's message, do we hear good news?

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"

"Bear fruits worthy of repentance."

"Even now the ax 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."

Good news? Really? Is this "good news" as in "the gospel," or is this really supposed to be "good news" as in "glad tidings," which is another way to translate the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον? Who is glad to hear this?

Luke isn't the only one who identifies this as good news. Those who heard John also thought of this message as good news. How do we know? Look at their response: "The crowds asked him, 'What then should we do?'" Instead of being pushed away by his sharp call to repentance, those who had come out into the wilderness to hear John and be baptized by him wanted to know how they might bear that repentance-worthy fruit. John then explained to them that they must give up their extra coats and extra food so that everyone could have enough. They must stop their dishonest practices and be content with what they have. In other words, the fruit of repentance is a change of lifestyle enacted in anticipation of the coming of God's reign.

After hearing all of this, how did the crowd react? "As the people were filled with expectation...all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah." Such good news was this that the crowds began to believe that John might be the anointed one whom God would send to rescue God's people. This was, indeed, good news. John's vision for their lives was God's vision for their lives, and they recognized it as such. The hard, sharp, scary invitation to repentance had been received as a way for the people to see the coming of God's messiah. That is good news in any generation.

This Sunday, as I prepare to preach, I'm trying to balance our need for comfort and joy, which comes in the first and second readings, and the good news of repentance. In fact, as John and Luke and the crowds understood, they are one and the same, but I live in a culture where the good news of repentance has been hijacked by religious figures who associate repentance with fear and guilt and shame. In John's day, the religious leaders offered a similar call. They used fear and guilt and shame to manipulate people into adopting a religious system that benefited them and underscored their own goodness. John's message in the wilderness was one of true repentance--a re-turning to God instead of a returning to religion. There is good news in returning to God, and this week's preachers have to find a way to offer it despite representing the sort of religious institution that John the Baptist (and Jesus) came to reject.

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