If you weren’t here for the Sunday morning liturgies last weekend, you have probably heard the unfortunate news. The rain storm on Sunday morning caused some severe water intrusion. I read the prayers for Mass against the background of gentle, murmuring waters; we had a very trendy “water feature” in church, but not by design or desire.
I had intended to replace the roof in a few years, but that schedule has been moved up. If you need a big, year-end tax deduction, I have the solution to your problem: we’ll need to pay for a new roof in the next few weeks.
This project is going to work in the same way as the installation of the glass walls that created separate spaces for the Cry Room and Day Chapel. You might recall that I mentioned to you that there was good news and bad news about the cost of that project. The same good news and bad news apply to the roof replacement. The good news is that we have all the money we need for the new roof; the bad news is that the money is still in your bank accounts.
If you find this proclamation of “good news” to be troubling in any way, you’ll probably also have trouble with today’s Gospel reading. Luke’s Gospel says that John the Baptist spoke about God’s plan of salvation by saying, “The Lord’s winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Lk. 3:17) The Gospel goes on to say that, “Exhorting them in many other ways, John preached good news to the people.” (Lk. 3:18)
“Winnowing,” “threshing,” burning in “unquenchable fire” – these don’t sound like the makings of “good news.” What could be joyful about unquenchable flames?
The idea of eternal punishment is probably very unpopular today, except among those with strong prejudices or deep resentments. We live in a culture that tends to live in denial about its acts of injustice and their consequences; we prefer to think of God as a “nice guy” who will disregard our sins in order to spare us the embarrassment of accountability. Unfortunately for those who believe such things, the Scriptures proclaim a very different message. The Scriptures say that our choices and actions in this life have eternal ramifications: justice leads to eternal joy, and injustice leads to eternal shame.
The “good news” of John’s proclamation is that, in the end, God will separate the just from the unjust. The just ones will live forever in God’s presence, while the unjust will be deprived of eternal happiness. This is good news for those who struggle to live justly in this world, but bad news for those who don’t.
Last week, I mentioned to you that we would be hearing from John about what he thought true repentance entailed. According to John the Baptist, repentance means sharing one’s food and clothing with those in need, and avoiding greed, dishonesty, and envy. (Lk. 3:11-14) The sins condemned by John the Baptist are both common and well-loved.
In this present age of diffuse anxiety, it makes little practical sense to give up any of one’s possessions or resources to help someone else. In a culture driven by consumer values, it is considered virtuous to grasp every available advantage and to aspire constantly to more and greater possessions. John the Baptist obviously spent too much time in the desert sun; he must have been delirious when he suggested giving up possessiveness, greed, dishonesty, and envy. These form the very fabric of human life.
Then, again, perhaps John was on the right track. Are you the least bit bothered by the terrifying news broadcast daily by the media? Are you even slightly uncomfortable with the on-going violence in our country and abroad? Are you troubled at all by the daily revelations of dishonesty on the part of people who hold positions of power? Do you find it at all disappointing that people fall so easily into vicious, predatory behavior toward one another?
Perhaps, John the Baptist knew what he was saying when he called his hearers to repent of all the vices that are so common and beloved to our human nature. Life in this world can be very difficult; the difficulty is made all the more troublesome by the injustice that lurks in the human heart. Anyone who is capable of being honest with themselves will admit that there is much too much anxiety, greed, dishonesty, and envy in the world. John the Baptist said that, in the midst of this bad news, there is good news.
The simple truth about life in this world is that every human being is afflicted and burdened by sin. The forgiveness of sin proclaimed by John the Baptist comes to us when we repent, that is, give up our possessiveness, avarice, and dissembling. The good news about our sinful existence is that we have already everything we need in order to find eternal happiness; the bad news is that we have to repent and give it up.