Then John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore, produce fruit worthy of repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax lies ready at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” … As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork 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.” So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people (Luke 3:7-9; 15-18).
It is Luke’s calling this “good news” that many people today would find surprising. Summoning people to repentance, calling them a brood of vipers, warning them of blazing fires of judgment, and speaking of axes ready at the roots of trees does not strike many of us as “good news.”
Indeed, St. John the Baptist seems to have missed the evangelization seminars in which we are told to be cheerful and “welcoming,” and advised that honey attracts more than does vinegar. He never heard that we are supposed to be nice and steer clear of unpleasant topics like sin; no, doing that might upset or alienate people.
Perhaps I exaggerate—but just a little. Frankly, we live in thin-skinned times. St. John the Baptist broke all the modern rules about effective evangelization (and so did Jesus). But note that crowds were going out into the desert to listen to him, while we, despite all our “niceness,” are seeing our churches grow emptier. Merely inviting people to a “welcoming community” isn’t going to get us very far. The local bar, lodge, and bowling league are also “welcoming communities.” Some of them do a better job of welcoming than we do. What we are supposed to do is to summon people to repentance and announce the soul-saving message of Jesus, who through word and sacrament is the only one who can save us from this present evil age and from the day of judgment.
Rather than engage in a lengthy discussion about how best to evangelize in our times, let’s simply note that St. Luke describes St. John’s approach as preaching the “good news.” Here are two brief observations about his description:
If you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news. St. John lays out the bad news that sin has taken its toll and that we stand in desperate need of conversion, because a day of reckoning is coming for all sinners. However, he lays the foundation for the good news to shine forth even more brightly and with a sense of joy and relief. The good news is that the Messiah is coming who will baptize (wash) us with the Holy Spirit and purifying fire. Praise God! In effect St John says, “There is a doctor is the house and His name is Jesus. He has the power and will to save us; if we will give our lives over to Him, He can get us ready for the great judgment and lead us to God in righteousness. St. John the Baptist’s message is balanced; it supplies the bad or painful news that sets the stage for the good news to be really good!
Much of this eludes us (clergy and laity alike) in the modern Church; we seem afraid to lay out what ails people and to show that the cure is exciting and joyful news. Why bother taking the medicine of repentance, prayer and sacraments, if there is no proclaimed sense that I need them? We fail to make the case that sin is a false and unsatisfying lie; we allow others to live on in their denial. Evangelical efforts flounder because if we don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news.
The term “good news” (or gospel) used by St. Luke needs to be understood. For us today the term “gospel” needs to rescued from incomplete notions. The Greek word at the root of this phrase is Evangelion. As Pope Benedict XVI points out in his scriptural commentary Jesus of Nazareth, “good news” is an incomplete understanding of this Greek word. Evangelion, originally referred to proclamations of the emperor; the main point was not that they were necessarily good news, but that the utterances of the emperor were life-changing. Maybe he was going to pave a road, call for a census, or summon the people to war; but when the emperor issued a proclamation your life was going to change in some way. The news wasn’t always positive, but it was good to know what was going on.
This historical insight is important because when interpret the term “gospel” as simply meaning “good news,” it is easy to think of the gospel as only saying happy, pleasant things. Too easily the work of evangelization (proclaiming the gospel) is reduced to wearing a yellow smiley-face button or a name tag that says “All are welcome.”
What makes the gospel the gospel is that it is a life-changing message with plenary authority, not merely that it is pleasant or happy. Translating “gospel” (evangelion) as merely “good news” misses the main point. It is only good news if it can rescue us from the mess we’re in and can bring us out of darkness and confusion into light and truth.
That is what St. John the Baptist is doing here. He sets forth the gospel, a word of plenary authority that both gives the diagnosis and announces the cure: be baptized into Christ Jesus and allow Him to have authority in your life. Not everything St. John says is happy, pleasant, or affirming, but the Holy Spirit, writing through St. Luke, says of St. John: with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.
We have a lot to learn from Luke’s brief description of true evangelization.
For a book-length treatment of the problem described here, I recommend reading The Old Evangelization, by Eric Sammons.