When I was a kid, my brother Brian and I often watched Flash Gordon cartoons. In those cartoons, the bad guy, Ming the Merciless, had a flaming sword, and one of the great dangers of growing up on a farm is easy access to gasoline. So one summer afternoon we decided that playing Flash Gordon would be WAAAAAY cooler if we actually had flaming swords. Out came the gasoline, and of course, I burned my hand a little bit and dropped my flaming sword – right into the weeds growing underneath the fuel tanks.
Several minutes of kicking and stomping put out the fire, thankfully, but it still makes me shudder to think how easily we could have died that afternoon. But the best part of that story is what happened next. Our youngest brother, Kevin, had watched the whole thing, and he promptly told our mom what had happened, even though we threatened him with severe punishment, as only big brothers can. Well, there was definitely punishment, but it wasn’t Kevin who got punished. I’m still mad at the little sucker for ratting us out. ;-)
You’ve been here before – found out and up against the wall. We generally don’t think of getting caught as good news. We’d always prefer that our sins and our weaknesses would stay hidden, whether it’s an innocent mistake or an exploded cover-up. If I might turn a phrase, it seems far better to let your life be quiet and let people think you’re a sinner than to open your life up and prove it. Yet in our gospel reading today, we see John blowing up the coverage, so to speak. “You children of snakes! Who warned you that you were in trouble? Do you think being a member of the family of Israel is going to save you? God can make these rocks into children of Abraham!” And, best of all, Luke says “with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people.” This is good news?
Absolutely. How many of you have ever been forced to hide the truth about yourself from someone? How many of you have had to pretend to be something you’re not because you thought that was the only way people would respect you? If you have, and I’m wagering most of you have done this time and time again, then the good news John proclaimed to the crowds in his own time is reaching across the centuries to be good news today, for you. No matter what your hidden life might look like, no matter what your mistakes might be, no matter what frightens you about yourself, the people around you, or the future you see in front of you, God already knows. The one who formed you in your mother’s womb, the God who has called you into being and given you this life in this time knows every hidden secret of your life – and loves you. You will not be rejected because of your mistakes. You will not be abandoned because of your fears. You will not be denied because of your secrets. When repentance is happening, when God is getting about the work of transforming your life, God starts at the bottom, down where all your masks and pretenses have been stripped away, and God takes everything that is you and begins to make it into what you were always meant to be. This is good news – because now that God is at work in the world, in you, the clock is running out for those things we try to hide. There is no escape for sin when God is on the hunt!
And so the people ask John the question: if this is true, then what comes next? How do we live if the secret’s out about our sinfulness? And that’s the question for us as well. If repentance is real, if God knows our secrets and loves us anyway, what comes next? What follows from John is spectacularly ordinary. This is not rocket science, people. It’s just living the way God has always wanted us to live. As one of my seminary professors wrote this week, “[Faith] does not have to be heroic”  If you’re blessed with an abundance, share with those who have little. Don’t take advantage of other people. Live within your means, and be satisfied with what God has entrusted to you. All of this falls under John’s proclamation: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!” In other words, God has loved you at your worst: live your gratitude by giving God your best.
And it’s also not a matter of rejecting the life you’ve lived or radically reinventing yourself. That same preaching professor of mine wrote, “Most peculiar still, perhaps, is the ‘eschatological location’ of the good fruits. Tax collectors are not called to sever their relationship with Rome, nor are the soldiers exhorted to lives of pacifism. Even in light of impending eschatological judgment, they are called to serve where they are; to take their stand for neighbor amid, rather than apart from, the turbulence and trouble of the present age; and to do good because, rather than in spite, of their compromised positions. By sandwiching such ordinary instruction amid eschatological warning and messianic expectation, Luke's John hallows the mundane elements of daily life.”  The good news is, you are called to bear fruits in the life you’ve always lived: with the people you love, in the classes you take, in the work you do. Life is to be lived with gratitude and humble service, not because it makes God love us, but because God has already loved us, and loves us still.
I’ll admit that it’s been a really hard few weeks for me. Some of you know that a good friend of mine was basically fired from her church because the people there didn’t understand how she wants to be a pastor and disagreed with her vision for the future of their congregation. This week another good friend of mine had a very similar experience in a different congregation, and this time it was a church I knew well and people I had thought could be trusted. Even in the church, our mistakes and our hidden fears cause pain – sometimes worse than when it’s not in the church. We can get so comfortable in the church that we get blind to how we’re hurting others. But even with all the warts and mistakes and pain that go with being in the church together, we’re still God’s people here. There’s hidden fear and sin in this religious darkness, as much as there’s hidden fear and sin in our own personal darkness. We’re sinners here just like we’re sinners out there – and the good news is, again, that God knows this and will not let it stand here, either. And so our mistake-ridden, stumbling walk through the darkness goes on, led by the good news that God is with us in the darkness and will not let us fall.
German pastors J.C. and C.F. Blumhardt once wrote, “Our prayers are hammer-strokes against the bulwarks of the princes of darkness; they must be oft repeated. Many years can pass by, even a number of generations die away, before a breakthrough occurs. However, not a single hit is wasted; and if they are continued, then even the most secure wall must finally fall. Then the glory of God will have a clear path upon which to stride forth with healing and blessing for the wasted fields of [humankind].”  Wherever you’ve been caught, whatever the light of God is revealing within you, know this: getting caught is the beginning of the good news of God. This IS good news, because where the light of God lifts our prayers into the darkness, the darkness cannot stand. Rejoice, brothers and sisters, because you’ve been caught, not only as a sinner, but as a saint in whom God is doing a great work of transformation. Let your fruits be worthy of that transformation, let your prayers be hammer-strokes against the darkness, and let us all praise the name of the One who has caught us up in love and will not let us go. In the name of the Father, +Son and Holy Spirit, amen.