It’s an apology we’ve heard (and possibly uttered) so many times that it has become cliché: “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but….” Yet, while many hackneyed old chestnuts have at their heart some measure of truth, I think that this one, at least in the world where we currently live, rings false, insofar as it stands in stark contrast to the spirit of our time. The fact is, many people take a certain delight in being the bearers of bad news. We occupy a cultural and political climate that is positively rife with bad news, of innumerable varieties. From salacious narratives of men behaving badly to the often extravagant failures of individuals and institutions in power to a constant catalog of taboos and norms that those in power are stomping on with every passing day, there is no shortage of bad news to report.
What’s more, the technology at our fingertips now allows us to be the reporters we always longed to be, broadcasting to our “friends” and “followers” the details of the day’s events, complete with our snarky commentary or ironic spin, all delivered in a tone that says, “You won’t believe what I just heard!” Frankly, bearing bad news has never been this easy, or—I hate to say it—this much fun, especially when the bad news involves one of our perceived “enemies,” someone whom we believe, with all our hearts, is getting what he or she deserves. And so now, perhaps more than ever, it is crucial that we hear a word from God that serves to temper these impulses.
There is, of course, a long and noble tradition of speaking hard truth, especially when it comes to holding accountable those who reject the demands of justice and who think that they are somehow insulated from the claims that righteousness or even common decency make on their lives. I would never want to denigrate the work of the prophetic voice who boldly and faithfully confronts the uncomfortable realities, the bad news, that must be addressed in order that it might be reckoned with. But while bearing bad news might sometimes be a necessity, we should never forget that just as high a calling rests upon those who become bearers of good news. These are the voices highlighted in our texts for this third week of Advent.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” begins the proclamation from the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah, a passage directed to a world that, like ours, was full of bad news. Even as God’s people sought to put their time of exile behind them, to focus on the restoration that God was working in their midst, it was impossible to ignore the fact that there were still among them prisoners, bound in chains of regret over the past and anxiety about the future. The poor still languished. The weak were still vulnerable to the machinations of the strong. There was much to worry about, much to fret over, much that could cause the people of God’s covenant to wonder if God was truly present, or if God’s promises were nothing more than wishful thinking.
During those first months and years after the exile, there were undoubtedly those who sang the words of Psalm 126, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream,” not as a giddy affirmation of the amazing fulfillment of God’s purposes, but as a song of hesitant, cautious celebration. After experiencing the shame of defeat and the anguish of exile, God’s children were not so ready to give themselves over to this new state of affairs. For some, the good news was simply too good to be true. And yet, in the face of such hesitancy, in the face of doubt, even in the face of rejection, the prophetic servant persists in the important work of proclaiming this good news. God is working. God is producing a harvest of joy where once there was a barren wasteland of grief. Watercourses in the Negeb. Sheaves of abundance. It may take us some time to accept this, let alone to understand it, but when we are able to embrace what God is doing, the appropriate response will come.
And what does that response look like? The Roman Catholic lectionary reading for this week gives us perhaps the best picture of faithful proclamation that we have in all of Scripture. Mary’s song of rejoicing from Luke chapter 1 reminds us, in the words of an overlooked peasant girl, of the amazing scope and unfathomable grandeur of God’s good news, that God is lifting up the vulnerable and filling up the hungry, even as the rich and proud are brought low. This good news also finds expression in the voice of John the Baptist, an unruly desert-dweller who cried out in the wilderness that God was doing something that couldn’t be ignored. Standing among those who flocked to John out in the wilderness, although they neither knew or recognized this presence, was the Holy One of God. By proclaiming this good news, through word and deed, John served as a witness to testify to the light.
As we move through this season of Advent, there is much in our world that causes grief and despair. There is much bad news that we might point out, much sin and brokenness and injustice that demands our attention. But let us never forget the call that God places on our lives to be bearers of the good news, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the one who brings freedom to the prisoners and light to those living in darkness.