Readings: Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3: 1-14,18
Let us pray: Open our hearts and minds, our ears and our eyes to your word for each of us this day O God. May our listening and our response be held in the presence of your Spirit, in Jesus name. Amen.
What on earth are we doing with the uncompromising blunt message of John the Baptist in the middle of the Advent season? Hearing John’s words of insult and insinuation, of discomfort and judgement is strong stuff in the midst of the coming of love to the world. The joy and hope of the nativity alongside the vehement judgemental words of John calling those who have come to hear him“ a brood of vipers” and speaking of axes chopping down unfruitful trees and the wood being thrown into the fire. Uncompromising and blunt indeed: there was a suggestion that John must have skipped the course on pastoral counselling at theological college when he went through!
I wonder what it would have been like for those people at that time – was John the Baptist a incongruent, jarring note in a otherwise smoothly functioning faith journey, an out of the blue attack on their faith? Other things may have caused them sleepless nights: for sure there would have been disquiet regarding their political situation with the Romans in charge and some worries about how their future as a nation might pan out but, and maybe because of that, did they hold their faith, their relationship with God as pretty healthy, on track? Were they then a bit taken aback at this message of judgement and truth from a man who, from our reading anyway, seeded to be a no frills sort of guy popping up out of nowhere and going straight for the jugular, refusing to couch his message in dazzling rhetoric or gentle persuasion.
I remember going to a meeting once in my library career – just another meeting with an agenda and business to discuss – and being on the receiving end of someone who said it as she saw it and it wasn’t pretty and it was so completely at odds with how I thought things were going that I was gobsmacked and unable to respond – for the moment anyway. Was it like that for John’s listeners do you think? But then they, and I, seemed to react in the same way – wanted to know what was behind this – what was the cause of this outburst, these accusations and how might it be fixed, even if they weren’t sure what was wrong.
And so they asked “What then should we do?
Ray Gaston in a sermon on this passage suggests that the first thing we need to do is to listen to John the Baptist, over and over and over again. And that his message can be summed up in three acknowledgements by us: the world is a mess, a place of sin, we need to know this is not the way it should be and we are required to make it different. In other words he suggests that before we can welcome the love that is the Christ Child we need to go through the pain that is John the Baptist’s message to us. To welcome the light of the world, we have to acknowledge the darkness into which it shines. And then we can turn round to the darkness and say: this light is a protest: a refusal to conform. It says to the darkness: ‘I beg to differ’
And, you know something, the people listened, they had respect for him and they took the verbal attack on the chin. ‘What can we do’ they asked and were given some incredibly practical advice.
To those who have accumulated wealth: if you have two coats give away one of them – (that is a sobering definition of wealth to us today isn’t it?) To the tax collectors, those who are living and working in a corrupt system – do not be part of that corruptness. To the soldiers: do not bully others from your position of power.
That is what was said to the people of John’s time. What might the advice be to us in our time do you think?
To those who come to John today because they are feeling empty despite their accumulated wealth, their comfortable life style and their secure assets, John says: stop trying to bolster up your own sense of worth with possessions – try giving things away instead and see where it takes you. You might be surprised.
Who are the tax collectors of our time – who carries the mantle of greed and exploitation in the name of legitimate business these days: well there are many examples are there not but just to put out one or two. Loan sharks spring to mind especially at this Christmas time creating a hopeless cycle of borrowing, high interest, larger loans to those who can least afford it. What about shops offering easy credit hand in hand with ‘you know you want it’ advertising, putting pressure on people to equate happiness and love with big price tags – the bigger the better in fact. What of enormous profits, obscene salaries in the same society that needs to form a protest movement to try to get some earners a wage they can live on?
What of national and big business, any sort of business really, whose wealth is built on exploitation of people and land – isn’t that what the fair trade movement is trying to do – encouraging us to recognise the corruption and remove ourselves from supporting it?
This is what John the Baptist is saying to us: where the system is corrupt – get out.
And what of the increasing militarisation of our world, our so-called war on terror and the scaremongering that justifies torture, assassinations, where young, old and innocent lives are the accepted price of ‘greater good’! What of the ones who follow orders knowing that what they are being asked to do is wrong, abusive, inhumane? John says – you are bigger and better than this, do not blindly do what is asked of you – stop, do not torture, do not abuse, you are worth more than that. Walk away from it. And we can take this scenario outside of the military, the battlefield and think of all the places where we have power in the world and abuse it. It can be in the family circle, at work, socially, in our sport and our media, and you don’t have to go far over the last couple of days to find examples, especially in the online news stories, of people who have abused their power just because they can or in the interests of a ‘breaking’ news story.
So John is asking us to clean up our act, to recognise and step away from that which we know is not right in order that we might be better prepared for the coming of Jesus. It’s a hard message in the midst of the Advent season – but it is needs to be heard again and again as we prepare for the arrival of the Christ child.
Because in this moment, in this act of birth, God is saying to us that the kingdom will come, but not in worldly power or in mighty acts, not in violent control nor self-promotion –but rather in vulnerability and in love. The kingdom will be found in the act of the widow who put her coin in the box, in the child who sits at your knee, in the outcast welcomed home and the unclean made well. This is the new up-side-down way that calls us away from a world of power and influence and into a place of love and grace. This is the new relationship with God made known in Christ Jesus who says ‘welcome me in the stable, be with me on the cross, meet me in the resurrection, be filled with my grace, choose my way, reject the way that you know is wrong and change the world, let my kingdom come. In our acts of love and justice and compassion may we, filled with God’s grace, choose live the way of truth, to acknowledge the pain of this world, know that this is not the way it needs to be and that we can make a difference in the light and love of Christ. Thanks be to God.