A sermon delivered at Ascot-Vale Uniting Church. On the occasion of Advent 3, December 16, 2018.
God may my words be loving and true, and may those who listen discern what is not. Amen.
‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the anger of God? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “we have been Christian our whole lives.” If God wanted, the stones that lay outside could be converted and sat in these seats. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree – every one of you – that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’
These accusatory words greet us today in our reading from Luke 3. As we continue the journey of Advent we are confronted in this reading with what does not sound like “Good News.” The journey of Advent, surely, is the journey towards Christmas. The journey towards the baby Jesus, that silent night, those strange gifts and visitations: peace on Earth, and good will to all people.
In our reading today John, it seems, is not in the Christmas spirit. And, within the context of this season, seems to be spoiling all the fun.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that when the churches were deciding who would claim John the Baptists drew the short straw …
What our reading from Luke 3 reminds us is that this season of Advent is not simply about leading us towards Christmas. The Church, it turns out, is not a supermarket or department store that begins its run-up to Christmas with at least 4 weeks notice.
Instead, Advent is a time for us to stop and reflect on what the coming of Christ means, not simply in the story of a baby born into occupied first-century Palestine, but in the ongoing life of communities of faith — communities like this one, lives like our own.
The coming of Jesus is not simply a quaint story of a birth, with varying levels of believability. Rather, the coming of Jesus is an ongoing reality. We are indeed journeying towards the commemoration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas, but we are also beginning again that cyclical rhythm of the Church’s liturgical year. We are journeying again through the life of Jesus, through the stories and deep wisdom of the Jewish Scriptures, and the early reflections on Jesus. This liturgical rhythm reminds us that our ongoing lives together are intended to be the very site of God’s activity in the world.
I want, therefore, to spend some time reflecting on how we make sense of the accusatory words of John. And to trace the journey from these harsh words to the lighting of the candle of joy earlier in this service. This journey from judgement to joy reminds us what is at stake in the proclamation of the continual arrival of Christ within our midst.
That John’s ministry was characterised by baptism was a significant scandal. Baptism was not then, nor is it now, a common practice within Judaism. Insofar as baptism was practiced in ancient Judaism it was connected to the conversion of non-Jews, Gentiles, to Judaism. As with later Christian understandings, baptism was a ritual entry-point into the community of God’s people. Even before his accusatory preaching, this practice of baptism was the great scandal. This scandal of baptism so marked John’s ministry that he became known as “John the Baptist” — regardless of what preachers have suggested in their terrible jokes about John’s name …
What John demanded was that those who heard his message re-enter into the people of God. Those who saw themselves as righteous, upstanding members of the Jewish community were being told: no, you must come and be baptised. You must begin again. There are faint whispers here of what Jesus would later teach in regards to re-birth.
And as if to add to this indignity John adds to this baptism the need to repent: as if the crowds who listened on were not the set-apart people of God, but were in fact subject to divine judgement.
This is not a comforting message.
And as the opening salvo to this sermon suggests, these words need to be heard by us again today. We need to feel the scandal of being told that, in fact, we may not come off well either. We must begin again.
Here the long finger with which John is painted in a good deal of medieval art may just as easily be understood as the finger of accusation – a divine “telling-off” – as much as it is understood as John pointing the way to Jesus.
What, then, might be joyous about the accusation and condemnation that John offers us?
It often strikes me how difficult it is to grasp the central claim of the Christian message. I feel, after a few years of study and reflection, that I have a decent intellectual grasp on what this Christianity thing is all about — one would hope.
But if I honestly reflect on the Gospel — the “Good News” that the Church proclaims, I find myself stuck.
The Good News is that God in Christ died in solidarity with the victims of oppression, by literally dying in the way and the place that they died: on a cross. In this the fullness of God extended mercy to these victims, and declared the need for justice. In this act Christ established the reign of God’s love, against those that would marginalise, oppress, and kill. The reign of God’s love is a reality more real than real, more true than true — it cracks open the suffering of this world and lets the light in. This reign of God in Christ even overcomes death itself. It touches directly the reality in which we live with love and new life. This is the Gospel.
But if this is the Gospel, if salvation is rooted in the love of God being expressed in mercy and in justice for those who suffer, those who are victims, those who are outcast and lowly, then where do I fit within this proclamation?
I have benefited significantly from a system that does not treat me with suspicion because of the colour of my skin, does not ostracise and bully me because of who I love, and instead values my opinion because I articulate it with a clear, educated, and male voice.
What does the way of the cross look like for me?
The teaching of John the Baptist was heard by people, in some sense, like me.
Tax-collectors, who turned against their Jewish brothers and sisters and worked for those that occupied their land.
Soldiers, who participated directly in upholding systems of oppression.
Those who had more than they needed.
To these people who heard the word of John – as we hear the word of John today – this is not a comforting message.
But it is a joyous one.
It is joyous because John opens the way for everyone. John invites everyone to begin the journey again. John prepares the way for me – and perhaps for some of you – to be drawn into the life of God that Christ embodies.
We must always be careful not to get these things confused. The harsh discomforting words of John do not negate joy, but are the very possibility of joy. Because the harsh words remind us not only that we must begin the journey again, but that we can begin the journey again.
After wagging his giant finger in a divine “telling-off,” John ultimately does turn his finger to point towards Jesus. In so doing John points to the new life, the abounding love, the unsurpassable peace, the unbounded hope, and the effervescent joy of the way of Christ.
John points to the baptism that is to come, the baptism of the Spirit and fire: the coming presence of God that emboldens Jesus in his life of service to the vulnerable, and his critique of the powerful. That same presence that we ourselves participate in when our communal life is shaped by that same way of Christ. When we conform our practices and rhythms to ever more reflect the enfolding of mercy, and proclamation of justice that is at the core of the reign of God’s love.
As we await the joy of the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, let us never forget the joy of anticipation that our life together may ever more filled with the Spirit of love: enfolded in mercy, shaped by justice. Let us never forget that we wait not simply for a baby, but for a risen Messiah whose life reverberates throughout the rhythms of our lives together.
Rejoice in the Lord! And again I say rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all. And the unbounded hope, unsurpassable peace, effervescent joy, and abounding love of God be with us all. Ever more. Amen.