John the Baptist

3rd Sunday in Advent St James 12th Dec 2021

Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20, Philippians 4: 4 – 7, Luke 3: 7 – 18

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

[done emphasis, need to deal with quotes]

I really think I should have asked Steve to issue a warning before reading the Gospel: This passage contains strong language and descriptions of scenes which some listeners may find distressing.

At the beginning of the service today we lit the pink candle – signifying an easing in the supposed austerity of this purple, penitential season of Advent. Today is Gaudete Sunday, a day to turn the focus to joy and rejoicing. In the Old Testament reading the prophet Zephaniah captures the joy of the restoration of Jerusalem, of salvation through the divine presence once again in the midst of the city. Likewise in his letter to the Philippians from his prison cell we find Paul, far from downcast and despairing, exhorting his hearers to rejoice and be at peace in the knowledge of the close presence of the Lord.

So what of John the Baptist and his exhortations – did he not get the email reminder that today is a day to rejoice?

I don’t know how closely you were listening to the gospel reading – perhaps when you heard the crowds, who had come out to the wilderness to see John baptising, being addressed as a brood of vipers and the threat of the axe and the unquenchable fire, you may have started to feel rather queasy and be tempted to switch off. But if you listened right through the last verse, you would have heard Luke say that in this way John proclaimed the good news to the people.

Good news?  Really? How is this frankly terrifying prospect of coming judgement good news? And what does it have to do with this time of waiting and preparation for the birth of a baby in Bethlehem.

I wonder what it was that drew those crowds out into the wilderness to be lambasted in that direct and penetrating way by John? Could it be they were longing for a better world? A longing that after centuries in which God had seemed distant, and no prophetic words had been heard, people were looking for a Messiah, for one who would save them and restore the kingly reign of God in Israel? Perhaps John was the one to provide them with some answers.

And if people then were longing for a better world – what of us?  Do we not long for a better world? For a world in which justice is paramount. Where billionaires and the starving no longer exist side by side. A world where violence against women and children is no more. A world where the displaced and dispossessed are given welcome. A world which cares for the earth and in which everyone has an equal share of its resources. I could go on and on. What should we do then with all that longing?

People then were longing for God to intervene in their world. Perhaps we long too for God to intervene in our world. And that is the thrust of John the Baptist’s preaching: the Messiah is coming, and you will know the presence of God amongst you once more.

And that too is the thrust of this Advent time of preparation for God’s coming into the world. We celebrate the historical moment in time of the birth of Jesus but, even more, Advent urges us to look forward to the time which that birth heralds – the ultimate fulfilment of God’s kingdom when all that is wrong will be righted. And if that’s not good news, I don’t know what is.

But the crowds know, and we know that we can’t just sit back passively and wait for the kingdom to arrive in some future moment. It demands our active participation now.

What then should we do? we say, along with the crowds, the tax collectors, the soldiers. Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Listen to how The Message translates these words of John:

It’s your life that must change, not your skin. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.

Uncompromising stuff; strong language! If you want to see a different world It’s your life that must change.

What then should we do?

This is what John said: If you have two coats, give one away. Do the same with your food.

To the tax men, he said, No more cheating—collect only what is required by law

And even the soldiers were there: no blackmailing or torture – be content with what you have.

‘Produce fruit in keeping with repentance’

Repentance is more than simply saying sorry – it literally means to turn around, to develop a different mindset so that we live life differently, we live it from the perspective that God is present in our world and his kingdom is paramount. So, it might mean working out how you handle your wealth and resources, however meagre they might be; it’s about doing your job with integrity; it’s about living a life of honesty, generosity and justice; it’s about exercising good stewardship of the earth.

And within the pressures of everyday life that can be the hardest thing, can’t it? We can sit in the pews on Sunday morning and resolve to make those changes. It can be an altogether different thing to live them out on a Monday morning when others around you may want to take the path of expediency rather than justice; or we feel the need to accumulate more wealth and possessions than we truly need.

Perhaps you’d like to think for a moment about where you will be at, say, 11am tomorrow. Who will you be with? What will you be doing? What decisions might you be taking which affect others? How will you be spending your money?

Maybe there are some things which you feel uncomfortable about. If so, it wouldn’t be surprising because John’s uncompromising message calls us all to account in a world whose resources are held by a very small percentage of the population, in a world in which social and economic injustice is systemic.  What John is saying is that the change that we long for in the world begins within each one of us.

That Advent is a penitential season, is a reminder that we won’t experience the birth of the babe in Bethlehem with the joy that greets the breaking in of God’s kingdom, unless we do heed John’s call to repentance. But neither his preaching nor the baptism he offers can actually empower lives to be changed. If John’s message were all we had, we would be left with a to-do list which would soon go the way of most good intentions.

The good news is that in Jesus, God has sent us one who is more powerful than John, with gifts greater than the crowd can imagine. This Messiah brings a baptism of spirit and of fire: the very breath and power of God to change everything. It is Emmanuel, God with us, empowering us through our baptism and renewing us by our sharing in the eucharist, to be participants in God’s plan for the world, the world of justice and peace for which we long.

That is very good news indeed. It is the source of our joy, not just today, or on Christmas Day but for all time.