Sermon - 16th December 2012
Advent 3 - John the Baptist
Scripture - Zephaniah 3:14-18; Luke 3:7-18
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video]
I’ve thought for some time now that our experience of this very mystical and potentially powerful season of Advent depends on our own perspective. It depends on where we stand, and where we look, and what we expect to see.
It is possible to journey through Advent and to focus solely on the immediate horizon - namely, the coming Christmas celebration. And the more we invest in that celebration in terms of energy, excitement, planning and spending, the more we are likely to direct all our thoughts and reflections throughout the whole of December towards a magical Christmas Night, and a glorious Christmas Day, and the recovery offered by a lazy Boxing Day.
But Advent has its own message, a message which asks us to widen our perspective and look through the lens of Jesus’s birth so that we focus on the eternal. Advent takes the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures, places them alongside our knowledge and experience of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospels, and challenges us to prepare ourselves to meet Christ in glory when the Kingdom of God finally comes.
When we sing hymns about Christ coming “with clouds descending”, and “he judgment brings and victory”, we are looking towards a future event - a revelation yet to unfold, not commemorating a past event that we re-enact each winter.
We believe, as Christians, that our eternal life is to be spent in relationship with Jesus. And Advent says: start your yearly round of festivals and celebrations by thinking about that! In the things that you do at the start of this new church year, don't focus your perspective so tightly that you lose the vision of your ultimate destiny.
When John the Baptist said to the people around him that the Messiah was close and God's realm was at hand, they responded urgently by saying 'what must we do' to prepare for the coming of the new realm? What must we attend to? What should be our priorities?
Something about John’s words galvanized them as never before. The prophecies of the coming of the Messiah had been around for hundreds of years; false Messiahs were ten-a-penny; but John was saying “the true Messiah is coming after me - I am only the forerunner, the one who goes before; do not mistake me for him”. His message was urgent, his appearance and lifestyle were eccentric, his preaching was vigorous; he was telling his listeners that it was time to act and they wanted to know what they must do.
Zephaniah, the prophet in our first reading, was proclaiming 700 years previously that God, in the image of a victorious warrior, would come to the faithful remnant of Jerusalem and stand in her midst as the protector of God’s people, driving away enemies, renewing the people by love, dancing with joy as on a day of festival because they had been liberated from their enemies and from their sin. It was with an image in their minds of the coming of the Messiah in such a way as this, that John’s listeners felt compelled to ask “what must we do?” It must have seemed as if it was all going to be quite revolutionary.
And yet John’s reply to them suggests the kind of revolution it is actually going to be. It may not be a holy war against the Roman oppressors; the Messiah may not appear as a mighty protector of God’s people, driving away enemies; but the emphasis will be very firmly on delivery from evil. And so John says, this is how you must prepare yourselves for the coming of the Messiah:
- share what you have with those who have nothing,
- be fair in your dealings with other people,
- do not abuse any authority you may have over others.
It doesn’t sound very revolutionary! It doesn’t look as if it will bring about the dancing in the streets on the day of festival! It’s all rather personal and low-key. But it’s remarkably close to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth which are still to emerge fully in his own period of ministry.
There is also a penalty in John’s teaching for those who fail to turn away from evil and do good: that the chaff will be separated from the grain and will be burnt. John still hears and preaches the theme of judgment echoing through the Hebrew scriptures, and uses the image of the separation of grain from wheat to warn of the judgment which the Messiah will bring upon God’s people.
This was a tremendously vivid image to use to the people of that time. The commonest way to separate the wheat grain from the chaff was to use a fork to throw the wheat into the air and allow the wind to blow the lighter chaff away from the heavier grains. The people will have understood exactly what John was getting at and, once they understood, they were ready to act.
Today, as we read of those times around the start of Jesus’s ministry and the foundations of the good news for which John’s ministry paved the way, there are some powerful ideas which we are left with.
Before Jesus had even called the 12 disciples, John was telling his followers to prepare for the new realm of God by being just with one another, and by sharing their blessings with the less fortunate, and that we shall come before God and be judged at some point on the proportion of life-giving grain to death-dealing chaff that our lives produce.
In this day and age, this can be an unfashionable part of our faith to proclaim. It can seem unduly severe to say to people, many of whom have been through experiences of prejudice, injustice, human cruelty, and rejection, that another far greater judgment still awaits them. And this message of Advent is very far removed from the tinsel and glitter and sentiment and sweetness of the pre-Christmas period which we are likely to be feeding on at this time of year. But such a belief is part of our discipline - our discipleship - in the Christian faith which we cannot simply ignore, and it is one of the features of our faith which hopefully lifts our thoughts beyond the mundane to the eternal.
The gospel regularly reminds us that, in our relationship with God and with God’s creation, we are responsible and accountable for what we do.
We don’t know when or how we will be called to account; we do know that we are loved as children of God; we know that we can ask for forgiveness once we’ve put things right; we know that some souls have carried the Cross of Christ almost to breaking point and bear the scars; yet each of us also knows that there is room for repentance - for the turning away from evil towards that which is good. There, perhaps, is our challenge for today - to recognise that we will have things we must do, just as did John’s followers, to build our relationship with God and God’s people.
When we reach the time of silent reflection later in this service, I invite you to make some New Year’s resolutions - we are after all only 3 weeks into the church’s new year - ignore the chronological one which comes in a couple of weeks! Spend a few moments thinking about your eternal relationship with God in Jesus; consider some of the weaknesses in that relationship; and ask yourself, as did the followers of John, “what must we do?”
These Sundays of Advent are a rare opportunity and invitation to take stock of our life in Jesus. It is one of the pressures of modern life that cards, presents, decorations, trees, turkeys and puddings distract us so much at this time of year from the core of our faith. But it is one of the pressures of our discipleship that we should look occasionally beyond the chaff to the eternal life which Jesus promises and to which we all are destined.
John’s voice was of such power that he couldn’t be overlooked in his own day and, in a foreshadowing of what would befall Jesus, his message got him killed. That message cannot be overlooked in our own day, and it challenges us to put something distinctive, vigorous and radical into our own celebration of a season which can easily be overwhelmed by the mundane.
“What must we do?” - said John’s followers. Well, it all depends on where we stand, and where we look, and what we expect to see.