A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent
Many preachers like to ease their listeners into their sermons. They might use a prayer or some liturgical words. They might also use a joke or an anecdote or an observation from everyday life.
John the Baptist – not so much. His opening words are: “You brood of vipers!”. I’m sure it got people’s attention, but I don’t think I’ll be trying this approach any time soon.
If anyone else wants to give it a go, though, I’d be interested to come and see what happens!
One thing going for starting this way, though, is that people certainly knew where they stood with John. He also asks them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”. In other words, what are you doing here without any fruits of repentance? John then finishes his demolition job on the crowd by calling their ethnic and religious heritage based on descent from Abraham meaningless.
We sometimes skip past this last bit, but it’s huge. The idea of a covenant with God based on being a descendent of Abraham is central to the Hebrew Scriptures, to Israel’s identity, and to the Jews’ understanding of salvation. But John brushes this aside, because claiming the promises of Abraham without the faith of Abraham simply doesn’t work. John makes it clear that people can’t be complacent and assume they’re part of the in-crowd just because of their religious inheritance. Instead, they must show that they’re really living and breathing the faith they’ve inherited.
For us, it might be like a preacher telling us, “Don’t presume to say, ‘We’re baptized!’ Show your faith by your actions or get ready for the axe.”
So, after that admittedly challenging beginning, we may be left with the same question as the crowd: “What then should we do?”. On one hand this can be seen as just a straightforward request for information on how to meet John’s demands. For this, John’s answer is simple. We need to share what we have with those in need, avoid oppressing others, and be glad for what we have.
But on the other hand, “what then should we do” can also be a deeper question. How many of us have looked at the huge and pressing problems facing our world and wondered what on earth we can do about any of them? How many of us have faced personal circumstances or relationships that have left us wondering what we can do? I suspect we all have at one time or another. We know the crowd’s question all too well. It’s the question we ask when life is complicated and difficult, and the world has gone mad – or at least madder than usual. When we ask this question it’s often about feeling we’re up against something too big for us to handle. It’s about feeling powerless.
But, while fierce, John’s message isn’t one of powerlessness or hopelessness. Instead, John tells the crowd what they can do. He doesn’t tell them to change others but themselves. He doesn’t tell them to leave their jobs in order to do something huge to change the world, but to live their lives differently, and show something of God in that. This crowd of ordinary people couldn’t end poverty by themselves, but they could help others, and make a difference to someone else. They couldn’t change the unjust tax system, but they could be honest, and show a better way to do things to the local officials.
For those who want the world fixed right now John’s answers aren’t very satisfactory. But let’s be honest, even Jesus didn’t change the world at one stroke. He gave himself to the world one person, one relationship, one moment at a time. He loved the world to death and beyond. He showed a different way of being, a different way of living and relating, he offered different priorities and values, and then invited us to join and follow him. In doing all that he showed us what it means and looks like to be human, to be the dwelling place of God.
As we approach Christmas, we remember once again the birth of Jesus in a tiny village off the beaten track. A new-born baby in an ordinary family is practically the definition of powerlessness. Yet, from that tiny and unpromising beginning, God began the still ongoing work of changing the world, one person at a time. A work which has now changed millions of lives over 2000 years, and which will continue until everything is put right.
And this is work which we are invited to take part in, striving, in God’s power, to do what we can, where we can, one person, one relationship, one moment at a time, changing the world bit by bit.