Sunday 13 December 2015
Zephaniah 3:14 – end Luke 3:7-18
May I speak in the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Even now the axe is lying at the foot of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Oh, that feel’s better.
It is pretty uncomfortable being at the receiving end of a prophet’s fiery condemnation. Prophets are not easy people to be around – prophets tell us the truth about ourselves, they force us to take a long hard look at the people we are, at the people we have become and they force us to confront the fact that we may not be as good as we like to think we are.
We like people who stroke our egos, who make us feel good about ourselves and who tell us that everything is going to be alright regardless of what we do and how we act. But we tend to feel threatened by those who say that the status quo is not acceptable, that we need to change in order to be the people that God made and intended us to be.
Before we think a little further about our biblical prophet John the Baptist it is worth remembering that prophets don’t just exist within the pages of the bible. If we are ears to hear and eyes to see they are all around us – warning us that the way we are living now is not what God intends for us and that unless we change our ways we will be in trouble.
There was a quietly spoken scientist on Radio 4 on Wednesday morning who was speaking about species loss and he said, in a very understated, undramatic way that because of the use of pesticides, because of climate change and because of other changes in agriculture we are losing large numbers of pollinating insects and pest control insects – i.e. things like bees and butterflies and ladybirds that eat aphids and so forth. He said that as you remove species from the system you don’t necessarily get a gradual decline in effectiveness but that systems like pollination and natural pest control can collapse rapidly. And his closing words were, quite simply, that if this were to happen we would not be able to grow food in this country.
This past week we have also seen the dramatic pictures of Cumbria being flooded by Storm Desmond and, of course, the people of Tonbridge know what being flooded just before Christmas feels like. As the world gets warmer it doesn’t mean that we get nicer weather it means that there is more energy and more moisture in the atmosphere and around the world we are seeing extreme weather events become more frequent. We certainly seem to be getting lots of 1 in 100 years events.
But both species lost and climate change are not hopeless or irreversible. If we reduce carbon emissions and change farming and gardening techniques to encourage wildlife it is still not too late. The nations of the world have been meeting in Paris for the last two weeks to agree a new treaty on climate change [and it looks as though agreement was reached last night to try and keep temperature rises below 2 degrees c]. But regardless of what happens on the world stage it is still up to each of us to do our bit to reduce comsumption and to help wildlife.
But how often do we really listen to the prophets who speak on these issues and how often do we tune out the white noise because we don’t want our lifestyles to change?
And we can hardly ignore the fact that our country is once again bombing another middle Eastern country in the hope of eradicating terrorism. We have been invading and bombing the middle East for decades now and has the threat of terrorism decreased or increased over that time? Have all our bombs and rhetoric made the middle East a better or a worse place? Western bombs do not cure terrorism they create the conditions in which terrorism flourishes. And, yes, I do think ISIS need to be stopped but no amount of bombs falling on Raqqa would have stopped the San Bernadino shooter, the Paris shooters, the Russian airline bomb, the Tunisian beach shooter and so on. If we killed every single person in ISIS occupied territory do we honestly think that terrorism would disappear?
Do we ever listen to the prophets of peace, do we ever try a different way? No, we reach for the same old failed solutions because, right or wrong, something must be done and the tabloids love a good war.
Our faith should make us open our eyes and ears to the prophets around us now who are pointing us towards different paths – paths of peace with one another and paths of harmony with our planet. But, on the whole, we ignore them because the siren call of the values of this world sound so much stronger.
John the Baptist was a saint and a prophet who saw the complacent and lazy religiosity of those around him and who said that God wanted them to do better, to try harder, to bear fruit worthy of their calling – and, of course, to tell them that someone else was coming who was going to change everything.
The Church is often obsessed with presentation and appearances. If we look good and say the right thing in just the right way, if we make people feel good about themselves then surely they will come to church.
John the Baptist didn’t subscribe to that theory. He looked rough, he must have smelt bad and he had a great way with words:
“You brood of vipers!”
And yet, for all that, the people went out to him to be baptized. Why? Because through all his coarseness he utters the seductive promise that has a mesmeric effect.
He tells the people, ‘you can begin again, you can change; it is not all hopeless; you can pick yourself up and start over.’ The past cannot be erased, it cannot be made to disappear, but it can be refashioned, it can be healed, damaged beauty can receive a new design.
Sometimes, as Christians in an increasingly secular world, our experience is not so different from those who flocked into the wilderness. If we want to begin again, if we want to respond to the voice which calls us to repentance, we have to become resident aliens, internal exiles. That experience can hit us hard. We are not used to it. At times in the past we enjoyed belonging. To be a Christian was to be a conformist. Now to be a Christian is to be a rebel or even a prophet in a world which does not want to hear, for example, that God calls us to be so much more than compliant consumers and that there are values that surpass price.
Those who went out into the wilderness, believing in John’s promise of beginning again, took up the cross of exile, of not belonging. They went in search of truth even to admitting the truth about themselves: they confessed their sins.
But being in the wilderness is not easy, and it makes no difference whether it is a wilderness of sand or a wilderness of the soul. In the wilderness the comforts and the distractions of normal life are removed and we are forced to take a long hard look at ourselves. And what we find when we look at ourselves may not be comfortable and we may find that John’s words, directed at the Pharisees and the Sadducees may actually be directed at us and our continuing need for conversion of life. To turn around from what we are and to actively seek what God would have us be. And as the Pharisee and Sadducees could not take for granted that they were descendants of Abraham to assure their real relationship with God neither should we take the state of our soul for granted.
As a Vicar I am often required to preserve the status quo and to be gentle with people and that is certainly an important part of my pastoral role – however today it is important for both you and I to remember that the oath I took at ordination and licencing also contains a hint of John the Baptist as the ordinal says that priests should “call their hearers to repentance” and, like John, the priest points the way towards the one who is coming – the one whom John baptised, the one we remember being born at the nativity and the one who will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Brothers and Sisters, this Advent let us embrace the challenge of the wilderness with all its freedoms and fears, let us remember that no matter how often we fall down the secret to sainthood is to keep getting up and, as we wait for the coming of Christ at the nativity let us remember that we have been baptized not only with water but also with the fire of the Holy Spirit and that we should always seek always to bear the fruit of repentance.
And I promise not to call you a brood of vipers again, at least until next Advent.