Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow –Third Sunday in Advent –
16th December 2018
Zephaniah 3 vv 14 – E God will honour the faithful remnant of Israel
Luke 3 vv 7 – 18 The preaching of John the Baptist
Theme: Preparation for the coming of Christ
1. Introduction. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath!” proclaims John the Baptist to the crowd of people who had come from Jerusalem, Judah and perhaps Galilee, to the River Jordan, to hear the preaching of this unusual man, whose purpose was to prepare people for the coming of the Jewish Messiah or in Greek, the Christ. Would you go out to the banks of the Medway at Tonbridge, Golden Green or Maidstone to listen to a preacher who began his sermon in such a way? I doubt it.
I have only once come across a prominent leader of modern times making such caustic remarks, when a British MEP said to the incoming President of the European Council, “I don’t want to be rude but, really you have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low grade bank clerk. And the question I want to ask you is: ‘Who are you? I’d never heard of you; nobody in Europe had ever heard of you.’” That British MEP was fined 3,000 € for his discourteous remarks. He was however probably largely influential in persuading sufficient people in this country to vote for leaving the EU to tip the balance in the referendum from ‘remain’ to ‘leave’. Charismatic figures can be uncomfortable people but sometimes achieve remarkable results.
2. John’s ministry. This Advent we began lectionary year C in which the many of our Sunday Gospel readings are from Luke’s Gospel. Luke has the fullest account of John the Baptist’s birth, calling and ministry. Last week we considered who John the Baptist was. Today we look at his preaching. After the very forthright introduction to his sermon, John goes on to advise the crowds about simple matters of their lifestyle if they were going to be ready to welcome God’s Messiah. I find it quite surprising that so many people went to hear him. Clearly he had already aroused interest. Some people were even thinking that he was the Christ.
Firstly addressing the bulk of the people there, he tells them as Jews not to rely on their ancestry as a basis for God’s salvation. “Do not say ‘We have Abraham as our father’. A bit like someone today saying, “Of course I am a Christian. I am an Englishman. I was born in England. I have been baptised. My mother sent me to Sunday school.” ‘If that’s not enough, what should we do?’ was the reaction of the crowd. His general answer to all the people there was to say, ‘Have a real concern for the poor. If you have two coats, give one to a poor person. Share your food with someone is hungry.’
Then John deals with the questions of particular groups of people. There were some tax collectors there who had come for baptism. The tax collectors were strongly disliked people. They were in the pay of the Romans with a contract to collect Roman taxes; they often used duress to exact more than they should. John tells them not to collect more than they should. If they make such a commitment they will be ready to be baptised, a ceremonial act denoting cleansing from sin. Ritual purity was very important then. At the temple there were many baths for ritual cleansing. John knows that for people to be ready to meet God, to accept God’s Messiah, it was not just the outward observances of religion but the inner state of a person’s relationship with their fellow human beings that mattered. God’s Messiah was going to appear as a man and so if people weren’t acting considerately to other people how could they have a proper relationship with the Messiah? The demand on the tax collectors in one sense was simple but it was also quite demanding. Not easy to take a cut in pay to serve God.
The second group to ask a question were some soldiers. What were they doing there? They were Romans, not Jews. What was their interest in the Messiah? The Jewish leaders were always fearful of some popular movement that would turn into a revolt against the established order and bring down the wrath of the Roman occupying power. They had probably foreseen this danger with the crowds who were going out to hear John the Baptist’s preaching and had arranged with Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, for soldiers to be on hand to listen out for any subversive talk and to keep good order. Baptism is not mentioned to the soldiers. John tells them not only must their way of life be considerate to the people in the host country but also he tells them to be content with their pay.
Now, have you thought that the person writing the Gospel was himself a Gentile? Luke was both a physician and the personal companion of the Apostle Paul on his missionary journeys. It seems to me significant that the two specific groups of people that he records are both in the employ of the Romans, with one group being specifically Gentile. Luke is in effect saying to Gentiles, ‘The Christian Gospel is just as much for you as for the Jews’. Luke it is who in the previous chapter records the Spirit inspired words of Simeon at Jesus’ presentation as a baby in the Temple, that Jesus is ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of your people Israel’.
3. Our Advent preparation. If a modern ‘John the Baptist’ appeared what would he say to people to prepare them for the second coming of Christ? Each Sunday we say in the Eucharistic prayer, “Christ will come again”. The difficulty is that we don’t know when that will be. As recorded in the Gospels, Jesus gives us signs, he warns us against false Messiahs, but he is deliberately vague about the precise timing. Signs have been and are being fulfilled in our own lifetime. It could be in the next ten years or possibly not until a 1,000 years hence, on one understanding of the prophecies in Daniel. The key words of Jesus are ‘Watch and pray’.
To return to the concept of a modern day John the Baptist, he would I believe, like his predecessor, challenge us about some fairly basic but nonetheless important aspects of our lifestyles, of not using violence, have a genuine compassion for the poor rather than treating them as spongers, paying our due taxes.
One additional thing I believe he would say is “Care for God’s creation”. This is part of our responsibility to God and our responsibility to Society, to our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. One of God’s early acts in the creation account was to give humankind a responsibility for whole natural order. It is not my purpose in a sermon to give detailed prescriptions on matters which require careful examination before making decisions. Broadly our care is expressed in the food we eat, the way we travel in our use of energy, in the packaging of goods and recycling. These are not things to be left to Greenpeace and the many other secular organisations. The Church in the UK is already in many ways doing things such as installing solar panels, encouraging healthy eating, providing food for the poor through food banks. Each of us in some way or even several ways needs to do something.
People responded positively to John the Baptist’s preaching. They were willing to change their lifestyles. As a sign of this repentance they were willing to be baptised in the River Jordan to symbolise cleansing from their sins. Jesus taught us that we should not only pray for forgiveness of our own sins but should be willing to forgive people who in some way have hurt us, wronged us. The two are linked. We are not in a state to receive forgiveness when we are harbouring an unforgiving spirit against some else.
Prince Charles expressed this very well at a recent service in Westminster Abbey to celebrate the contribution of Christians in the Middle East. He said, “Forgiveness, as many of you know far better than I, is not a passive act, rather it is an act of supreme courage, of a refusal to be defined by the sin against you, of a determination that love will triumph over hate.”
4. Conclusion. Let us then in this Advent season prepare not only for the celebration of Christ’s first coming 2000 years ago but also work for and look forward to that day, whether it be soon or further away, when Jesus will come again to this earth at the fulfilment of the kingdom of God. Let us, as Jesus taught us, ‘Watch and pray’, watching in an active and caring way for our family, our neighbours, our friends and enemies and for God’s creation, for his sake and the sake of our children, our grandchildren and, maybe be, many generations. Let us affirm with joy and anticipation the words in the Eucharistic Prayer, “Christ will come again”
1561 words Christopher Miles