Psalm 146:4-end, Zephaniah 3:14-end, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
So here we are, already the third Sunday of Advent! Today is Gaudete Sunday, the pink candle! It is a Sunday of Joy – (Gaudete = Rejoice). So why has the lectionary given us this Gospel, when we might be dwelling on joy and decorating our houses with light and sparkle. Surely no one wants to be chastised by John the Baptist this close to Christmas?
In our Gospel today, just as we are beginning to slip deeper into the Christmas season, something stops us in our tracks and shakes us out of pre-Christmas reverie – Luke’s account of the Proclamation of John the Baptist offers us the Baptist’s challenging, unsettling words from the wilderness. John the Baptist, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. The boy from the good church-going family who ran off to the wilderness and received the word of God. John was a wild, untamed man. He is an almost eccentric figure, living on the edge of society, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey, but he drew many people to him – there were crowds following him - his message was hard hitting, shocking even, but he was a prophet with fresh word from God, and the people who chose to follow him had a clear sense of that.
In our Gospel today, John chastises the crowd as a brood of vipers, resting on the laurels of their Abrahamic lineage. He gave them a clear warning: they would be judged harshly by God if they didn’t turn their lives around and repent.
On our journey through Advent, there is no getting to Bethlehem and the sweet baby in the manger without first hearing the wild prophet of the wilderness call us to repentance. In today’s Gospel, John abruptly halts our Christmas preparation and calls us to stop, confess our sin and be judged:
This isn’t all doom and gloom however, it is Gaudete Sunday after all. Luke refers to the Baptist’s message here as good news, and there is good news in this Gospel. It may be challenging, it may shake us out of our Christmas reverie, but it can help us on our journey to Bethlehem, and deepen our experience of Advent.
As a season of preparation and self examination, this is a perfect time to address the challenge John offers us. Held within the bigger context of the theme of Luke’s Gospel – one of ultimate salvation and hope - the Baptist’s harsh words can bear good fruits, and even comfort & joy.
As we hear in our Gospel, John’s preaching had convinced some of those people following him that what they were doing was wrong, and they wanted to express their repentance in baptism. There were those, like the tax collectors and soldiers who held power in society, power that could be abused. They wanted to make a change and begin again.
John the Baptist’s message is one of urgency. They must repent and quickly, for the end times are coming . ‘Even now’ John says, ‘the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
But the question to John from the crowds, from the tax collectors, from the soldiers, repeated three times in this short passage was: ‘Yes, but what should we do?’ It is a question that we too can ask ourselves this advent.
The crowds are told to share what they have with those who have nothing, the tax collectors to keep no more money than they needed, and the soldiers to treat others with care, to be fair and to be honest. John doesn’t ask the soldiers and tax collectors to leave their jobs, rather he wants them to act ethically, kindly and with justice within those jobs. He’s not asking them to change what they do, but how they do it.
John’s words created a sense of expectation amongst the crowd and they asked: Could this John be our Messiah? But The Baptist replied, ‘There is another coming more powerful and wonderful than I, and I am not even worthy to untie his laces’. The coming Jesus whom John described is very different from the tiny baby in the manger we are waiting for. John creates an unusual picture of Jesus, one I’ve never seen depicted in stain glass windows. It is Jesus the harvester and Judge, with his winnowing fork ready to divide the good harvest from the bad. It is a Jesus rooted in the Old Testament message of God’s coming judgement. It is the second coming of the Messiah to which John refers.
Although we look to the baby not the Judge, John is pointing to the imminent coming of the Messiah just as we are. It is an advent just as ours is. A time of waiting for the coming of something unexpected, something new. Both our Advent in 2021 and John’s Advent have a sense of urgency, waiting for God to change the world for ever through His only son.
During a season when we are busy looking ahead, preparing for the big day on the 25th December, John’s wilderness sermon is, for the most part, very much in the present. The matter seems to hinge almost entirely on what God is doing now, or is about to do. And that reminds us of the value of being present in Advent, here today, how can we prepare ourselves for the coming of the baby Jesus today, rather than tomorrow or two week’s time?
Repentance is sometimes a confusing concept to many Christians today. Does it mean feeling sorry for our mistakes? Is it a matter of trying to be a better person? For some the language of repentance dredges up feelings of guilt and unworthiness, a worry and fear that they will never be good enough when the day of judgement comes, when Jesus the harvester separates the wheat from the chaff.
What John – and Advent – remind us is that repentance is not primarily about how worthy we are, but rather about God’s desire to realign us with Christ. Repentance is not so much about guilty feelings as about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image
John may not ask us to drop everything then, and become a different person altogether, instead he might ask us to reflect on how we act towards one another. John’s idea of repentance is about relationship, how we treat our fellow human beings. It may not be so much about what we do, but how we do it. Generosity and kindness are the good fruit of repentance that John wishes us to bear.
This is a season of great generosity, when many give to charity, and I know we are good at that in this community. We are eager to bear good fruit at this time of year, but can we give any more? If we can’t manage to share any more material things or money, can we give more kindness, understanding, love and respect to each other?
Perhaps the greatest gift John the Baptist offers us is the knowledge that change within ourselves is truly possible through God’s grace. A call to recognise that perhaps we too are in that brood of vipers, that we all make mistakes, loose our way, and perhaps don’t always treat others as well as we could. But ultimately knowing that the Christ Child who we are journeying towards in our Advent will heal our brokenness, forgive our failings and bring us to Salvation. John’s call for self-reflection can help us meet the baby in the manger with a sense of new beginning, and of the wonder and mystery of God’s grace. Grounded in the knowledge that all that John asks of us is possible through it. And that is certainly joyful good news on Gaudete Sunday.
Rev Melanie Harrington