I am so very often surprised by the number of people who appear to miss the fact that John the Baptist (who we focus on today as the third Sunday in Advent) is loud, proud, and not just a little bit rude with his message. When they ask him what they should do to prepare for the coming of the Messiah his response is simple: "STOP SINNING!"
What else could he say to them? Take a look at those who come to him in today's Gospel (Luke 3.7-18):
To the crowds he points them to God, not the fact that they are Jews. Does this thinking apply to us as Christians? Be afraid, for I think that it does! Are we producing fruit 'in keeping with our repentance'? Does the gratitude for our salvation have any substance in the way we live or do we think that attending church, wearing a cross (fish), and dropping money in the offering makes us fit for heaven?
Do you think the crowds were asking themselves how much bad stuff they were laying up alongside, or instead of, the treasures they should have been storing up in heaven? Yet this is what John was calling them to focus on. John was calling them (and us) to look at the ways they (we) can raise their game and live differently.
Are these the choices that those around John the Baptist were thinking of when they ask: "What should we do then?" How do you reckon they respond when he tells them to share what they have (two shirts is just a starting place) with those who have nothing?
When John tells the crowd to, "Be generous and give to those who have need as God gives to our needs,” how do you think they respond?
When the tax collectors asked John what they should do his answer was simple: "Stop stealing." There’s no wiggle room there, is there?
When the the soldiers came and asked what they should do, they were told to act rightly (we call this Professional, Appropriate, and Lawful in our armed forces). Justice, mercy and humanity (Micah 6) also spring to mind here.
He didn't tell anyone that God wanted them to be happy doing what they saw as fit and right to do (regardless of what the Bible might teach). He didn't tell them to give more money - because God doesn't want your money, He wants your hearts and lives filled with love and generosity in things, actions, and in spirit.
He told the people before him to live a godly and righteous life in the things and the places they were returning to after the show - and that is exactly what the prophecy of Malachi some four hundred years before called the people to do. And they didn't and so, with the arrival about to be made public, John is trying to get the people to get their lives in order so they look at least a little bit presentable. This is not a harsh rebuttal but an act of generosity for it’s giving those hearing his words the chance to turn around (that’s a clever use of ‘repent’ innit?) – and this is what we are also doing when we encourage people to change their lives before it’s too late.
Living our lives well, looking and sounding and acting like Jesus, in the world is one of the most important witnesses we can make to our being people of faith. You don't need a dog collar or a title or a medal - you need to exhibit the generous heart of God and that needs a cross – and gratitude, rejoicing in the freedom from sin and reconciliation with the godhead that that brings. Here we find the fruits of gladness become made real in our generous and right living. It’s so simple really, isn’t it?
And on a day when we are called to rejoice - For the third Sunday of Advent is called 'Gaudete' Sunday (Gaudetemeans rejoice) – rejoicing is the natural response to the fact that God has taken away the punishment of his people and has ‘turned back’ their enemy. The reality in the words of Zephaniah given some time around 620 BC is the same reality that Jesus’ death on the cross brings for the Christian too. Jesus’ death brings defeat for our enemy (satan) and he (Jesus) bears in His body the punishment for us. He takes our place. What love. What generosity to pay a bill that wasn’t His to be paying! Jesus is the mighty warrior who save; them one who no longer rebukes but rejoices over us with songs of deliverance.
And the Apostle Paul gets into the act with his letter to the church in Phillipi, a communication which I think affirms all we have here, for when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice,” he is nodding towards the fact that to rejoice is a choice of attitude. It is the expression of our gratitude for all God has given and done for us. The outworking of this for your lives is to, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.”
So we are righteous and holy people who are living out they love of God in gentleness (gentle as dove and cunning as serpents – we are not pushovers). We trust God and pray, ask, thank and experience a peace that no one, and nowhere, provides.
What a great set of readings we had before us today.
How do the words above and the readings below shape us as Christians?
What do they say to those who claim to have no faith and how do we communicate what the words here have for them?
God for whom we watch and wait, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son: give us courage to speak the truth, to hunger for justice, and to suffer for the cause of right, with Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel!Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. On that day they will say to Jerusalem,“Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”
“I will remove from you all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals, which is a burden and reproach for you. At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honour in every land where they have suffered shame. At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honour and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,” says the Lord.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all.
The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptised by him, You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’
‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked.
John answered, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’
Even tax collectors came to be baptised. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’
‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’
He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, ‘I baptise you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.