There are four Sundays in Advent, and each one has its own theme or subject. We light our four Advent candles to remind ourselves what those subjects are. The trouble is that no one is quite sure which subject goes with which Sunday. Natalie Sleeth wrote an Advent song where the four Sundays brought us Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. We used those ideas one year and the words, printed out and laminated by Rachael Reddy, are displayed in the foyer.
If we look at the Candle prayers we have, the four Sundays bring us, Abraham and Sarah, the Prophets of the Old Testamant, John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, in that order.
But some preachers like to use another set of ideas – the Four Last Things - DEATH, JUDGMENT, HELL and HEAVEN. Maybe we can use that scheme next year!
But this year, let’s say that today is for John the Baptist. I just note in passing that the Collect for last Sunday all about John the Baptist and so was the Gospel.
Never mind, here he is again, on the Third Sunday of Advent, speaking to a great crowd of frightened people who have come out to hear him. Something has made the people anxious about the future – it may have been rumours of war or famine – in our day, the things that frighten people are nuclear war, terrorism and climate change. What ever it was that frightened them, the people have come out to see and hear John the Baptism.
John does not give them a nice comforting message. First he compares them to a crowd of poisonous snakes – You brood of vipers! he says.
Secondly he questions their motives. Why have you come to me? Who warned you to run away from your fears? What do you think you are doing, running around and calling for help? What were those people expecting when they came out into the wilderness to look for John the Baptist?
Thirdly, in five words, John tells them what they must do. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” In simple words, John says, “Do things which show that you have abandoned badness and chosen goodness.” Another way of putting it is to say, “Behave as the true children of God.”
And this brings us to John’s fourth point. “Don’t even think about saying, We have Abraham as out ancestor.” The Jews, the children of Israel, were proud to say that they were the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. God had promised that Abraham and Sarah would have children as numerous as the stars of heaven or the sands of the sea. It is true that the Jews are the descendants of Abraham and Sarah – DNA evidence certainly points in that direction.
But John is saying, this is not enough! It’s not enough to have Abraham and Sarah’s DNA – you need to have their faith and devotion to God as well. In other words, “If you say that you are descendants of Abraham and Sarah, then show me by the way you live your lives.”
John makes the point with two little jokes. The Hebrew word for ‘son’ as in male child, sounds like the word for stone, so if the sons of Abraham are no good, God can turn the stones into sons. The second joke is about Abraham’s family tree. God will cut down Abraham’s family tree if the fruit it bears is rotten people.
And the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?” and he answered, “If you claim to be children of God with the faith and devotion of Abraham flowing in your veins, then you must behave with justice and integrity, share your clothes and food, don’t cheat the tax man, don’t extort money. If you are a rich man – be a good rich man. If you are businessman or banker – do it with integrity. If you are a soldier or police officer – obey the law.
And all this, says John, is just the preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Baptism with water is a preparation for baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The Holy Spirit will blaze with God’s glory in those who are ready, but it will burn those who are not ready to ashes.
Now it is time to think about our response to this message, which is, as we are told, good news.
I guess that we need to look at our motives. What are we looking for? Why do we come along to church? What are we expecting to happen? There are many answers, but some of them we know – hope, peace, joy and love must be part of it. Justice for the disadvantaged, good news for the poor, respect and care for the environment, a community where all can belong and all can be encouraged and befriended.
No doubt you can think of the bad things of the world which must be fought against, sexism, racism, addictions, homophobia, discrimination and exploitation as well as our own attitudes of greed and selfishness. These are the rotten fruit on Abraham’s tree which will need to be cut off and thrown in the unquenchable fire.
The church exists as a community centred on God, the maker, sustainer and saviour of all that is. The church exists to be an encouragement and an example of the righteousness of God, in the same way Christians are Christians to show the fruit of God’s power, love and strength.
everything we do, in church, publicly or privately, is to affirm, encourage, equip and bless the people of God who ask the question, “What then should we do?”