On Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, the focus is on John the Baptist. In the Gospel of Luke, John gave very practical advice to those who came to him and wanted to know how to live their lives better. He didn’t pretend that they were perfect, nor did he ask them to do the impossible. It’s the same for us today. Behind the masks we all wear, there are many imperfections but we are not asked to do the impossible.
The readings on Sunday were Philippians 4:4-7 and Luke 3:7-18. The reflection from the service is given below.
Many years ago I remember sitting down in my church to listen to the sermon. It was not being preached by our vicar but by our churchwarden, who preached on occasion. George was held in great affection by the people of the church. He had a deep and sincere faith and made no secret of it. He is the only person I have known who entered a house with the words: ‘Peace be upon this house’. And he meant it.
He had spent much of his life in the army, was a no-nonsense kind of man and enjoyed an evening at the pub. He was pretty good at pub quizzes and was often quiz master. He also had a noticeable effect on his non-Christian friends at the pub. Whenever he was there, all swearing ceased. If a swear word escaped someone’s lips it was swiftly followed by an apology. This effect was not due to anything George said but simply due to who he was. All in all, George was not someone who could be in a place unnoticed.
I had heard several of George’s sermons. They were down to earth, very real, true to the Bible. He sometimes completely abandoned his notes if he felt the Spirit telling him to say something different. (Luckily for him he didn’t work in SL with a reader program!). This meant that we were never quite sure which direction a sermon might go in but it was always worth listening.
So on the occasion I am thinking of, I sat down with anticipation, knowing I would find George’s sermon helpful and inspiring. Imagine my surprise, and the surprise of all the rest of the congregation, when George ascended the pulpit steps, arranged his notes and then uttered one word in his best sergeant-major bellow: ‘Sinners!’ A shiver of shock ran round the church, people sat up straight and looked at one another as if to say, ‘Has he lost his mind?’ One thing was sure, George had our full and undivided attention as we waited to see what would follow that one bellowed word.
George went on to explain that he was echoing the way the preachers of old used to address their listeners. I can’t remember what followed but he was taking us back to the days of sermons such as ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ by Jonathan Edwards. No mincing of words, no pious phrases, just raw truth about the human condition and our hopelessness in the face of it without God’s intervention.
I couldn’t help but think of George and his sermon when reading today’s Gospel passage from Luke. John addressed his listeners: ‘You brood of vipers!’ Like George, he grabbed the attention of those who heard. His cousin, Jesus, did it differently, giving an invitation which cut straight to the heart of the matter: ‘Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.’
We all wear masks to hide what we are really like. I’ve said before that we wouldn’t want the hidden bits of our lives, the secret sins, the nasty thoughts, the unbecoming urges, to be displayed in the bubbles above our heads here in SL. I certainly wouldn’t want that. We want to be liked and being known fully as we really are, warts and all, is a very frightening idea. We pretend instead that all is well, with us, with our families, with our churches. We don’t want to ‘hang out our dirty laundry in public’. We don’t want to be thought of as not good enough.
These masks are very dangerous though. We’re all playing a game, not being real with one another. That means that suffering is hidden as it’s just not the done thing to reveal that we are struggling with sin, that addiction rules our lives, that we are prone to hurting our family and so on. Our churches should be places where those who are hurting and struggling can be open and receive the help and support they need but instead they see seemingly impossible standards held up as the norm and then feel that they cannot meet those standards. They keep quiet about their weaknesses and heartaches, and miss out on the help and comfort that could be theirs.
John swept away the pretence with his words. It’s as though he was saying, ‘Let’s just be clear where we’re starting from’. Only in that way could he then present what was essentially good news, even if at first it seemed not to be.
There’s no doubt that John got the attention of his hearers. John used that opening and said, in The Message translation, ‘It’s your life that must change, not your skin. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.’ He invited the people to look deeply into themselves, beyond the mask that they might wear to shield even themselves from the reality of what they were like, and see clearly how they were living. In response, rather like those who listened to Peter on the day of Pentecost, they asked him: ‘What then shall we do?’ They were open to change.
Unlike the churches I mentioned earlier where there is pretence and apparently unattainable standards of behaviour, John was very practical in the advice he offered. He didn’t ask the people to do 10 impossible things before breakfast. He simply asked them to make changes in the way they lived within their current circumstances. The poor ordinary people were to share what they had. The tax collectors were not to leave Rome’s employ but simply to deal fairly with those whom they collected from. The soldiers were not to exploit their power to frighten and coerce people but to be content with their lot.
What John was asking of the people was something that was doable, even for the most humble and ordinary person. It’s a message we need to hear today. We live in a complex world where it’s hard, even if we live in a democracy, to see what effect we as individuals can have. We can feel so overwhelmed that we are paralysed into inaction. It’s no use being faced with a message that makes us feel guilty and inadequate because we are not doing the impossible to change the world.
Our God uses the small things in life to bring big changes. A small baby born to a young woman in the little town of Bethlehem. A band of insignificant fishermen and others. A little boy’s picnic. Slaves. Women. Young people. You. Me.
Even though God can see beyond our masks, even though he knows how small and weak we are, he loves us and accepts us. There is nothing to fear in being seen clearly by God. We are invited to play our part in his plan to transform the world by making simple changes in our lives. Superman and Wonder Woman need not apply.
All that is needed is what Paul tells the Philippians: ‘Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.’
PS My friend George died peacefully on Monday from cancer. I imagine when he reaches the gate of Heaven he will say ‘Peace be upon this house’ before entering the eternal home God has prepared for him.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor