On 13 December, The Third Sunday of Advent, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were A Song of Deliverance, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18.
“Rejoice in the Lord always!” commands Paul.
“Shout and sing for joy!” exhorts Isaiah.
“The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire!” warns John the Baptist.
Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is Gaudate Sunday. It means Rejoice Sunday. The mood of Advent lightens. Even the colour of the Advent candle lightens from purple to pink. Paul and Isaiah direct our hearts to the joy of having God as the Lord who is near and who is our salvation. And then we hear what John the Baptist has to say!
John had a solemn charge, to prepare people for the coming of Jesus. There was no time to lose. Jesus was around, perhaps even hidden in the crowd listening to what John had to say. John needed to wake his listeners up, to shake them by the shoulders, to get their attention, to point out to them that God’s wrath was on its way. If those going to see the latest sensation, who was the talk of the area, expected to be praised for their attendance, they were soon challenged. I doubt if they anticipated being addressed as: “You brood of vipers!”
John knew the risk the Jews faced. They knew themselves as the chosen people, selected by God himself. If they relied on that special status, they were going to be unprepared for the coming of the Messiah. It was not enough to go through the motions of worshipping God, assuming heritage was sufficient to ensure blessing. Empty ritual, even by the chosen people, was not adequate to save them from the fire of God’s judgement. God did not need his chosen people. As John said, making a play on words as the word for stones and children sounds much the same in Aramaic, God could make new children for himself from the stones around that desert area. The people needed to understand that worship and lifestyle had to go hand in hand.
To the credit of the crowd, they didn’t stomp off in disgust at John’s impertinence. They began to ask the right questions. Basically they wanted to know what they could do about the situations they each found themselves in. At this point we find out that this reading is not mistakenly put on Rejoice Sunday. It really is a cause of rejoicing. John was not just pointing to God’s wrath and leaving the people shaking in fear. The God of judgement is a God of mercy too. That mercy is on offer to all who will accept it. Salvation is the solution to the problem of human sin.
A whole chapter of Leviticus is taken up with careful details about how someone who has sinned could arrange to be forgiven. It involved taking a sheep or a goat to the temple and having a special ritual performed to receive forgiveness. In contrast, John answered each question from the crowd with directions to take a simple course of action to rectify the situation. Those who were blessed with goods were to share with those who lacked. Tax collectors, known for extortion and dishonesty, were to levy reasonable taxes. Soldiers, who could supplement their income by demanding money or goods at the point of a sword, were to live content with what they were paid.
Of course, even heartfelt repentance was no guarantee of success in following John’s advice. God’s mercy is such that he offers the power of his Spirit to all who want it. The power and guidance of the Holy Spirit is available to save individuals from their own sinful behaviour and transform them into the likeness of Jesus. It’s not necessary to struggle on alone.
This is genuinely good news, as the Gospel passage claims. Despite the name calling and threats of judgement, at heart John’s message was the best of news. God was coming to gather his own to himself. Only those who persisted in ignoring his call would be subject to judgement. John’s style of preaching might not be to our taste. The Gospel calls it exhortation. He was urging the people as strongly as he could to take his message seriously, and it worked. We read that they were full of expectation, awaiting the Messiah.
At this time of Advent we too should be full of expectation. We look towards the day when Christ will return in all his glory. We also need to take John’s warnings seriously. If God could raise up children to replace the Jews, he can certainly do the same to replace complacent Christians. We have the opportunity to consider if we need to make changes as we prepare for the coming of Christ. If we do, we can bring our needs to God in prayer, confident that he will hear us and respond.
Rejoice in the Lord always! Why? Because he is near.
Rejoice in the Lord always! Why? Because he is our salvation.
Rejoice in the Lord always! Why? Because he is a God of mercy as well as judgement.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor