Sermon St John the Baptist Mildenhall, 16th December 2018
Third Sunday of Advent: Philippians 4.4-7 & Luke 3.7-18
The readings set for this third Sunday of Advent seem to be not quite the same in their message. Whereas Paul tries to reassure the Christians in Philippi by saying “Do not worry about anything”, John the Baptist, on the other hand, seems to have completely the opposite message: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” So, what should we do? Worry, or not?
I think the answer is ‘both’, which makes this message particularly suited for this season of Advent. As we draw nearer to the 25th of December, many of us will have started worrying about the logistics of Christmas. Have we ordered the turkey? Have I got my presents? Am I still on time for posting my Christmas cards? And, what will the weather be like for those of us travelling? Indeed, lots to worry about.
However, on the other hand, we know, or at least I hope we know, that ultimately these things don’t matter that much. I’m sure that we will be forgiven if our cards arrive a couple of days late. And, even if we don’t manage to get a turkey, I would hope that those closest to us will understand, and not stop talking to us altogether.
Ok, one might say, the true Christian message, about which our readings today are speaking, are not about post-cards and turkeys, but about ‘real’ things: God and our salvation. But before saying a bit more about this, I would like to go back to our practical Christmas arrangements. Because I think that the pattern reveals something fundamentally important to our spiritual lives too. What this example reveals is that our intentions matter. And, to a large extent, as long as our intentions are right, we indeed do not have to worry. As long as we care, we don’t have to worry.
So, to exaggerate slightly: suppose I have invited twelve people around for Christmas lunch. It would be wrong not to care at all about what they will eat. If they would appear at my flat today, they would be very much disappointed, and probably not return for another Christmas celebration. However, suppose that I am trying to get everything ready, but suddenly something happens: my car breaks down, or I get ill. In that case, I am pretty sure that those who have been invited would happily help getting the last-minute shopping, or bring their own lunch. At least, if they are true friends, they would not mind.
So, yes, we do need to care, but we don’t need to worry.
That, in essence, is the truth of the Christian story as well. John the Baptist here is warning against complacency, not trying to make us feel absolutely miserable all the time. He says “Do not say to yourselves ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’”. Do not think that by your pedigree you have done all that you needed to do. It is a warning against entitlement: don’t think that you’ve deserved something, just because of who you are.
John then continues by telling us very clearly where our priorities should be. We must share. We cannot keep everything that we have for ourselves, but we have to share it with those who are less fortunate. Again, this is not about making your own life completely miserable. John does not command us to give everything away, but only that which we don’t need ourselves: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none”. Thinking about it, that’s not too much to ask, is it?
The Gospel reading then continues to speak about judgement, using the image of the Holy Spirit and fire. Again, the message is two-fold: judgement is something about which we should care, but not worry. Fire is both scary, if for example applied to the traditional image of hell. But, on the other hand, fire can also be beautiful, encouraging, and comfortingly warm: a fire that needs to be kindled in us.
Judgement is not a threat, nor is it a reward – or maybe it is both: it is something that enables us to see the truth, particularly the truth about ourselves. Whereas judgement is this world is imperfect, as Christians, we believe that God is able to judge us truthfully and justly. He knows not only what we have done, but also the intentions of our hearts, and our deepest desires and longings. He will not judge us only for the outcome of our actions, but also for their intentions.
In that sense, judgement is something to look forward to: we don’t need to be anxious, but we can trust that the truth will prevail. Looking forward to those famous words from John’s Gospel: the Word who came to the world “full of grace and truth”. Truth is not something of which we need to be scared, but it will be accompanied by grace.
So, part of our spiritual preparation during this season of Advent is not just to change our actions, but also our intentions: as we prayed in our Collect “grant that we may so prepare by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just”, so that “we may be found an acceptable people in God’s sight”. We are not expecting to become perfect people, but acceptable is good enough.
There is one other thing to be said about preparations, judgement and joy. When we prepare, of course, at the horizon is our destiny: there would be not much point in Advent without Christmas. But at the same time, our preparations, whether practical or spiritual, can be a source of joy themselves.
To start with a material example. As some of you may know, for a number of years now we have been collecting stockings for children who won’t get much over Christmas. When we were sorting all the gifts yesterday, it struck me that I was enjoying the process of wrapping presents, thinking where they may go. The joy was in the preparation. And so it is also for our spiritual lives. Depending on your theological tradition, this life is a preparation for the life to come. But that does not mean that we cannot and should not value the life we are living now: we need to care about what we do with it, but not necessarily worry.
So, as we draw closer to Christmas, maybe we can take some time to reflect where we ourselves need to worry less, but also where we may need to care more. So that, when Christmas comes, we will be as well prepared as we can be. Amen.