Tree -- check, Turkey -- check, Cards -- check, Faithfulness -- ?
Sunday, December 9, 2018 - 11:00 to 12:00
It was like a Christmas vignette: I was in a store watching a mother and her three children with great interest. She was wheeling a cart and in it was an infant child, who looked very warm and cosy. Next to her, another child helping to push the cart, the third child was hanging on to her coat, distracted by all the things on the shelves, and pulling the mother in different directions. It was utter chaos! I am not sure if you remember the famous Norman Rockwell painting of the salesgirl on Christmas Eve. She is sort of splayed out on the floor and the toys are all over the place! It is a bedlam and chaos! The painting, by the way, recently sold for $4.5 million! In it, the dishevelled salesperson looks as if she has no idea where anything goes! I thought this mother looked like that dishevelled salesperson in the Norman Rockwell painting. It seemed she had totally lost control. Yet, she maintained her strength and resolve, and finally, got to the checkout counter to pay for things – some of which she hadn’t put in the basket. As she waits, the chaos continues, and she says, “Now, I want you to be patient, be patient, just stop!” There is a star hanging, like the one here, over the displays in front of them. She points to the star, and she says, “Be patient, and just wait, wait for the One who is coming.” Three sets of eyes – the baby didn’t really get it – turned and looked where the mother pointed. For a moment there was peace!
What an incredible vignette of what Christmas is about: Be patient, and wait for the One who is coming. If that is not a statement about Advent, I don’t know what is! Advent literally means “the arrival” or “waiting for that which is to come”, but also anticipation of the arrival. Over the history of the church, this period between the reign of Christ and the coming of the birth of Jesus has been celebrated as a time of waiting for the arrival. It has been a time of preparation, a time for Christians to do some really hard soul searching, to think and prepare for what Christmas is all about. I have often been confused by Advent, and I am not sure if you are the same as me, because so often the texts are about people like John the Baptist from our wonderful passage in Luke’s Gospel – it is another one of those Advent texts that prepares us for Christmas. What I have never really understood is why it is John the Baptist that we are turning to, when he is speaking thirty years after the birth of Jesus. It is not preparing for the birth of Jesus; Jesus has already arrived. John is preparing people for the ministry of Jesus, the Cross, the Resurrection, and for the day of Salvation.
John’s words, though after the birth of Jesus, helps guide Christians and prepare them for what is really important, namely the ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. John is speaking at the beginning of that ministry; setting the stage for the arrival of the Messiah to burst on to the scene as an adult, to commence the ministry that inaugurates the Kingdom of God. John is doing it knowing that there were people around at the time who thought that he was the long-awaited Messiah. They thought John the Baptist was the one who was going to be the saviour of the people, and many of them were following him. Some of them even wanted to be baptized, have kind of a ritual cleansing in preparation for his ministry and for his Messiah-ship. They were following him eagerly, getting ready for the coming of the kingdom, and there was an excitement about it as they followed him. But what happens in this encounter between the people who are expecting him to be the Messiah and John himself sets the tone for the coming of the real Messiah. That is why these passages are so important for us as we prepare ourselves for Christmas and the arrival of the real Messiah, because we know not only about the birth, we know already about the story of the life of Jesus and his death and his resurrection, but we need to prepare ourselves anew. So the encounter between John and his followers is immensely helpful.
John begins his conversation with his following in a very unusual way. He refers to them as a “brood of vipers”. Now, I don’t know about you, but if you are trying to win people over you don’t begin by calling them a, “brood of vipers”! If I were to say to you, “Good morning, you brood of vipers, I want you to hear what I have to say” you are likely heading for the exits, aren’t you? But they were willing to give John his due and wait upon what he had to say, because he was suggesting that all of his followers were not perfect. They were not holy and pure. So, He gets their attention, they then respond by saying, “What then should we do?” Is that not a question for us as we prepare ourselves for the coming of the real Messiah? What should we do?
What John suggests to them is that they have a complete reorientation of their lives, not playing around on the edges, but going right to the heart of things. He takes on the three groups following him. You might be able to identify with some of them and say, “Ah, I am one of those” but it does not matter. The first group is the crowd. We do not know much about the crowd, we are not told anything in Luke’s Gospel about them, but clearly they are self-absorbed and are probably following John because they think if they are on the Messiah’s side something great will happen to them. They are caught up in full of their own importance. So, what does John tell them to do? “If you had two coats, you are to give one to the poor, to the one who has no coat. If you have food and you see people who don’t have food, you give them the food.” John is upholding the importance of charity.
Charity often seems muddled, as if it is form of self-justification, with charity making us feel good. That is what you hear a lot, isn’t it? You hear that you will feel good if you are charitable. Well, John is not talking about feeling good because you are charitable; he understands that charity is a form of preparation. It is a way to get yourself ready to serve God. That is why, always on the first Sunday of Advent here at Timothy Eaton and many other churches, we celebrate White Gift Sunday, when we give to the poor, help children, and nurture people who are in need. It is an important ministry. But, it is borne out of a sense of preparation. It is beyond recognizing a need. It is preparing ourselves, taking ourselves away from our self-absorption, away from our sense of materialism, away from everything that we think is important about ourselves.
John’s words might sound very strict: “If you have two coats, give one of them to the poor.” It sounds like a very onerous demand. I have heard people say – and I get it – that John is very judgemental, as if being judgemental is an entirely bad thing. Oh, it might be in a self-absorbed world, but in reality for those who are poor, who have no coat, no food, and are in need, maybe a word of judgement needs to be spoken. For them, it was life, for them it was transformation, but the giver had to be transformed first, and it was with a word of judgement.
He then takes on the tax collectors. Now, I don’t know if we have any tax collectors here in the congregation, you know, people who exploit others willingly and knowingly. In John’s time there were those who exploited the people as tax collectors, because for shekel or dinar they were able to get, they got a percentage of the take. So, for tax collectors there was an incentive to collect more taxes beyond the prescribed to line their own pockets. That is why tax collectors were so hated, and that is one of the reasons why John says to them in very clear terms, “Do not take more than has been prescribed.” In other words, it is a matter of justice. Don’t exploit the weak, don’t take from those who are vulnerable, do not abuse your power for benefit.
My friends, I would suggest that all of us should be reminded that the subjugation of the weak for the illegal and immoral gains of others is unjust. John the Baptist would have a field day today! But, he would be called judgemental – and while many think that is bad it isn’t!
The third group of people were the soldiers. To be honest, I don’t know why the soldiers would follow John the Baptist, but some of them clearly did. They thought they had seen the Messiah and decided they were going to follow. They must have been Roman soldiers, or maybe they were members of a local guard who worked side-by-side with the Romans. Either way, they were an oppressive force, an invading force, or in collaboration with the invading force. He had some very strong words for them, “You must not exploit; you must not bear false witness or make false accusations against people. Be content with what you have!” That might sound strange, but many of the soldiers were not content with what they had, made false accusations, and exploited the powerless for financial gain to better their own lives. Often at the heart of corruption and abuse of the power is lack of satisfaction with what we have. Dissatisfaction with what we have, and a willingness to exploit others for our own gain drives many people and nations. So, if the crowd needed to learn charity; if the tax collectors needed to learn justice; the soldiers needed to learn mercy. Mercy is one of the things this world is sadly lacking. These are powerful words by John, and you might be saying to yourself, “Well, I am not a crowd, I am not a tax collector, I am not a soldier, I am not exploiting the weak, I give to the poor, I do all of these things.” The point that John is making is that in preparation for the coming of Christ we need to reorient our lives.
I was reminded about one of the most inspirational figures that I have seen and heard of in recent years when somebody gave me a movie about his life recently. Charles Mulli was born in Kenya in 1949. At the age of seven he was abandoned by his parents and became a street child, a street urchin. He had to beg for money. He was eventually picked up by a charity, and given an education up only as far as primary school, and then eventually was forced to live on his own. At the age of seventeen he went into a church, and what happened we don’t know, but he came out a different person. He had an encounter with the Word of God, with the Holy Spirit, and he committed his life that day to Christ. Mulli eventually worked on a farm as a labourer, then at a large transportation company. He married a young woman and the two of them had eight children. He continued to work within transportation and eventually saved up enough money to buy a truck himself, and another, and another, and then another until he developed a conglomerate.
He earned millions of dollars by the age of forty. He and his wife had another encounter with the Holy Spirit, sort of like a Second Advent. This was one where he felt in his heart that he should sell his business, that he should sell their home for a more modest one, and from that moment on dedicate his life to street children. He and his wife adopted three thousand children! He got others to join him in this witness, this ministry on the streets, and now it is not only in Kenya, it is Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, hence the reason why I guess I was drawn to it – because of the African connection. Over the years, they estimate some 32,000 children have been able to find psychological, medical healthcare and a safe place to live because of Mulli. It all began in a church in Kenya at the age of seventeen. It was reaffirmed at the age of forty, when he was called again. Look at the number of lives that have been changed! World Vision even named him as one of the most significant Christian philanthropists of all time. What is so inspiring about that is that it wasn’t just his own doing. He had a complete reorientation of his life, both as a young child in need on the streets, working in farms and being a labourer, to someone who eventually gave up everything he had for the sake of others. This is exactly what John the Baptist was talking about when he spoke to the crowd. This is the power of the Holy Spirit working in people’s lives, reorienting them, which reorients their entire spirit.
John knew that his ministry was not enough. There was one who was coming who was greater than him. In introducing the crowds following him, he said, “There is one who is coming who will not baptize you with water, as I have done, but with the Spirit and with fire; someone who will do greater things than I do, and I am preparing you for Him. In one of the other Gospels, he said, “I am not worthy to tie even the shoes of the one who is coming.” He is pointing of course to Jesus of Nazareth. But he also knew that the baptizing, the renewing power of Christ is one that is a refining fire that cleanses, restores, and renews. Lord knows, in our lives we need things to restore and renew us. The story of John the Baptist is not just about being ethically nice, moral, charitable, and just. I is about the very change that takes place within our own lives.
This last month, I read a sermon published in Harper’s Magazine. When I tell you who gave the sermon, you are going to be as incredulous as I was! I was expecting some great preacher from a Baptist Church in Atlanta or something, or Fifth Avenue, New York, or maybe Yorkminster Park. No, this was a sermon by John Cleese! Fawlty Towers, folks? Life of Brian? John Cleese of all people! In it, he says (and there are some minor theological errors that he makes, but that is to the side. He went to Cambridge, he can’t help it!):
The first stage in a renewal of life is sometimes called ‘cleansing the machine’. A person who constantly says, ‘What should I do?’ (which is what they ask John) after hearing the practical teaching of the Word of God over and over again is like a person who has a garden full of weeds and says eagerly, ‘What should I plant in it? What should I grow in it?’ He must first clean the garden so that work lays great emphasis on what not to do, that is on what must be stopped, what must no longer be indulged in, what is to be prevented, what is no longer to be nourished, what must be cleansed away from the human machine, for none of us have nice, new machines when we enter the work of renewal, but rusty and dirty machines that need a daily and indeed a life-long cleaning to begin with.
In other words, if we are serious about the arrival of the Messiah, if we are serious about the reorienting power of God, there needs to be some inner renewal of ourselves. We are not alone in this. This is what makes the Gospel so powerful and much greater than the law, namely that we have one, who will by the power of his Spirit, reorient us, change us, and renew us from within – Jesus, our Lord.
I read a book that I was given some years ago called What has Golf Got to do With It – 99 Lessons for Life from Those Who Play Golf. It is about as shallow as you can get, let me tell you! But if you gave it to me, you know I read it, which goes to show you, I am shallow too. There were all these folksy rules about how to live your life, swing straight, keep your eyes focused, and your head in the game, you know. And then there was this simple advice at the end: #99 – “Make sure you clean your clubs and polish your putter, the last thing you should do before you begin the game.” Wise advice! Before you go out there, before you do the work, prepare yourselves, be cleansed, be renewed, be reoriented. That is what John is saying to the people. Whatever it is or whatever station in life that you may be in – a crowd, or a tax collector, or maybe you are a soldier, whether you need charity, justice, or mercy in your life, prepare yourself for the coming of Christ.
As the great theologian Karl Barth said, “Baptism is really about cleansing. It is about renewal. It is about reorientation.” The Messiah that we wait for, the Messiah that we see in a manger, the Messiah that we see on a Cross, the Messiah that we don’t see in an empty tomb, He is the One through his Spirit who can turn us around. It is just like that mother with her three children, who when pulled in different directions said, “Be patient, wait for the One who is coming.” That is Advent! Amen.