Advent 3 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 12th December

Zephaniah 3.14-20; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18

This 3rd Sunday in Advent is sometimes known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete comes from the Latin for Rejoice. And our first two readings certainly pick up that cue: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice, says Paul in his letter to the Philippians. Sing aloud, says Zephaniah, Rejoice and exult with all your heart. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. Zephaniah, from the midst of his own grim present, invites his readers to rejoice in the promised future. Gaudete Sunday is a moment of rejoicing within the solemnity of Advent, as we anticipate that promised future.

And then, into this invitation to rejoice, comes striding the figure of John the Baptist. Like the crowds, in our Gospel reading, flocking to the banks of the Jordan to catch the latest thing, abuzz perhaps with excitement, we are suddenly confronted with John’s anger and directness. ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’

John is an uncomfortable figure. He’s often described as the last of the OT prophets, living on the edge of civilization, in the wilderness. He seems beholden to no-one, free to speak truth, fiery words that address our darkness. He puts into practice the judgement of which he speaks. And, I suspect, we do recognize, even yearn for, that kind of figure – the one railing against corruption, expressing our anger at the world, the darkness that this week, as ever, presses in on us. We all know something of that anger – at those who think the rules are not for them. John expresses our  rage against hypocrisy, against injustice and inaction. And our anger, we hope will, like that of  John the Baptist, cut through the darkness, convict our politicians, and our vacuous celebrity obsessed age, issue a wake up call to those who simply lash out without thought except to administer poisonous bites: ‘You brood of vipers.’

It’s a tempting role; one that the church is often invited to fulfill: to stand in judgement on society, wag our finger disapprovingly, or shake our head disappointedly, as we reflect on society going to the dogs. That’s what church is about isn’t it?

Tempting as that is – this week especially – I think that gets both John and our calling wrong. Certainly in Luke’s account that we just heard in our Gospel, the anger is there: alongside the description of his hearers as a brood of vipers, he informs them that even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ Such fiery words draw a crowd, gets him noticed, but when John begins to address those who come to him, what he advocates is far from extreme. ‘What shall we do?’ they ask. And John invites them to act, here and now in the present. He addresses the situation of each that comes to him, encouraging a culture of generosity (sharing cloaks and food); of fairness and decency, so that we are not concerned simply with acquisition but know when we have enough. It’s a call into responsible living, finding some meaning and purpose in what lies in front of us. The anger gives way to something else.

And famously and above all, John points away from himself to the one who is coming. For John, the one who is coming is the one who will execute judgment, put things right, and so we better get ready. Luke’s gospel, in this early chapter, sets up our expectation: this is what the coming Christ is about, Jesus will execute that judgement that John, and we, look for. But as Luke’s Gospel will go on to show, the one who comes will subvert that judgement, will not simply point the finger and rage at the world. Instead of executing God’s wrath, he will reveal the anger and violence for what it is, by taking the violence on himself – the One who comes is not the bringer of violence, however seemingly justified, but its recipient. Jesus’ ultimate journey will reveal violence to be what we do to love, not the way God is.

So, as we wait this Advent, John rightly reminds us to wake up, and his call into responsible living, still resonates. And we need to follow his pointing finger, not pointing in judgement, but at the one who will come, to subvert all our fantasies, above all, the fantasy that it is simply other people who are the problem, that pointing the finger is enough.

Advent is often described as the season of waiting. That can make it sound a very passive season, perhaps in contrast to the dashing around in preparation for Christmas that many of us are engaged in. The French verb for ‘waiting’ is ‘attendre’, from which we get our words, to attend, attention. If our waiting is about attending to something, paying attention, what will you attend to this week? If what I am suggesting about John is right, then, even in the darkness, even as we rage and know our anger, we wait, we attend, to something that subverts that darkness. The light that the darkness will not master is coming, so let us pay attention, or we will miss the reason for rejoicing. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice.’ Let us find space for the coming outbreak of cleansing joy.

God our healer, whose mercy is like a refining fire,
touch us with your judgement,
and confront us with your tenderness;
that, being comforted by you,
we may reach out to a troubled world,
through Jesus Christ, Amen.

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