John and Donald

Published: Monday, 14 December 2015

JBThis is the third sermon in our Advent journey in 2015 and was given by Garry Lock at Ashburton Baptist Church on 13 December 2015. 

Reading: Luke 3:18

It’s a bit of a shock in the lead up to Christmas to encounter John the Baptist!

We just read: ‘So, with many exhortations he preached good news to the people’.

What?

Doesn’t sound like good news to me. Certainly preaching, certainly riveting for the crowd, but good? More like Donald Trump scaring people than Jesus calling people to live life to the full, or to follow him.

I read during the week in a column on the ABC religion and ethics site (by N.N Trakakis who quoted the author Leviadiditis) a quote from a poet who was wondering what had gone wrong with the world after WW2, ‘a world torn asunder, with a derelict God going around from door to door/ begging for his existence’.

Or as the little song from the late 1990s said: ‘what if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us, trying to make his way home…’

The late, and I think great!!!, author Terry Pratchett in one of his wonderful Discworld books called Small Gods, has the gods, for there are many in the Pratchett Discworld cosmos, wishing people would take them seriously. Of course hardly anyone does, and the less seriously people take the gods, the smaller and less powerful the gods become. Until one is reduced to just being a little tortoise, wandering about the place.

That seems to be what Luke has John the Baptist saying here. Like he’s scaring people into believing in a desperate God, who’s wandering about, begging for his existence; reduced to irrelevance.

John the Baptist, at least for Luke, is a pretty terrifying preacher. Luke has him here talking to the crowds, to everyone. First of all he has John quote the beautiful ‘every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all shall see the salvation of God’.

And every Christmas, when the Messiah is sung, these beautiful words are repeated.

And then: to the crowd, not the leaders as Matthew has it, but to the crowd, everyone: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’

Jeepers!

This isn’t gentle Jesus meek and mild, this isn’t come to Jesus go to heaven…

And we read the rest of this pretty disturbing sermon. It certainty gets our attention. And not in a good way. Surely most people would just leave at that point, unless there’s a good joke coming along in a second or two.

But no, John goes on and rants at the crowd…  Axes, trees being cut down unless they spark up and get producing. All good rural imagery.

John, Donald … seem eerily similar to me.

The crowd, dumbfounded and afraid: ‘what shall we do?’

‘Buy better presents for Christmas’ thundered John. No not really. He was a Jew and they don’t do Christmas, Hanukkah, maybe.

So it’s more than that:

John is sorting things out as he prepares in his own mind for the coming of Jesus who he believes is the coming Messiah. Not raving about an irrelevant God, but working out how to live in the light of the coming messiah.

Better get ready he says, better start living like the prophets have told you to.

And he gives the crowd (that’s us), the commercial sector, and the government some things to do, and it’s all practical stuff:

For the crowd: Got any spare stuff? Share it. Any extra food? Make sure no one is hungry.

For the commercial sector: Collect no more than you need to, don’t rip people off – here’s looking at you seven eleven: that’s really the tax collectors who ran their own businesses at the time, but I’ve taken a little preachers’ licence there.

And government, represented by the soldiers: Don’t take bribes; pay the soldiers their due. Do right by all.

In other words let’s live ethically as we prepare ourselves to meet the coming Messiah we sing about. So John’s more about how we live than what we do.

There, not so bad?

And the people were in expectation: Expecting…

Is he the Christ? Is he the one?? No, says John, I baptise with water, the one to come is more powerful, more amazing, and more incredible… he will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire… and then the words about hay and forks and unquenchable fire.

Phew… It’s exhausting to read this. It makes me want to take off to the far side of the world, and keep a very low profile until things settle down.

I was a little bemused when I saw this as the reading for today, and now I know why Geoff, and Keren are not here today. Maybe they took off to the far side of the world…

Because Who wants to talk about this stuff when we’re supposed to be, you know, ‘god rest ye marry gentlemen’ and other carols and getting through the end of year Christmas parties, shopping, Christmas dinner and family and then, exhausted, head on holidays where we can sit about in the sun and relax.

But there it is, this text hits us between the eyes and gets us thinking.

Luke was writing to his church sometime in the 80s or so in the Common Era. That’s about 50 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He’s writing when the Roman Empire was at its peak, and after the city of Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed.  And the temple in Jerusalem is where God dwelt for the Jewish people. So now what? Now how do they live? And how do the followers of Jesus live now that the centre of their faith also is destroyed?

Luke’s writing as the people of the area were still coming to grips with the changes happening all around them, when they had been forced to flee, to find sanctuary somewhere else. When the Jewish people and the new church were beginning to go separate ways, which hadn’t happened till now. He’s writing with a recent memory of the destruction, of when the people had seen the massive hewn stone walls from the temple in Jerusalem scattered on the road where they had been thrown down by the Romans. He’s writing in a time of turmoil.

So his audience knew the words he has put in John’s mouth. They knew about destruction, and they worried that it made no sense to them. They knew that Jesus had come, that he had been the promised one; they believed that. They were trying to figure out how they should live as people of faith in a dangerous, perplexing world.

And these words have been carefully copied and handed down though nearly 2000 years so we can read them today.

For all that time, people have read these words, or have had them read to them, have had them expounded to them, and have thought over and over, ‘hey things weren’t that different for Jesus followers in the first century to what they are now’.

The same problems seem to emerge. People are hungry and poverty stricken, no fault of theirs, and help must be provided if we’re to see everyone as one of our brothers or sisters. People are ripped off left right and centre, not their fault but the unscrupulous. And governments take bribes and don’t pay their workers. Happens all the time. People are afraid, and new threats arise, with the same results: people die, or run for their lives, or have their lives thrown into turmoil. It may be local or international. It may be war or terrorism.  We don’t have to look too far do we.

So the words from Luke remind us that we too stand in that long continuum of the people of faith. We who call ourselves Christian. We are expecting God in Christ to come to us, to be with us, within the community we call the church, and we believe and try to live by the ethical call that John outlines.

But we fail, so often we fail. We are not generous, or we are not kind. We put up with corrupt institutions. We the church, for people don’t differentiate between denominations, will again be in the news this week coming, at the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse… So much brokenness and so many ruined lives.  So much damage to the church’s reputation, so much so that no one is listening any more.

And yet still church spokespeople seem to think they have a voice in the political and social arena. But given the seriousness of the failure of the church as a whole, surely we should be spending our time in sackcloth and ashes in repentance.

Maybe if we genuinely repented in that Old Testament way, sackcloth and ashes, public, genuine, heartfelt, and took ourselves off to the desert for a while to pray, then maybe we will have earned our right to speak into that space again. 

In the meantime lets care for the broken, the poverty stricken, the abused. Lets let our lives and our actions in genuine love speak, rather than the words few people are prepared to listen to any more. The desert fathers could teach us a thing or two about that, and its power.

And our governments, called to work for good, so often let us down. So we the ‘crowd’ become cynical and jaded and take no notice. When we should be active and involved and ensuring that there is a place for all people, and that corruption is called for what it is.

And our commercial sector, should simply look out for their workers, get on with the job, work to best practice and stop complaining. Let’s live into that place people of God.

John’s words are tough when we start to work through what he’s on about. There’s no compromise for him.

It comes as a blessed relief when he moves aside and we can focus again on the coming Messiah, the baby in the manger and the stories to tell our children.

It comes as a blessed relief when we begin to see this Luke story as a call to prepare and proclaim good news coming, and to live ethically and with care and love in the present.

It comes as a blessed relief to us all.

But John didn’t give up… a few verses later he’s thrown in Jail for his stirring speeches …

Then, of course we must ask, so what? So what do we do with this? We don’t live at the end of the first century but at the near beginning of the 21C. A lot has changed. I drove a Tesla the other day. An electric car that can drive itself down the Monash freeway… look mum no hands.

When Luke wrote his Gospel they only had donkeys, and the earth was flat, god lived up there and hell was down there. We live in an infinite universe, we wonder at the Hubble telescope images of it all. The earth is a speck within that infinite space, and we are a speck on the earth.

Yet we believe that John was simply pointing to Jesus who embodies the God of Love who is love for us all. Who calls us to love and live and laugh. Who sends us out to our families and the world with actions of hope that speak louder than any word. Who joins us in breathing life for all.

Remember I mentioned the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem? Earlier in the year Ann and I were there on a study tour. We prayed there, at the Western Wall, with our friend Rabbi Ralph Genendi of the Caulfield Schule. Over to our right the great Herodian Stones from the temple lay tumbled where they fell in about 70 CE. Above us, not far away, the place where the Holy of Holies was, and directly above us, the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s second holiest shrine.

There we prayed.

For me it was extremely moving. A sign of hope for the world. To join in prayer was to join with Luke’s people, and all who have lived the life of faith since. For me it points not to terror, but to hope. Not to judgement but to the love of God.

Last week I was in Canberra for a meeting of the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services. And in the meeting Rabbi Genendi and our Moslem representative Sheikh Mohamadu Saleem were discussing Kosher and Halal Ration Packs. It sounds like the beginning of a joke, - A Rabbi and an Imam walked into a shop … and it was amusing, but more… it was a sign of hope. Later in the week I travelled with Sheikh Saleem to the army barracks in Brisbane to help with a problem there. A sign of hope for our world.

In the end the fear mongers, the Donald trumps of the world are nothing, nothing but shava, hot air, sound and fury, signifying nothing.

John was just the messenger. Not the message. He was announcing the one to come. And that’s where we begin, and the beginning is coming. And it’s a coming filled with love for everyone.

Amen