Sunday 12 December 2021: Advent 3
The Challenge of John
Zephaniah 3:14-18; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
Context: Eucharistic in a city-centre church with a diverse congregation including students in Further and Higher Education. Many congregation members keen to develop their discipleship.
Aim: a call to action to respond to John’s Challenge
CONTEXT IS IMPORTANT
We are used to our Bible readings being delivered to us in smallish chunks each Sunday. There are advantages to this. However, it can be important to know what comes before the passage we are hearing read. Just before our Gospel passage this morning, crowds had come out to be baptised by John; and John has been haranguing them. ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance … every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
Wow! Imagine going to see John, hoping to be welcomed into a deeper relationship with God and then being spoken to like that. This is where we pick up the story today.
JOHN ISSUES A CHALLENGE
The crowds ask what they need to do to enter this deeper relationship with God.
‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none and whoever has food must do likewise.’ John is just as uncompromising with people who collect taxes (or tolls) and with soldiers; ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you,’ and ‘Do not extort money from anyone.’ If this is the Good News … I would not want to hear the bad news!
John’s challenge to the crowds is significant. How would it feel to be a tax or toll collector and to only charge the correct amount, when everyone else was charging more? You might come under some heavy peer pressure. ‘What are you doing? You are making us all look bad.’
Soldiers have a strong loyalty to their comrades. What would happen if an individual soldier started to opt-out of extorting money when the rest of his squad were hassling a local? He might get a very rough ride indeed.
There is more to it than that. Soldiers were reputedly paid poorly, so to make a decent wage they had to extort money from people. The system may even have been designed that way. These are serious matters for the people who heard John.
THE CHALLENGE TO US
What about us? What difference does hearing this passage make to our lives?
The reading from the prophet Zephaniah declares that God ‘will rejoice over [us] with gladness, he will renew [us] in his love.’ God loves us. But God loves everyone. Everyone. This world needs to be fair for everyone.
And so, the question needs to be addressed. What is John the Baptist saying to us? You and me today. If we have more than we need, we know what we should do. Seriously. ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none and whoever has food must do likewise.’
It is easy enough to make excuses for ourselves. We need to plan for our future and our family’s future. There will be rainy days and we need to have some savings and resources put by for that rainy day. Quite. Or, we can busy ourselves so that we don’t have time to consider the challenge that John gives us. We can be back at work tomorrow and then we are into another busy week. And yet, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none and whoever has food must do likewise.’
And what is the equivalent of the soldiers whose pay structure relied on them extorting money from people? What systems are in place today which encourage or force people to cheat and steal? If we have institutional or structural systems which do this, we need to change those systems. The emphasis is on ‘we’. The system will not change itself. We have to change it. If you know about that system, you have to help change it.
So, there is a choice before us. We can let this scripture fall aside or we can hear the challenge that John is making to us. Advent is partly a time for preparation for Christmas and so we can choose to take on John’s challenge as part of our preparation for welcoming Jesus into our hearts and homes this Christmas.
Now I’m going to do something rather unusual for a preacher. I am going to stop talking. I’m going to give us all a minute of silence to ask ourselves a question and to think of an honest answer. We are not going to share our answers – so be honest with yourself. The question is ‘What is John’s challenge to you and what will you do to embrace it?’ (One Minute Silence).
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