On Sunday 13th December this address was given at the 8am Eucharist.
May the words of my lips and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight our rock and our redeemer.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 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.”
John’s sharp remarks are addressed to those who seemingly are more interested in just leaning on the fact that they belong to Abraham, and in turn, of course, God, and are not interested in pursuing the things of God such as everyday justice, peace and love of others. John might say much the same to us when we begin to rationalise our lack of concern for the things of God by saying, “well, I am baptized”, or “I am a Christian after all”, or “I go to church and give my offerings” or the one I hear all the time, “well I am a good person”. As if it gives us permission to then conduct ourselves with indifference in daily life. That is why John talks to the people in such colourful language about the axe at the roots of the tree as a way of saying – God planted you as a good tree to bear good fruit and if you are not going to do that, then you are dead wood. What John was saying is simply – put your life in line with whose you are i.e. we do not belong to ourselves but to God and are here to be obedient to his will and not to the will of the flesh . Here is the interesting part – after all the fancy and colourful language, when the crowds ask John the logical question , “what then shall we do?”, John’s response comes out in very concrete, simple, and daily acts of living in community with others. If you have food and your neighbour is hungry – share. If you have two coats and your neighbour has none – share, that’s it. Likewise when the tax collectors and then the soldiers ask John the same question, they are told to practice their professions with honesty and integrity and not to use them to enrich themselves and not to use their power to bully others. That’s it, honesty and integrity. No misuse of power for my purposes. In a nutshell put God and therefore others at the centre of our lives and before our personal material desires. (http://www.tlcgreencastle.org/docs/sermond/2012_12_16.pdf accessed on 13 DEC 2015. Content from the previous paragraph was obtained and slightly adapted from this website).
If we divert, at that point, to the letter of James, a letter which very much talks of self-discipline but also of the need of works to accompany faith. Not because works on their own are faith but because through faith we would be drawn to do good works in response to our faith, for the love of God that we have would resemble itself in love for those around us.
John the Baptist in these initial lines is calling us to this faith and is showing us practical ways of living this out and provides us with warning if we do not show this love. Showing acts of religion without the good fruits that show faith is warned against. For what the Lord wishes is for us to be in an intimate relationship with him in love and obedience and this leads to the baring of good fruit from works of faith.
John goes on to prophesy of the one following him as the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. He is of course prophesying of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, who would live as human, suffer all the pains of humanity to the point of humiliation, pain and death on the cross so that we could be saved. The Prophet Zephaniah and St Paul also speak of one that is to come. Zephaniah speaks at a time when Judah was turning to materialism and idols for its worship (Chapter 1 1:4) “I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place”, very relevant to modern times. He was speaking of a time that was to come of renewal. Not for one nation but of all the nations (chapter 3 9:12) “From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, even the daughter of my dispersed, shall bring mine offering” for what God wants is for all his people to be united in love for him as made clear in Isaiah 56 and such is the setting of the renewal in our old testament lesson today “ Sing aloud, o daughter of Zion, shout, O Israel, Rejoice and Exalt with all your heart, o daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgements against you”.
Jesus in Chapter 17 of the Gospel of St John prayed that the whole human race might come to know and believe in him who became man. And we in our way live out that prayer and help to achieve its fulfilment by our own prayer and sacrifice in our lives for that same end. Jesus continues to pray for us in this until his coming in Glory as prophesied to separate wheat from the chaff, how are we praying it today? How are we living out and proclaiming the Gospel to ensure fulfilment?
Jesus also prayed in this chapter “Father that they may be one in us, as you are in me and I in you”. A prayer for community and unity, how do we see this working in our lives? What are we sacrificing in our lives to ensure unity and community is fostered and maintained? We have the crises of refugees, of homeless on the streets of Abergavenny and impoverished or addicts in parts of our town what is our response?
Another part of the prayer was that that Jesus begged his father that his followers should be protected from the evil of the world. How do we ensure we remain in the world and yet set apart from it in spirit? What are we praying to ensure to ensure the message of Christ remains relevant to the modern world?
I pose these questions because these were exactly the same group of points that would have been relevant at the time when John the Baptist was baptizing people in the Jordan or the Prophet Zephaniah was talking to the people in Jerusalem as they were prioritizing materialism, themselves and idols over God and those around them. The message of John the Baptist wasn’t just to the Pharisees and the Sadducees of the day, it is equally relevant to us now and I just ask are we ready for the coming of Christ? Are we living out as Jesus and John the Baptist ask, to love our neighbours as ourselves, and to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength?
Let us pray that through the application of the practical advice of John the Baptist and through our own commitments at baptism we may serve those around us in love and shine the light of Christ in dark places so we all may come to know him and be ready for his coming again to whom be all glory and praise forever and ever.