Things have gone a bit pear-shaped this week - the upshot being that I'm not preaching a 'main' sermon this week.
Here are the notes as far as I'd got:
Well, what are you lot doing here?
You’ve come to try to save yourselves have you? – worried that God will put a black mark against your name if you don’t come to church?
Or maybe you just had nothing better to do this morning?
Or perhaps you’re looking for something that will make you feel more Christmassy?
You know, it’s no good just sitting there looking and listening unless you’re really wiling to do something!
I bet you’re wishing this sermon wasn’t going to be about John the Baptist – his style is abrasive and his words are hard to hear. And I decided not to call you a brood of vipers!
It’s hard at first to understand what John is doing. The crowd he is addressing is filled with the people who have bothered to come out into the desert to hear what he has to say. It feels a bit like the teacher who rants at the members of the class who are there on time because the rest of the class are late.
But John is warning people that what he has to say needs to have consequences in their lives – it’s no good just listening to John and carrying on life as before – his good news is a call to repent, to turn your life around, to change the way you do things.
And when his listeners ask what exactly they should do, John says
‘share .. coats or food. Treat others fairly and honestly and be satisfied with your wages.’.
If the people in the crowd have come out to him to change their lives for their own sakes, John comes not just to baptize but to throw cold water on their ideas, too. Repentance and salvation are not about what I do to save my own skin: it is about changing the world, making it more and more into God’s kingdom. The things which John tells his listeners to do are all things which will improve the world at large, not just their own lives.
So what John has to say is good news, after all – for the Messiah is coming, God is coming to his people, to give them the hope of the kingdom of God – and to strengthen and enable people to live new lives.
We remember John the Baptist in Advent because he points to the king who is to come, and the kingdom which must be built.
What would John have to say about our celebrations of Christmas?
Its easy to imagine that he might have been very negative about our celebrations – a man who lives in the desert on locusts and wild honey and dresses in rough animal skins doesn’t sound like someone who knows how to have a good time. But John points resolutely to Jesus, and would perhaps tell us that as long as we remember the coming of Jesus Christ then our celebrations are appropriate.
But John might challenge us if we begin to think that Christmas is only for our personal pleasure, or even that of our own family and friends. The coming of the king and the coming of the kingdom is for everyone – John would want to challenge us to social action, to fair shares, to speaking out for the lowest and the least of society.
So it isn't all bad news – and we can hear the more obvious good news of our reading from Philippians.
Rejoice in the Lord always.. do not worry.
Don’t worry about how to ‘keep Christmas’ as Dickens describes it in a Christmas Carol. If we can rejoice at the coming of Jesus and commit ourselves to action to bring a fairer world that reflects the values of God’s kingdom, then we will know God with us – not just for one, but for all.