Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 12 December 2021.
• First Reading: Zephaniah 3: 14-20 (I will rescue the lame, I will gather the exiles .. I will bring you home)
• Canticle: Isaiah 12: 2-6
• Epistle: Philippians 4: 4-7 (Do not be anxious about anything but by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus)
• Gospel: Luke 3: 7-18 (One is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire)
Those who remember World War II as civilians will recall the air raid drills and the need to carry their gas masks at all times.
Today we have our precautions against the coronavirus, the hand-washing, face masks and social distancing, the cleansing of surfaces and ventilating of spaces.
As children we all learned some kind of kerb drill to keep ourselves safe in the streets and there are all sorts of other precautions in driving, at home and at work.
This sense of taking elementary precautions in the hazards of daily life as well as special circumstance is nothing special. It is part of daily living, and the basic application of common sense.
So when John the Baptist warned the people of the coming One, that they must prepare themselves to receive Him and that there would be a judgment, then they began to pay attention. They already lived in a land where people were busy judging each other anyway and the judgment of One who was not going to be fooled by appearances was a real risk.
And yes, those who took him seriously began to ask, well what should be do? And John came away with some helpful instructions.
The comfortably off should not rely on their wealth when confronted by the poor. Soldiers who may have joined up in order to loot conquered peoples were told not to steal but to be content with their pay.
Tax collectors, whose whole business model was based on tax-farming: pay Rome the lump sum and then gouge your own people for as much as you can get, were told not to charge more than the specified amount. Nothing here about levying agency or service charges or how to treat non-payers.
But the real point was not just a blind conformity or avoiding judgment but in making a deep-seated and sincere repentance and amendment of life in order to welcome the coming One who would indeed be God’s holy servant.
This was a preparation to greet the Holy One of God – and not just about avoiding social criticism – the equivalent of today’s social media.
John was wanting the people of Israel as a whole to welcome the Coming One with deep sincerity and to enter the life that He was to lead them into.
Yet it would be wrong to see this as a permanent state of criticism and condemnation. It was about living a new kind of life.
In this the prophets of the Old Testament were also wanting the people of Israel to look up from their daily tasks and to see a new kind of beginning.
God was seeking a new relationship with His people. It was one that started with a full and joyful worship of Him – a worship that reflected the peoples’ hearts and hopes. Their aspirations and vision for their lives – and this was about lives lived in renewed fellowship with God.
He would be their God and they would be His people: an exuberant out-pouring of joy and worship. And so yes, they were to sing out in praise.
God would surely be with His people, to protect and to provide for them. He would heal the afflicted and release the oppressed. They would no longer live in guilt or be confronted by their own inadequacies.
The Anointed One would rule as none other had, He would defend them against what is false, and truth would be their ally and not a threat.
Writing to the church in Philippi in Greece, Paul also had his instructions. They were to rejoice in the Lord – worshipping Him who is real and alive as opposed to a statue dedicated to a myth.
This would be the measure of reality and of truth and it would then colour their relations with one another: be gentle with one another and do not use carping criticism as a way of securing a status in the church.
They would have needs – but rather than aggression against one another they were to present their needs to God and He would see their needs and their faith in His provision. Hence the power of prayer, offered simply and cheerfully.
For some the need would be met by the thoughtfulness of a neighbour. For others it would be in the timing of a response or an event. For others the answer would be a prompting to look in a certain place or to do something specific.
Part of the life of freedom in the gospel of Jesus Christ is that we do not value ourselves by what we have or how much more we have as opposed to a neighbour. It comes with a peace in the heart, which does not desire what a neighbour has. Yes, it can be admired but it does not have to be owned or controlled.
The peace of God is far more than an acquiescence in what life has given us – a kind of glorified apathy. Rather it is active rejoicing in the presence of God as we live our daily lives and do it without resentment or anger. But it spreads, reaches the most difficult parts of life and is indeed fruitful far beyond our imaginations.