Zephaniah 3.14-20, Luke 3.7-18
So, with many other exhortations, John the Baptist proclaimed the good news to the people…
That’s how Luke ends the Gospel passage we heard tonight, the account of the preaching of John the Baptist. He proclaimed the good news, he said.
Well, I don’t know about you, but frankly if that was the good news, I dread to think what the bad news was. He starts off by calling the crowd a brood of vipers, goes on to tell them that their long cherished theology is completely wrong, and finishes off with the glorious prospect of them being burned with unquenchable fire. Like I said, if that is the good news…
I doubt whether it sounded any better to the people of John’s time either. Their society was not so very different from ours, with people looking for a quick, superficial fix. Today some people will spend a fortune on cosmetic surgery to hold back the signs of aging, despite the fact that it can’t actually turn the clock back, or snap up the latest gadgets and gizmos to give themselves the momentary buzz of acquiring something new and impressive, even if they don’t need it and can’t actually work out how to use it. Though there might not have been quite the range of temptations in the first century, that impulse to make things feel better on the surface rather than dealing with the deeper issues seems to have been just as strong.
What John says to these crowds gives us a vivid insight into what is really going on in their lives. There are tax-collectors who are fiddling the books to line their own pockets. There are soldiers using brute force to grab what they want. And there are many others who are just thoughtlessly amassing belongings when those around them remain in need. Their behaviour reflects their deeper fears – fears that they will be left unsupported, unloved and alone, but as they grasp at these things they actually reinforce the very assumptions that have damaged them. Because they know they are selfish, they assume everyone else is selfish too, and that makes them even less willing to share, so they have to grasp what they have even more tightly. It is a vicious circle in which love and trust stand no chance of gaining a foothold.
What ails them is deep rooted, and there are no shortcuts to its healing, just as there aren’t for us. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” says John. It’s a rather odd phrase but what it really means is “Bear the kind of fruits that come from repentance” “do the things that show you have really changed. The word for repentance, metanoia, literally means a change of mind, of basic attitude to life. Get those basic attitudes right, says John, and the fears which prompted you to cheat and steal will lose their grip. If they just assume that belonging to the tribe of Abraham, their cultural identity, will be enough to make sure all goes well, they will be disappointed. This is personal. It is about them, each of them, and each of them must take responsibility for their own lives and decisions.
This Breathing Space service isn’t really part of the Advent series I have been leading on Thursday nights, looking at depictions of the Nativity in art, but I thought you might like a painting to go with it anyway, and this one of John the Baptist preaching, by Mattia Preti, seemed to fit the bill well. John is in mid, (and very dramatic) flow, against a stormy looking sky. The crowd looks up at him in a state of what I would say was considerable alarm. Does it really have to be this hard? How can they ever hope to make the root and branch changes in their lives that he is telling them they need. But in the picture, as in the reading, there is something which points beyond their own resources, and John’s too. In the picture we see John’s staff, pointing upwards towards the heavens, but downwards towards a sheep which seems to have strayed into the picture. The words on John’s banner explain it all, though. Agnus Dei, it says – the Lamb of God. This sheep is a symbol of Christ, the one who will come with power that John knows he doesn’t have. “He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” says John. Those who encountered Jesus, those whose memories Luke bases his Gospel on, bore witness to this. They had been transformed, healed, accepted, and turned around, through that experience. It could happen. It did happen. And it can still happen. That is the promise of this passage.
In the silence tonight, then, let us ponder ourselves, not the selves we wish we could show to the world, the outer shell, the PR version, but the truth, the fears and resentments, the bits we have given up on and think can never be changed. And let us bring them to God to ask for the healing we truly long for.