Good, not perfect

Sermon preached by Fr Daniel Trott
on Sunday 16th December 2018 (3rd Sunday of Advent)
Zephaniah 3.14–end; Isaiah 12.2–6; Philippians 4.4–7; Luke 3.7–18

Rejoice! That is one of the themes of this Third Sunday of Advent. ‘Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!’ says Zephaniah. ‘Shout and sing for joy, you that dwell in Zion,’ says Isaiah. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always,’ says Paul in his Letter to the Christians at Philippi. The nickname for this Sunday is ‘Gaudete Sunday’, because that text from Philippians used to be sung at the beginning of mass: Gaudete in Domino semper. In old-fashioned places like this we even wear pink as a sign of our rejoicing.

But our gospel reading doesn’t seem very joyous:

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.’

How are we to make sense of this? On the one hand, we are told to rejoice. On the other, we are warned of ‘the wrath to come’. How do these fit together?

Well, first of all let’s look at why people are being told to rejoice in our first two readings and in our canticle. First, Zephaniah. The prophet Zephaniah was probably active during the reign of King Josiah of Judah in the seventh century bc. After two chapters of doom and judgement, finally in the third chapter the tone changes – but this is not because God has changed his mind, it’s because the judgement has happened. Jerusalem has been judged and purified, and now, free from sin, it can rejoice and God can rejoice over it. God has created a new people for himself.

The story is similar with our canticle from Isaiah. This chapter refers to the return from exile in Babylon in the sixth century bc. Once again, judgement has been meted out and now it is time to rejoice. God’s righteous remnant are returning home.

The situation in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is a bit different. Here the rejoicing is connected to the expected return of Christ: ‘The Lord is near.’ Unlike those who worry about the end of the world, we Christians, Paul is saying, can be confident: the ‘peace of God’, the shalom, the well-being, the salvation of God, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.

So Zephaniah and Isaiah are saying ‘Rejoice’ because their audiences are among the survivors of God’s judgement, they are part of God’s new people. And Paul is saying ‘Rejoice’ because the Philippian Christians are already part of God’s new people, and they can be confident in advance of the coming judgement that they will not be condemned.

So back to John the Baptist and ‘the wrath to come’. As Fr Tom reminded us last week, John the Baptist’s message is not primarily about judgement, but about forgiveness. His preaching is supposed to encourage those who hear it to join God’s new people. ‘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.’ God’s new people is not based on bloodline. What then is it based on? It’s based on ethics.

Ah, here’s the catch! Sure, forgiveness is free and in principle anyone could be part of God’s new people, but there are bound to be stringent entrance requirements. I bet we all have to give away all our possessions, or go and live in the desert like John the Baptist, or something. It’s bound to be no fun, or everyone would already be doing it!

The crowd asks, ‘What then should we do?’ John replies, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Tax-collectors ask, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ John says, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers ask him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He says, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

Is that it? If you’re rich, share what you have, and don’t trick or threaten people into giving you money. It’s hardly the Sermon on the Mount! All John seems to be asking is that we be decent human beings. Is that really all it takes?

Cautiously, I would say yes. I know it’s more complicated than that, and I know that Jesus demands that we be perfect ‘as our heavenly Father is perfect’ – but sometimes all that complication and perfection can get in the way. We can get caught up in our tangled motivations and put off by seemingly impossible requirements, and end up despairing that we will ever get it right.

I daresay Jesus’s radical ethic is where we should hope to end up, but perhaps John the Baptist’s rather more manageable moral programme is where we can begin. God is creating a new people, and he doesn’t need us to be perfect – he just wants us to be good. And thank goodness for that. Rejoice!

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