Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Homily for Advent III

The Preaching of St John the Baptist 
Bartholomeus Breenbergh 

What should we do?

The brood of vipers that has come to be baptised by John
hears his warning of how things have been,
how they will change,
and how the people will no longer be able to rely on their ancestral heritage
to keep them safe in the coming age.

Even now the ax 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

Harsh news.

What then can we do?

What can we do to be safe?
How can we avoid being thrown into the fire? they say.

John outlines a few things the people can do:
tax collectors are only to collect what they are supposed to.
Soldiers are to not abuse their status, and are to be happy with their pay.
If someone needs a coat, give them one. If someone needs food, feed them.

John’s preaching is one of things being fair.
The hungry will be fed, the cold will be warmed, and everyone will do their job as it is supposed to be done.

And, in this view, God will look after the good, and punish the bad.

It will be fair.

The people start to think that with this, God’s reign will start, and that maybe, John is the Messaih as predicted by the prophets.

No, he tells them. He is not.

The one who is coming will have a His winnowing fork is in his hand,
to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary;
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

John has expectations of what will happen when the messiah does arrive. In John’s view, he will do what has been suggested by the prophets, and what he has preached himself.

This view sees the Messiah as bringing forth a massive final counter offensive against evil in which all evil will be exterminated.

John’s expectations are to be challenged by the one who is to come.

The coming one, the Messiah, Jesus Christ will bring a different understanding of God:

he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Matt 5:45

he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Lk 6:35
Such a message differed so much from John’s expectation, that later, he sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus is he really was the Messiah

"Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" 
Lk 7:19

John was proclaiming a radical change, in which God would do a final sort of good and evil. But Jesus message was far more radical.

How radical Jesus message was can be seen in the example of the coats.

John says. If someone needs a coat, give them one.

Jesus takes this to another level:
  and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt 
Luke 6:29

With John it is give your coat to someone who needs one.
But with Jesus the implication is that if someone takes, or steals your coat,
you are not to ask for it back,
rather you are to given them your shirt also.

But Jesus message is far more radical than even that.

John saw the messiah as bringing a final judgement.
But Jesus saw judgement as not an end, but rather a beginning.

The fire that Jesus speaks of is not one of punishment,
but rather purification,
not annihilation, but redemption.

Judgement is no longer the last crushing word of a failed life,
but the first word of a new creation.

Jesus lived this life with those who religious establishment had regarded as outsiders and sinners, those who were thought of as enemies of God.
He did not wait for them to repent, to become respectable, and to do works that would redeem themselves or gain divine forgiveness.

He just forgave them.


Everything is reversed.

You are forgiven, now you can repent.
God loves you, now you can look upon God
You were enemies of God, and God accepts you.
There is nothing you must do to earn this.
You need only accept it.

This is radical stuff, and it is no surprise that John sent his disciples to ask if Jesus really was the Messiah.
It is no surprise the religious authorities wanted to kill him.
It is no surprise that billions of people have heard this message and have encountered the love of God in their lives, even when they were so called enemies of God.

So the answer to those first hearers of John the Baptists preaching,
the answer to their question “What are we then to do?” is simple.

You don’t need to do anything to earn your way out of the fire.
It is easier than that.

You only need accept the fact that God loves you.

(With much thanks to Engaging the Powers by Walter Wink for much of this sermon)

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