Sermon for 3rd Sunday of Advent: John Baptist: preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday 12 December 2021 by The Reverend Tim Biles. (Phillippians 4: 4 – 7; Luke 3: 7 – 18)
As the Advent season prepares us for Christmas, who better to help us than John the Baptist whose purpose in life was to ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’ and expected the time when ‘the mountains and hills would be brought low and the valleys would be filled and the rough places made smooth and then….”all flesh will see the salvation of God”. That’s a great vision and we heard that the crowds were pouring out of the cities to see and hear this enigmatic figure. But we are in for two shocks. One the man, the other the teaching.
First the man.
John the Baptist remains a startling figure to most of us. For one thing his personal habits weren’t exactly attractive, he dressed in camels hair and he ate locusts and wild honey. Neither would do much for the High Street economy.
And the way he began his sermon in today’s gospel, wouldn’t go down well in this Abbey “You sons of vipers” he began “What are you doing here?” There are many modern ways of attracting people to church, but I shouldn’t think that would be one of them.
The real difficulty in understanding John the Baptist is that he was a desert dweller and most of us are ‘townies’ who have no idea of desert culture. Deserts were thought to be habitat, home, of Devils. Remember when Jesus was 40 days and 40 nights in the desert tempted by the devil and only after the last temptation we read ‘the devils departed from him and angels ministered to him’. So the appeal of someone emerging from the desert was great, they had defied the devils and survived. The people were expecting a prophet of God and so they crowded round him: ‘Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet we await? Who are you?
And then the second surprise, the teaching.
The hearers were confident that if anyone was to see the salvation of God it was sure to be them, the Chosen People. The Baptist doesn’t think much of that. ‘Don’t say we have Abraham to our ancestor’ he declares ‘God can raise up from these stones as sons of Abraham’. Blood line is not enough, racial line is not enough. They had always been taught it was enough. They were the chosen. Now they were shocked.
‘Then what must we do to see the salvation of God?’ , they asked. And the answer shocked them further and probably should shock us too:
Tax collectors asked ‘What should we do?’ Collect no more that the proper amount due’ That would destroy their prosperity!
And the soldiers said ‘What must we do? ‘Do not make false accusations that threaten people and extort money. Your own wages is enough’ That would destroy the racketeers!
And to the people he said ‘anyone who has two coats must share with anyone who has none and whoever has food must do likewise’.
That was how to prepare the way of the Lord then, and it is now.
They expected instructions on keeping the Law, that was their tradition. They got the beginnings of what we now call the ‘Social Gospel’, not the individualism of the Law but an appeal for the Common Good.
Some of our religion has been privatised to concern about ‘our salvation’ and other sorts of Individualism. If a Bishop speaks out today on any social issue, some Tabloid papers and many parliamentarians give him a hard time. ‘The church is your business, say your prayers and leave taxes, food supplies and all that to us’. John Baptist doesn’t agree! He opens another way for Jesus whose teaching develops the Social Gospel for the Common Good so that all flesh shall see the salvation of God’. John Baptist prepared the way, Jesus developed the way and Bishops and Christian people should follow that way.
A long time ago when we used the Book of Common Prayer there was a faithful church warden by then a very old man who told me he still repeated the prayer every week that ‘the burden of his sins was intolerable and that they provoked God’s wrath and that he deserved punishment’ but he said ‘I’m far too old for those sins any more’. That heavy sense of my individual sin is no more’ he said. And then he added ‘But I watch television and I see what the Hutus are doing to the Tutsis (this was several years ago), what the Croats have done to the Serbs, what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians, what the IRA have done in Manchester and what the cost is to innocent victims, defenceless women and children who are like lambs to the slaughter and I am sure our sins do provoke God’s wrath, and the burden of them is intolerable. Sin is corporate. It does demand penance on our knees.’ The old church warden, long since gathered to glory, was right. He saw the corporate nature of mankind and of our faith………………………………………………………..
The Biblical sense of sin is corporate and John Baptist knew it and the Bishops who dare to speak out about social injustices know it and I hope you all believe it, as a crucial part of your preparation for Christmas. The point is our world is in a mess and we are part of it. Wars and rumours of wars, hunger and the threats of famine, wandering refugees risking their lives for safety, cover the globe.
Don’t lose the Biblical sense of the corporate! The gospel is not for privatisation! The corporate is here in the Common Meal, breaking one bread, sharing one cup. It’s there in today’s Gospel of John Baptist. ‘Don’t think having Abraham to your father is enough. If you have two coats share with one who has none’ John is preparing the way for Jesus and for the Social Gospel of the Common Good, which will make the crooked paths straight, bring the mountains low and fill the valleys –and only then, ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God’. Amen