Published by Michael Bigg on Sun, 16 Dec 2018 12:00

The text of Mike's sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday of Advent 2018, based on Luke 3:7-18.

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We’ve been to church for our whole lives'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up churchgoers. Even now the axe 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."

John does not pull his punches. “You brood of vipers” is a pretty full-blooded opening line!

There’s certainly something for most of us in there. I imagine John would have many similar words for today’s church if he were here.

Don’t sit there and assume that, because you turn up here most Sunday mornings, you’re fine with God. Bear fruit that is worthy of repentance!

Repentance, “metanoia” in Greek, does not mean simply saying “I’m sorry” and then returning immediately to our old ways as an addict returns to their addiction.
Repentance is a turning of the mind, the heart, the attention to the ways of God and the priorities of God. Turning away from our old bad habits. Turning back to God. Bear fruits that demonstrate your new orientation towards God.

Note that this absolutely does not mean that it is necessary to do extraordinary things in God’s name. There are plenty who perform wonders who don’t necessarily display the fruit of repentance.

What does John say when the people ask: “What shall we do?”

Does he say: “Raise the dead! Performs wonders and miracles!”? No. He says to share your belongings with those in need. Don’t extort money. Don’t collect more taxes than are due. Simple things that demonstrate your orientation towards God and God’s ways.

In many ways, the fruits of repentance are similar to the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness. These things demonstrate our turning towards God – pray that you might have opportunity to cultivate such fruit!

But what I really want to talk about today is being a prophetic voice like John. A voice that cries out against injustice and cruelty.

We live in a culture which doesn’t much like people telling others what to do. Especially not the church. Different groups in society have very strong views about exactly what people can and should think about things. You’re a braver person than me if you’re willing to speak publicly about gender, sexuality, race, culture. You’re bound to offend someone. Especially if you are speaking as a Christian.

With some justification, society at large doesn’t have any interest in what the church has to say. We are modern day Pharisees – making pronouncements from the side-lines and placing burdens upon others while being comfortable ourselves.
So is the right response to be silent and say nothing? Sometimes, maybe. But often there are things about which we should stay silent.

In the passage we heard today, John the Baptist might very easily have been seen as a Pharisee. But instead people came flocking to him. In Marilyn Robinson’s novel Gilead the narrator muses on this passage and wonders about how we can tell the difference between a Pharisee and a Prophet. How can we tell the difference between the voice of God chastising us and the voice of a Pharisee burdening us with a list of sins and prohibitions?

The conclusion he arrives at is that a prophet is recognised as a person who loves those who are being chastised. A prophet loves the people she chastises.

Before I started this job an older and wiser priest said to me that a congregation will do just about anything for their clergy, as long as they know that the clergy love them. I think she was right.

This week I’ve asked lots of you to take on extra bits while Jason is away. Without exception you have done it willingly and I’m very thankful. I hope that you know that I love you.

Sometimes we need to tell difficult truths to people. We can do it standing on the sidelines and making unhelpful comments. Or we can do it from a place of love. Only if it is the latter, and the person hearing it knows that they are loved, will the prophetic voice be clearly heard.

I was told this week that combine harvesters separate wheat from chaff with a fan. If the driver sets the fan too high, wheat gets blown out with the chaff. If the fan is set too low, the chaff remains collected with the wheat. In speaking God’s words of both mercy and judgement into the lives of those around us we are to speak clearly so that wheat is separated from chaff, but not so loudly and harshly that the good wheat is blown away with it. Speaking with love will make that difference.

I don’t think many of us hear are called to be prophets in the public and visible sense that John was. And yet we are all called in baptism to speak God’s life to others, from a place of love, so that lives may be transformed. I would guess that many of us can think, without too much difficulty, of things we ought to say to others; of difficult conversations that we’d rather not have.

Let’s take a moment to pray about it…

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