The Third Sunday of Advent
16 December 2012
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honour and glory, world without end.
Last Sunday we were confronted with the tectonic prophecy of John the Baptist. Be prepared: the time is coming when “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth.” God is coming and he will move heaven and earth, and the people (and all of God's creatures) will be reconciled to him. We shall be one with God and he with us. If you have the vision to believe the words of a prophet clad in rags emerging from the wilderness, this is an amazing promise. It is a promise filled with hope. It is the promise of Advent.
In today’s Gospel we learn that there were those who heard John’s words, words echoing with those of earlier prophets, and who responded by coming out to receive his baptism. You would think that John would be happy about that. But alas, John greets these people with invective: “You brood of vipers!” He goes on to rebuke them further. Quite naturally the people are concerned and surprised, so they ask him, “What then shall we do?” John's response it to tell them that there are things for them to do. He tells them that God’s initiative to act in history has consequences for the way in which they are called to live their lives and these consequences have a moral dimension. He tells them that they are called to love their neighbour, give someone who needs it your second coat, give someone who needs it your extra food. Indeed, what he is asking is not unreasonable for John does not demand or expect apostolic poverty. As Francois Bovin points out in his commentary, the people share without becoming poor themselves (124). John goes on to insist upon ethical behaviour within our several vocations and for his examples he takes two professions that would not have been considered honourable, and which would in later times be prohibited for Christians: tax collectors and soldiers. Tax collectors should not collect more than what is appointed and soldiers “should rob no one by violence or by false accusation and be content with their wages.” The main thrust of John's argument is both a clear statement that all are included in this work of repentance and a warning against greed. If you have more than you need, share with those who have nothing. If you do a job that puts you in a position of power over other people’s lives, their money and possessions, do not take advantage of it.
But John still goes on, “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. So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.” Perhaps to our ears—and even theirs—this might not have seemed like such good news. In reporting it thusly, however, Luke is making it clear that preaching before the Resurrection and Pentecost, John is proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. John is telling his hearers that Christ will come and hold them to account for their actions. It matters what we do and how we live our lives. God is acting, God is inviting them in, they can use their free will to choose whether to act in accordance with the Kingdom or in opposition to it. God has acted, now it is time for people to act, for salvation is a mutual emterprise (Bovin, 123).
The question remains, however, with Luke reporting events that took place even before Jesus’ own baptism, can we really take John’s preaching as the Gospel, simply because he uses the word Gospel? Is Luke giving us a history lesson about a pre-Christian prophet or teaching us something for our own age? Or at least that of his own original, cosmopolitan readers?
The consequences of living in Advent times, as preached by John, I would aver, are as immediate to our situation as they were to those who first heard them preached at the dawn of the Christian age and to Luke’s worldly-wise Roman readers. As I suggested on the First Sunday of Advent, we always seem to be living in Advent times. Humans perennially feel that we are at the edge of the abyss—be it from disease, threat of war or terror, economic uncertainly, or the kind of senseless violence we witnessed in Connecticut this past Friday. In these times, Christians have a way of making meaning of that feeling, as we await the coming of the Kingdom of God and we bear witness to the myriad ways in which the Kingdom is, in fact, unfolding before our eyes. The Incarnation for which we wait and watch in Advent marked the inauguration of the Kingdom of God. We feel this as keenly as those whom John addressed as the “brood of vipers.” We ask the same question, “what then are we to do” in these days, and the answer remains the same. We are called to love our neighbour, we are called to act with the Kingdom in vew as we carry out our vocations in the world, we are called, as have I have been preaching all fall, to place God in Christ at the centre of our lives and act as if that really mattered. Indeed, Advent is as much about ethics as it is about anything else, and we can never forget this. The Advent of our Lord, the preaching of the Kingdom calls us to engage our lives and integrate our faith into our practice, our action. Christian thinking, Christian preaching, Christian praying demands Christian living. Each of us, baptised with the Holy Spirit and with fire (just like little Mackenzie whom we baptised this morning at the early Mass), each of us has the power and the potential to respond. I see it in your lives already, let us keep living Advent lives in these Advent times.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Saint Lucy, 13 December 2012
© 2012 Andrew Charles Blume