Today’s Gospel reading [Luke 3: 7 – 18] is, in essence, a continuation of last week’s and from all accounts, John the baptizer is pulling no punches in delivering his sermon. He is very direct in addressing the questions and concerns of those who had come to him, seeking baptism.
There is no skirting the fact, based on John’s words, that in the kingdom of God, social standing and/or pedigree is worth nothing since it is a kingdom open to all – anyone, prepared to live according to the dictates of the king. In my teen years, such forthrightness in telling someone who revelled in his or her presumed superior status, they were ‘not all that’ would be tantamount to a slap in the face or what we as children would refer to as a boof!
The truth is, John’s embrace of the disciplines of solitude and prayer…far from the madding crowd, had provided the perfect setting for him to truly hear God and so he knew he had no choice but to be as forthright as he was in declaring what he heard. He must have sensed also that those who sought him out were under the misapprehension that the ritual act of baptism was enough to get them among the inner circle of the anticipated Messiah and provide them with extra backing, should they find themselves in any spiritual need. Is there a familiar ring to such ways of thinking that point closer to home…or is my imagination working overtime?
The truth be told, as I read the story, I couldn’t help noticing the similarity, in the flippancy and sense of entitlement of those who came to John, mirrored by so many in our own day…dare I say, even in the Church? The fact is, in my experience as pastor, while John’s approach may not be considered politically correct, I am rather doubtful as to whether a less, shall we say, pointed method of truth-telling, would have had the desired effect. Too often it seems, now as perhaps then, there is an underlying belief, particularly among persons of presumed social standing and/or influence, that their status is all that is required or needed to get them wherever they wish to be and consequently, they find it difficult to wrap head or heart, around the fact that while salvation may be free, it is by no means cheap; it brings us into direct contact with the One who paid the ultimate price and so there is no encountering that One…Jesus the Christ, God’s incarnate Word, without recognizing our need to change and be changed not cosmetically…but from within.
John’s clarion call, therefore, issued with enough firepower to send even the most feared and fearsome running for spiritual cover, hammered home the message with forthrightness and precision; it was a message that made those who heard it realize that in the economy of God…
- There is no preferential treatment
- A genuine encounter with the divine Word issues in a change of heart, attitude and behaviour
- Good News permeates all of life and so must be proclaimed by word and commensurate action
This leads me then to the Advent hymn [On Jordan’s Bank…] which we introduced last week. Having explored the message of verses one and two, we now turn our attention to verses three and four which I believe, offer some insight into the character of the One whose imminence John announced. Below are the verses…
For Thou art our salvation, Lord,
our refuge, and our great reward;
without Thy grace we waste away;
like flowers that wither and decay.
To heal the sick stretch out Thine hand,
and bid the fallen sinner stand;
shine forth and let thy light restore
earth’s own true loveliness once more.
Let me encourage you to re-read the verses and hear as you do, a call to embrace the fact that nothing you or I can do, nothing we possess, no matter how seemingly valuable, can guarantee our salvation. It is God, in Jesus Christ, who alone holds the key to the world’s salvation and, as history has demonstrated time and again, in the rise and fall of presumably great figures [see last week’s reading from Luke 3: 1- 6], while they wielded the kind of influence that contributed to their renown, eventually they all went and will all go, the way of finite humanity; like withering, decaying flowers…back to the earth from whence they came.
In the Gospel reading then, John highlights the fact that the One he proclaimed was not a mere miracle worker, who could be sought out, simply for what he could do: without there being any serious and permanent relationship with an attachment to him. I rather suspect that his harsh words to those who felt they could continue their underhanded dealings and duplicitous ways of being, citing the fact of their baptism, jolted them into reality – the kingdom of God did not have reserved seats for the upwardly mobile or for that matter…anyone. That he had harsh words for agents of the state as well as extortionists and money launderers among others, made the point with biting precision, that God was neither interested in nor could He be swayed by ritual observances, no matter how lofty. The only thing that impacted and to which God would always respond, was and remains the humble, surrendered heart that issues in a life dedicated to His service and the praise of His glory.
In our own time and in this season of preparation as we commemorate that first Advent and anticipate the second, John’s call is being issued yet again with a similar fervor, enjoining the kind of response that recognizes the ultimate futility of placing self on a pedestal, calling upon God only when there is the presumed need for a quick miracle. There is a very real sense in which John’s call today, as these two verses of our hymn suggest, is a reminder of the fact that the world’s salvation does not lay in the hands of any presumed super-power and as such, our preparedness to experience the fullness of salvation begins now, when in recognition of our lost state without God, we surrender to Him who alone guarantees life in all its fullness.
So, there is no preferred status or standing with God except that of sinner, saved by grace; there is no encountering the divine Word without evidence of a changed life and there is no proclamation of the Good News without the kind of commensurate action that celebrates the Lordship of Jesus, in and over…all.
Advent is not a season of sentimentality; it is not a season for the kind of spiritual reverie that desires only the mountaintops and not the valleys of discipleship; it is the time to listen for and hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church and through the Church, the world. Advent is the time to look with eyes anointed by the Spirit, in order to perceive and prepare for the coming of the Lord in and by whom alone, peace, harmony, loveliness and light, indicators of God’s abiding presence over all creation…can be restored. Let those with ears then, listen to what the Spirit is saying. +
Contributed by: Canon Grace Jervis