Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

This week, we have reached the third Sunday of Advent. Traditionally, having considered the patriarchs and the prophets on the previous two Sundays, we now focus in on John the Baptist, as the herald of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Advent shares a liturgical colour with Lent, and is also intended as a time of reflection. Historically it was, like Lent, a time for fasting, as an aid to that reflection, which would have made the festival of Christmas that follows it all the more exciting. The twelve days of feasting and revelry that followed Christmas itself was the high-point of the medieval year – the necessary counterpoint to the cold, wet, dark days around it. The focus of Advent though is very different from Lent. Advent is a time of expectation. And that expectation is threefold.
We are joining with those who historically were living in expectation of the coming of their Messiah, an expectation that was met on that first Christmas millenia ago.
We are living in the anticipation of the final arrival of the Kingdom, when Jesus will come in the glory of the Father to renew all of creation. We don’t know when that day will be, but we do know that it will come and that on that day we will be renewed as well.
And finally we are looking forward to our Christmas present, and probably Christmas presents, building up to our festival of Christmas which binds those two appearances together, the past and the future.
There is a temptation to only look backwards at Christmas. The accoutrements of the season tend to reinforce that temptation. We surround ourselves with nativity scenes and familiar rituals. We exchange presents, hopefully in memory of St Nicholas, that belligerent champion of orthodoxy at the council of Nicea, rather than Santa Claus the chubby moral judge or Father Christmas, the pagan avatar of fertility and rebirth. Christmas is a time when we indulge in recreating the rituals and mystery of our childhood.
In itself, that is no bad thing. But if that is all we are doing, then we are missing half the message. John the Baptist is quite clear when he talks to his listeners about this. They cannot retreat into the past, and rely on their history. If they think that they are privileged because they are the heirs of God’s covenant then they may be sorely disappointed. God can raise up new children for Abraham out of the stones on the ground. God’s covenant is a two way street – both sides must be faithful to the promises that they have made.
Thus far, John has not said anything that many of his listeners would have found out of the ordinary. First century Judea was a hotbed of eschatological expectation. Since the return from exile in Babylon, the Jews had waited expectantly for the return from spiritual as well as physical exile – to feel once again the presence of God amongst them in the temple. The temple was rebuilt, more glorious than ever, but they still suffered under the rule of the gentile – first the Greeks, and now the Romans. Their own leaders had been corrupt and self-serving. The Pharisees preached that the way to return to God’s grace was to purify the whole nation, for everyone to follow the priestly codes so that everyone would be pure and clean in God’s eyes. They sought by this to prove to God that they were following their side of the covenants that God had made with their ancestors.
The Essenes on the other hand had retreated into the desert. They saw no hope in trying to purify the whole nation – instead they would become an Israel within Israel – a core of true believers that would be worthy of a renewed relationship with God. Fixing all of Israel, let alone all of creation was too tall an order.
John the Baptist probably came from this Essene tradition – we have very little description of their beliefs and customers – only a description by the historian Josephus and what we can glean from the Dead Sea Scrolls. But if he did, he certainly seems to be much more outwardly focussed than the mainstream Essenes. He goes among the people, calling them to repentance and baptising them with water, in preparation for one who will come to baptise them with fire and the Holy Spirit.
And he is practical as well. When he baptises tax collectors, he merely admonishes them not to over-collect their taxes to line their pockets. When soldiers ask him what they should do, he tells them not to extort money from people and falsely accuse them – soldiers of the time obviously often abused the power and authority they had over people.
He anticipates Jesus in this practically. He is not calling on these people – despised collaborators who the Pharisees and Essenes regarded as unworthy of God’s love and forgiveness to give up their professions, but he is asking them to do their work fairly, and to treat other people honourably. In a foretaste of the marvellous event the we will celebrate in two weeks, God does not distain the messy realties of creation, but seeks to engage with them, and work through them. Even tax collectors can do God’s work, he says, if they repent and amend their ways.
John’s message is that coming into God’s grace is not something that will happen just by looking backwards. The past is important. Being the children of Abraham is important, because God is faithful to his covenants. But the covenant wasn’t just there for Israel. God made that covenant so that they could be an example to the world. And they are not all being fruitful in that covenant, and those that are not fruitful and not fulfilling that covenant. They are falling back on the comfort of the past.
Fruitfulness in the present is important as well. God wants to work through us who are his creation, in his creation, for the purpose to finally fulfilling his creation. He does not need us, but he wants us, to be fruitful in the here and now. Not in an unreasonable manner. He is calling us to be fruitful in what we do in our everyday lives. Fruitful in our honesty, in our graciousness, in our compassion for others, in our love for others which is the reflection of God’s love for us.
But most importantly, John the Baptist also looks to the future. He is lucky in this, in a way. His eschaton, the fulfilment of the divine plan for creation, is close at hand. The coming of Jesus that he announces is soon fulfilled, although he himself does not live to see that Pentecost baptism with fire and the Holy Spirit that he describes.
We have a harder time in some ways. We also look forward to an eschaton, a revelation of God’s outworking in creation. We work towards that fulfilment of God’s promise, that creation will be remade anew and in the perfection that God always intended. We do not know when this will come. Like John, we will probably not live to see it in this life. But in looking forward to Christmas – in keeping this season of Advent as a season of expectation and preparation, we remind ourselves that God so loved his creation that he became part of it, and that he continues to be part of it with us, working alongside us, in everything we do, so that in everything we do, no matter how humble, or mundane, we are bearing witness to the glory of God through his creation.

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