Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, Advent III 2015

Zephaniah 3:14-18
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:10-18

There’s a billboard sign in America (perhaps it could only be in America): “Jesus is coming – look busy!”.
Well that sense or urgency grips people in today’s gospel as well. There are no billboards, but there is John the Baptist, who is stirring up the people by acting like a prophet and calling the people to repentance. And this is big news because there has been no prophet for centuries.
But John is not a diplomat. He clearly hasn’t consulted the marketing division at Church House before trying to get his message across. He goes out into the desert, away from where the people are. But the people sense that here there is a message they need, so they follow him – a difficult and dangerous journey. And what does he say to them? “How nice to see you, thank you for coming all this way”? Er, no. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
But the point he is making, in his forthright way, is that the people need to change, if they are to be ready for the coming of the Messiah. The people are descendants of Abraham indeed, heirs of the law and the prophets and the covenant, but that will avail them nothing at all, unless they bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.
Repentance means turning around, taking a different path, and that must mean real actions that actually make a difference. The message of the law and the prophets and the covenant needs to become personal, a reality in their lives, not just something kept in a book on the shelf.
“What then should we do?”, they ask. In other words, what do fruits worthy of repentance look like?
Well, first of all, says John, give away what is surplus, whether it’s an extra coat or food you don’t need. Look around you and see that you are in the middle of economic injustice, that there are people with no coats and no food, and do something about it. Otherwise you have not even begun to understand the law and the covenant and the prophets, whose message was that God’s righteousness must be reflected in a society where all can flourish together and none is excluded.
Who else does John address? Tax collectors, who raised money for the Romans but were in the habit of charging higher than the official rates to line their own pockets. Soldiers, who clearly at this time extorted money by threats. These, too, must see how they have been complicit in injustice, in creating an underclass who could not participate in society. And they must change how they live.
There is something attractive about John’s message, even with him calling his audience a brood of vipers. They have gone out to him in the desert, they sense that here there is true good news, even if it means giving up greed and excessive riches. There is something much better on offer. Forgiveness of sins, a new beginning, a fresh start. And this is to prepare the way of the Lord, to open the way for God’s kingdom to come in.
The way into God’s kingdom is repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance means turning away from everything that builds a society contrary to God’s will, oppression and alienation, robbery and extortion, injustice and exploitation. Repentance means aligning ourselves instead with God’s purposes and learning to reflect his righteousness in the world. This is what the law and the prophets were all about. This is what it means to be truly children of Abraham.
So John announces the coming of the Messiah. But he is also clear that he is not the Messiah – he is just the herald, there is more to follow. John doesn’t necessarily see how the story of the Messiah will unfold. He clearly expects quite a lot in the way of judgement, wrath and unquenchable fire. But the full and authentic message of God belongs to the Messiah and not to John. How John’s expectations of wrath will turn out is something we shall see as we read through Luke’s Gospel this year.
At Pentecost John’s prediction that the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire will be fulfilled, not in the fire of destruction but as the Spirit descends in tongues of flame.
At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel the people ask John, “what then must we do?” And at the beginning of Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, the same question is asked to Peter on the day of Pentecost, “what must we do?” and the answer is the same: “repent, and be baptised, every one of you”.
Pentecost begins the story of the Church, just as John the Baptist begins the story of Jesus. Both bring the call to repent in concrete actions, and both point to a people energized and on fire for God, a renewed society that reflects the justice and righteousness of God. What John heralds becomes a reality in the life of Jesus and then in the people Jesus gathers to himself.
The Church is the ongoing story of that good news. We continue to proclaim the call to repentance, we continue to hope in the Holy Spirit renewing the world. If the people who first came to John needed to hear the call to repent, then so do we. We the Church therefore also must bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Advent, this season of self-examination and preparation, is a good time to reflect on that. In what ways do we need to repent? Are our choices, our actions, helping to build a just society in which all can take part? Or are we helping to exclude others, to keep them in poverty and deprivation?
The call to repentance is something we need to hear for ourselves, to make real in our own lives so that we can bring forth fruits of repentance in our own society. Yesterday’s climate deal in Paris is good news, and it is a real example of repentance: 195 countries collectively turning away from a path that would have led to catastrophe, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable. But in order to protect our common home, the earth, we need more than words. Those nations must bring forth the fruits of repentance, and so must every individual. In how we live and in the choices we make, need to be mindful of the impact on our common home and on the generations yet to come.
There are other ways, too, in which we can bear fruits of repentance. For instance, by trying to ensure that the people who make the goods we buy are treated fairly and not exploited. By actively seeking to help those who lack the necessities of life. By making sure that our political leaders know that we care about people who are denied the benefits they need, or about refugees fleeing persecution.
John the Baptist’s message is about how we can build a just society that we share with others. The sobering edge of the Advent message is that we need to hear God’s judgement in our lives if we are also to receive his salvation; and our lives are intrinsically bound up with those of everyone else in our world.

“Jesus is coming – look busy.” Indeed yes. God’s people must bring forth fruits worthy of repentance, for the sake of our selves, for the sake of our society, for the sake of our common home the Earth, so that we can receive God’s salvation, and so that everyone else can, too.

No comments: