Tidings of Comfort and Joy … NOT! (A sermon on Luke 3:1-9)

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

The Christmas season is upon us, my friends!

I don’t know what it is for you that signals the inevitable return of the once pious Saint Nicholas, former Bishop of Myra (in Turkey), just as I’ve never understood how he came to be so overweight and jolly, but I appreciate that for all of us there are probably different signals that trigger that sense of dread that accompanies the realization that the silly season is upon us!

Perhaps it’s when you see the first decoration go up in the shopping mall. I think they’d put them up right after Easter if they could!

Perhaps it’s when you get your first Xmas card. I’ve received a couple already, though only email cards at this stage, which seems to be increasingly the trend – a trend, I might add, that I personally dislike (though of course I deeply appreciate all those who have just sent me such cards. Thank you very much).

Perhaps it’s when your children first start approaching you with Christmas -lists.  Of course they are never lists of things you’d actually be glad to see your children have. “My Christmas wish is to improve my school grades for next year, Dad, so I’m asking Santa for a tutor!”

OK, I guess that’s a bit much to expect, but I remain hopeful that this year Santa will be called upon to provide less presents that make a lot of noise, and maybe (just maybe) someone apart from me in the household this year might ask Santa for a set of boxing gloves (we live in hope).

At any rate, whatever it is that signals the imminence of all things Christmas for you, I can tell you that for me it is always the arrival of that unlikely Yuletide figure, John the Baptist, who, courtesy of our Lectionary comes bursting into our happy pageant each time this year with his own very special brand of Christmas cheer:

Bear fruits that befit repentance! Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

I’ve resisted (once again) publishing my once-famous John the Baptist Xmas Greeting Cards, though I do think they had the potential to become best-sellers!

Those who have been a part of the parish for any length of time will remember them – the traditional figure of the Baptist on the front of the card and on the inside John’s special Yuletide greeting: “You brood of vipers! Bear fruits that befit repentance! Merry Christmas”

No, I’m afraid that ever since dear old Marge Yarham (may she rest in peace) took one of those cards from me and said, “I know exactly who to send this to”, the writing has been on the wall for my range of greeting cards!

Even so, greeting card or not, it is hard to know what to do with the Baptist at this time of year. He just doesn’t fit anywhere in the Nativity scene. He is a wild and wholly man, dressed in clothes made from camel’s hair. His breath reeks of a diet of fresh locusts and other Middle-Eastern bush-tucker! And his message is not one of ‘Peace on earth and goodwill to all men’!

On the contrary, he preaches a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins, and that’s a message that has frankly never been popular!

We don’t like talking about sin any more. I don’t like talking about sin any more! I’ve grown tired of blaming people for the things they’ve left undone that they ought to have done and for doing the things they ought not to have done. I’d sooner send someone to a counselor than tell them to repent. It just doesn’t seem like a very loving thing to do any more, especially at Christmas!

Perhaps I’ve grown soft on sin? Plenty of people tell me I have. Anonymous figures on Twitter tell me all the time that I’m far too accepting of gays and Muslims and gay Muslims, and that I’ve just lost the faith!

Personally, I don’t really think I have grown soft on sin. I’ve just grown to be far more concerned about communal sin, and about the sins of governments and corporations that cause war and death. They seem to me to be far more serious forms of sin than the petty little things that we get caught up in.

Even so, the Baptist brings it all back to the grass-roots, doesn’t he? He is very much concerned with ordinary people dealing with their ordinary dialing issues, and so he talks about the sin of failing to share your second coat with your brother who has no coat.

Likewise, the Baptist called on all of us in powerful jobs to repent of using our position to exploit the people we work with!

The Baptist spoke of the sin of not being content with what you have, which is hardly an appropriate Christmas message, but one that is entirely relevant to all of us who are caught up in the rate-race and who judge our human value by the level of our wages and by the type of car we drive.

Of course the Baptist didn’t mind ripping in to the political power-brokers either (which is how he met his untimely end) but for him it was all connected – the big sins and the little sins, the individual and the corporate!

I’ve just come back from spending ten days in the US, and I can tell you that it was an exciting time. It was also a time of great contrasts where I spent the first part of my time away in a casino and the last part in a monastery! Words are barely sufficient to convey the contrast between those two environments!

The casino I stayed in, in Chester, West Virginia, was the venue of the fight that I was in the country to attend. It was a casino that had its own mile-long racetrack attached to it, which gives you an idea of what an enormous establishment it was! And of course the enormity of the buildings was matched by the splendor of their contents.

There were beautiful paintings and fountains and gorgeous fixtures everywhere complimenting the massive rooms of poker machines and gaming tables. And there were multiple restaurants, offering every kind of food and drink fit for human consumption (and a few that were not-so-fit for human consumption).

The monastery, on the other hand, was characterized by simplicity everywhere. I slept in a simple, single, wooden bed. We drank only water. The bread was never buttered.  And whereas the atmosphere at the casino was one of constant clatter and buzzing and the endless ringing of poker machines, at the monastery, for the most part, there was complete silence!

Communal life at the monastery, for the most part, takes place without words. The brothers eat in silence while reading holy books. They then go about the work of cleaning up, all without words being necessary! Other chores are done and life goes on, but it goes on quietly until they meet for communal prayer, which normally takes place at least three times per day and begins with about half an hour of chanting Psalms and singing spiritual songs!

I’m sure you can guess which environment I found more spiritually nourishing. Even so, the more important question is ‘in which environment was God present?’, and the answer of course is that He was present in them both (though less initially obvious in the casino context).

I don’t know if many of you are familiar with the guy our beloved parishioner, Sol, was fighting on that occasion. When you look at some of his pictures, Paul Spadafora appears to be a rather dark figure, with a body covered in tattoos.

It is public knowledge that he’s had a long struggle with addiction and that he has spent quite a bit of time in gaol after shooting his girlfriend. And I must admit that I was not expecting to receive any spiritual nourishment from meeting this man.

But then I met up with one of his close friends before the fight, and I heard about how he had given his life to Christ recently and how he was really trying to make a fresh start! I said that I’d really like to meet up with the man after the fight, but his friend told me that unfortunately that could not happen because the day of the fight was also the day of his young son’s birthday, and this friend was taking him straight from the fight venue to see his son, and indeed that he wouldn’t be free the next morning either as he was taking his son out then (which is a hard thing to do on the morning after a big fight), and I couldn’t argue with any of that!

God was present in the monastery, and God was present in the casino too, though in very different ways. And I don’t know if you see that parallel with John the Baptist here, but it makes sense to me.

God communicates to us in a lot of different ways through a lot of different people.  Some of those people are warm and gentle and prayerful people who exude the Spirit of God, and others are like John the Baptist – rough, abrasive, nobody’s fool, and not afraid to call a spade a spade, but still very much God’s prophet in that time and place!

We need both!

We need the gentle touch and the gentle words of Christ, “Come to me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”, but there are other times when what we really need is to wake up to ourselves – when we need a slap in the face or an icy dip in the Jordan with John, where we can be reminded of just how selfish, greedy, and bigoted we are capable of being!

We like to remind ourselves that we are sons and daughters of Christ – forgiven, redeemed, and cleansed of all unrighteousness – and it is fitting and good that we do, but let’s not forget to bear fruits that befit repentance – to share our food and our clothes with those in need, to be content with what we have, and not to take advantage of other people just because we can!

We need both messages and both kinds of messenger, and perhaps especially at Christmas!

In Denmark, a traditional Christmas parade still takes place each year, with the venerable St. Nicholas at the heart of the procession, still wearing the plush red vestments of the European bishop, and he hands out sweets to the children. In front of him though marches another man in black carrying a stick. His job is to remind the children of all the bad things they’ve done in the last year. This figure has been dubbed ‘Black Peter’ by some, but I think we know who he really is – John the Baptist.

No Christmas pageant should be without him.  He brings us back to reality.  He reminds us that there’s no real ‘Peace on Earth and goodwill to all men’ without real repentance first, without real fruit, without the hard work.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on December 9, 2012.

To hear the audio version of the sermon click here.
To see the video version of the sermon click here.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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One Response to Tidings of Comfort and Joy … NOT! (A sermon on Luke 3:1-9)

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