Advent 3 –John the Baptist

Philippians 4:4-7 Luke 3:7-18

“Rejoice in the Lord always… and again I say rejoice”

Today is Gaudete Sunday,  Rejoicing Sunday –the third Sunday in Advent,  where because of the traditional introduction to the liturgy, using those words we have as our epistle reading today, churches have traditionally lightened the mood of Advent solemnities. In some churches rose pink vestments are worn instead of Advent violet. The pink candle in the advent wreath is lit, the mood turns to one of hope and looking forward as we celebrate John the Baptist, the herald of the Messiah, It’s all getting closer.

Today though, how much do we feel like rejoicing?

Yesterday I read the news from Connecticut, and I cried. I know I wasn’t the only one. We cannot start to imagine,   the individual pain, the community grief, the searing rip in the fabric of families, of the school, of that town.

Once again, it opens up for us that question, why?

Perhaps more than most things, the death of innocent children  makes us ask why?

Approaching Christmas, there is the foreshadowing echo of the slaughter of the innocents, the many who died, the question of why? Why was that necessary, why why why?

All through history the question of the suffering of those who seem not to deserve it has plagued us,

From the death of Abel at the hand of his brother, through the story of Job, which forces us to ask and question,

Through Europe’s more recent history, through our own personal struggles and stories.

We ask again & again the question WHY?

And we ask ourselves, how can we rejoice?

Paul is  not just exhorting us to rejoice, he asks us to rejoice  “in the Lord”. Not in what is happening, but in the one who made us and our world.

We’re confronted with this tension between the love of God, his infinite goodness, and the free will of the humanity he created, the presence in our world of evil and of sin

We ask ourselves the unanswerable questions, who does God allow this? How can it be?

But God is not untrue to himself, he does not let go of his own goodness.

And we at this present time, hold these things in tension, never more than during Advent, when we seem to rest in a liminal space, a space between, looking both forward & backward.

Waiting for what has already come, and waiting for what is not here yet.

Throughout the Old Testament the prophets spoke both of God’s judgement but also of his love and redemption.

This tension runs throughout all of history –all of our stories.

Today we remember particularly John the Baptist,

John who bridges this gap between the Old and the New Testaments, the old & the new world.

He speaks to the assembled crowds like a prophet of the Old Testament – he harangues them with angry words, he calls it how it is, calls them to change,  begins to show them what lies ahead.

He speaks of this tension between what is and what will be.

He calls for a change of heart, a readiness to accept the new.

He uses strong images, notably fire.

We’re long accustomed to reading these images of the tree and the chaff burning as talking about judgement. Finality

Images of hellfire, of torment are part of our understanding.

John speaks though to an audience in tune with the agricultural year, with practices and habits that they would recognise in his images.

When the harvest is gathered in, the tradition was in that part of the world and indeed in this, to set fire to the fields. Not to destroy, but to cleanse, to clear the stubble, to kill off viruses and bacteria, and to allow the resultant ash to fertilise the ground.

Fire is not permanent or punishment

Fire is the start of something new,

Once burnt, and re ploughed, that field is ready once more to produce a harvest.

We live in this tension,

Everything around us looks bleak,

The world suffers, we suffer.

But we know, we know what is to come,

The promise of God is new life, life out of the ashes, not a life separated from pain, not yet anyway, but new life none the less.

See I am doing a new thing,….

John’s message was this, the new thing is coming, be ready, be humble

Be repentant in your hearts, clear the fields of your life so that you are ready to grow this new thing when it comes.

He preaches a message of justice, not only from God but amongst humankind. Share what you have, be content, do not extort or threaten.

John the Baptist begins to preach the message of the Kingdom.

A new way of thinking

He begins to bridge the gap, to clear the path for this radical new way of understanding God and his dealings with humanity

The Kingdom of God turns our world upside down.

Love your enemy,

Do good to those who hate you…

We still don’t have the answers

We still live with the pain and the imponderables;

The questions we cannot form, let alone answer –

But we  begin to see the hope, the new life that lies ahead

And because of this we can Rejoice in the Lord


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