Readings for today: Isaiah 11:1-10 Psalm 72:1-7,18-21 Romans 15:4-13 Matthew 3:1-12
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton
Who here has seen the stage show of Godspell, or even the movie? Remember how it starts? I saw it in 1973 at, I think The State Theatre, but perhaps it was Her Majesty’s in Sydney. We sat there in the dark waiting for the curtain to go up and then from the back of the theatre a voice, a lone voice crying in the wilderness, or the theatre, started, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”. It was wonderfully exciting but also somehow solemn, very important and a magnificent place to start. The voice of John the Baptiser calling to us across the centuries that something very important was about to happen. John was a prophet- the first one that they had had in Israel for a very long time. He was like Elijah calling the people who had gone astray to repentance, back to a real and active faith in God. The people flocked to see him, from Jerusalem, that great city, from Judea the region that had kept faith with God after the separation of the kingdoms and from all along the Jordan. People in different walks of life, city folk, farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, even the Pharisees and Sadducees according to Matthew, flocked to John for the baptism of repentance that he was offering. And why was he doing this? Well, presumably because this was what he was born for- to be “the prophet of the Most High, to go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins”. I am quoting the song that his father Zechariah sang at his birth. John himself was ready for the Kingdom of God and he was calling others to get ready so that when Jesus came preaching and healing, and calling them to himself, they would be ready for him.
There is a great level of expectation evident in this passage, isn’t there? People were waiting for something to happen and John was evidently the beginning of something big. People flocked to be baptized. Why were they so attracted? Well, I can’t tell you. It seems surprising because John’s words are not gentle. He calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a ‘brood of vipers’ which is hardly conciliatory language, is it? He tells everyone that they have to bear the fruits of repentance or that they will be like trees cut down at root level and burnt in the fire. He also tells them that when Jesus comes, he will use his winnowing fork to separate the chaff from the grain, and the chaff will be burnt up- this is, of course, a picture of judgement, which we thought about a little last week. All I can think is that the Holy Spirit was already working among people preparing them for Jesus’ ministry.
In John’s words there is imagery both of water and of fire- two of the essential elements, two things that have both a positive and a negative effect. Both water and fire have the power of cleansing, people are baptized in water to symbolize the washing away of sin. Water sustains us, we can’t live without it and fire brings us warmth and light (essential before the coming of electricity which after all is just another form of fire). Both can also bring death, as we know well in this Sunburnt Country. John is talking about the elemental, the essential, and then he has a third image, one of fruit, or grain, the product of life, which of course is also essential. Bringing forth fruit is not an option- a plant brings forth fruit or when it dies there is nothing to replace it- if the species is to continue it must bring forth fruit. Isaiah talks about the branch that will spring forth and bear the fruit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. John tells us that if we do not bring forth the fruit of repentance we will be cut down and thrown into the fire. John’s message seems a quite confronting and difficult teaching, doesn’t it? And yet, it is also a message of great hope.
The hope is in the one who is coming, the Lord, who brings in the Kingdom of God. And that is perhaps why the people flock because John, at bottom, has a message of hope- your Lord is coming, and he is coming soon, in fact he is already here and though he brings a message of judgement. The judgement that Isaiah speaks about so eloquently, a judgement by one who wears the belt of righteousness around his waist and of faithfulness around his loins. Jesus brings within himself the means of entry, “the way,” into the Kingdom of God. Jesus he tells us will give us a baptism not just of repentance but of the Holy Fire of God. The breath of God will breathe new life into us and we will be able to take our place in the Kingdom.
And that is what we want, isn’t it? That is why we are here today, because we want to be part of the kingdom of God.
So do John’s criteria still apply to us? Do we still need to hear these words about repentance? Do we need Isaiah’s prophetic words? We surely are in and so we don’t need to bother with John and his baptism of repentance. We, most of us, were baptized a long time ago. That is true, we are part of the Kingdom but nevertheless we need to bring forth fruit revealing our repentance- that is part of the deal. All week I have been asking myself what that might look like in my own life? Am I prepared to come for the baptism of repentance? Are there things that should change in order for me to bring forth the fruits of righteousness? Well, you might look at me and say that I was generally speaking a good person- mostly kind, mostly caring. I don’t have any really bad habits, or do anything illegal or immoral, so what am I going to repent of? I love God and my neighbor as myself, don’t I? Well, yes, if you think of my neighbor as the people I have contact with, here in the church, at the shops, my friends, even my family. I certainly love all those people, quite a bit, when it suits me. But do I love them enough, as Jesus does, to be sacrificial for them, even to lay down my life for them? “Steady on!” I say, who said anything about laying down lives? Jesus actually. Well, I’m sure I would lay down my life for my beloved children and grandchildren but I am not being asked to, am I? But perhaps it doesn’t just mean dying in order that others might live- we don’t get much chance for that in our easy society, maybe what it means is living so that others might live. Maybe I am being called, like the rich young ruler to give all I have to the poor, or like Zaccheus to give half of everything I own. That’s a terrible thought, isn’t it? I pray that that isn’t true.
Maybe what I am being called to do is to think of my neighbours in a wider sense. We live in a consumer society where we take the purchase of goods for granted. I buy whatever I want whenever I want it. Perhaps, before I buy something I want I need to think about the cost to others. Did the woman or man who made my garment that I can buy so cheaply get paid a fair wage? Were they working in a factory that pollutes the waterways so that others in their society have no access to clean water or get poisoned by inches? Could I have given away the money I spend so freely to feed someone with no food? Do I need to repent of the disregard that stops me of thinking about the cost to others? Do I need to embrace a life of greater simplicity to bring forth good fruit? That seems to be what Jesus says, in the gospels, doesn’t it?
Maybe I am being called to think of the plight of other people when I sit in comfort in my living room of an evening. Perhaps if I really loved my neighbour I would be doing more for the refugees who are crammed into detention centres, locked up for no crime and suffering deep torment? Or those driven out of their homes by war who are living in camps in terrible conditions while they wait and wait for resettlement. Perhaps if I really loved my neighbour I would put aside my complacency and do something. That seems to be what Jesus calls me to in the gospels, doesn’t it?
Maybe instead of using up resources that are contributing to global warming I should change the way I live to minimize my energy consumption? Is that part of being the good steward that God requires?
I could go on and on. As I examine my life- my good life, my life of comfort and plenty, I find that I have sins of omission- things that I haven’t done, things that I haven’t paid enough attention to, things that I take for granted, that prevent me from bearing a great crop of fruit for the Kingdom. As I examine my life, I can’t imagine that if Jesus were here, today in Camberwell, he would be living the same life as I am. Jesus would be living a life of sacrifice and a life that brought hope for others. Is that possible for me or for you? Could I live a life that shared God’s love with others and that brought hope? And you know, I am convinced that if I were living a life closer to the one Jesus would have me live, rather than feeling deprived or conflicted I would be filled with his peace and his joy- those are two of the fruits of the spirit that he promises.
So this call of John the baptizer still resonates for me, down the ages, across the great gap of years. Prepare the way of the Lord, for your hope, Jesus the Christ is coming, in fact he is already here. I am praying that the one who has baptized me with the Holy Spirit might continue to empower me to do his will. And that is my prayer for you as well. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. “Prepare thee the way of the Lord”