Saturday, December 15, 2012

Good News? (Advent 3, Dec 16 2012)

Homily:  Yr C Advent 3, Dec 16 2012, St. Albans
Readings:  Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Phil 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-20

Good News?

Every Sunday here at St. Albans we have a couple of people who volunteer to be our greeters.  This week it was Rob and Julie.  And their job, as you know, is to welcome you when you arrive, to make you feel comfortable and at home, and to provide you with our booklet and any other information you might need.  I imagine they might say things like “welcome” or “good morning” or “good to see you”.

They probably didn’t say to anybody “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

You see, as much as we try to uphold the ideals of inclusiveness and participation of everyone here at St. Albans, the things that Jonathan spoke to us about last week, I think that if John the Baptist offered to be the greeter at our door on a Sunday morning, we’d probably suggest that there might be other ways for him to be involved.

John the Baptist doesn’t exactly make people feel comfortable does he?  He’s got a bit of an edge to him.  He is after all, a prophet, and prophets are sent to stir things up, to shake people out of their complacency.  I think that John manages to do that pretty well in today’s gospel.  Listen to what he says:

        “you brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come”

 “the ax is even now lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”

Then, he tells people they have to change their lives.  And then he warns them that someone even more powerful than he is coming, and that for those who don’t shape up, this more powerful one will “burn the chaff with unquenchable fire”.

Then, after all that, Luke, the gospel writer, the narrator, adds this little note:

“So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people”

Umm.  Did Luke just say “good news”?  Maybe he missed the part about snakes and wrath and axes and unquenchable fire?  No he couldn’t have, he’s the one that wrote that down.  Maybe it was a typo.  Did anyone else catch the good news in what John had to say?  Obviously Herod didn’t.  He took John and threw him into prison, and not long after, had him killed.  Not much good news there.

Where is the good news in today’s gospel?

Some time ago, a friend of mine was told, quite suddenly, that she had a serious illness, and that it would require major surgery, and that she might not survive.  We spent some time talking, and during the course of our conversation I asked her if she was afraid.  She told me that she wasn’t afraid of dying, but that one of her fears was that in 50 years, no one would even know that she had ever existed.  It would be as if she had never been.  And that got me thinking.  It got me thinking first of all about her courage in the face of death.  But also got me thinking about how one of our greatest fears is insignificance.  The thought that we don’t matter, that we’re not worth anything.  That what we do is of no consequence, that are lives are fundamentally irrelevant.  That fifty or a hundred years from now, when the memories of people around us are no more, it will be as if we never were.  In this vast cosmos, perhaps we’re less important even than a grain of sand which will at least continue to be around long after we’re gone.

But the message of John the Baptist is that our lives do matter.  That there is a God who cares so much about us and our individual lives that he will judge us and hold us to account.  That there is a God who cares enough about human suffering that when he sees it, he gets angry.  In stark contrast to the Greek and Roman religion of 2000 years ago, in stark contrast to the materialist worldview of our own day, each of which in their own way proclaim that human beings are ultimately insignificant and irrelevant, the proclamation of John the Baptist is that each one of us is significant in God’s eyes, that the God who created the heavens and the earth is moved by our pain, and that we will be held to account for the way in which we live and the way in which we treat each other. 

I think that this is good news.  But it is good news with an edge to it, isn’t it?  It’s good news that’s meant to shake us out of complacency, to get past our excuses.  John’s listeners get that, and they ask the question that each one of us should be asking.

What then should we do?

And here, you might expect John to call for something radical, something heroic.  You might expect him to tell them to abandon the world they live in and to come and live with him in the wilderness.  You might expect him to tell the soldiers to become pacifists, or the tax collectors to quit their jobs. 

But he doesn’t.  Instead, he’s surprisingly pragmatic.  To the poor, John tells them that if they have food they should share it, or if they have two coats, they should give one to the person who has none.  To the tax collectors, notorious for overcharging and skimming off the top, he tells them to collect no more than the prescribed amount.  To the soldiers, he tells them to stop abusing their power by extorting money through threats and false accusations.

This is all within reach.  It’s doable.  Faith doesn’t have to be heroic.  John responds to each individual in the crowd in front of him by urging him or her to do justice in her daily life, wherever she is, whatever his circumstance.  That’s what it looks like to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

And this too is good news.  The things that God is calling us to, the way of life that matters to God, is within our reach.  We are being invited to participate in the work of God in a meaningful way, in our ordinary lives, in our homes, in our streets, in our families, in our jobs.  We don’t have to be heroes.  We don’t have to study theology.  We don’t need to become monks or nuns or firefighters or politicians.  We simply need to do justice in our daily lives.

But I don’t want to let you get too comfortable.   John the Baptist never lets us get too comfortable.  His double-barrelled good news that our lives matter and that the way of life we’re being called to is within our reach is delivered as an ultimatum.  Enter into this new way of life, or face the consequences.  And there are consequences to the way we live, to the choices we make, for us and for those around us, in this life, and beyond.  Having lives that matter is a double-edged sword.

Just ask Steve.  Did any of you see the article in the Ottawa Citizen yesterday about Steve Emmons?  Steve was one of the volunteers from The Ottawa Mission’s Food Services Training Program that came and cooked for us at our student BBQ in September.  He’s just graduated from that program and will be going to Algonquin College next year.  A former member of the armed forces, he became an alcoholic and then a crack cocaine addict.  Bad choices, bad circumstances, whatever.  His life fell apart.  His marriage broke up.  He lost contact with his children.  His money was consumed by crack.  He hit bottom.  He lost his will to live.  I think that when John the Baptist talks about the chaff burning in the fire, Steve would know exactly what he was talking about.

The good news that John the Baptist delivers leaves us with a dilemma.  Despite the fact that the way of life he holds out for us is within reach, we know that often we fail to reach it.  In a world with more than enough food, people still go hungry.  Like a crack addict that reaches for cocaine, most of us will spend more on unnecessary things this Christmas than we will give to those in need.  And the word of divine judgement that John the Baptist speaks to us in today’s gospel, would, if we really believed him and if we were honest with ourselves, it would scare the shit out of us.

John’s word is a word of God; but thankfully for us, it is not God’s final word.  One who is mightier than John is coming, one who will be powerful enough to burst through our dilemma in a way that not even John ever imagined or dared to dream of.  There is one coming into our world, into our midst who will proclaim the good news, the good news of our redemption.

Steve Emmons knows a thing or two about redemption.  He crashed and found himself in the Mission’s Lifehouse Rehabilitation program.  He spent five months there, he got help, he was stabilized, got off drugs.  Then he spent five months in the Food Services Training Program, from which he just graduated.  When Steve was asked about the most valuable thing he had learned during his time at the Mission, his reply was simple: “I learned that I’m worth something.”  Reminds me a bit about a story Jesus told about a father and a prodigal son – but we’ll get to that later.

Today’s gospel kind of leaves us hanging, it leaves us waiting in expectation of more.  It is Advent after all, and there is more to come.

John the Baptist proclaims good news.  And it’s going to get better.


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