“The Joy of Salvation”
The message of the prophets on this third Sunday in Advent is about the joy of salvation. Like Israel before us, we have a reason to rejoice, because God has decided not to hold us accountable for our sins and failings, but to demonstrate grace and offer us forgiveness.
As the prophet Zephaniah wrote to the people of Israel, “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you.” We are called to rejoice and exult with all our hearts. We are invited to draw spiritual water from the wells of salvation, and to do so with joy and thanksgiving.
This is, of course, a message that is not reserved for Advent or Christmas. We are reminded of God’s grace and forgiveness over and over in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and Sunday after Sunday, we hear the assurance of God’s abiding love and grace for us, God’s own wandering children.
But the message of grace in today’s scriptures comes hand in hand with a challenge. The prophet John is preaching about the One coming into the world from God. He is calling the people to prepare the way of the Lord, to get ready for a Messiah who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.
But John’s message is not, “Relax and don’t worry. You folks are fairly good people, and God is forgiving you anyway, so you really don’t need to be concerned about anything.” John the Baptist is not nearly so sweet and kind and reassuring.
In fact, he’s yelling at the people and calling them “snakes”. He’s accusing them of being hypocrites — of putting on a show of repentance in order to avoid the judgment and punishment of God. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” he asks them. And then he challenges them to PROVE their sincere desire to repent, to change, and to turn towards God’s loving ways.
There are many who would level the same charge against churches and Christians today. They notice that we come to God to confess our sins and to receive forgiveness. They notice that we do a lot of talking about what’s right and wrong, and often spend a lot of energy pointing our fingers at others we think are doing wrong things.
But what they often do not notice is Christians acting very differently than anyone else in our society. They notice that we are just as likely to get angry and be rude to a clerk in a store. They see that we spend just as much of our money on luxuries, and we’re no more likely to be making sacrifices to care for the earth.
Our presence in church doesn’t seem to affect the values we are teaching our children, or the ways we are functioning in our jobs or our social circles. They call us hypocrites because we are enjoying the grace of God’s forgiveness, but often our lives are not bearing the fruit of our repentance.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus describes his relationship with his followers as being like a vine and branches. Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. When we stay joined to him and let his energy fill our lives, the result is that we bear fruit. Jesus has the power to help us to do good works when our repentance is sincere and when we remain connected to Christ, allowing him to direct us in every area of our lives.
Paul also writes about the fruit that should be produced in the lives of those who follow the way of Christ. Writing to the Galatian Christians, he tells them that the fruit of the Spirit is LOVE, JOY, PEACE, PATIENCE, KINDNESS, GENEROSITY, FAITHFULNESS, GENTLENESS, AND SELF-CONTROL. If God has the power to grow this kind of fruit in our lives, surely the people around us will begin to see it and to wonder at the source of our changed lives.
But God cannot do these things without our full participation. God needs us to be the branches that bear the fruit of faithfulness and generosity, and God needs us to be the hands and feet of Christ’s body, healing and helping and holding our suffering world today.
As I was studying today’s Gospel passage, I noticed that John gets very specific about the fruit of repentance that he expects to see in the people’s lives. He doesn’t just say, “You need to be a little kinder,” or “You should try to be more patient.” It’s not a matter of simply increasing their concern for their neighbours or for the stranger in their midst.
Instead, John is calling for a radical re-orientation of their lives and ours. And he’s telling them that people will see the fruit of that change (of that repentance) when they start dealing with their money and their possessions in a completely different way.
There were three groups of people who listened to John that day, and each one asks John the same question, “What should we do?” John’s answers give concrete examples of the ethical reform that he called for in the previous verses. All three answers call for an end to a life-style based on greed and the accumulation of material possessions.
To the soldiers, he said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
To the tax collectors, he said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
And to the crowds in general, he said, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none;and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Traditionally, repentance was expressed by putting on sackcloth and ashes or offering sacrifices. But for John, repentance takes the form of a sincere and dedicated enactment of the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself and to do deeds of loving kindness.
John does not call for the people to withdraw from society to live a religious life (like the Essenes were doing at Qumran). Neither does he seek a military solution to the problems of poverty and oppression (like the Zealot groups of his time were doing). Instead, John addresses individual needs, and he believes that the answer begins with the individual. If one has more than is needed to sustain life, one who does not have such abundance should be provided for.
Notice that he does not say that one who does not have food or clothing should TAKE from one who has more than needed. He’s not Robin Hood! His interest is in repentance and ethical reform, rather than revolution. And the first step towards a redeemed community is for those who HAVE to share with those who HAVE NOT.
Most of us gathered here today belong to the group of those who HAVE. We are challenged, like the tax collectors and the soldiers, to be honest in our dealings with money, and perhaps most difficult in our society, to BE SATISFIED with what we have. And like the rich ones in the crowd that day, we are invited to share what we have — to share out of our abundance.
Christmas is an ideal time to respond to John’s challenge, and to co-operate with God in producing good fruit. We can choose to give gifts to those in our community who are in need at this time, instead of buying more sweaters or electronics for our friends and families who already have more than they need. We can choose to spend more time with those who are lonely or grieving or sick or depressed this Christmas, and less time at the mall loading our carts with things we hope will make ourselves and our families happy.
It takes courage to make these kinds of changes in our lives — to trust that we will be okay, that God will be with us, and that the joy of the Lord will actually fill our lives when we have let go of the money and material possessions that our world tells us we need in order to be happy and fulfilled. We must learn from those who have experienced the joy of the Lord in their lives despite extreme poverty or illness or uncertainty. And in faith and trust and hope, let us open our hearts and our lives to share from our abundance.
Just a few months ago, most of us were very aware of folks here in Regina who were struggling with extreme poverty and homelessness. We had a tent city set up here in the city for many weeks, and various organizations and individuals responded generously with donations, volunteer hours, and advocacy to assist them.
As you probably know, the city did eventually set up an additional shelter that met the urgent need of some of those living in the park, but it soon became clear that there were still far from enough spaces, and much work yet to be done to get people settled in more permanent housing.
Although churches have not been taking the lead in recognizing and responding to these needs, Christians have been among the helpers and those sharing their second coats and their food with others. And some of the downtown churches have been talking about what we could be doing to assist our neighbours through generosity, hospitality, and advocacy.
This Saturday, a few members of our Mission & Outreach Committee (along with some folks from Knox-Met and Sunset United and First Baptist Churches) are going to serve a bag lunch to people in the downtown area who tend to have less access to meals on the weekends. If it goes well and successfully meets a need, the program may continue in the New Year, with other churches being invited to join in.
I invite you to pray for us – that our gifts and hospitality may bring some joy into the lives of struggling people this weekend, and that our lives too will be filled with the joy that comes from serving and giving in Christ’s name. May all our lives bear fruit worthy of repentance, and may God’s kingdom come. Amen.