OK so I'm a bad man, haven't posted for a month, but here's my sermon from Sunday past.
It's actually another re-jig but I liked it so much I thought it would serve again.
This week the Christmas TV schedules were in some of the papers – although as one comedian observed, there are a lot of repeats: ‘To be confirmed’ is on several times a day! But this is the time that we get previews of the major Christmas specials – and I notice that the costume drama ‘Cranford’ is one of those.
Perhaps you watched Cranford a couple of years ago – maybe just one or two episodes, or the whole lot – or none at all. But I imagine if you watched any BBC at all, you saw several ‘trails’, adverts, promoting it, between other programmes.
Perhaps you got tired of being told that Cranford was ‘The one to watch’…
This year, the trail I noticed most often was probably the trail for David Attenborough’s programme. ‘Life… as you’ve never seen it before’
But whether you get fed up of trails, or are just itching for the programme time to arrive, they are doing their job –informing you of what’s coming up this week, something that the BBC at least considers important that you should see: “Here’s something new, something of quality, an interesting story, or actors in it you’ll recognise” – they’re working at getting the message across.
Or do you go to the cinema? Having young children, I can’t remember the last time I went to the cinema, though my wife and I used to go quite a bit.
Before the main feature, you get a series of trailers, perhaps a couple of minutes each, and at the end of each one, you get maybe just the name or even just the logo of the film. The film company, the film distributor, have put a lot of money and effort into this film, and they think it’s worth you spending your money on to come and see it, so they spend their money on this trailer, which might run for months before the release date, to keep it ‘on the agenda’ in the mind of the ‘cinema-going public’.
Now maybe you don’t watch TV or go to the cinema, but you’ll perhaps have been to a wedding where someone has announced at the reception ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, please be upstanding for the Bride and Groom’.
In each of these cases, you’re getting a foretaste of what is to come. It’s not a surprise to you that the happy couple then enter the room. You know in advance what the latest movie or TV programme is going to be and when it’s going to be on.
In our reading from Luke’s gospel, John is giving a trailer, an advert, for the coming Messiah. He is saying “Coming soon… someone mightier than I am”. And he has gone about it in an unusual way – going out to the desert or wilderness, dressing in odd clothes and eating things which may have been acceptable under Jewish law, but probably didn’t meet even that culture’s ideas of a balanced diet. In any case, it’s having an effect – he’s got (at least some) people’s attention, they are coming to hear the message that he’s trying to get across.
But it’s not just a matter of hearing the message – what do you do with it when you’ve heard it? What’s your response? If it’s the bride and groom coming in, you stand up. If it’s the TV or cinema – well, you make a decision about watching it, or avoiding it like the plague. You take a note of the time, and maybe you need to find out the cost. Some people might have to get a babysitter, or set the video/DVD recorder/Sky+ – anyway, if it’s a priority for you to see it, then you do what you have to do to see it. But apart from that, what else changes? Not much, life goes on as normal.
There’s the difference with John the Baptist. His ‘trailer’ is not just one you can ignore, or make a few arrangements for, then carry on as normal. It’s not just a case of standing up for a few minutes. He calls for change. Major, fundamental change.
The call to “Repent” is a word that probably now we just associate with old-time preachers, but the imagery conjured up by it at the time might best be represented by the phrase ‘Do a U-turn!’ In other words, you’re going the wrong way – stop, and go the other way.
John’s theme was ‘you’ve got to be ready for the One who is coming’, and that means living lives that are ethical, moral, lives that are in right relationship to God. ‘Sin’ is another word that isn’t used much outside the church, but we’re all familiar with the idea of failing to meet a certain standard – Quality Assurance, tests and exams, hearing someone say “I expected better of you” – or perhaps even feeling “I expected better of myself”. John is saying, in effect – your lives aren’t what they might be, and you need to recognise this – and here’s a public sign – a washing or baptism. He had taken a ritual which had been used by the Jewish faith and given it new meaning.
His message is particularly strong to the religious leaders – of both ‘parties’ of the time. You’ve got to show that you have changed – your lives have to produce ‘fruit’, evidence of your new thought and behaviour patterns, and he warns against complacency, or depending on history and heritage to save them from the consequences of their negative behaviour.
And what should they be doing? Luke ties John’s preaching up with a part of the prophecy of Isaiah, who also lists some qualities of the coming Messiah: wisdom, loyalty to the Lord, discernment, fairness to the poor and downtrodden, punishment to the wicked, justice, guidance and majesty. It wouldn’t seem too great a leap to suggest that those who have to produce ‘fruit’ should emulate these qualities – both internal and external, personal and relational – attitude towards God and attitude towards others.
To go back to our film trailers for a moment, one of the issues that people often have with trailers is the tendency to reveal if not the whole plot then certainly to show all the ‘action’ scenes in the trailer – and if the plot is thin or shaky to begin with then there seems little point in seeing the whole film. Some ‘James Bond’ movies have been accused of this.
But although there should be ‘no surprises’ about the fact of the movie being released, or the date of its release, it is probably good practice to not reveal the whole story in advance – impossible to do, with only a few minutes to give an impression.
This again has parallels in Scripture. There should be ‘no surprises’ for Judah, who have had not only John, but a whole series of prophets, including Isaiah, to tell them what God is saying, what God wants them to do, and that there is a Messiah to come in the future. However, the prophets are not the Messiah, and John makes it clear that he is not the Messiah. As prophets, they cannot see or tell the full story. John’s baptism is not the full baptism, the coming one will baptise in the Holy Spirit and fire – a prophecy that is fulfilled later, at Pentecost. The coming one is to ‘winnow’ to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is possible that this refers to (among other things) the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus takes on and extends the idea of ‘failing to measure up’ by looking at attitudes that lie behind deeds – that it’s the hatred of people that is the root problem, whether or not it inspires violence or murder. It’s the lustful thoughts that are wrong, not just the acts that they can inspire.
John’s baptism of repentance, of turning around people’s lives, is to prepare people for this teaching but it is not the full teaching, yet.
And what is our response to this trailer, this advance notice? We are looking back from the perspective of history, we are not hearing John at first hand. He can’t be preaching to us? No… and yes. In our Advent preparations, in a sense we re-enact and re-tell the Nativity story, we enter into it, and we too must examine ourselves to see if our lives are ready for the entry of God into the world. Further, Advent points us to the return of Christ, whatever form that will take – and in that sense we are in the same position as those who heard John’s message – “no surprises”, we know that this event will happen, but yes, some surprises – we don’t know the day or the hour, and so we must be in a state of readiness. If there are behaviours, attitudes, actions or lack of actions that do not line up in our relationship with God, or our relationship with people in the world, we need to review, revise and perhaps repent – turn ourselves around and go a different way, the way of the Psalmist, who put their trust in God, who asked for guidance, mercy, forgiveness, and help to follow God’s law.
The Reformers of our Church took as their motto ‘Reformed, yet always reforming’ – and this applies as much to individuals as to the church corporate. So let’s take some time to reflect and think about the trailers that we see and hear – which ones are we ignoring, which ones are we allowing to prompt us to make preparations, to think about our ‘fruit’, our behaviour towards others?
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