Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
13th of December 2015
Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is ‘Gaudete’ (gow-day-tay) Sunday – Joy Sunday, the only Sunday in the entire liturgical year whose colour is pink. The name comes from part of today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians; in Latin, ‘rejoice in the Lord always’ is Gaudete in Domino semper. In the midst of Advent, which can be rather a sombre time as we prepare for the Second Coming and are reminded to be ready for the return of the Son of Man, this third Sunday is a time of joy.
Or is it? After all, our gospel reading has John the Baptist proclaiming: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance’ and warning the crowds that: ‘Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ Today’s gospel reading does not come across as particularly joyful.
This week, at the lectionary discussion group of local Uniting Church ministers that I attend, we got into a passionate discussion about the relationship between joy and repentance, and about which we should focus on. Do our congregations needed to be reminded to repent, or reminded to rejoice? Which was more important: John’s call to the brood of vipers to repent; or the emphasis on gentleness, peace, thanksgiving and living without fear in the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians? Or are the two so entwined that there can be no rejoicing without repentance and no repentance without rejoicing?
One colleague argued that we needed to remind our congregations that there is no joy without repentance, in opposition to the message from the secular world at this time of year that we can buy happiness. The cultural Christmas is all about consumption, about eating lots of delicious food together, and buying presents for the people we love. Retailers rely on this season to make their largest profits, because Christmas has becoming so intimately connected with shopping. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sharing meals and showing our love for others with gifts. After all, this time of year is also the season when people are most likely to give to food banks and charities, as those of us who ‘have’ are reminded most powerfully of those who ‘have not’. But there is no doubt that as a community we have gone completely overboard when it comes to consuming stuff at Christmas. And the call to repentance of John the Baptist is an antidote to that.
John, when calling those around him to repent, is very specific in what he tells them will show their repentance. None of the other gospels has the practical details of what repentance means that Luke’s John gives. Here John tells the crowd to share their clothes and their food; the tax-collectors not to collect more money than is owed; and the soldiers not to extort or threaten people. Luke’s version of John the Baptist has the same concern that the gospel according to Luke has overall. As Brendan Byrne puts it: ‘Nothing so hinders relationship to God, dehumanizes human beings and ruins life in community as attachment to wealth and possessions.’ (The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel (2000), p. 40.) John’s call to repentance is incredibly practical. Don’t take more than your fair share; share what you have. There’s nothing in it about ritual, prayer or worship. It is all about how we treat other people and how we deal with our possessions.
This is a fairly small congregation and I know you all reasonably well, so I know that none of you need to be reminded not to use your positions to extort money from others or to embezzle and steal. But as people who have two coats and food to spare it doesn’t hurt us to be encouraged again to be generous to those who don’t. And, at the very least, remembering John’s message may keep us from being tempted into spending money we don’t have on things that we don’t need this Christmas.
Telling people not to consume too much at Christmas does make the church sound like a community of wowsers. Where’s the joy in that? Well, as another colleague told me, the joy is in John’s implicit message that there is enough to go around. That’s what lies behind his advice to the crowds, the soldiers, the tax-collectors. Share a little of what you’ve got and everyone will have enough. Live honestly and never take more than your fair share, from others or from the earth and everyone will be able to rejoice. The poor will have what they need and the rich will be free from the deathly stress of always wanting more. A world in which everyone bears the fruits worthy of repentance that John describes would be a world of joy.
But we can also see the joy when we reverse the relationship between rejoicing and repentance. There is no joy without repentance, but there’s also no repentance without joy – and I think the joy comes first. John calls the people who stream to see him a brood of vipers, which incidentally I think is the sort of evangelical strategy that could backfire, but, still, they come to be baptized. They know that John has something they need. What he has is the good news. The Messiah is coming!
Already we see here that the kingdom the Messiah will inaugurate is going to be different. It’s a kingdom that will be open to everyone. It’s a kingdom in which soldiers and tax-collectors will have a place. It is not a kingdom in which those who can say ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’ are more worthy than those who don’t. Everyone is worthy; everyone is welcome. Tax-collectors; soldiers; even us. The kingdom is open to us, too.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. The Lord is near. He is coming to welcome us to his kingdom, to make a place for us at his banqueting table. We don’t need to worry about anything; Jesus was born to show us that we are known by God and loved by God. This is the source of our joy. John tells the crowds around him to bear fruits worthy of repentance as though it’s a command; but bearing the fruits of repentance that John describes is the natural outflowing of our joy. We are loved by God; we belong to God; we have a place in God’s kingdom – of course we don’t need to worry and hoard and spend too much in a vain quest to be happy. We can share our coats and our food.
As I said, at the lectionary discussion this week one colleague argued that we needed to remind our congregations that there is no joy without repentance and I argued that we needed to remind our congregations that joy is at the centre of Christianity, that being Christian doesn’t mean being dour. But over the course of the week I came round to her point of view. There is no joy without repentance; and there is no repentance without joy. Advent is a time to rejoice and repent, because both rejoicing and repenting come from knowing that God loves us. God loves us so much that God came to be one of us. Rejoice, and again I will say, Rejoice. God loves us! Thanks be to God.