Sermon for 8 o’clock Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Advent, 9th December 2018

Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

The voice of one crying in the wilderness. ‘Every valley, every valley shall be exalted … the crooked straight, and the rough places plain’. Perhaps in your head you can hear the great tenor Mark Padmore singing this in Handel’s Messiah.

This is the second Sunday of Advent, the time when we look forward not only to Christmas, to celebrating and commemorating the birth of Jesus, his first coming, but also to his second coming at the end of time, to the day of judgement.

The ‘one crying in the wilderness’ was John the Baptist, and the words are from the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 40.

There’s a sort of creative tension in the themes of Advent, between our looking forward to the happy Christmas time, and our thinking – if we do think about it – about the Last Judgment.

In our morning prayer services – which we have at 9.15 here on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – at this Advent time the prayers end with:

May the Lord when he comes

find us watching and waiting.

We say, ‘Amen’. Amen – so be it.

I wonder really what the background to John the Baptist was. St Luke gives him a precise historical context, ‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea’, and so on – which all translate, the historians say, to about the year 29 AD – or CE, Common Era, as we say nowadays. By the same reckoning, Jesus’ crucifixion was in the year 33, so this was four years before the crucifixion.

But apart from the date, there’s not much else in the historical context to say why John the Baptist appeared at that point. Why did the people in Judaea need to be told to ‘repent’, to change their mindset, at this particular point? What were their ‘sins’ that needed to be forgiven?

Perhaps before trying to answer that, I should just say something about what this word ‘sin’ might mean. Although we sometimes use the word ‘sin’ to mean a bad thing, a bad thing that someone’s done, the church’s teaching has always been that ‘sin’ is not the same thing as crime. The idea is that ‘sin’ is something that drives a wedge between us and God. The Greek word used in the New Testament is άμαρτια, ‘missing the mark’, missing the target.

This is all linked to the Last Judgement. Did we pass the test? Or will we miss the mark? What do you have to do, in order to to pass the test?

You can work out what the Baptist had in mind, if you read on in this third chapter of Luke’s gospel. What do we have to do? people asked him. You have to prove that you have changed your mindset. Like a tree, you will be judged by whether your repentance bears fruit, whether there’s a practical consequence to it.

St Paul has a prayer for his friends in the congregation at Philippi, which echoes what John the Baptist was preaching. He says,

And this is my prayer, that your love may grow ever richer and richer in knowledge and insight of every kind, and may thus bring you the gift of true discrimination. Then on the Day of Christ you will be flawless and without blame, reaping the full harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (3.9-11)

What they were doing wrong when John the Baptist appeared has to be deduced from what he was telling them they ought to do, in order to show that they had repented. It wasn’t enough just to say they were God’s chosen people – ‘We have Abraham to our father’.

They had to do something to show for it. If you read on in the Gospel passage – it could be your little extra thing to do over coffee before you get down to Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer today – you will see that John says, if you have two coats, give one away to someone who hasn’t got one; if you have more than enough food, share that; and specifically he answers the tax-gatherers, who were privatised, if you remember, and soldiers, telling them to do their jobs ethically, the tax inspectors not extorting too much from the taxpayers, and the soldiers not to be violent – presumably this meant, not violent when they were off duty – and to be content with their pay.

So we can perhaps infer some things from that. People were being mean. Perhaps they were saying that poor people were poor because they were lazy or indolent, that they were not ‘deserving’. How does anyone know why someone is poor? The only safe thing is to follow the Golden Rule: do as you would be done by. What does it feel like to have to go and ask for a food voucher for the food bank? What does it feel like if you have a chronic illness, which means you can’t work – but you might look OK? What would it feel like if someone said you were just a skiver?

I think the injunction on the army not to beat people up in pubs and things is straightforward. But what about the tax gatherers? As I said, they were privatised. In the Roman Empire you could acquire a franchise to collect taxes for the government. You passed on whatever the government set as the required amount, and to the extent that you could extract more from the taxpayer, you trousered it.

We used to have a rather similar system with insurance brokers, pension fund managers and financial advisers. Now the law requires them to be transparent, and show how much they are charging by way of fees and brokerages. The point is now, just as it was in the time of John the Baptist – that people shouldn’t exploit their economic strengths in order to screw their customers.

And finally, interestingly, soldiers were supposed to be content with their pay. I must confess that I don’t really see how that one fits in with the general objective of showing that you’ve changed your mindset, that you’ve repented. Perhaps one of you could put me right on your way out in a minute.

Sharing your clothes – not putting on two cloaks, as Jesus told his disciples – and not exploiting your economic strength – are very like what Jesus was preaching in the Sermon on the Mount. If somebody wants to sue you, and take your coat, give him your cloak as well – Matthew 5:40; you can’t serve both God and wealth, God and Mammon – Matthew 6:24. And again the Golden Rule, do unto others, is at Matthew 7:12.

As St Paul explained at great length later, salvation doesn’t come just from doing good works. You are ‘justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1). But at the great Day of Judgement, what you do to show it will matter nevertheless. We could say it was necessary but not sufficient. Jesus said he would say at the great Day of Judgement, ’For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ Look at Matthew 25, from verse 35 on. When people queried how this had happened, Jesus said that he would say, ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’ (Matt. 25:40f).

I don’t know whether we really believe in a Day of Judgement any more. The ‘Dies Irae’ (Latin for ‘the day of wrath’) is perhaps more familiar as a spectacular part of Verdi’s Requiem – which some people say is more of an opera than a solemn mass, a religious service. Certainly I don’t feel shaken or apprehensive when I hear it, as I expect I would if I really thought that someone had pressed a nuclear button.

But then, I think that the idea of trying to live each day as though it is your last, is not necessarily bad. Just as we don’t know – by definition we can’t know – how God works, we don’t know when or how or if Armageddon might come. Both John the Baptist, and Jesus after him, though, said we should try to be ready, whenever it might come.

If that sounds a bit sombre, think of the adverts for the National Lottery. The odds are millions against – but ‘It could be you’. So when we remember John the Baptist, and perhaps also Jesus’ story of the Unwise Bridesmaids, perhaps we can also think about how happy it can make you, as well as how sensible, how wise you will be, if you expect the unexpected, and make good preparations for it. Is there anything in our lives that we need to repent of, to change our attitudes about? That’s the message of John the Baptist, and it still makes sense today.