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Sunday Worship 10 December | Gift Sunday

Updated: Jan 12

This was our annual Gift Sunday service, when we invite donations of items for a local charity to pass on as gifts. This year we are supporting the Midland Langar Seva Society's shoebox appeal.

Luke 3:1-18 (NIV)
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptised by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptised. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptise you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

John the Baptist had a small cameo in our service last week, leaping in his mother’s womb when Mary arrived carrying Jesus in her own womb. Even before he was born, John was not only Jesus’ cousin but also his herald. We’re jumping forward in time by about thirty years this morning, but despite that, the ministry of John the Baptist makes for a perfect Advent text, because it is all about getting ready for Christ.

I wonder what getting ready for Christmas looks like in your house? We will all have our own family traditions, but I imagine buying presents, decorating trees and preparing food will feature for many of us. Perhaps you have heard sermons in the past warning that these things only distract us from the real reason for the season, but that’s not the message you’re going to hear from me. Of course they can take our attention away from the mystery that is God born as one of us, but so can the logistics of running a dozen carol services and worrying if there are enough oranges for the christingles. It’s not that candles and Silent Night are inherently holy, while baubles and Secret Santa are nothing more than shiny diversions. Christ is in all of it, we just have to pay attention.

Christmas is above all things a celebration of the most wonderful truth there is, and I believe there should be at least as much revelry as reverence in our festivities. With all the wisdom of that age, my son told me when he was four that Jesus came so that we would be kind and happy, and it seems good to me that we celebrate his birth with as much kindness and happiness as we can. Finding the perfect gift for someone I love, and decorating the tree with a riot of the kids handmade decorations, and eating my bodyweight in mince pies and cheese all bring me joy, and I love that I can celebrate the great joy of Christ’s incarnation with the small joys of my own incarnation. So fill your Christmas with all the things that make your heart sing, and give thanks that Christ was born for such kindness and happiness as this.  

Let’s get back to John the Baptist though, who admittedly was not getting ready for Christ by festooning his house with lights and listening to Slade at full volume. It seems he had already withdrawn into the wilderness when the word of God came to him, leading him to travel throughout the country around the Jordan, “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. From what I understand of first century Judaism, immersion or mikvah was already a fairly common purification ritual, so John was not inventing something new. What was different about the baptism John offered was the broader nature of it. 

Mikvah was performed to restore ritual purity, for example after childbirth or following certain bodily emissions. It could also be performed in preparation for a wedding or festival, and was required as part of the process of converting to Judaism. (I say was, but it continues to be practised in much the same way within some branches of Judaism, particularly within Orthodox communities.) The form of immersion that would have been familiar to the crowds that John preached to was performed by certain people in specific circumstances, but John seems to be calling everyone to be baptised as a universal sign of repentance and forgiveness. In Matthew’s account of John’s ministry, he declares “the kingdom of heaven has come near”, and while we don’t hear those words in Luke’s version, there is still a sense that a new thing is coming and everyone needs to be ready for it. 

This new thing may seem to come with dire warning, as we hear that the axe is at the root of the trees and the chaff will be thrown into the unquenchable fire, but nowhere does it explicitly say that the trees and the chaff are people. We could each be a whole orchard and an entire threshing floor, and it is possible to read these verses as referring to behaviours and attitudes which will be chopped down and winnowed out, so that we are refined not destroyed. I also think we need to remember that the final verse of our reading says that John proclaimed the good news. There is certainly a challenge here, even if we do not read it as a threat, but ultimately the new thing that is coming is good news.

It seems that this good news does not reveal itself all at once, because it is clear that the baptism John practised was not complete in itself, but the beginning of a process. This is in part because he promised that another would come who would baptise with fire, what we now understand in the light of Pentecost as the giving of the Holy Spirit. But it is also because he told the crowds they must “produce fruit in keeping with repentance”. They must live differently, showing by their lives that they have changed. John goes on to give some pretty specific examples of what that might look like. Anyone who has more than they need should share it, the tax collectors should not take any more than they are required to, and the soldiers should not extort money or accuse people falsely. There is a sense of justice common to all of those exhortations, but even the wild man of the desert understood people well enough to know that we all fall into different injustices, and we all need to respond as individuals.

I’m not aware that we have any tax collectors or soldiers in the congregation, so let’s focus on the first thing that John says in response to the crowd asking what they should do. He tells them “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Last week our revolutionary spirit was stirred by the words of the Magnificat, as we heard Mary speak about bringing down the mighty and sending the rich away empty. This week we are challenged to realise that in all likelihood we are among the mighty and the rich, perhaps not living in mansions and dining off gold plates, but probably with a shirt and some food to spare.

This church stands in one of the richest wards in the city, and that doesn’t mean that everyone who walks through the doors is financially comfortable, and it certainly doesn’t mean that only those who are financially comfortable are welcome, but it does mean that there is a certain degree of privilege here and we have to use that well. We need to raise our voices against abuses of power, because that is what I think it means to bring down the mighty, but we also need to truly understand what we have, and be willing to send ourselves away empty too. I am preaching to myself here as much as anyone. Speaking very personally for a moment, I struggle with this because I believe that everyone should be able to enjoy the kind of life I have, and so I get frustrated at the idea that I might have to give some of that up when it seem that it is those who have so much more who should be righting the balance. I realise though that my doing nothing only means that less is done, and so I have to do what it is in my power to do and take up John’s call and Mary's song for the rest.

Perhaps this has felt like a sermon of two halves, but I don’t think they have to stand against each other. We can still fill our Christmas with the things that bring us joy, even while we give away the things we do not need, and we might even find that the one leads on to the other. So may we hear the voice crying “Prepare the way for the Lord”, and may we attend to our preparations with a glad and generous heart.

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