What I said on Sunday – Advent 3

John the Baptist again this week! Here’s what I said.

Luke 3.7-18

Getting to heaven is as easy as one, two, three. Well – at least that’s what most devout Jews thought at the time of Jesus who were under the impression that simply being a Jew more or less guaranteed you your place unless you were particularly evil. At least, most thought that. The Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death – for them there was no heaven – that’s why they were sad you see. (Groans from congregation!) But for most, it seemed fairly straight forward – as easy as one, two, three. And today’s message from John the Baptist is – don’t kid yourself. Don’t think that just because Abraham is your ancestor your place in heaven is guaranteed.

Now, I don’t know what’s come over me this Advent but I keep thinking of old songs – last week as we thought about repentance it was Brenda Lee and “I’m sorry” from 1960. Today it’s Eddie Cochran. You may remember his famous song, also from 1960, Three steps to heaven:

Now there are Three Steps To Heaven
Just listen and you will plainly see
And as life travels on
And things do go wrong
Just follow steps one, two and three.

The formula for Heaven’s very simple
Just follow the rules and you will see
And as life travels on
And things do go wrong
Just follow steps one, two and three.

Well, today we are going to learn three steps to heaven. For in today’s reading we see John outline three essential truths that need to be embraced if you are to be a part of God’s kingdom. Except since they come from John the Baptist it’s not quite a case of ‘easy as one, two, three’ John’s steps are a little more complicated and hard to follow than Eddie Cochran’s.

For Eddie Cochran it was all so simple.

Step one – you find a girl to love
Step two – she falls in love with you
Step three – you kiss and hold her tightly
Yeah! that sure seems like heaven to me

Easy, really! But for John the Baptist it was somewhat more serious as we hear in today’s gospel reading. Here are the three steps he gives to the people who were flocking to hear him:

Step one: forget about being Abraham’s descendants, that won’t help you – you must bear fruit worthy of repentance
Step two: doesn’t matter who you are or what you do for a living – you must live an ethical life
Step three: you must get ready for the coming Messiah – you think I’m coming down on you, well just wait till he comes – he’ll really sort you out!

Step One – bear fruit worthy of repentance. We dwelt on the importance of repentance last week, so I won’t go over it again now – but John’s first step is a reminder that when we decide to turn to God and follow him, not only must we turn our back on the wrongdoings of the past, we must show in the way we live that we have changed. We must bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Step Two – live an ethical life. Think about how you live, how you relate to others, John says. Now, we probably miss here just what John is asking. The crowds, we are told, in response to his call to bear fruits worthy of repentance, ask him, “What then should we do?” And I don’t suppose for a minute that they were quite ready for just how much he was going to demand of them. His answer: if you’ve got two coats, or plenty of food, share them. Don’t take more money from people than they owe you. Be satisfied with your wages.

Let’s take just one of the things he said. Luke tells us how: Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” And what is his answer? Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.

Now I want you to just reflect on those words Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you. Because I suspect the impact is lost, though it certainly would not have been lost of those crowds flocking around John. The thing is that the tax-collectors got a contract from the authorities to raise taxes on their behalf. The authorities weren’t much bothered how they raised the taxes as long as they paid over the correct amount. And the tax-collectors made their money by over-charging and taking a cut. It could be highly lucrative. It was also, of course, highly unethical. And so John says you must only take the amount prescribed. Which, in effect, meant that the tax-collectors were being told that they must forego their cut – which meant that they would have nothing to live on! No excuses! They weren’t given the chance to argue that they, like everyone else, needed to live! John is saying in no uncertain terms: What you are doing is immoral so you must change your way of life and if that means you end up in poverty then so be it.

What, I wonder, would John have to say about some of the issues of today and the way in which all too often we don’t make the ethical decisions we know deep down we should because it would affect our way of life. What would he say to those who work in the arms industry? Or the tobacco industry? What would he say about the inequalities in our society? Or the way we throw food away – even if it does go into our nice new recycling bins – when so many in our world struggle to live? Or the way we continue to destroy our world with fossil fuels and pollutants even though we know what it will do to our children and their children?

It’s a stark message from John. Forget about how doing the right thing will affect you, just get on and do it! And whatever the adverse effects on you might be, it’s a cost you have to pay!

Step three – you must get ready for the coming Messiah. Here we are at the 3rd Sunday of Advent – Gaudete Sunday, or ‘Rejoice’ Sunday. A turning point in Advent, a point at which we start to turn our minds from the end times and the return of Jesus to his first coming and what that means for our world. A point where we can start thinking about Christmas.

I have on the wall in my study a cartoon which first appeared in the Church Times a few years ago – for those of you who read the Church Times it’s one of those excellent St Gargoyle’s cartoons. It is a copy of the famous picture from Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, showing Scrooge coming face to face with the ghost of Christmas Present. Only in the St Gargoyle’s version Scrooge is pointing a finger at the ghost of Christmas Present and saying severely, “And don’t come back until at least the 3rd Sunday in Advent!”

Today is the point at which we begin to look forward to Christmas. It’s a time to start rejoicing, to joyfully prepare ourselves during these last few days of Advent. Today’s readings come along with their message of rejoicing and celebration. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart,” says the prophet in our reading from Zephaniah. “Rejoice always … give thanks without ceasing” Saint Paul writes. Even in our gospel reading the people, having listened to John the Baptist’s stern message are filled with expectation – they are beginning to think that the Messiah might have come at last. They are starting to get excited with the anticipation. The message of today’s Scriptures is clear – our Saviour is coming – rejoice, celebrate, get ready. And so, in contrast to the stress that the commercial and worldly side of Christmas produces, Christians celebrate as we prepare to welcome our Saviour. Yet John takes care to remind us that when the Messiah comes it may be good news for all but it’s also bad news for some. Certainly it’s good news for all – Luke reminds us of that by closing this section telling us that, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people. All that John is preaching is good news.

For the Messiah will come baptizing – not like John with water – but with the Holy Spirit and fire. ‘He is really going to set the world alight,’ is John’s message. He is really going to show you the way to heaven:
His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing flow and to gather the wheat into his granary. But the coming of the Messiah will be bad news for some: the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

So, to help people avoid being the chaff, but to be the wheat that the coming Messiah will gather into his granary, John sets out to the people his three steps to heaven. You may have got things wrong in the past, is his message, but this is what you must do:

One – bear fruit worthy of repentance
Two – live an ethical life no matter the cost
Three – be ready for the coming Messiah.

Now John, given his way of living, would have fitted pretty well into the sixties and the era of hippies. And had he been around in the sixties perhaps he might have even appropriated the words of Eddie Cochran to remind people to follow his own three steps:

Now there are Three Steps To Heaven
Just listen and you will plainly see
And as life travels on
And things do go wrong
Just follow steps one, two and three.

Bear fruit. Live an ethical life. Be ready.