Three steps to heaven

Apologies for this being a little late! My only excuse is it’s a busy time of year in the Church! But it’s here now – my sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent.

Zephaniah 3-14-end; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18

It was John Lennon, the anniversary of who’s death was just eight days ago, who famously sang Imagine there’s no heaven – it’s easy if you try. Well – it’s a great song – but actually it isn’t easy at all to imagine there’s no heaven if you’re a Christian. Certainly not easy for me! And it certainly wasn’t easy for Jews at the time of Jesus to imagine there was no heaven. Heaven is where they were all expecting to go. And in the world of popular music Lennon seems to be unusual in imagining there’s no heaven. From Stairway to heaven by Led Zeppelin, to Knocking on heaven’s door by Bob Dylan and Will you meet me in heaven by Johnny Cash, heaven is a favourite destination in popular music. Except for Belinda Carlisle who sang Heaven is a place on earth! No, it isn’t Belinda. And getting to heaven is apparently very simple because there are just three steps to follow to get to heaven according to Eddie Cochran.

Most devout Jews at the time of Jesus would have probably agreed with him that it was easy. They were under the impression that simply being a Jew more or less guaranteed you your place in heaven 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. They were with John Lennon on that one.

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, he says, your place in heaven is guaranteed. You’ve got to show it’s deserved.

Back to Eddie Cochran and his 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. Three steps to follow. Except since they come from John the Baptist it’s not quite a case of ‘easy as one, two, three’ as 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 – bear fruit worthy of repentance. 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. We must lead righteous lives.

Step Two – live justly. 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. Don’t count the cost! Just do it! There’s a challenge for us today! Share everything you have and don’t take, don’t expect, more than you ought to!

Step three – you must get ready for the coming Messiah. Because he’s coming whether you like it or not – and he’s coming in judgement and will sort out the wheat from the chaff, the good grain from the useless leftovers.

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.

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, but make sure you get ready. For 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.

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, live a righteous life.
Two – live a just life no matter the cost, and treat others fairly.
Three – be ready for the coming Messiah, because he’s coming whether you’re ready or not.

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 justly. Be ready.