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Advent three: Joy

Luke 3:7-18

December 13, 2015

Year C

As you can well imagine many theologians question the good news in this passage from Luke. John the Baptist intrudes on the festive season like a square peg in a round hole in our Advent calendars. If one were drawing up a list for a holiday party, John would not make it. Can you imagine John showing up at your Christmas event in dirty overalls and his army surplus jacket, wearing a stocking cap with holes in it and lice around the crown, clomping in with work boots which have never been anointed with polish? And then, he corners the nice people calling them a brood of vipers and preaching about repentance? All the while, with the leg of a locust protruding from his teeth? Yet, despite its dissonance, John’s message keeps at us until, finally, we begin to understand…and it’s not an easy message.

John knows and so do we, that the way of the future is prepared by sharing, by spreading a wide circle of change that creates peace and equality.

My research suggests that John’s message can be heard as good news if one can say yes to three questions.

  1. If we are to hear the good news of John’s message, then we have to expect change. According to verse 15, the people were filled with “expectation.” They were waiting for something to happen like an audience at the beginning of a play or movie. It is an expectant attitude. Something is coming but they are not sure yet what that will be.
  2. John’s preaching can be heard as good news if there is a willingness to change. The people asked, “What then shall we do?” (verse 10) and John gave them a simple answer, “Share your food and clothing.” For people on the margins this was a message of renewal and hope.
  3. For John’s message to be heard as good news, we have to, in fact, change. There has to be action.

There are three parts or segments to this message:
  1. Expectation
  2. Willingness
  3. Action.

How do we hear this message this morning?

Frequently, the response to this passage is anger. Like vipers, we recoil and strike when our lives are disturbed by change. So many things have changed during our life times and we often become insecure and angry. Therefore, people prefer control to change. We like control. The only problem is we are not in control.

One of the things that helps me to understand that I am not in control is the meeting in Paris on climate change. It is so big and so out of reach it seems so far away from where I am that I can only listen and glean what is possible for myself in the moment. In the midst of feeling helpless, though, it does invite me in as a listener, perhaps it demands, that I listen, demands that I pay attention, and do what I can to help save the world.

So, at the beginning I might feel daunted by the task, but if I stick with it new ways will emerge, and I can be part of that movement along with others interested in similar tasks. We can use John’s formula on what the people at Paris are asking us to be part of. The work on climate change is expecting us to make change, there is an expectation, and then the question: are we willing to do the work that needs to be done? And then the action, the carrying out the ways we will work at saving the planet.

We are well into Advent; Advent is the season of rebirth, a call to self-examination, a call to reflection, a call to turn and go in another direction. It’s a season that we can be invited into, to take time to think about birth. What are we giving birth to? Are we willing to slow down and hear the possibilities?

I had an interesting experience on Monday when I was driving out of town. I pulled up to the stop sign and I glanced in my rear view mirror. There was an older pick-up truck behind me and I could see it had a cab on the back. The driver wore a toque, but I could see he had white hair and he had a full beard. Beside him was a woman. She was blond and she had her hair in rollers, coloured magnetic rollers. I was reminded of the old brush roller we used - remember those? Beside her, by the passenger door, was a dog. A large dog, part husky I’m sure. The dog was wearing a red collar and she was sitting up looking out the front window like she owned the trip they were on. I think the woman might have been reading a book. I watched them as long as I could. I kept them in my rear view mirror, then we were out on the highway and they passed me.

That image of the pick-up truck stayed with me and I realised as I thought about it, that for me, it was how I wanted life to be. I suspect it was reminiscent of the 60’s, because that was when I grew up. So I wonder how I have come to this place – this place of seeing a pick-up truck, a man with a beard, a woman with rollers in her hair and a happy dog, why do I think this is ideal? Why do I want the world to slow down, and be more like that?

Do I really want a role in the story I have just told? Not likely, I’m not much of a romantic, but there is something pulling me into the story. I suspect it is like that with the church. We are in the midst of an Interim ministry and that isn’t easy for everyone. Some people wonder what it will bring and will anything really change, or does anything need to change you might ask? There are others who believe this is a very worthwhile process, they find it challenging and worthwhile. They believe it will take us where we need to go.

It is like the people and the dog in the pickup. I thought it was a perfect scene, but really I know it might not be. But it looked familiar and there is something about the familiar that is reassuring, whether it really is or not. The church is like that. The church is familiar; it is reassuring sort of place and the outside world is not always so reassuring. So, why is the church still this comfortable reassuring place?

Because when the world changed the church didn’t.

We got left behind and now we can’t catch up. Or can we? Those are John the Baptists questions. Do we even want to change? If we do want to change - can we? The people and the dog looked like a story that I knew from the 60s and it left me feeling bereft. For a moment I longed for that time again. That is what happens to us at church.

When we feel threatened about losing what is familiar we have strong feelings and we react. We don’t just feel bereft, we feel angry and hurt, and so we react to those feelings. The world changed because that is how the world works. The culture changes because it is part of the world and the society, and so for the most part, change always occurs in our culture.

If nothing else, if we have connections to children they usually force us to change. We catch on to their actions and demands, and we say, “Oh really, I didn’t know, sure I can change.” They don’t want to be embarrassed by what we know or don’t know, so they make sure we know.

That didn’t happen in the church. Our children, once they were 15 or so quit coming to church, or at least mine did, so they didn’t care if we changed or not. Then there are people who choose to quit coming to church because we refused to participate in theological change. Quite likely, they will never return. At least I don’t know of any that are very interested in coming back.

We still don’t have to change. We can stay in the pick-up truck. We can be the pick-up truck story. It’s a great story. It has its flaws but we can live with that. But what if we were to change? What if we could catch up, what would that look like? What would it look like to get out of the pick-up truck and be something else? It could still be romantic, there could still be a dog in the story. Some churches are exploring those options. Many are not.

In the midst of wondering what to do, we are exploring the season of Advent and we are expectant. We are waiting. John says we should expect change, the good news will only happen if we are willing to change – the people said, “What shall we do?” John replied with what we in the United Church call social justice …if you have two coats give one away and feed the poor. Lastly, he says, we have to change, in fact, not just in our intentions.

We know the Christmas story; we know that on the twenty-fifth of December, Christ will come again. He always does. But how do we prepare for his coming? He will come whether or not we are ready, so we can do nothing, or we can do something. And you are good at responding. You give to the foodbank, you supported the Nepal fundraiser, you give gifts to the women’s shelter in Melfort; you gave your second coat. Some of you support families in need, some of you will support refugees.

As people of the United Church you know how to offer your second coat. So, what is John talking about when he says it has to be more than that? Because he knows people are already giving, what more can he expect? I suspect he believes that we will give till there is equality and we must learn to do that in community. We will give until justice is served to everyone and in that process there will be new understanding that justice and equality is not readily available for everyone. We will need to remember John’s three calls to justice 1. expectation of change 2.willingness to change 3. our call to action.

Change? The culture will continue to change and it’s important that we know and understand what that change is about, because if we don’t understand, then we are left out of what is happening.

So why is it that we want to stay in the pick-up truck? I suppose because in the 50’s and 60’s the church had its glory days. Those were the “good ole days.” But, those days are not going to return. What would it mean now then to get out of the pick-up truck? What do we need to do to catch up? I don’t have all the answers to those questions.

One last reminder, you can stay in the pick-up truck and we can continue on as we always have, or you can get out of the truck and explore new possibilities.

No matter what choice we make we don’t know what the future church will look like. We can stay in the truck and make no change or we can get out and explore the possibilities. John had no idea what was to come either, but he did challenge his people and he encouraged them to enter into a process. John tells us that it is part of expectation, willingness and action.

I invite you this week and now in our reflection time to think about where you are in the pick-up truck story.
Sharon Ferguson-Hood