Sunday 13th December 2015, Advent 3 (Gaudate), morning

Luke 3:7-18

by Revd Chris Palmer

I wonder about John the Baptist’s preaching tactics. ‘You brood of vipers. Who warned you to feel from the wrath to come…’. I’m not sure what the modern day equivalent insult of ‘brood of vipers’ is. Someone suggested, ‘Son of a bitch’. In any case, it’s not polite.

Our natural response to being attacked in such a way is to get defensive, expressed as anger that someone’s rude enough to talk to us like that. But if they, if we can hear beyond the shocking insult, then we hear God’s challenge to us.

Sometimes we need bringing up short. The real danger of this passage for us is that it becomes sanitised by polite translation, by being read in measured tones, by ministers in formal vestments, by familiarity. We should pray that these things don’t get in the way of hearing God speaking a message that is challenging and offensive.

And I think the whole passage could be summed up as an attack on a culture of entitlement. First about who we are and second about what we have.

Let’s start with the ‘who we are’. John says, ‘Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham…’ John is a Jew, talking to other Jews. And being descendants of Abraham was key to their identity, to their claim to be the people of God. In a world where others held political power – Israel was occupied by the Roman empire – they rested in the assurance that they were God’s chosen people.

But God’s calling is not privilege or right. It is grace. Indeed God’s calling and grace are so powerful that the stones could replace you at any moment, says John. Grace is never a status to claim, it is always gift. The appropriate response is gratitude, humility, and a life that seeks to display the generosity of God. ‘Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down’, says John. Simply repeating ‘We are Abraham’s children’ is to claim a false entitlement.

Of course it’s easy to see entitled attitudes in others. It’s harder to see this entitlement in ourselves. But I sometimes squirm at the ways some social commentators speak in the context of world problems. We throw around phrases like ‘our way of life’, as if this is so obviously superior to other cultures. We assume a right to meddle in the affairs of other countries, though we’d not welcome a reciprocal involvement in our country. And we do it in religion too. Too many statements from the Church of England have a barely concealed assumption of entitlement to a privileged place in the life of our nation. I’m certainly not at all someone who believes that religion should be excluded for public life. But I do think that Anglican Christians speaking from a place of legal protection, of privileged benches in the House of Lords, and assuming a right to exemption from rules that apply to everyone else, is a dangerous place from which to represent the message of Jesus the outsider and misfit.

And then there’s the second entitlement to ‘what we have’. All of John’s other instructions touch on this area:

             If you have 2 coats share with someone who has none
             So too your food
             Collect only what’s prescribed (he says to tax collectors)
             Do not extort money by threats or false-accusations (to the soldiers)
             Be satisfied with your wages

The coats one speak to me. I have about five coats of different sorts. Or at least I did. I lost a nice one several months back, and I think I’ve lost another one in recent days. Such carelessness is itself presumptuous – the privilege of wealth. I tell myself I need a different coat for casual and formal and a different one still for walking up mountains and for rainy days and a lighter jacket for spring than the heavy coat I need in winter. Such eminent reasonableness is the luxury of wealth – in which priorities beyond just keeping warm can come into play. Do I imagine these are the priorities of people in refugee camps in the middle East?

And what about exploiting position to gain wealth? What John condemns in the soldiers is using power to enrich ourselves. We think this means corruption by those in government or business, and again that becomes a way of shifting responsibility from ourselves. But we live in a society that gains wealth by damaging the world in ways that have catastrophic consequences for the poor in other parts of the world.

I’m delighted for the reaching of agreement in the Paris climate talks in the last 24 hours. A lot of the arguments there were between richer and poorer countries – and several in the middle – about what responsibility each should take. It’s good also that these agreements call for voluntary commitments. Our diocese of Southwark has moved to a system recently when parishes are asked for voluntary commitments for what they will contribute to the centre. Voluntary giving can bring out a generosity beyond that of a required contribution.

But… we need to hold our leaders to the commitments they have made on our behalfs. Because the danger is that ‘voluntary commitment’ is thought to be morally optional. The danger with good intentions is that we treat them as a luxury for times we’re feeling flush: another recession comes along and we renege on our promises. But leaving the poor dependent on our whim is counter to the spirit of Christ.

In our prayer this Advent, then, we are asked to seek out the entitled beliefs that corrupt our thinking and acting, and repent. And that means acting differently. Acting differently doesn’t mean making large gestures or that only big changes are significant. That idea often becomes simply a means of delaying any changes. I’ve been following the suggestion of #LiveAdvent this Advent – and retweeting and facebooking them. And there are some remarkably small actions that act us into a new way of thinking. They’ve included, write a message in your Christmas cards to tell people why you value them, or buy a present for someone you don’t usually buy for. What are your small actions this Advent?

And one last thing – and I just thought of this as we were lighting the pink Gaudate (rejoicing) candle: the outcome of this self-examination should be Joy. It’s easy to imagine that serious engagement with our faults leaves us feeling down or sad. But the real end of repentance is to discover the joy that comes from God’s forgiveness. If our attempts to change merely leave us feeling despondent, we’ve taken a mis-step somewhere. The gift of joy, even in relinquishing power or possessions, is the sign that we are in tune with God’s desires for us. I wish you this true joy this Advent and Christmas.