St Andrew’s Anglican Church Indooroopilly
Sunday 16 December
The Song of Isaiah
The Practice of Joy ©Sue Wilton
Last week I began the sermon with the words from the Gospel. I decided against beginning today’s sermon with “You brood of vipers!” After all, it is supposed to be the Sunday of Advent where we allow our joyful anticipation of the coming Christ child to break through. Being threatened with the wrath to come seems rather out of place. John the Baptist seems to be comparing his ministry to the imminent ministry of Jesus and effectively saying, “You ain’t seen nothing yet… I baptise you with water…but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Yet Jesus does not come bringing wrath and vengeance, but as one who is gentle and humble in heart, blessing the poor in spirit and promising rest for our souls. If we interpret John’s words to be an expectation of a Messiah that will rain down fire to execute the judgment of God, then it would seem that John’s messianic vision was misguided. Indeed, Jesus is so little like John’s expectation apparently, that later he sends word asking, “Are you the one that is to come or should we wait for another?” (Matt 11:3) But what John saw clearly was the need for an uncompromising call for a change of heart, and how the metaphor of fire would be an important image for Jesus’ ministry. The fire is perhaps not the kind John was anticipating, but the symbol of burning away the chaff from the wheat is a powerful symbol of Jesus ministry. Burning away chaff is about saving and purifying the grain- not separating the good from the bad. Jesus comes as Saviour and healer.
This is not to suggest that John is tough and Jesus is soft, or that Jesus is reducing the requirements of the law. The rather startling truth according to scripture is that Jesus doesn’t lower the bar but raises it. Where John says to the tax collectors, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you”, Jesus says, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor”. Where John says, “Whoever has two costs should share with someone who has none”, Jesus says, “Give them your cloak as well.” Where John says, “Do not exhort money through threats or false accusations,” Jesus says, “Lend, expecting nothing in return and love your enemies.” Of course the bar is so high, that we cannot help but fall short. So where is the good news in any of this?
The image used to describe God’s coming to us as a purifying fire should tell us that making space for this arrival is going to open us to the power of God in a shockingly vulnerable way that will not leave us unchanged. John’s expectation of a wrathful, vengeful Messiah was not to be fulfilled, but the arrival of God in our lives can nevertheless overwhelm us with fear and awe. Perhaps this is why Jesus elsewhere invites us not to be afraid but to come to him in our anxieties and our weariness saying, “Learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt 11:29) Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light, but sometimes letting go of other yokes we have been wearing can be difficult and even painful. Jesus calls us from one way of being in the world into a new creation.
Yet how are we to live into this new creation when Jesus seems to raise the bar so high? We need to recognise that God is not interested in band aid measures, or minor tweaking around the edges of our little petty sins and private foibles. Instead, we must allow ourselves to “go in for the full treatment”, as C.S Lewis would say. Often what we would ask or expect of God is actually less than the abundance being offered. Lewis makes the analogy of himself as a young boy with a toothache in the night. He knew if he went and woke up his mother she would give him an aspirin for the pain. But he rarely went to his mother, because he knew that she would not only give him the aspirin but would take him to the dentist the next day. The dentist would not only permanently fix that tooth, but find all sorts of other niggling issues in his mouth that needed work. While God as holy dentist may not be a nice analogy for many of us, it is a good metaphor for the way that we avoid opening ourselves to the full treatment – the work of the Holy Spirit and fire- that will ultimately bring us relief and fullness of joy. Repentance is hard work, and it is an ongoing, daily way of life rather than a once off fix. It is then in gratitude that we recognise that forgiveness is also an ongoing way of being for God, and maybe this is why St Paul says we can “Rejoice always”, encouraging us to pray without ceasing, bringing everything to God. Joy follows not when we get things right but when we give ourselves completely over to the welcome of God and to the exciting journey in the Spirit where Jesus calls us to nothing less than becoming little Christs.
When we attempt to effect changes in our life, we need to work on the inside if we are ever to sustain different behaviour on the outside. And we need to ditch our pride and accept that this is no self-help regime. On our own, we are prey to all the pressure and habits of our culture that tempt us to slip back into old behaviours. Just think of the way the media can keep us in the habit of gossip, or advertising in habits of consuming- or, for problem gamblers the way the sounds and proximity of poker machines can keep feeding an addiction. Some things in our society lead us away from life. The 12 step programs that operate here out of our church understand the need for doing the inner work in order to deal with these environments and effect an outer change.
There is no better way to uncover inner blocks than trying to do something that entails a change in the way we have previously operated. For the followers of John the Baptist, some of those changes were in things like not collecting extra taxes or stopping using power over others for personal gain. We can presume that those Roman soldiers and tax collectors who tried to listen to John ended up having to do a lot of shadow boxing as they dealt with some of their own motivations for extortion or dishonest practices.
What might be changes we are being called to make this Advent in our normal way of operating? This season can be a great time for making these changes when family are around and sometimes relationships can be challenging. As you try to communicate differently, to stop playing the games or buying into relationships of co-dependency, you will become more aware of yourself and your own blocks, barriers and the way past hurts may have been operating in your life. And it will be difficult. That is where hope becomes not an idea but an action, and joy becomes not a feeling but a practice of encountering grace over and again. Acting in hope and living with joy are the trademarks of people of faith who know that it is not all down to them.
So in this Advent season may we be people who practice and share joy because we know that the fire that refines and purifies is also forgiveness and fullness of life. And may this be a time for each of us to be open to the inner transformative work of the Spirit as we prepare for the One who comes to us with astonishing gentleness and humility.