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A: 10, one to change it and 9 others to pray against the spirit of darkness.
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A1: None. They always use candles instead.
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Q: How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb?
I thought I’d start with a little light humour today. Humour seems to get a sermon off to a good start. All preachers know that a joke helps people to relax, and become somehow more receptive.
So I wonder what on earth John the Baptiser was doing in the opening verse of our Gospel reading. I not sure that you would be all that receptive if I had started this sermon just now with a cry of “You brood of vipers”!
Well, as always when we read scripture, context is everything. Remember the three ‘C’s – context, context and context!
The opening verse of this section gives us the explanation of both John’s insult, and his subsequent address: Verse 7: “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptised by him, ‘You brood of vipers’. Who were these crowds? They were crowds of ordinary people - citizens of Israel. They were those who, in verse 8, could claim Abraham as their ancestor. Verses 10 to 12 tell us that among their number were relatively wealthy people - those with more than one tunic - along with tax collectors and soldiers. In other words, a cross section of the general public of Israel. They had all come out into the desert, down by the Jordon, to see for themselves this remarkable prophet who had appeared out of the wilderness.
Were they ordinary people? John’s description of this crowd as a brood of vipers actually seems to describe them as malicious evildoers. Again, context is everything. Having described them as vipers, John immediately asks the question, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”. So rather, or perhaps as well, as describing his audience as malicious evildoers, John invokes a picture of snakes running away from an advancing fire...the fire of the Christ which he promises later, in verse 17, will “burn up the chaff”.
So what have we established about this crowd? They are ordinary people - soldiers, civil servants, butchers, bakers and candle-stick makers. They are relatively wealthy, free citizens (not slaves) who have the freedom to go out into the desert. They are people who know that something important is going on - who, unlike their contemporaries, have left the security of the city and their homes to go out to meet John. They are people who have a religious and cultural heritage...they describe themselves as the children of Abraham.
Actually...they sound rather like us, don’t they? We are ordinary people – perhaps not butchers, bakers and candle-stick makers – but certainly civil servants, teachers, engineers, students, pensioners and all the rest. We are relatively wealthy - compared to 90% of the world. We have come away from the warmth and security of our homes to worship in our little building in the middle of Havant. We have a common heritage - we are also children of Abraham in a spiritual sense, though perhaps also children of Cranmer in a religious one! We too sense that something important is going on here...we are, in a sense, like the snakes who are fleeing from the fire of wrath...wanting to be those who are rescued, and saved, by our Saviour - not burned up like chaff with unquenchable fire.
So, does John’s message apply to us as well? I think it might. There is a sense in which as we read the Bible, it has a way of reading us too...scripture has a way of pointing to our lives, and our situations, and saying…”this is for you too, you know”
So what is John’s message to us? I think it can all be summed up in one phrase, at the beginning of verse 8: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance”.
In saying this, John acknowledges, first of all, our repentance. He is speaking to people who have made their confession, been baptised, and received forgiveness. They, like us, have received their spiritual inheritance. “But,” he says to them and us, “repentance alone is not enough”. John calls for a change of lifestyle that reflects the genuineness of our repentance - it must produce fruits.
So what does John suggest will be the sort of fruit that true repentance will produce? The crowd to whom he is talking are curious too: verse 10: “What then should we do?” they ask him.
John was cast in the mold of the Old Testament prophets, and especially of Isaiah. Filling valleys of poverty, and flattening the mountains of wealth and power are integral to his message. And so it comes as no surprise to see that the first response John gives to the question “What then should we do?” is to focus on economic justice. Verse 11: “In reply he said to them ’Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”.
But John’s challenge goes further than the simple necessity of sharing. He says, effectively, “Your entire way of life must reflect the totality of the gospel!. Share your coat, and your food. Yes. But also,” as he says to soldiers and civil servants in verses 12 to 14, “be content with what you have. And bear fruits...not just a single fruit...of your repentance – for ‘every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
Let’s see if something I taught a few months ago has lodged with anyone…what does it mean to ‘repent’?
It means to turn away from human ways of living, and to turn towards a new, Kingdom way.
Truly repentant Christians - and truly repentant churches - will learn to integrate all of the calling of the gospel into our lives. Our way of life, our priorities, our commitments, our personal relationships, our passion for peace and justice, our planned and unplanned acts of compassion, our prayerfulness, our praise, our prophetic edge...all these, blended together, will give evidence of our repentance – of our willingness to walk on the Narrow Way of Jesus Christ.
Advent, and John the Baptister invite us to be ready to receive the Christ, this Christmas. But this is not just the candlelight Christ of the Stable, with all the warm, cosy, images that conjures up. John reminds us, in the final section of this morning’s reading, that this is also the Christ who comes with the Holy Spirit, and with Fire!. Immanuel - ‘God with Us’ - means God among us, challenging us, stimulating us, leading us – and yes, judging us. John talks of the Christ who comes with a winnowing fork to separate the useful wheat from the wasteful chaff. There is encouragement in these words of John...but warning too.
So as Christmas approaches, we are invited to use these final days of Advent to examine ourselves, in truth. We need to be honest with ourselves, and with God, about the priorities of our own lives. Perhaps it in only after such self-examination that we are able to really say - as we shall later in today’s service - that we willingly offer ourselves as living sacrifices to our Saviour and Heavenly King.