A sermon on Luke 3:1-6; Malachi 3:1-4 & Philippians 1:3-11 by Nathan Nettleton, 7th December 2003
To say that someone is “living in the past” is usually a criticism. We are saying that such a person has failed to take account of the way things have changed, and so they respond to life and the people around them on the basis of outdated perceptions. And yet, there is also a saying that those take too little notice of the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes. We followers of Jesus spend a lot of time retelling and reenacting the stories of the past. We gather here week by week and listen to stories from ancient times. We break bread “to remember him,” calling the events of the past to consciousness and praying that we might become part of that story of death and resurrection and re-creation. It may not be quite true to say we are living in the past, but it is certainly true to say that we are endeavouring to allow the past to shape our present experience.
From time to time, the stories in scripture set out to make sure that we remember that they are not just timeless moral teachings, but very specific stories about specific peoples at specific times. Our gospel reading tonight was a case in point. Nearly half the reading was taken up with locating the event precisely in time, and in the current political realities. We are told that this event, namely the preaching and baptising ministry of John, took place in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, and we are given the details who was in power in four local regions, and who was in charge at the Jerusalem Temple. Clearly the writer wants to impress on us that we are dealing with concrete realities here. Yes, we are dealing with the things of God, with spiritual things, but they are things that take flesh in the world and must be lived out in the nitty gritty realities of our lives in real time.
Having located itself precisely in history, though, the time frame of this reading actually looks more intently in the other direction. We sometimes speak critically of people who “live in the future” too. You know the types: people who put their whole lives on hold in the belief that they are about to win tattslotto and that everything that matters will arise out of that, or people who are so fixated on some dreamt of future — when I’m married, or when the kids leave home, or when I build my boat — that they neglect to do the hard work of actually making life and love work in the here and now.
There is no doubt that such a fixation on the future can be pathological, but the preaching of John the Baptiser is calling us to live our lives now with our eyes fixed on a future reality, namely the coming reign of God. And it is also true that, for better or for worse, everybody has some sort of vision of the future that impacts on the way they live now. I knew a bloke who would periodically describe himself as a “no-hoper”, and his belief that he had no hope of a better future clearly shaped the way he lived each day. The present shape of global politics is being built a round a vision of a future in which the poor and oppressed peoples of the world will get angrier and angrier and more and more violent, but in which the rich peoples of the world will respond to the terror only by building bigger walls and security forces and missile defence shields to protect the ill-gotten gains of their greed, arrogance and exploitation. Individually, our visions of our own futures shape little decisions about how to educate our children and where to invest our superannuation and whether to get a dog for Christmas.
But into the midst of the politics of the day and the concerns of ordinary individual lives, John comes preaching and baptising and calling us embrace a new vision of the future, a vision in which the future is held in the hands of God and will be shaped in the image of God’s love and justice. This was not a new message. Indeed, in summarising his message, the gospel writers recall the words of the prophet Isaiah from several hundred years earlier, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled and every mountain made low and the crooked ways will be made straight and the rough ways made smooth, and everyone on earth will see the salvation of God.”
There is a curious double edge to this message. On the one hand, Isaiah and John are speaking about the future and saying that the time is coming when God will do these things, when God will straighten things out and set things right and level out the inequalities. But on the other hand they are telling us to get stuck into it, to prepare the way of the Lord and make the paths straight ourselves.
When we look at our other readings alongside this one, it becomes even more apparent that both these things are being said, and both are bound up together. Because it is not only about what happens around us, but what happens to us and within us. Paul says to the Philippians, “I am confident that the one who began a good work in you, will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.” Hear that? “The one who began a good work in you” — past event. “Will bring it to completion” — future event. And where do we live our lives? On the ever-moving thin edge between that past and that future, and Paul and Isaiah and John are all telling us that both past and future need to be the horizons by which we live each moment in the here and now. You know how it began and you know how it is going to end, so you know what the agenda is for now. Perhaps it is our other reading from the prophet Malachi that most rams home the present implications. “Who can endure the day of the Lord’s coming?” he thunders. “And who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like a caustic soap.” Malachi is warning us that before we too lightly pray ‘come, Lord, come,’ we’d better remember that we are not just anticipating some cute and harmless little baby Jesus. We are praying for the Lord to come in glory and put the world aright, knowing that we ourselves will be among the things that will need to be put right, and that being refined is not a comfortable process.
But this is where we come back to the message of John the baptiser. You see John is telling us to prepare the way. He is saying that we don’t have to just wait in fear and trepidation for what the Lord is going to do. We can begin to live in that reality now and begin the work of reshaping our lives and our world according to that reality. And indeed the baptism which he calls us to is about making precisely this transition. In baptism we are immersed into the death of Jesus, dying to the life that has been shaped by the preoccupations of the present world with its petty concerns of short term comforts and fleeting distractions from desperation and despair that constantly claws at us. And in baptism we rise with Christ to new life, to the promised land, to the life of the kingdom in which God reigns, and love and mercy and justice are the governing realities of our existence.
In this Advent season, as we stand on tiptoes and strain to see the coming kingdom as its approach lights up our horizon, we do so as a people who have already been baptised into the life of that kingdom. That does not mean that all is fulfilled for us. It does not mean that there is nothing more to do and no fearful refining yet to come. I, for one, still flinch when we pray the words we’ll use in a moment: “for the coming of that day on this day, we work and pray.” They confront me with the extent to which I am still resistant to changing and being changed, to cleaning up my life and being refined, and I’m not alone am I? All of our pretences, all our carefully cultivated neuroses, all our intricately painted masks, all our rehearsed psychological games, all our little ways of manipulating one another for our own gain – all this psycho-spiritual baggage which we have developed to help us survive and get by without too much pain, all of it must be burned away by God’s refining fire before our immersion into the glorious mysteries of Jesus Christ will be complete.
But as fearful as that may sound, there is an extraordinary promise here too. For this season of Advent and it various mouthpieces — Malachi, Paul, Isaiah, John — are telling us that this is not all some future reality bearing down on us like a raging bushfire. The reign of God is at hand. God has begun to rule among us. The transforming and refining of our lives is not awaiting one terrifying blaze of glory. Instead it begins when we kneel before a manger and honour a newborn baby as a sign of God at work among us. It begins when we put aside our fear of the unknown and welcome the stranger who comes seeking refuge as sign of God’s solidarity with the needs of all the world. It begins when we confess our addiction to superficial virtues and our resistance to doing the tough inner work of developing integrity and mercy and simplicity and faithfulness. It begins when we take to the road and follow Jesus in the way of the cross. It begins when we are surrounded by our companions on the way and washed in water for the forgiveness of our sins and raised up and clothed in Christ with a pledge to share in the living of a new life in the here and now.
And the more we take those beginning steps and persevere in them, the more that day of refining fire will look to us, not like a day of terror and anguish, but the day on which our deepest longings bear fruit and our wildest dreams are fulfilled. For with every step along that ever straightening road, the salvation of God will become more gloriously apparent, and that day will loom ever more promisingly as the day of Jesus Christ on which the one who began a good work in us will bring it to completion, and our joy will be full, to the glory and praise of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.