So, it’s the new minister’s first sermon. People have worn their best church clothes, and there are a few new hats being spotted around the Congregation. The new minister steps to the pulpit, dressed in an unusual and informal outfit, looking like she’s had one too many espressos before worship.
People do the church-what-on-earth-sidewards-glance-towards-each-other-then-the-door-mild-panic-thing. And she starts
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume 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. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Mobiles (set, of course, to silent) are activated as people send frantic texts to each other and to the powers that be. What’s going on?
This is not the language and style – thankfully – that we usually hear in worship. But in eschewing the violent imagery, have we neglected the challenge?
John the Baptist confronts those who have become complacent about their faith and their world, who have become complicit in the injustices and the broken system which pretends to govern.
John’s language is compelling; it’s Advent language. If you’re readying yourselves for the coming of Christ, what does that look like? Buying gifts for those you love? Decorating your favourite tree? Another Christmas party?
If these questions discomfort us, perhaps they should. Just as we smooth the rough-hewn cross to a comfortable veneer, and sterilise the stable so that the cattle could feed in our lounge room, we take the belligerent language of John and dismiss him as Jesus’ angry cousin.
That’s not good enough. In fact, it’s wrong.
The life we have been offered in Jesus Christ calls us to offer that life to others. But the story is not crafted in fear of what God will do, it’s crafted in hope because of what God has done.
A child in a manger, God as one of us, tells us the incredible value of each human being; God has become exactly like one of us, born as one of us. The extraordinary becomes normal and thus, the normal has become extraordinary.
What does this say for how we treat our neighbour, our enemy, our refugee, our politician, our sister in Aleppo and our brother on Nauru?
John tells the crowd there is nowhere to hide from the call of God; showing our church membership, or claiming our place in eternal life is an exercise in deception if we fail to turn our lives towards Christ.
As we ready ourselves for the joy of Christmas, how shall we serve others, how shall we act justly and how shall we honour the image of Christ found in manger, cross, resurrection – and our neighbour?