Of Genes and Generosity
Sermon for Advent 3 – Sunday 16 December 2018 – St John the Baptist, Felixstowe.
Text: Bear fruits worthy of repentance. 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.(Luke 3v8)
God give you peace my sisters and brothers.
‘So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people!!!’
If today’s gospel reading is our patron saint’s idea of the ‘good news’ I’m not sure if I want to meet him when he’s having a bit of a paddy and proclaiming ‘bad’ news…
What has gotten into him?
Mind you if your only clothing is camel hair shirts and half of your diet is made up of locusts I guess he has a right to be a little crotchety. Imagine if he were a vicar and treated baptism families the way he treats his listeners in today’s reading? Quick way to empty a church!
But, even though he tells them off, the people still come. Why?
One of the first things to notice, and it is easy to miss this, is that John is not calling sinners to repentance (how could anyone be asked to ‘repent’ if they weren’t already signed up members of a faith?) but instead his message is to the faithless faithful.
He is speaking to those who are already part of the children of Israel and who are well aware of the demands of the God who chose them. He’s not speaking to Gentiles but to those who are children of Abraham, those who are secure in their ancestry and so tempted to believe that belonging to a faith is the same as living out that faith.
Being a child of God is one thing, every single person in the world is that, but showing to each other that we are part of the same family of God is a different thing altogether. John’s listeners were trusting in their genes more than living lives of generosity and it is from this attitude of entitlement that the Baptist calls them to repent.
In the part of Philippians which didn’t make it into our reading today (BTW please give yourself the gift of reading the whole letter during the week ahead) Paul has this to say about genes and generosity;
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him,(Philippians 3.4-9)
The apostle Paul and the Baptist John, both ‘children of the vicarage’ so to speak, had learnt that it’s not where you have come from that is important but what you do with that heritage and privilege.
And both of them have one rule only as to what we must do with our earthly heritage. So that we can hold on to Christ and receive a heavenly heritage we must give away what’s holding us down now!
We are not to allow ourselves to be sucked into believing that being part of God’s people is simply a question of belonging. We are called to behave in a manner that demonstrates that our hearts are in heaven regardless of the hungers of the flesh, which, if we let them, gnaws at our soul and steals away the joy of our faith.
So John gives very practical, do-able, down-to-earth advice to his penitent listeners;
…the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ (Luke 3.10-14)
Not big things really are they?
No pitch up in the synagogue every Saturday,
no get to the Temple for the High Days and Holy Days,
no make sure you keep giving your tithe.
Be content with the blessings you have,
be generous with any surplus you can’t use,
don’t use power to feed your own greed.
Something anyone of us here could do. As the Meerkat off the Telly says ‘simples!’ As we learn to live lives of generosity, aware of all that we have received through the accidents of birth and our genes, we can move on to living for others.
THAT is the kind of good news the world needs and we are the ones who have the power to proclaim it as we learn daily to give a bit more of ourselves away, ‘counting everything as loss because of the surpassing riches of Christ’.
Of course, the simplest plans require the most commitment and effort. John knew this. In the Fourth Gospel, when those around him wanted to know what he thought about Jesus his response was;
He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3.30)
Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew just a little about giving his life away, wrote in The Cost of Discipleship;
When Christ calls [us] he bids [us] come and die.
It’s an odd request just before Christmas this.
As a birth is announced we are asked to die a little.
Asked to not trust in what we’ve got, our genes, instead to learn to let go of it and show our penitence by acts of generosity.
Maybe this is what it means to make room for the baby at Christmas. After all if the Stable of our heart is overfull with the clutter of our lives how will He find room? Where will the poor and the powerful stand to gaze on the wonder of God’s love if those who can proclaim the Good News, you and I, refuse to let go of our life to welcome the promise of life everlasting?
This is my Advent Appeal.
I know we are a generous people so I’m not asking for more money in the plate or an increase in our regular giving, though that would be welcome. I see so many of us giving of our time, our treasure, and our talents away all year around, we know how to be generous with ‘stuff’.
Before Christmas Day let us commit ourselves to one piece of personal generosity that goes beyond what we already do.
Have a rootle amongst the coats in the wardrobe of your heart and give away some of the ones you’ve been holding on to.
The grudge that is just too precious to let go off.
The decision to not be in touch with that distant family member or forgotten friend at Christmas.
The temptation to feed the cynicism of our inner Ebenezer Scrooge with doubt and despair – heaven knows the world has more than enough of that!
The list could go on. But this Christmas let us take the Baptist’s words to heart and repent of our clinging on to ‘stuff’ which, in the end, will be taken away from us anyway, and prepare to enter the stable at Christmas with no gift for the Christ Child other than our empty hearts waiting to be filled with his love.