What then should we do, to be signs of good news to the people who are today’s equivalents of those we read about in Zephaniah and, in particular, those who long for the safety of home –or indeed to be safe in the homes they are in? How might we partner with God in dealing with the forces of oppression? And how could we gather those who feel outcast, and create a festival with them so they know themselves to be rejoiced over?
In Advent 2020, in the middle of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a post appeared on Facebook saying that Christmas that year was not about getting what you want but being content with what you have. At the heart of John the Baptist’s message is a call to contentment. What might this look like today, especially when the might of commercial advertising plays on a sense of discontent that will only be assuaged by purchasing the product or service being promoted? If the planet is to survive, those of us who have plenty will have to be content not just with what we have but with less. Might being seen to live in this way be an important way of being good news in our time?
In the Gospel reading, John asks people to show their faith by behaving well in their own context: the tax collector should collect only the correct amount; the soldier must not extort. In our own workplaces, are our colleagues able to discern we are followers of ‘The Way’ by our actions? How so? If not, why not?
Through Paul’s words to the Philippians we are asked to be known by our gentleness. That doesn’t mean we are to be known as Christians by our willingness to be doormats. It means our faith must be visible every day, not just on Sundays. We must be kind and gentle every day of the week, living out our faith in authenticity. In the Gospel reading, John suggests that this is different for each person, depending on who you are and your circumstances. So, what might that gentleness look like in our everyday lives, out there in the real world and away from church ‘niceness’?
In the Gospel reading, John talks of the axe lying at the root of every tree, ready to cut down any that are not fruitful. This metaphor crops up a few times in the New Testament (e.g. John 15.2, Mark 11.12-14). Where in our own lives are we fruitful? Where might we need to prune?
Thought for the week:
Read out in place of a sermon if you wish.
‘What then, should we do?’ This phrase appears three times in the Gospel reading. For each of the people who ask, the answer is different, because it is a contextual question. What we should do depends on who we are, what we spend our days doing, and what our responsibilities may be. For example:
- the tax collector should collect only the correct amount of tax;
- the soldier should do his duty but must not extort.
There are many other examples in Luke’s Gospel – it is a recurring question.
But, though the specifics will and should vary, the response that is called for is always down to earth and practical, and usually centres on the generous sharing of resources. And underlying it is a call for an ethic and an attitude of contentment, a call to be content with ‘enough’ – one good coat, enough food, the legitimate amount of tax revenue and sufficient wages. And we shouldn’t delude ourselves – ‘enough’ may be less than we are used to having!
For each of us, then, what we should do to reflect Christ’s presence in our lives will be different. It’s easy to think we do our bit because we raise money for whichever charity is our personal or church’s focus, but Jesus’ challenge here goes deeper than that. It is personal and individual. He says that it is not enough to pay taxes, or give to church or charity. The action must be matched by personal authenticity. Generosity is more than a few generous acts, it is a way of living.
What then should we do? How might we bear good fruit? With whom might we share our coat? In our workplaces, in our daily encounters whatever their context, are those we share time with able to discern that we are followers of ‘The Way’ by our actions? How so? And if not, why not?
What then should we do?
- The phrase above suggests there are choices to be made in following Christ. Some are more obvious: for example, we choose whether or not to be a follower of Jesus, or to be baptized. But those ‘first’ choices have consequences and lead to other choices. Some of those who came to John for baptism don’t appear to have fully understood what they were choosing to do and some of its consequences for their everyday living.
- Invite people to recall and share, first in pairs and then in a larger group: first, choices they may have made without fully understanding either the nature of the choice or the consequences; second, choices or consequences they are faced with in their daily lives because they follow Jesus – e.g. workplace practices that seem contrary to Gospel values.
A Biblical analogy
Find a contemporary equivalent of John’s threshing floor.
- Display, or give out copies of, images of winnowing forks, threshing floors, granaries and chaff (do an internet search and choose your favourites).
- In pairs, discuss what a modern – and, depending on your context, urban – equivalent of these things might be. In other words, what metaphor using modern tools and situations might convey the same meaning as John’s words in Luke 3.17? Then rewrite verse 17 using your new-found images.
- Invite people to share their rewritten verse.
A reflective activity
Think about how others see you.
- Give out pale-coloured blank or pretty postcards and pens. You can get pretty cards from many places, for example: The Postcard Store.
- There are various fruits that we regularly link with Christmas – for example, satsumas and dates. Invite people to draw on one half of the paper/card, as best they can, a piece of fruit that they link with Christmas.
- Then, on the other half, write or draw something to represent the ‘fruit’ by which people know them in their workplace, school, college, or wherever they spend a significant amount of their time, e.g., kindness or reliability – but don’t offer too many suggestions; encourage people to come up with their own.
- Invite people to take their cards home and, from now until Candlemas (Presentation of Christ, 2 February), use them from time to time to reflect on the ‘fruit’ by which they are known. Add any new ‘fruit’ to the card as appropriate. (At or near Candlemas, get everyone to bring the cards back to church and invite feedback.)
W E S A
A simple worship activity
Make a commitment to change one thing.
- Bill Gates, who is not a Christian, gives away millions every year, supporting various causes across the globe. So, if a known non-Christian can live by John’s exhortation to ‘give his second coat’, how might we do something similar? Read out Luke 3.10-14.
- Invite people to reflect on how they, individually, might live out John’s call. Specifically, what one thing could they do, or do differently? It may be something quite small in the scheme of things, context is of course everything, but choose one achievable thing! Allow a few minutes for this and play gentle background music.
- Give out ‘covenant cards’ and pens. Ask people to write into the space on the card what it is they have decided to do. Encourage them to show it to a trusted friend who will hold them accountable to their promise.
- Invite everyone to say together the words on the cards above the space, then to speak the words they have written aloud or read them silently to themselves. When everyone has completed that, say together the words under the space. All say, Amen.
W E A