Friday, 11 December 2015

Good news, you brood of vipers!


Advent 3, and this week, as last, the star of the Gospel passage is John the Baptist.
The contrast between the first line and the last are almost comical. Hairy old John begins by shouting at those queuing up for baptism "you brood of vipers!" and goes on to tell them that their Abrahamic ancestry counts for nothing, because God has his axe at the root of the tree just waiting to cut them off and lob them into the fire. "So," the Gospel concludes, "he proclaimed the good news to the people."
"What an uplifting sermon, Father," said the congregation as they shook hands after the service and left the bank of the Jordan.
I cannot imagine many bishops nowadays counselling their clergy to adopt John's homiletic style, though I'd love to see the look on the faces of people bringing their children to a baptism if I tried it.
There's nothing remotely risible about John's message, however, and it's one which hits us all with its severity, whether we are rich or poor. Those who believe the disciples were proto-revolutionary rabble-rousers might note John's advice to the soldiers: "be satisfied with your wages." Those, on the other hand, who think that coming to church is a get-out-of-jail-free card which will excuse their greedy materialism need to hear his exhortation that "whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none." Supply "two Jags" if you can.
The message to us all, sadly all the more relevant just before Christmas, is that fixation on material things will ultimately do us no good at all. Those things are all bound for the flames, and if we don't watch it, they will drag us down with them, into the hell of jealousy, one-upmanship, obsession, selfishness. Not that we see anything like that in Berkhamsted, of course.
There is another way: the Way that John makes straight, cutting through and breaking down all the clutter that clings like you-know-what to the ego and drags us away from the true self within, which is nothing other than Christ himself within us. It may take a baptism of fire to get us there, and the pain may be searing. It's otherwise known as the Cross. Better by far to take it up now than to wait for the final judgment.
And so John's message rings loud and clear, in one word: "Repent!"
Confession times are advertised on the parish pew slip.

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