Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, Canon Precentor

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

“What then should we do?” the crowds asked John the Baptist. “What then should we do?” asked the tax collectors and the soldiers all of whom had come to be baptised by this strange man, John. “What then should we do?”

And we, too, this morning, might find ourselves asking the same question.

On this, the Third Sunday of Advent, we have witnessed the lighting of the pink candle, the candle of joy, and we have then heard readings that ring with an exhortation to sense this as time of joy.

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!

The prophet Zephaniah cries,

I will bring you home …                     (Zephaniah 3:14, 20)

We have heard Paul continue the theme of joy in his letter to the Philippians, words that we will hear the choir sing as we receive communion this morning:

Rejoice* in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.* 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. (Phil 4:4-5)

And even the canticle sung in the place of the psalm, a canticle known as the Song of Isaiah, names God our “strength and our song” and invites us to “shout and sing for joy” as God is near.

Just as we are ready to bask in joy in anticipation of the coming of Christ at Christmas, John the Baptist bursts onto the scene naming the crowd, and presumably us, a “brood of vipers”!

3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,4

John is ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

‘You brood of vipers!’ Cries this wild prophet at the crowd that gathers,

“Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

No wonder the troubled crowd beg for guidance. “What then should we do?”

The crowd, the tax collectors, the soldiers all ask him. “Tell us what to do.”

John tells them, advice that, in all three cases, is essentially a plea that they put aside their lives based on greed and the acquisition of material possessions. A plea that they share what they have and do not exploit those in their power.

He tells them. But he knows it won’t help. No point knowing what to do if your heart hasn’t changed. No point having an action plan if you haven’t repented, and turned to God, and confessed your sins, and known the great blessing of God’s forgiveness, and rested after the trauma of it all in God’s unending love. No point at all. That action plan. And so John has come to invite those present to a baptism of repentance.

John, unlike the crowd that cowered in front of him, knows that genuine action can come only after repentance, only after a healing of the heart.

John understands human nature, probably almost as well as the cousin of whose arrival he is the herald. That cousin, Jesus, understands human nature better than anyone.

Life and literature are woven with good intentions, with action plans that founder on the lack of a healed heart. With actions plans that are embarked upon before repentance and forgiveness have taken place.

Jane Austen, that master of insight into human nature, has not, to my knowledge, named any of her characters a “brood of vipers”. But she might well have done, given the ferocity with which she often exposes their feebleness of heart. One of my favourite scenes for such exposure occurs in the second chapter of Sense and Sensibility. This scene sometimes flashes through my mind when I am called upon to give something costly.

As the book opens, Mr Henry Dashwood has died leaving all his fortune and property to his son, John, the son of his first wife. This son is married with one child. Mr Henry Dashwood’s second wife and her three daughters are left only a little money and are dependent on their step son and brother, John, for any other help they might receive. The second chapter of Sense and Sensibility contains the account of a conversation between Mr John Dashwood and his wife. John has promised his father, on his deathbed, to do everything in his power to make his step mother and sisters “comfortable”.[1] After his father’s death, when they have moved into the family home, John discusses this promise with his wife. His plan is to give his family three thousand pounds. Jane Austen writes:

“Mrs John Dashwood did not at all approve of what her husband intended to do for his sisters. To take three thousand pounds from the fortune of their dear little boy would be impoverishing him to the most dreadful degree. She begged him to think again on the subject.”

The whole second chapter encompasses Mr John Dashwood’s “thinking again” skilfully guided by his greedy wife. Step by step she wears him down. By the end of the chapter he has these thoughts on his promise to his dying father.

“Upon my word, I believe you are perfectly right. My father could certainly mean nothing more by his request to me than what you say. I certainly understand it now and I will strictly fulfil my engagement by such acts of assistance and kindness to them as you have described.”

Jane Austen concludes her chapter, “[His wife’s]argument was irresistible.”[2]

No action plan, no set of answers to the question “what shall we do?” will help if our heart is not healed. Even the plea of a dying father can be rendered silent, if the sin round about speaks loudly enough. And there is only one way for our hearts to be healed.

It is time for repentance for that crowd. Strangely, we will see that that is where the joy is found.

I baptize you with water; John the Baptist says to the crowd who are pondering his instructions, but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire.

There are two stages in this healing of the heart. The first is repentance. That is John the Baptist’s business. Baptism with water. Turn to God and look at who we are and what we have done, the things of which we are ashamed. Turn to God and, with God, look at our sins. Turn to God and express our profound sorrow. And ask God to wash our sins away. To help us let the guilt of our sins be washed away.

And then Christ comes, with his Holy Spirit and fire. It’s a fire of God’s love we’re talking about. Only when our sins are washed away, when the guilt is gone, are we ready to hear the voice of love. When Jesus was baptised, the Spirit descended like a dove on him and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11)

One scholar describes John the Baptist’s works as the “necessary work of preparation. … He is building a highway for the arrival of the Lord. …Without forgiveness of sins, people are blind and deaf to the descent of the dove and the voice from the sky. The full process entails going beyond the mind to let go of sins and receive the Holy Spirit. …John’s highway is ultimately a highway to let God get close, to make it possible to welcome Jesus as the Giver of the Spirit.”[3]

God came close to those who met with John the Baptist that day and reeled at his calling them a “brood of vipers”. As we hear the telling of Luke’s Gospel in the year head, we will witness God coming close to all those who were baptised by John. For Jesus taught and fed that crowd, fed thousands of them (Luke 9:12-17). And Jesus, to the horror of the religious leaders, invited many a tax collector to join him in a meal (Luke 15:1-2). And, when Jesus died, one of those soldiers knew who he was, “Certainly this man was innocent”, that soldier said (Luke 23:47). Yes, God came close to those John baptised that day.

It is only after repenting of our sins and knowing God’s forgiveness that we can hear the voice of God naming us “Beloved”. And that is where our home is found. And that is where we know God as our strength and our song. And that is where true joy is found.

[1] Chapter 1

[2] Chapter 2

[3] John Shea The Relentless Widow p6.