Based on Luke 3:7-18 & Philippians 4:1-9
Today we encounter two very different personalities, and therefore two very different approaches to transformation of our lives. We have John the Baptist, preaching and provoking in the desert. We have Paul, praying and persuading from prison.
We begin with John, the one who comes to shake up every Advent season; preaching a baptism of repentance, shaking the complacency of the soul and pointing to a deeper, spiritual change. I struggle with John.
I have to confess, that if I had gone down to the river the day John was preaching; if I had gone with my heart aching for something more meaningful, for a sense of belonging and a sense that I could make a difference in the world, and I heard John exploding, “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgement?”- If I heard these words, they would feel like condemnation, they would feel like sarcasm, and I would have turned away and gone home, unbaptized, empty, angry and sad. End of story.
We need the voice of prophets, we need their tenacity and courage, but prophetic voices lose their power for me, when their words condemn rather than encourage. I would have walked away and that would have been a loss – both for John’s cause, and for myself, because those who didn’t get hooked by the initial bombardment of name-calling find that there are things they can do to make a difference. They hear John’s deep passion for justice and right relationships. There are real, practical, life-giving ways that each of them, and therefore each of us can do.
When I read through his words with some emotional distance, I see that John didn’t tell everyone to do everything – but rather had them check in with their own life. In what way are they abusing or taking advantage others? In what way are they simply turning a blind eye on those in need? Sometimes our problem is one of self-abuse – and that stops us from being all who we want to be in the world. When I step back I can hear John say, ‘Wash away the negativity through baptism. Then go live in a different way. This prepares you for the Holy Spirit’s entrance in your lives. From John’s invitation I invite you to think about what needs to be washed away in your own life? What negativity is stopping the flow of love, of action and contemplation?
At an ecumenical gathering several years ago, a colleague said, `We change when things are so uncomfortable for us that we cannot help but change, or we change because we are loved into wanting to change. What motivates you?
We go from John the Baptist to Paul in prison. Why is it that Paul is not anxious? He may die in prison and then where would the church be! Yet, he uses this opportunity to share these amazing words: “My dear, dear friends! I love you so much. I do want the very best for you. You make me feel such joy, fill me with such pride. Don’t waver. Stay on track, steady in God.”
He encourages two of the congregational leaders to iron out their differences and get along – they too have different styles and personalities, but they are working for the good of the gospel. And he encourages the whole congregation to support these women.
I find that I love this passage whether it is read in the more traditional language, or in the contemporary – each version has its own beauty and reveals different facets. NRSV – 4:4 “Rejoice in the Lord, always, again I say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone.“ Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, says Paul in writing this, calls for unprecedented joy in his listeners. He knows that joy is finally a decision. Yes, and… even as I write these words think of those who would dearly love to choose joy, people who live with clinical depression, people who are grieving or feel lost in their lives. For myself, I sometimes find that I have to make a real effort to get out of the deep worn ruts in brain, aware of all that is wrong with the world, and recall moments of gratitude and connection. That softens my heart so that joy may find a way to slip in and surprise or sustain me.
As I said, this simple ancient letter is powerful in any version. Paul urges the community to bring everything to God in prayer, and says, in The Message, verse 7, “It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the centre of your life.”
Think on this my friends, it is wonder what happens when Christ displaces worry at the centre of your life – it’s also wonderful what happens when Christ displaces anger, or addiction, loneliness, compulsion or despair.
We do not need to be stuck in abuse of self or others, we can turn it around and there is freedom and joy in that. We can wash away the negativity that controls our life – by responding to the challenge of John the Baptist, knowing we don’t’ have to be stuck in old `me-first’ ways. We can lean into prayer with all we’ve got, and find Christ there at the centre – radiating love through us – blessings us with the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Being a person of faith today, is hard work. There is so much pain in the world, so much need. But if we only pour ourselves out, and don’t replenish ourselves with rest, joy, wonder, – we will burn out and I don’t believe that is what God desires for us. I remember an evening back in Williams Lake, when my children, Aaron and Miriam, were young teens. We got into a playful mood – jumping around, being wonderfully silly together. Then I said “Ok, that was fun but I/we need to get back to work now.” And my children said, “Mom, why are you so afraid to have any fun?” It was a good question, though hard to hear. I’m happy to say that playfulness is becoming easier for me.
How much joy do you allow yourself? When is the last time you `rested’ in the thought that God enjoys you, and longs to wash away the negativity from your life? A few years ago, I lead a study group based on Joyce Rupp’s book “The Cup of Our Life.” We were invited to reflect on this thought, and so I offer it to you now for a time of silent contemplation: “When I think of God enjoying who I am, I…
(time to reflect in silence)
May you enjoy God enjoying you! Amen.