Sermon 13 December 2015 Advent 3

We have just heard from St Luke that John the Baptist called his audience a brood of vipers. We wouldn’t use language like that today, or at least the Church of England wouldn’t! Calling people vipers - well, it’s a bit rude, isn’t it? According to Matthew, John addresses this to the scribes and Pharisees but in Luke’s version it’s addressed to everybody who has come along to hear John and receive baptism. Poor things – they were only trying their best.

You might say, well that was another culture and that’s how people were then and they would have taken it on the chin. The re is a yes and a no to that - not only can’t we have a proper feel for the culture in which John lived but we automatically read texts like this in a very simple way, as if there were no layers to John’s language, just the surface meaning. So let’s add a cultural layer. From what we know of what Jesus had to say, there was a strong vein in the culture that was humorous and rum. When we look at John as deadly serious but also as having a wicked, rich local sense of humour, the picture begins to change. John comes a bit nearer. It makes it possible for us to think of people in our own culture who aren’t perhaps so different from John. Take, for instance, Sister Rita who runs a drop-in centre in Manchester . You may have read the article about her last week in the Tablet – BBC1 is about to run a television series about her.

John says: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none and whoever has food must do likewise…”. Sister Rita: “I believe we must help one another in this life. … Take the shirt off your back and give it to somebody. That’s where I come from”.

John’s message was for the rich and powerful too – enough to attract the wrath of Herod. Sister Rita: (I quote from the article) “The people with money, the well-heeled [are the worst culprits] – not everyone but some …. if they were suddenly to turn up here – Chancellor George Osborne’s Cheshire constituency, is only a few miles down the road – they’d be looking down their noses and saying to people ‘get up and get a job’. However, the jobs aren’t there”.

The n John the Baptist was rude to the very people who went to seek him. Sister Rita: “I shout at them” she says, gesturing to the heads bobbing behind the window. “I say awful things.

I encourage them as well but I don’t let them off lightly”.

The first thing to admire in Sister Rita is the strong vein of humour. Such humour reflects the divine character and is an element of the road to the truth.

Secondly, where do these touches of similarity to John the Baptist come from? The re is no evidence that Sister Rita is trying to imitate to John the Baptist in particular. It looks for all the world as if it comes from somewhere else.

This leads us on to the question of imitation. Imitation of Christ is an important part of the Christian message – it’s there in the gospels and it’s there in Thomas a Kempis’s book. Today, though, we have a real problem with imitation, because many Christians think it’s enough. It isn’t. Imitation of Christ or of John the Baptist or the Saints is a foothill to something else and that something else is being in Christ, being in him as he is in the Father. Imitation is important but is never enough. All imitation might mean is that we admire things about Christ and seek to reproduce them from our own resources. Something fundamental is missing. That is something, or someone, who through a living relationship is able to transform us and open up boundless resources of grace.

Contemporary Christianity seems a lot of the time to operate on the basis of imitation. The churches do a huge amount of work for the good of society - all of that huge amount of work for our neighbour and for society obviously fulfils the commands of the Gospel and long may it go on. Often that work should be disinterested, not wanting to ram religion down people’s throats – simply coming to people’s aid – that is real Gospel stuff.

        Antony Grant CR