The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s150g15   Advent 3  13/12/2015

‘he proclaimed the good news to the people’.  Luke 3:18

I find it interesting that the clear threat that: ‘the axe is lying at the root of the trees’ is put side by side with this proclamation of ‘the good news to the people’.     

Clearly ordinary people realised that John, nor Jesus after him, wasn’t threatening them.   The ‘brood of vipers’ as the phrase immediately conjures up, are not ordinary folk trying their best to provide for themselves and those they love, but those to whom Jesus referred when he warned, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets!   They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.   They will receive the greater condemnation.’  (1)   James defines ‘pure and undefiled’ religion as ‘to care for orphans and widows in their distress’.  (2)   The church has often been very good at caring for real orphans and widows when they are members of a particular congregation and fellowship, but rather less willing when they are people who have lost contact with their heavenly parent.   I wonder what the world would look like if the church cared for atheists and agnostics rather than criticising them.

For it is, of course, often the result of the teachings and actions of the exclusive church that ordinary people have lost sight of the unconditional love of God.   So Jonah complains to God when Nineveh believes his proclamation: ’Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?   That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.’  (3)   And Paul condemns his own religious upbringing: ’For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.   For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.’ (4)

There seems a good deal of cognitive dissonance here, and I guess I have suffered from this as much as anyone else, at the hands of a self-serving church.

I note that none of the answers John gave to the questioners: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you" and "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” include things like worrying about one’s relationship to god, calling god by the correct name, going to church more regularly, believing in the infallibility of scripture or the subordination of women.

John’s message is about people being a part of the community and society, not separate from it.   So ‘repentance’ is not about seeing the light and going to church, but about church people becoming part of an egalitarian and inclusive society.   Being ‘born again’ is not to become differently religious, but to forgo an exclusive religion and be part of humanity and humane.

Time and again, God has shown the religious that God loves people other than those who go to church regularly, those unable to read let alone be fluent in the interpretation of scriptures, those who don’t believe that God makes distinctions between people and genders and faiths; that God loves people other than themselves and their cronies.   This is the axe ‘lying at the root of the trees’, so that not even a stump that might regrow, remains.

This is the good news which is the message of the babe in Bethlehem.   If our Christmass message is that we actually have to go to church, be able to read and interpret scripture in a particular manner, that God makes distinctions between people and genders and faith; that God loves straight, baptised, confirmed, communicant, tithing Anglicans of my particular variety, then we have failed to perceive the axe.

When Jesus  was confronted by the religious about the authority he claimed, he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.’  (5)   The sin of godly bigotry is far more widespread, far more corrosive and far more difficult to rid the world of, than the ‘sins’ of the poor.   This is the axe.   We know this to be true and we wouldn’t worship a god for whom this wasn’t true.   The world knows this to be true and are waiting for the church to confirm that this is actually the god we are worshipping before they will join us.

It happens that I’ve just read a piece by an Anglican minister in Australia suggesting that the church opts out of performing weddings completely lest she be forced to celebrate same-gender marriages.  He writes: ‘Look at what is happening to overturn the exemptions Christian schools and hospitals previously had regarding the employment of gay people and those who openly oppose Christian principles.   The sad reality is that Christian institutions cannot expect for much longer to receive special treatment from legislators and electors who, pretty much, have no understanding of, let alone respect for, Christian values and, in many cases, openly defy them.’   For this minister it seems tolerance and inclusion are antithetic to ‘Christianity’ and bigotry is acceptable, indeed a mark of true faith.

Why should modern secular society fund any religious organisation which is fundamentally exclusive and divisive, including our own version of ‘christianity’?

A good friend from the ‘States, Jim, commenting on the continuing spate of massacres in the USA writes: ‘It seems to me if humans presently cannot strengthen individually the process of critiquing the destructive, as well as positive, potential of all ideologies present, beginning with their own, violence in the nation and the world will only escalate toward mutual self destruction.’

This is the reason for the gospel of affirmation and inclusion.   We are called not to oppose what we see as the erosion of our status as ‘christians’ but to be in the forefront of the proclamation of the unconditional love of God.   It is for this proclamation that Jesus came and it was for this proclamation that he was killed.   Nothing can, therefore, be more important.

1.  Mark 12:38-40
2.  James 1:27
3.  Jonah 4:2
4.  Romans 1:18-19
5.  Matthew 21:31