There are certain church congregations in Scotland where they have an old adage, “If you’re not shouting, then you are not preaching.” It seems to me that this passage would be made for that particular style of churchmanship.
As we progress through Advent, we busy ourselves with erecting our Christmas trees, plastering our houses with lights, putting up the decorations, preparing ourselves for the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the beautiful baby boy who, as the Christmas Carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ states has, “The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight”, what we wait for is beauty at this time of year, something peaceful, something wonderful, something joyous. Instead, this morning, what we get is this, and what exactly are we meant to make of this? There are no children dressed as shepherds with tea towels on their heads here.
And when we look at the Advent wreath with its two candles lit we can easily see Advent as little more than a countdown to Christmas. It would be easy to give this wild man, John the Baptist, a bit of a wide berth. Dismiss what he has to say as metaphorical, something symbolic or the ravings of a man who spent too much time on his own in the desert eating grasshoppers. But as has just been proclaimed after the Gospel reading, “This is the Gospel of the Lord” it is part of the Good News and it is just as much a part of that Good News as the miraculous birth of our saviour.
John isn’t all that interested in a manger, Mary’s innocence is not something that that gets covered, in fact Jesus’ name does not get mentioned once! In the Gospel, John is looking for God to do something drastic. His message is to repent, to change...or else.
I suspect that part of what makes this message so uncomfortable for us is not so much the timing of it but that we sort of know it to be true. Looking at the world around us, at the way that we interact – nation against nation, with the way that we disregard God’s creation we know, deep down in our hearts, that things are not as they should be.
Each of us here today could easily name the broken places that we have in our lives and in the world more generally. Places of anger, violence, poverty, homelessness, lives controlled by fear, or it could be the years of guilt that have crippled our lives. The list just goes on and on. But I have to say that there is one sin worse than all of the others, it could well be worse than evil itself, and that is the sin of indifference. It is more insidious, more universal, more contagious, and I think, much, much more dangerous.
We are so busy, so exhausted by the relentless bad news in the media that we inevitably become indifferent to what is happening, indifferent to the needs of others, indifferent to the way that God’s creation is crying out. But that is not all indifference does, we can also become indifferent to ourselves. To the point that we lose sight of the original beauty with which God created us. This struck me earlier this week at the Milton Keynes night shelter, seeing first-hand just how indifference had affected some people who were much more gifted and intelligent than I was and yet had found themselves in the desperate situation of not being able to have a roof over their head. The indifference that others had shown them and in some cases where they had shown to themselves showed me just how poisonous it is. Indifference is sneaky, it takes on many forms.
Yes that is all very well, but what has this to do with John the Baptist’s rant, how are these things connected?
I believe strongly that it shows us clearly that God loves us enough to get angry. He is not indifferent to the unfathomable beauty and delicacy of his creation, he is not indifferent to the suffering, to the relationships we have with him and with each other. He is not indifferent to you, he is not indifferent to me and he definitely is not indifferent to those less lucky than ourselves.
The opposite of love is not hatred or anger, it is indifference, and God is not indifferent - how can he be? God’s anger is the rejection of indifference. He pays attention. It is not offered as punishment but as encouragement. To encourage us to care, to tend, to nurture, to hope and to blossom. God is saying, “You are worthy of my time and attention. Your lives are worthy of being judged. I care enough to get angry when you settle (or are coerced) into settling for less than you are and all that you can be.
This reminds us that Christ came to comfort the afflicted, but he also came to afflict the comfortable.