Greetings in Jesus’ name on this third Sunday in Advent!
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Sermon by Revd Sabelo Mthimkhulu Advent 3 Luke 3:7-18
You are probably know the story of the old man who sees a little girl throwing starfish into the sea. “What are you doing?” he asks her. “Throwing the starfish back into the sea. The tide has washed them up and they can’t get back by themselves” she replies. The old man says: “But there are thousands of starfish on the beach. What difference can you make?” She bends down, picks up one more starfish and throws it into the sea and says to him: “It made a difference to that one”
Wait I am going to come back to the story of a star fish in few minutes.
In the gospel reading we just read this morning, John utters words most of us wouldn’t expect to hear from a preacher.
“You brood of vipers” isn’t this the harsh way of addressing people who come to hear your preaching.
Note these people have walked all the way out into the desert to come and hear you preaching!
As we heard from Last week’s sermon, John is the “margins” and they have come to join him in the “margins”.
But John is not best pleased with them because they seem to be so confident in the fact that they are the chosen people – children of Abraham, so the believe God will automatically “save” them.
They consider themselves special.
So, John tells them: It’s not their religious heritage that will save them. What will make a difference is how they live.
What shall we do? The crowd then ask John.
I wonder if it’s just me who can hear the note of desperation in voices.
“What shall we do?” the crowd asks John.
“What shall we do?” the tax collectors ask him.
“What shall we do?” the soldiers ask.
I don’t know about you, but that anxious question seemed to echo my own in the face the current political battlers, in the face of increasing COVID 19 cases, in times of unbearable heat.
In times where fuel and basic needs prices increases now and then.
“What shall we do?”.
“What shall we do?”
When students study in darkness because of poor management
When Christianity has become a pyramid scheme where people make money
“What can we do?”
Is these the crises’ that will stop us in our tracks, tip us over the edge?
So, like those who come out to John in the wilderness, we ask: What shall we do?
Those who came out to John were ordinary citizens of Palestine living under Roman occupation. They were taxed into poverty and they lived in fear of the brutality of the army.
They were not too different from us. Like us they faced unpredictable leaders.
Like us they faced increasing poverty, an economy drained by the rulers.
Like us they faced times of uncertainty.
Like us they saw brutal suppression of those who challenged the powerful.
So, I wonder what pushed them over the edge?
I wonder what was the final straw? that drove them into the desert to seek out John and ask: What shall we do? I don’t know. But they came seeking baptism. Did they realise that only a new start, a different way of life, would make any difference?
I don’t know.
All I have is John’s answer and it is so simple. He says to the crowd: “Whoever has two coats must share one with someone who doesn’t have one and whoever has food must do the same.”
That’s all? That’s what makes a difference.
Ok. We all get that we need to look after the needy. But is that all?
Even if, in these tough economic times, we are tempted to hold onto both coats and both loaves of bread– just in case another looting takes place, just in case we go back to the hard lockdown – is that really what will make a difference?
Just give away what you don’t really need, to someone who does need it. Actually, the word of a rendered “coat” in English would better be translated “tunic”.
And that has a more significant meaning.
Let’s try and explore that meaning, a tunic was the undergarment one wore underneath other clothing. Most people who could afford had two of them: one they wore every day, and another they wore on the sabbath.
So, what John could be saying here is that the needs of your neighbour outweigh saving the sabbath tunic, or maybe to put it a different way, deeds of compassion outweigh the practice of religion.
So even, or perhaps especially, in these crazy days, when we ask: What can we do? the answer is not simply: Go to church on a Sunday and pray. As good as that maybe it won’t save you, says John.
What will save you is the exercise of compassion. What will make a difference in the face of corruption and exploitation and dishonesty is not going to church. Almost all politicians do that too. What will make a difference is compassion.
Apart from the general crowd, there are two particular groups who come out to John – tax collectors and soldiers. Tax collectors and soldiers are those Jews participating in a Roman governing system.
They are a bit like the homeland leaders of apartheid days. They get their buttered bread from the hated Roman occupiers. In very particular ways they are caught between a rock and hard place. They need the work, but they are collaborators with the oppressors.
They came out to John. They too ask: What can we do?
John’s response to them is: Take no more than what is due.
Don’t be involved in corrupt practices.
It would be easy to ignore John’s advice given to the tax collectors and soldiers. After all, we are not like them. But really aren’t we, like them, caught between the rock and the hard place?
Aren’t we like them when we sometimes find ourselves in temptations we cannot easily resist?
When we pay R100 for a traffic officer to tear up a R2000 fine?
- When we pay R100 to get the front of a long queue in a Home Affairs trying to get a visa appointment?
When we pay R100 to the police officers to get over the boarders without COVID test?
Everyone does it. So maybe John’s first century advice has twenty-first century application here too.
Perhaps by now you are saying to yourself: Even if I be nice. Be compassionate. Don’t get involved in dodgy practices. How is that going to make any difference to a seriously corrupt and power politicians and an economy on its way to hell in a hand basket?
Well, it’s the starfish story, isn’t it?
We can only change the big picture by small acts in our own lives.
And small acts make a difference. I imagine every one of us can recall one small action that has meant a great deal in our lives, that person who welcomed us when we first arrived at St Pauls, that person who stopped to help when the car broke down, that nurse who in a busy day came to encourage us before an operation, that teacher who spent a few minutes extra making sure we really understand, that priest who prayed with you when you were in despair.
Small acts that have borne fruit in our lives.
“What can we do?” Share with those in need. Practice compassion and honesty. Small actions, one starfish at a time.
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