Sunday, 12 December 2010

3rd Sunday of Advent: playing with branding irons

James 5:7-10
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

“Beloved, do not grumble against each other so that you will not be judged.” I love the letter of James and commend it to anyone as an antidote to false religious piety because over and over again he gives practical wisdom about how to live as a Christian. “Beloved, do not grumble against each other so that you will not be judged.” Be positive about each other, only, where’s the fun in that?

Six months ago in Canada a company decided to launch a newspaper that would only report good news. An online poll asked people if they would read it. One of the answers that jumped out at me was this one: “...if it's anything like the community paper in my town, it will be horribly, horribly boring. I think it's grand when a group of school kids launches a penny drive for cancer research, but I really don't need to read about it.”

In fact I seem to remember something like this was tried back in the 1980's in this country. It sank without a trace. We don’t, it appears, want to read good news. If you look at the comments pages on your usual newspapers what you will see is plenty of grumbling and negativism. The tabloid magazines like Heat are even worse in their incessant digging for juicy and negative gossip. ‘Disgraceful’, we might say to each other, but the question today’s reading throws at us is, are we, in the church, any different?

When writing his letter James, it strikes me, seems to be reacting primarily against impatience in this section, but elsewhere he warns against most of the petty mindsets that catch us out as believers. Let’s be honest, we do struggle with each other’s failings, but why is that such a problem? I think the answer is that judgementalism stems from using ourselves as a yardstick.

In essence, when we grumble against someone else it is because we have seen the way that they have acted and decided that we are better than they are. We have put ourselves in their shoes and made the decision that we would have done it better than they did. We have judged them against our own measure and decided that we are better than they are and are therefore justified in moaning about them.

The problem is that the Lord made it clear that if we do this to other people, then we can expect him to do the same with us, except that his measure is one of perfection. If we grumble against each other then we can expect to be judged against his perfection. So the command is simple, ‘Don’t grumble about each other.’ End of story.

Now, you may be thinking that I am asking too much of you, to expect you to never grumble. But actually I don’t think I am. There is a well known clergyman in this diocese who has a bit of a reputation amongst other clergy, and it’s a well deserved one. This particular gentleman will simply never say anything nasty about anyone else.

Yes, I know, I didn’t believe it either, but I worked alongside him for over four years before he moved to a new parish recently, and it’s absolutely true. He has learnt this lesson and applied it in his life and consequently he is perhaps one of the most trusted vicars in the area because we all know that he will never, ever betray us or say something unkind about us.

We may not agree with him, and he may disagree with us, but he will never be petty about it, and he will never grumble about us. And I don’t think it’s just in his nature. I think he has had to work at it just like any of us would have to work at it, but he’s succeeded. It can be done! It is possible! Grumbling about other people need not be a part of human nature.

I think what makes this particularly interesting is that we see the alternative in our Gospel reading and we see how much it is praised by the Lord. Matthew picks up the story from when John the Baptist had been imprisoned. John’s ministry had been a fiery prophetic one, declaring that he was coming to prepare the way for the Messiah whose sandals he wasn’t fit to untie; the One who would bring judgement. You may remember these words from last week:
“...he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

That was what John was expecting Jesus to be like. But then reports began to reach John in prison of how the Messiah was eating and drinking with tax collectors and prostitutes. This was not what he expected. Now what would you or I have done? Would we have started to declaim this so-called Messiah as being a worthless sham? Would we have started rumours about him and asked questions in public hearing regarding what was really going on when he invited children to sit with him?

Those are the kind of reactions that can completely undermine a person’s reputation. We decide that we don’t like what we’re hearing, and so in our judgemental way we try and bring down the one we disagree with. And because of human nature the rumour mill catches fire and before you know it all sorts of untrue things are being said. It’s every teacher and vicar’s nightmare because it can destroy a lifetimes work, and in village communities like this one it is a huge temptation that many succumb to.

But that wasn’t how John the Baptist played it. He was confused because Jesus was not doing what he expected him to do, and so he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus a simple question,
‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ In that question was a huge weight of confusion and maybe desperation that John’s work had landed him in prison, and had it all been for nothing?

But Jesus’s response was to ask John’s disciples to look around at the fruit of what he was doing. Yes it may well have seemed unorthodox for the Messiah, the Holy One, to be hanging around with the kind of people he was with, but look at the result:
‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

There was a gentle rebuke in this too; a sort of loving cousinly reassurance. ‘Don’t worry John, this is how it has to be. Unless I go among these people I cannot call them back into the family of God. We must share at their tables for them to trust me. This is how it must be because love and acceptance is offered before judgement.’

So what then is the message for us in this? Let me give you a mental image. A farmer has some cattle to be branded so he takes out his branding iron and heats it up. When it’s red hot he pushes it on to the rump of the animal. That animal is marked, it’s burned by the heat of the branding iron. On and on the farmer goes, relentlessly marking his cattle.

Then when he is finished he plunges his red hot branding iron into a tub of cold water. There is a cloud of steam as the cold water robs the iron of all its heat. If the farmer were to push the branding iron on to the rump of another animal, it would make no mark because all of it’s heat has been quenched. The tub of water took away its heat.

Our role in the world is to be like that tub of water. We cannot stop people branding others with their gossip. Ask yourself how many of your opinions of people in this church, the parish or amongst your workmates have been formed by other people’s grumbles. People will grumble about others, but we don’t have to join in.

By refusing to grumble with another we take the heat out of their complaint. In so doing we are like a tub of water, quenching gossip instead of passing it on. Grumbling only hurts if it’s passed on, but if it stops with us, we take its power out of the world.

This is such a Christlike behaviour. In fact you can make a very good argument that this is exactly what Jesus accomplished on the Cross by saying, ‘The buck stops here. I will take the consequences of sin out of the world.’ It’s also rather like John the Baptist, because in stopping the grumble, we help prepare the way of the Lord.

Advent, like Lent, is a time of self-examination as we prepare to receive again the message of the Son of God being born into the world, and look forward to his return. The readings today challenge us about our own behaviour, so let us consider carefully our conversations and our responses. Amen

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