Crows Nest Uniting Church
Advent 2 • 7 Dec 2014

Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Matthew 1:1-8

Rev. Chris Udy

Every couple of months
many ministers get unsolicited letters or emails
from people or groups
that emerge from the wilderness
with ominous proclamations.
A few years ago
many of us received an email
from the Byzantine Catholic Patriarchate of the Ukraine,
pronouncing “God's anathema
upon the Uniting Church in Australia” –
announcing that we had been judged
and found wanting
because the Church had even considered
the ordination or marriage of gay men
or lesbian women.
They seem to have a lot in common
with a Baptist pastor from Arizona
who suggested this week –
on the day before World AIDS Day, no less,
that the cure for AIDS could be found in Leviticus,
and it is – in his words –
to “execute the homos like God recommends”.

Recently another proclamation
came from a group
who call themselves “The Eternity Team”,
so they’re probably Australian,
and their email reads, in part:
“We are a non-denominational group of Christians
who share a strong concern
that too few of us get to share Heaven with God. 
This concern is made all the more acute
since we suspect
that many people expect
that they will spend their eternity in heaven
and are in fact disappointed.
Some church leaders estimate
that the percentage of the Australian population
that reach and enter heaven is as low as 3%.  
Should they be in error
and the true figure be thirteen
or even twenty three percent,
our concern would not be lessened
since the devastation
in the lives of those who are unsuccessful
is total.

The subject of a person's "eternity",
whether it is spent in Heaven or in hell,
is for the most part ignored by us, the church. 
Maybe we think it's too personal,
something that should be kept
between a person and their God? 
Or is the thought of hell just way too scary?”
You might, like me, be fascinated
with how those unnamed church leaders,
can, so precisely, measure how many people
have made it into heaven,
but the numbers aren’t really the point.
This group, like many, many others,
are following that well-established dictum
of marketing and politics
that says the first thing you have to do
when advertising your product or your party,
is to use fear, uncertainty and doubt
to convince the people you’re selling to
that they really, really need what you have to offer;
that life would be ugly and pointless without it,
and that, with their party or their product,
all our problems would soon be resolved.
If it works for politics and shampoo and motor cars,
surely, they think, it will work for religion too.
Not that this is a new insight for evangelisers.
Passionate preachers from all traditions
have been terrifying people about hell,
then offering them the benefits
and consolations of heaven,
for thousands of years -
and usually the way to heaven
involves becoming part of and supporting
their movement, or their church,
or even their political party.
Most of the time they need to argue
that other movements, or churches, or parties
are dangerously in error,
and that they, and only they, have the key
that can unlock the gates of heaven.
Often they do come wrapped in a bundle
of politics and religion,
and usually they say
that just one person - their messiah -
is the one we need
to lead their chosen people
to victory and salvation.
Today we read the first verses in Mark’s Gospel,
where John the Baptist appears,
a “voice crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord’”.
John has a lot in common
with hellfire and brimstone preachers.
He warns that the one to come
will judge him and the world unworthy.
He lives by strict disciplines
that suggest that he feels the need
to punish or restrain his natural hungers.
And perhaps because he doesn’t much like himself,
he projects his lack of trust
and his shame and discontent
onto everyone else.
John proclaimed a baptism of repentance:
a ritual cleansing,
a wholesale confession of sin -
and Mark says all the people of Jerusalem,
and the whole Judean countryside -
so thousands and thousands of people -
went out to him and were baptised
in the waters of the Jordan.
“One who is more powerful than I
is coming after me:” he warned.
“I am not worthy to kneel at his feet
and untie the lace of his sandal.
I have baptised you with water;
but he will baptise
with the Holy Spirit” –
and other Gospel writers add
“and with fire.”
Mark doesn’t write any more words from John,
but Matthew adds quite a bit:
“His winnowing fork is in his hand,” Matthew says,
“and he will clear his threshing floor,
gathering his wheat into the barn
and burning up the chaff
with unquenchable fire.”
John was voice and focus
of a religious and political movement.
He saw himself as preparing the way
for someone who’d been promised
for 500 years -
an anointed leader,
a military messiah, just like David,
a warrior priest king
who would take control of Jerusalem,
city, palace and temple,
and re-establish Israel
as a power in the world.
John and many others like him
also believed that that could only happen
when all God’s people
were morally, spiritually, and politically pure.
So the first thing messiah would do, they thought,
was clear out, burn and destroy
anyone or anything that didn’t measure up.
John was passionate,
and certainly sincere.
He took the enormous risk
of announcing that even the King - Herod Antipas -
would soon be judged and found wanting
when messiah came.
For that King Herod arrested him,
and later had him beheaded.
John was passionate, and sincere -
but that doesn’t mean he was right.
The gospel writers tell us
that at first he thought that Jesus was messiah,
and he even told his disciples
to go with Jesus -
but while he was in jail he grew impatient,
and, a bit like political parties
facing bad opinion polls,
and he sent a message to Jesus
asking whether he really was
the one who was to come,
or whether John should be looking for someone else.
Jesus wasn’t the messiah John expected.
Jesus didn’t organise an army
and lay siege to Jerusalem.
He didn’t establish himself in Herod’s palace
and he didn’t throw
the corrupt and cynical priesthood
out of the temple.
He didn’t support a political party;
he didn’t use threats of hell
to frighten people into heaven,
and he didn’t measure his success
by what percentage of people
joined his movement.
In fact, when Jesus finished his ministry
he was absolutely alone.
Everyone who’d promised to follow him
had denied, betrayed and deserted him,
and on the day that Jesus died
he was the world’s only Christian.
Unfortunately there are many people,
not just in the Ukraine or here in Australia,
but all around the world,
who think that numbers, bottoms on seats,
and large-scale popular movements
are the way to measure success
and a guide to test what’s right and wrong.
And it must be said
that if we can’t communicate the gospel –
the good news -
clearly enough for it to touch the heart
of a new generation –
or a new culture,
then we’re not taking seriously
the message Jesus entrusted to his people.
We, like John the Baptist,
need to prepare the way
for Jesus to be rediscovered new
by people who need to hear
the good news - the gospel promise -
that God is present in the world,
working for reconciliation and redemption -
leading people who know that hell is real -
because they’re already in it -
leading people from their personal hell
into the vision Jesus died for:
the vision of a world at peace, with justice,
where the promise of eternity
is not a threat of judgement,
but a hope
worth sharing with our neighbours
and worth passing on to another generation.
We don’t need to frighten people
with images from some medieval fresco;
the world is already scary and fearful enough.
What we need to do
is live and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
who is coming into the world
to proclaim God’s reign of love and grace.
We need to prepare the way -
and we also need to understand
that when Jesus comes -
as he always does -
he many not look and act as we’ve expected.
But as he comes, one thing will be very clear:
he will be challenging the way things are,
and calling those who need him most
to follow him in trusting hope
out of their bondage
to fear and despair
into his promise of justice, peace and grace.