Fr Bosco Peters presided and preached at the 10am Mass. The sermon focused on John the Baptist, with the Gospel reading taken from Matthew 3:1–12.
Read on for the sermon and a video of the service.
What is our image of who belongs to God’s in-crowd and who or what are beyond the pale; excluded? And what is our image of repentance; who is challenged to be converted, for the kingdom of heaven has come near?
Each year, on the Second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptiser strides into our wilderness — the wilderness of our lives, the wilderness of our grief, our concerns, our loneliness, our mental health, our finances, tensions in family, with friends, or at work — John the Baptiser strides into the wilderness of our difficulties. But the wilderness is also the place where God betrothes us, where God unites with us. To be God’s people, we are led into the wilderness. In the wilderness, our prayer-life, all is stripped back, all our idols, our reliance on ideas about God that we outgrow; and we are with God — the God who took God’s people from Egypt into the wilderness.
And John is a terrifying person. Look at the way he dresses and what he eats! He is consciously standing in the line of Samson, Samuel, and Elijah, following the Old Testament tradition of resistance to injustice, of renewing society.
John doesn’t mince his words when he spots the political and religious leaders. When he sees the supposedly-honourable Pharisees and Sadducees, he uses foul language and calls them — I’ll be polite — illegitimate children of snakes. Do your own translation into contemporary street talk.
He challenges their basic claim to honour. “Don't think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. You illegitimate children of snakes.”
We might think — well John comes from a priestly family, who is he to talk?! But there was a strong division between the high priesthood, the Jerusalem elite, and the people and their ordinary priests like Zechariah, John’s dad, living in the outlying villages. John had first-hand experience of the way the Jerusalem elite enforced exorbitant taxes, and confiscated ancestral land. He would have experienced the widespread chronic food shortages — all this obviously led to social unrest. That’s the context John is preaching in.
And today, John gives his image - of one who is coming who will baptise with the Holy Spirit — and with fire. Our translation then follows most English-language translation and goes on to say that there is a winnowing fork in the hand of that one who is to come. But it isn’t a winnowing fork. The Greek πτύον (pteon) is a winnowing shovel.
You gather your grain and then you separate the seed from the stalks by beating it on a flat rock surface.
After this, you take a winnowing fork and toss everything into the air. The seed drops down and the stalks, the chaff, the stuff you don’t want, this is blown into a pile to the side by the breeze.
Now, you use a winnowing shovel to clear the threshing floor, putting the wheat into the granary to be stored and the chaff into the fire to be destroyed. John says that the one coming after him will come with a shovel to clear the threshing floor. Now we see what John means when he says the one who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit - and with fire.
John visualises that there are those who will receive the Holy Spirit; and there are others who will be destroyed by fire. And the person who will bring this terrible judgment, John teaches in the gospels, is - Jesus.
Now - you know how in a television series they put a teaser for next week’s instalment — well here’s the teaser for next week’s Gospel reading. I hope it’s not the sort of trailer where you go: Oh I’ve got the whole of what’s coming next week now — I don’t need to come next week!
Next week, John the Baptiser is in prison. Jesus is going around and doing the Holy Spirit side of things: 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. But John, in prison next week, is sorely disappointed that Jesus doesn’t seem to be doing the long-anticipated fire to the chaff stuff.
John finds out about all this, and from prison sends a text to Jesus — I don’t know how he gets hold of a cell phone — in prison - John sends a text to Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"
John is shocked — Jesus is lavish with his Holy Spirit blessings, but not so much about bringing the fire of judgment!
Jesus texts back to John in prison: “blessed is anyone who is not scandalised by me."
John was half right: having the right parentage, living in the right suburb, having gone to the right school — that won’t put you in God’s in crowd; believing the correct theology won’t put you in God’s in crowd; getting every detail of the liturgy just right won’t put you in God’s in crowd.
John baptised those who came to him in the wilderness. But Jesus - when his mentor, John, was imprisoned - Jesus took the good news to the people rather than waiting for the people to come to him. And Jesus taught his followers to keep expanding that.
The circle of God’s love, the action of God’s Holy Spirit expands and accelerates faster than most of us can get our heads around. This burst the restrictions that John was expecting; this bursts the restrictions that we keep expecting.
The incarnation we are celebrating starts microscopically in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and then as a tiny baby in Bethlehem. The good news begins for those who can afford to and are physically fit enough - to get to John the Baptiser. Then the circle expands as Jesus brings good news to Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. The circle keeps expanding, breaking through the borders of the Jewish people.
Matthew’s Gospel we are reading today, in fact I hope you realise that this is the gospel that fills most of our Sundays this year, this gospel concludes with Jesus saying: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…”
Some people think or act as if that’s where the expansion stops. Some people image the action of God’s Holy Spirit as kept comfortably in the sanctuary of our churches. But it has burst church walls; God is at work in our world.
The kingdom of heaven is at hand. People in the world are working for the Advent vision, for Isaiah’s vision, of peace, and goodness, and cooperation. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.
Who do we imagine needs to repent, to be converted? Each one of us; and every day, every hour — converted from our image of a god who limits; converted to living a life where God is at work with all things and all people; converted to cooperating with God’s ever-expanding action out there. God’s action is not limited to where the word “God” is used. Wherever people work for justice, the environment, peace, reconciliation, there the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Who is in God’s in-crowd and who are, or what are, beyond the pale; excluded? God is catholic; God is universal. Everyone and everything is included. That is the promise of the incarnation. That is the promise and the challenge of Advent.