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"Beware of the wrath to come"! I'm sure we have all seen somebody walking up and down a street, probably in London, wearing a frame supporting a placard with those words. Reading our Gospel today we find the origin of those words in John the Baptist, but someone less well versed in Biblical and Christian teaching might well ask, whose wrath, and why, and when?
The idea of a God sitting in the sky simmering with rage is not a very comfortable one; and indeed, it is an idea that is rejected not just by people who have decided that the concept of God is not for them but also by people of faith who are uncomfortable with this portrayal of God. And yet I think our society does understand the sense of there being a time of payback. Much of the publicity about environmental concerns focuses on disaster that will only be averted if we change our ways. And, at present, we are only too conscious of rage over historic disasters and wrongs: the sad death of the London nurse following a prank gone wrong; the hacking of phones, the abuse of the vulnerable, the Hillsborough tragedy, and the murder of a lawyer in the dark days of the troubles in Ulster; rage spilling over as the truth about these things are finally brought to light. We may not be comfortable with the idea of a wrathful God but we have plenty of wrath of our own.
John the Baptist brought a ministry of repentance. He saw that the times were critical; felt that something was about to happen, knew that his own vocation was coming into its time. He drew his words from the prophets with whom those around him were familiar. And it seems as though some people were ready to hear him: crowds of people and among them tax-collectors and soldiers - the enemy, so to speak - who all said "What should we do"? And he told them, in practical and realistic terms as we see: be aware of the needs of those around you as well as your own; don7#39;t use your role to extort extras but be content with what you have. Very simple and very relevant. Last Sunday, we heard in a sermon a rather vivid image of John the Baptist standing outside our front door with a megaphone. The preacher was making the very important point that John's words for not for someone else, not for the obvious sinner, but for all. If he was here today, he would not just be addressing hackers, abusers, liars and colluders in disaster and murder: he would be speaking to each one of us; and if we said, "What shall we do"?, he would have had an answer. And that answer of course would have touched on the reality of our own lives and the ways in which we have gone wrong and got lost; the familiar sins, the old coats of sin in our lives.
It seems to me the capacity to sit up and take notice when we are challenged in this way is a vital element of what it means to be human. That is why after Cathy come home was shown in the 1960s on BBC 1, there was a wave of shock and shame that a young couple with children who had become homeless should go through so much only to be split up: mother and children consigned to a crowded and barren dormitory, husband left to his own resources; and then finally to have their children taken away. The suffering of that fictional family reflecting so many true stories brought about two great results as people said "what can we do?" An immediate end to the system of dividing families, and the almost immediate launch of the charity Shelter, soon followed: all achieved by a wave of shock, a wave of anger, a wave of wrath.
But John's message was not all about anger. The anger was not an end in itself but a challenge to smug complacency and blind indifference, a challenge that would direct his listeners to someone coming over the horizon. As the Gospel ends "He proclaimed the good news to the people". The challenge was therefore an awakening, a challenge to be ready and prepared, to look out for the work of God in the one who was coming - in Jesus Christ. The challenge of John's words is balanced by the words of the prophet Zephaniah which look not to a time of wrath but a time of hope: the coming of the Lord among his people would being victory, gladness, love, singing, the removal of reproach and disaster and oppression and shame.
But did it come? There would indeed come a day of wrath for the land whose people remembered the prophets and listened to John. Their temple would be destroyed and its holiest site desecrated; they themselves would be scattered. But among them were also our forebears, those who found God in Jesus Christ, those who believed the Gospel, those who lived their lives thereafter in the light of his love.
The realisation of the Good News in full remains to come. That is why, as we approach the season of Christmas, we revisit the themes of preparation and penitence, of suffering and obedience; that is why we open ourselves to the challenge to which there can only be one response: what should I do? Two years ago, that question was raised when the Canterbury Open Centre was no longer able to be open to people sleeping on the streets at night in winter. In answer to the question, "what should we do?", churches across Canterbury signed up to make space for the homeless on different nights throughout the winter, and to give them drinks, space for beds and a warm welcome.
We have just one more week of Advent - one more week to take time out to think "What should I do?" What needs to be done in your life? What needs to be done in mine? The New Year will of course give us the familiar chance to raise a glass and make a few resolutions. But let's anticipate that by thinking; in 2013 what does God want me to do?
Updated 13 Jan 13