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Facing up to the truth

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Luke 3:7-18   
3rd Sunday of Advent

Never be tempted to ignore John the Baptist. We cannot reach the crib unless we go via him! Before we meet the charming baby smiling in the straw, we are confronted by this bizarre and maybe frightening figure of John the Baptist. However, we can’t experience the Joy of Christmas without the repentance preached by John the Baptist. He gets rather sidelined in the Christmas celebrations though. But, even if we were to ignore him, all four evangelists announce his coming before the arrival of Jesus.

We may be put off by his lifestyle, living on locusts and honey especially whilst we’re anticipating our Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. Maybe the thought of his camel’s hair clothes don’t appeal? For those living around him though his unattractiveness was about more than external things. He’s a
threatening figure because he’s challenging each and everyone’s sinful life. When people are challenged about bad behaviour there’s usually one of a couple of reactions: either to go on the defensive and deny our actions, or to put the blame elsewhere, on circumstances or other people.

There’s a story about a boy learning to play the trumpet. One day he turned up to music class and, when he started to play it was obvious that his trumpet was badly out of tune. The teacher asked him to slide his tuning valve but he couldn’t because it was stuck. This teacher was a stickler for people taking care of their instruments. Everyone in the class knew the reason the valve was stuck – the boy had neglected to oil his valves.

There was no way to hide it. So when the teacher stopped the band and asked what was wrong with his trumpet, everyone knew that he knew what was wrong and they knew from the look on the boy's face that he knew that he knew. He’d been caught red-handed. Guilt was written all over his face. But this lad was a bit of a character, known for using his wits to get out of tight situations. Everyone waited to see how he was going to get out of this one.
The boy sat there for a moment with a stupid look on his face. Then he looked the teacher straight in the eye and said something very surprising

"Sir, I forgot to oil my trumpet this week. It was very stupid of me. I'm very sorry. Please forgive me." He said this with a straight face, cool as a cucumber. Butter wouldn't have melted in his mouth.
This teacher had many years under his belt catching students dead-to-rights; his withering looks and angry reprimands were legendary. But, obviously thrown by the boy's response, he just sat there on his stool, too stunned to speak. Then, turning away from the boy he looked at the rest of the class and, with half a grin on his face said: "How can you get angry with somebody who says something like that?"

This 3rd Sunday of Advent is traditionally called gaudete (Joy) Sunday. The church asks us to consider some advice from scripture. We heard St Paul telling people at Philippi to ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. Now that sounds like what this season of Christmas is supposed to be about - good cheer, holiday fun and all that. But, when we get to the gospel for this week, John the Baptist is doing what John the Baptist does best – shouting threats and condemnation. Once again we’re reminded the God who is coming isn’t Santa "who knows whether you are naughty or nice" but Jesus, God with us, the one who demands that we repent, i.e. "turn around" and "follow" him.

Ah, now, that's the trouble with listening to the Bible. Instead of finding "joy" through a "positive" psychological assessment of ourselves or the mindless advice to "Be Happy" no matter what is happening, we are told that "joy" is what happens when we respond to what God really demands of us; and that, in the words of John the Baptist, is "repentance" or a change of heart. What the gospel is trying to do for us today is release us from the false "joy" of popping another pill, having another drink or turning up the Muzak. Real "joy" is what happens when we confront our sin, face up to what keeps us unhappy, and "turn toward" God's redeeming love.

How do we respond to people like John the Baptist who make a legitimate demand upon us to change our ways?
There’s a legend of how St. Francis taught the People of Gubbio to feed their wolf. It is a strangely humorous story with layers of meaning. The people of Gubbio have a problem when the bloody remains of townsfolk start showing up on the streets of their beautiful city early each morning.

The people of Gubbio are proud people, convinced that "a stranger" passing through must be responsible for the terrible crimes. They begin to lock their doors at night and when more deaths follow, the denial "that anyone in Gubbio could be responsible for such a thing" is expressed over and over again.

One night, after everyone’s gone to bed, someone sees a wolf wandering the streets; and the people realize there’s a wolf living in the dark woods on one side of Gubbio. Of course, this could not be their wolf – he’s obviously come from somewhere else!
They begin searching for ways to get rid of it. After a number of futile attempts, they get desperate enough to approach the holy man of Assisi who has a reputation for being able "to talk to animals".

St. Francis "speaks" to the wolf and gives the people what appears to be strange and, not entirely, welcome advice. He tells them they must "feed" their wolf. At the first, they’re not impressed with this suggestion and begin to wonder why they asked him in the first place. And, then, something miraculous happens. Gradually, people begin to leave food out for the wolf as he prowls their streets.

The violent deaths cease and it’s not long before everyone has accepted this wolf belongs to them, they own this bad thing. As they feed him the people of Gubbio are transformed. They become more easy-going, less arrogant human beings.

The thing to take from this story is that we must own up to the bad in our lives. It is not about feeding that bad! Its about owning up to the bad things in our life and accepting responsibility for it.

There are many reactions to this story. Some are immediately amused and can perhaps identify with the proud people of Gubbio whose haughtiness had to "blame it on strangers" when something went wrong. Their denial and avoidance are all too familiar.

Some, in laughing at the people of Gubbio as they come to terms with their wolf, realize they themselves could find healing and freedom by embracing the negative aspects of themselves, their community, their church, that part of the story that is symbolized by the wonderfully vague image of "the wolf."

Some people just don't get it. Or worse, are offended by the suggestion of a self-identity that incorporates rather than excludes "their" wolf – the bad in their life. In declining the invitation to ‘own’ and acknowledge the ‘bad’ in themselves they miss the opportunity to come to a new and healthier understanding of themselves.

Luke's message during Advent is that we must come "clean" and come "empty" before we can receive God's gift. John the Baptist's clear voice of truth robbed people of the illusion of innocence. Life and deeds are what count before God, not the religious pedigree the Jews thought was theirs by right. John's purpose in preaching his stern message was to lead people into a better way of life In spite of the severity of the message, the Good News of advent is that God is coming to us, not to destroy us but to refine us, to help us to become what we're meant to be.

Let’s truthfully ‘own’ our sin and allow ourselves be transformed by the message of John the Baptist in order to celebrate a meaningful Christmas. Different to the "artificial" kind of joy our culture tries to induce at this time of the year but it is God's great gift to us: to own up to what we have been and done, express our sorrow and be relieved of the terrible burden of having to think that we are "right" all of the time. May we be filled with "the freedom" of knowing that we are not always right and experience the joy of knowing that we don't have to be! Amen

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