On the third Sunday in advent, the theme is LOVE. But love is such a general concept, so what does it mean in this context?

We are all familiar with the saying, which I believe came from the movie "Love Story”- ‘Love means never having to say you are sorry’. I have never quite been able to work that one out; though I know that the character of Lucy in the Charlie Brown cartoons found it quite a convenient excuse every time she was mean to poor old Charlie Brown.

St Paul’s list in 1 Corinthians is somewhat more reliable. We know it well. Love is…patient, kind, forgiving, endless.

Now the central character of our Gospel passage today, John the Baptist, seems a bit out of place on "love” Sunday. He is not known for his utterances about love. His message is direct and without decoration. He lays into the crowds of people who flock to hear his message and seek an escape from the wrath that he predicts for them by being baptised. To them he makes it abundantly clear that no formal religious ritual is going to get them off the hook. "Bear fruit that befits repentance” he thunders. "Repent, and hange your wicked ways”. If he were asked the question, "What is love?” I imagine his answer would be something like "Love is never abusing your power”

In John the Baptist, tough love speaks to the power abusers of the day: From Luke 3, the crowds, the tax collectors and the soldiers, and in Matthew 3, he specifically addresses the religious leaders of the day.

This is a narrative in the prophetic tradition of the scriptures, a stream into which Jesus clearly fits, for example when he quotes from Isaiah when speaking in the synagogue at Nazareth. The utterances of John the Baptist are not, by and large, a passage that is readily chosen by the preachers and teachers of conservative evangelism. For them, simply believing and saying sorry is deemed to be enough. For John, and Jesus as well (though with a somewhat different style), there is no ‘cheap grace’ option. If you want to be part of God’s program, get your act together; which includes "STOP ABUSING YOUR POWER”

Luke tells us that John’s listeners get the message, and approach him for specific guidance on what a repentant life looks like. The instruction to the crowds is "Be generous. Share you food with the hungry and your clothing with the poor.” That’s what love is! To the tax collectors, the message is "Don’t abuse you power to rip people off. Be fair. Only take what is due”. That is what love is! To the soldiers he says "Don’t use your superior strength and weaponry to take what is not yours.” Love is just doing your job and letting people be! Then, in the parallel passage in Matthew, there is no specific advice to the religious leaders beyond "Bear fruit that befits repentance”. I imagine though that the very idea that they needed to repent would have come as quite a shock to some of them. With this group, Jesus goes much further, in challenging them over their abuse of the people by putting heavy burdens on their backs.

And so, the antidote to abuse of power is honest, fair dealings. It calls for a change of attitude and behaviour. Note the link between the mention of repentance by John in Luke 3, and Jesus’ first reported words of mission in Mark 1:15 Repentance is an actual change of direction, which enables people to find their way into the kingdom of God- the place where things are done differently.

The Advent gospel of love is looking for a change of behaviour.

Two Sundays ago I dealt with the Assembly proposal on creation, with its call to not abuse and exploit the natural world. Today I will refer to two others that challenge the abuse of power in the Australia community.

The first draws our attention to the exploitation of Seasonal workers in Australia, many of who are very vulnerable due their visa status. The assembly proposal draws to our attention the adverse conditions they are experiencing, and calls on the church to advocate for them where exploited. Part of that advocacy is a prophetic call to those who employ these workers to stop abusing the power they have over the lives and livelihoods of these vulnerable workers

I wonder how John the Baptist would have put it to them? "Stop ripping them off”?

The other proposal refers to the issue of Domestic and family violence.

*In Australia, on average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner

*Intimate partner violence contributes to more death, disability and illness in women aged 15-44 than any other preventable risk factor.

*Domestic Violence is the single largest driver of homelessness for women.

*Domestic Violence in Australia is not only to women, but includes men, children, and increasingly, older people.

I wonder what would John the Baptist would say to those who are abusing their power in home and family relationships? (No doubt there would have been at least a few of them in the crowds). "You cowards” I hear him thunder, "How dare you hurt and abuse those who are least able to protect themselves.” We wait, possibly in vain, for our political leaders to take a stand against domestic violence. As Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick puts it, "What a different nation we’d live in if conservative politicians, commentators cared 1/00th as much about security in our homes rather than their hysterical, racist views on "terrorism. Domestic terror a national tragedy.”

There is a clear place in the gospel’s prophetic proclamation for direct words and actions in relation to those who abuse their power, and those who are so abused. We need people like John, who are not afraid to tell it like it is. There is no excuse for violence, for exploitation, for comfortable people ignoring the poor. Even the church, or perhaps ESPECIALLY the church needs to look carefully into the heart of its own systems to ensure that what is highlighted in its life is not abuse of power, but love of neighbour. We are the inheritors of a vibrant and hard-hitting prophetic tradition, and we need to carry forward its program in he face of the power abusers of our day.

Finally, the question needs to be asked- Given that Advent looks forward to Jesus, with John the Baptist as his fore-runner, how does his coming into our midst make a difference to how we as his church exercise love in the face of abuse of power. John the Baptist and many prophets before him preceded Jesus, and many have followed after him. But what is the difference that he himself makes?

I will settle for just one biblical example. Jesus notices a tax-collector named Zaccheus, perched high in a tree to get a better view of a different future. Jesus reaches out to him, and makes a home visit. We do not know exactly what went on over that meal. What we do know is that Zaccheus emerged a changed man, insisting that he will make good anything that he may have unfairly taken from the common people. In doing this, he is exactly following the instructions of John the Baptists, but not as a result of John’s stern lecture. Something has changed for him on the inside, and the outer repentance comes as a consequence of that inner transformation. This also reminds me of the change of heart of the sixteenth century slave trader John Newton, who, when his heart was convicted of his abuse of the powerless slaves, wrote the words ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”

It is one thing for enlightened and benevolent powers to legislate against the abuse of power. The most potent change of all comes when God’s spirit gets inside a person’s heart, causing inner change, so that goodness to grow out from there. This love, this way of conquering the abuse of power, is Jesus’ territory. As a ministry colleague of mine wrote in his Christmas newsletter, "Jesus embodied the Spirit of compassionate creativity, the embrace of which transforms lives and culture. Jesus, the light of the world…pushes back the darkness and changes the way we see and do power in our lives; in politics, economics, media and religion (Rev John Kellett)

It is this that our Advent hope is based on. In the words of the hymn-writer, "Oh what a gift, what a wonderful gift. Who can tell the wonders of the Lord? Let us open our eyes, our ears and our hearts: it is Christ the Lord, it is he.”

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