Here is what I have put together on the planning sheet for my local parish for this Sunday:
"16 December (Advent 3) – Peter Carrell (8am) // Christmas Plays (10 am)
Theme True fruit in God’s kingdom
Sentence p. 552 [A New Zealand Prayer Book]
Collect p. 552 God for whom we wait and watch
Philippians 4:4-7Luke 3:7-18"
Sadly, in the light of the past week on ADU, Euodia and Syntyche are missed out in the Philippians reading! But they are worth a glance as they represent an unhappy situation in the church at Philippi, thus the command to 'Rejoice', underlined by repetition, v.4, has an edge: let nothing, nobody and no situation dissuade you from rejoicing, Paul says, as he moves to the conclusion of his letter. In keeping with all his letters, his last comments are about Christian character. Having articulated who Christ is and what Christ has done for the Philippians, Paul urges them to rejoice, be gentle, worry about nothing and let God's peace guard their hearts. With helpful practicality he makes the point that the antidote to anxiety is not earnest effort to pretend not to be anxious, but fervant prayer. Sometimes in modern life we say, "Don't worry; be happy!" Not so, Paul. His motto is, "Don't worry; pray about what worries you!"
All this means Christians, whether in Philippi or our city today, as citizens of God's kingdom are to be known by the fruit we bear as the seed of the gospel takes root in our lives.
That fruit-bearing is pressed on us as a kingdom priority in our gospel reading from a different perspective when John the Baptists cries to the crowds which flock to him, Bear fruits worthy of repentance!
They must have been a very keen congregation, those crowds, because it is hard to think of any congregation today which would stick around for long if the preacher's first words to them were, "You brood of vipers!" No introductory joke when John was preaching. No flattery. No trick of speech-making to establish rapport with his hearers. Just a straightforward suspicion as to what their real motives were in coming to his church! "You snakes!!"
His fiery language through verses 7-9 set the scene for the mission of Jesus. Israel is resting on its laurels. It is taking for granted that it is in the right place before God. But it is not. Radical treatment is needed: a tree that does not bear fruit is not pruned, but chopped down at the roots. A new tree is being planted by God through the coming Messiah, one which grows fruitfully from its Abrahamic roots.
The crowd were a great congregation. Not only did they not get up and leave when John denounced them as a brood of vipers, they took on his message of severe repentance. "What then should we do?"
Three times, in fact, Luke tells us of this response: "What then should we do?" - generally from the crowds, and specifically from the tax collectors (the bad men of Israel) and from the soldiers (the oppressors of Israel).
Do we want to be fruit-bearers in God's kingdom? We need not only development of Christian character a la Philippians, we also need outward actions which show we are part of the new and radical kingdom of God. The thrust of John's prescription for kingdom life is just dealings with one another. 'Social justice' perhaps trips off our lips too easily. Perhaps too we think of 'social justice', as something a specialist in the church will take care of. John's personalises social justice. If you have more possessions than you need, downsize. If you charge people for a professional service, do not overcharge. If you are powerful do not use that power for unjust gain. Be content with your wages.
At that point John the Baptist could be Paul speaking at the end of Philippians, "I have learned to be content with whatever I have" (4:11).
The great question of Advent is Are we ready for the second coming of Christ in judgement? In the past two weeks we have heard Paul press the matter of being 'blameless' on that great day.
Today's readings press the question again. Repentance is life being lived in the direction of God, having turned around from moving away from God. Actions speak louder than words and words are cheap.
Between epistle and gospel, God is looking for true fruit of the kingdom in our lives, measured by real change in our character and behaviour.