Advent 2C, 2012
Luke 3:1-6

A Liturgy is also available


“I am tired of listening to pastors rant about sin.  Yes, I sin,
but I do good things as well.  We aren’t sinners; we are
doers.  Why focus on sin and damnation?”
(A question to Rabbi Rami Shapiro)

In the diamond jubilee year of Elizabeth,
when the reign of Empress Julia was in the third year,
during which Quentin was Governor all over the Land,
and Stephen was Ruler of Pre-emption
and Chris Controller of Security,
and Barack was Lord of the Stars and Stripes,
and David Ruler of Britannia,
during the high priesthood of Benedict,
the word of God came… (Adapted.WWhite, 2003)

The word of God comes whenever and wherever 
repentance and forgiveness are needed.

The word of God is present now, as then.


This year’s major biblical storyteller, the one we call Luke, is very definite.
It is impossible to get to Christmas
        without first meeting up with John,
        nicknamed the ‘dipper’ or ‘baptiser’.

John the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, cousin of Jesus, according to our tradition.
So it’s a little odd, don’t you think,
that the story of John’s birth has been so overshadowed
by his famous cousin, Mary’s boy child?

Just try to find a nativity set that includes Elizabeth and Zechariah
and their infant boy, John.  It can’t be done.

Even a search on the world wide web comes up empty!
Getting to Christmas without meeting up with John is impossible.

On the other hand, let me re-phrase that.

We can get to the Christmas of sweet sentimentality,
red-nosed reindeers, and candy canes
hanging on halls bedecked with boughs of holly.

But you cannot get to Jesus, reputed to have been born in Bethlehem
but most likely Narareth, and whose birth narrative
provided the fundamental rationale for the Festival of Christmas
within the institutional church,
without first encountering his so-called cousin John... Son of Zechariah,
in the wilderness,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance
for the forgiveness of sin.

As Jack Shea reminds his readers:
“Jesus came out of John as surely as he came out of Mary.” (Shea 1993:176)

So it may shock some to hear it is impossible to get to Christmas 
without first meeting up with John,

And it may also shock some of you to hear, I am preaching on sin.


Sin.  Not the ‘seven deadly sins’ of traditional theology.
Nor the DNA ‘original sin’ as developed by the theologian with
the biggest ‘sin’ problem – Augustine, bishop of Hippo (396-430CE).

Nor the ‘sword swing’ or ‘moral dictator’ type of the fundamentalist preachers.
Nor the modern attempt to revamp sin by claiming it is about
breaking relationships rather than
disobeying or breaking God’s so-called ‘rules’.

None of those so-called ‘sins’.  But never-the-less, sin.
And not only because this morning’s story on John gives sin a headline rap.

But also because the language of sinoften dominates the Christian imagination, especially in
the traditional approach to worship shaped by guilt and sacrifice,
and such fundamentalist organizations as the Sydney Anglican's recent ad. campaign
"Smoking won't kill you in the next life. Sin will”,
and the much over-rated activities of the Australian Christian Lobby.

So let me offer some general comments or observations
on this controversial subject, from a 'progressive' perspective.

1. Sin comes in many shapes and sizes.
We sin when we refuse the basic relationality of creation -
that we are co-dependent with others
and that our well beings are intertwined.

We sin when we refuse the possibility Creativity God offers to us,
and through us to the world.

We sin when we create idols and then spend
immense amounts of energy securing them.

And we sin when we refuse the vulnerable face of our sister or brother,
and when we fail to share our own.

2. While in traditional thinking
sin involved harm to one’s relationship with God, sin is never just individual.

It takes up residence in systems of oppression.
It is propagated by lies.
It thrives on structures of injustice that would ‘deface’ all in its wake.
It invites us to refuse to see the human face of those who are different from us.
It offers rationalisations for our self-serving ways.
It builds walls between people that rupture the relational web of life.

3. Sin is also something we suffer.
One unexpected way we suffer from sin in our contemporary society
is believing that ‘more is better’.
If one is good, two must be better.

Another unexpected way we suffer from sin is believing in the ‘quick fix’.
Jim Taylor, author of the book Sin: A New Understanding of Virtue and Vice, says:
“Our beliefs in the ‘quick fix’ [and] ‘more is better’, makes it almost impossible for us to stop at ‘just right’.  To cure the sin, we need to deal [first] with the beliefs.” (Taylor 1997:4).

So, how might we ‘cure sin’ or ‘deal with the beliefs’?
Or in the biblical language of John the baptiser:
how might we prepare for the coming of God’s realm?

Certainly not, I would suggest, by following the advice
of one of my more tradition Sunday School teachers
who used to tell us the god G-o-d with an all-seeing eye,
was sitting up in heaven, and watching all our actions.

Our bad actions he wrote in a big book opposite our names,
and for them we would be punished on the judgement day.

• No, but we might do so by refusing to believe lies:
lies that deny us of our full humanity,
lies that say life is a battle to win or lose,
lies that have taught us self-blame for our suffering,
lies that reinforces guilt and shame by reminding us constantly we are sinners,
lies that have denied the image of God is in homosexuals,
lies that say HIV/AIDS is the god G-o-d’s judgement,
lies that say asylum seekers who come in old boats are 'illegal'.

• And, we might take heart from Isaiah’s saying
that mountains will be made low and valleys filled up.

For that saying means the structures of evil and oppression
are not the way things are.

So, back to that question directed to the Rabbi at the beginning of these comments:

“I am tired of listening to pastors rant about sin.  Yes, I sin,
but I do good things as well.  We aren’t sinners; we are
doers.  Why focus on sin and damnation?”
(Rabbi Rami Shapiro)

Rabbi Shapiro offers this suggestion to his questioner:
“Frightening people with sin and threatening them with eternal damnation is meant to keep people in line.  Religion is often about getting people to conform to the beliefs and mores of those who run the religion.  We would be better served if our religions could uncover, cultivate and support our capacity for justice and kindness, rather than harp on our failures”.


It is impossible to get to Christmas without first meeting up with John,
nicknamed the ‘dipper’ or ‘baptiser’.

But what was John doing and saying, if what we hear in Luke’s story
captures some possible degree of historical tradition?
        And why did it cause such a fuss with the religious authorities?

Simply put: John had first named, and then side-stepped, a religious monopoly.

The problem wasn’t that John called on people to repent of, or resolve, their sin.
The problem was he had denied the power of the temple cult
and their claim to have a monopoly
on forgiveness and access to God,
by introducing a novel solution.

Instead of having people wash themselves, symbolic of divine cleansing,
John, himself, dipped people under the water
        and did it in the Jordan rather than at the Temple!

The sin residing in a religious system of oppression got him.
As it often does those who seek to introduce novel solutions.

And just as Mary's conception warranted stoning by the religion of her day,
so our conception of the novel
often prompts attacks from the ‘religion’ of our time.


It is impossible to get to Christmas without first meeting up with John,
nicknamed the ‘dipper’ or ‘baptiser’.

John reminds us:
Pay attention.
Something new is needed.
Think outside the square.
Go beyond the mind that you have been given and have acquired.

Preparing for the coming of God’s realm
means washing and evaluating the lenses through which we
read the Bible or understand God or church or traditional doctrine,
as well as the transformation of life,
individually and as a society,
here and now.

In the third year of the reign of Empress Julia…
The word of God happened to a bloke called John
while he was in the outback.

The word of God comes whenever and wherever
repentance and forgiveness are needed.

The word of God is present now, as then.

Shea, J. Starlight: Beholding the Christmas Miracle all Year Long. New York: Crossroads, 1993.
Taylor, J.
Sin: A New Understanding of Virtue and Vice. Canada. Northstone Publishing, 1997