Advent 2020 – Prophets against privatised religion
Based upon: Luke 3
By Libby Wilkinson, Archdeacon of Durham – Please Share Widely
On this second Sunday in Advent, we remember the prophets. Hundreds of years and loads of prophecies that we could look at… no easy task to do this in a couple of minutes.
So, I thought about some common themes that run through the prophets, and there are quite a few, but I want to focus on just one today and it’s not the obvious one that you might think of during Advent: which is that the prophets point forward to the arrival of the Messiah. Though, of course, they do that…
Rather, I want to consider a message from the prophets that runs from Zephaniah, Amos, Jeremiah and others through to John the Baptist, and the message is this: that a personal relationship with God, whilst essential, isn’t enough if it means that we ignore or mistreat those around us – to put it another way, as Jesus did, love God with all that we have and all that we are, and love our neighbour as ourselves.
Eugene Peterson – the Biblical scholar and translator – describes the human tendency that we have not to do this:
Peterson says, “We humans keep looking for a religion that will give us access to God without having to bother with other people.”
And there’s a phrase that always annoys me when some Christians talk about how their faith – they say that it’s very private – and that often means that they’re unwilling to talk about their faith, sometimes even in church with other Christians, let alone with those who don’t share their faith.
Faith is always personal, but it can never be private.
It’s as though we want to find a way to God for our own personal comfort, whilst being free to deal with other people however we like. We seem to be drawn to a sort of privatised religion, where we have our own private faith, and woe betide anyone who intrudes on it or expects it to affect what we do or say.
This sort of privatised religion is totally opposed by the Biblical prophets, but you can see how easy it is to fall into this trap:
Because the root of our spiritual lives is a relationship with God, we can be tempted to move from this good, personal relationship to the distorted view that my spiritual life is somehow something just between God and me – a private thing to be nurtured by prayers, singing hymns and worshipping with like-minded people, or whatever.
If we think this way for too long, then it’s easy to see how we might assume that the way we treat other people, outside church, has nothing to do with God.
That’s when the prophets like Zephaniah, Amos, Jeremiah and John the Baptist step in and tell us that we’ve got it wrong.
Look at John the Baptist’s words in Luke 3, for example:
- Change your lives, he says, don’t just go through a religious experience
- If you have more than you need to live on, give it away.
- Fulfil what’s expected of you in your job, and be careful to have integrity.
- Don’t fiddle your expenses, don’t overcharge anyone.
- Be satisfied with your wages.
The prophets tell us that living a good religious life, being a regular church-goer, means nothing if the rest of our life isn’t affected by our faith.
God is interested in what we do when we think no-one else is looking, not what we say in church.
This is hard for us to hear: we need to make sure that our faith is carried through in the things that we do day by day; in the way that we speak to people, and the way that we speak about people; in the way we treat other people.
There is no room for privatised religion, the prophets tell us: faith is always personal but never private.
As we learn to live like this, loving God and loving others, we will be living, as Paul says in Philippians, knowing that the Lord is near (a phrase we hear regularly during Advent) – and the peace of God, which passes all understanding will guard our hearts and minds and influence everything that we do and say.