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Third Sunday in Advent

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” According to the Gospel of Luke, that’s how John the Baptist addressed the crowds who had come out to be baptised by him. Not exactly the sort of greeting that would make you feel welcome is it? 

To be called a viper, which is of course another name for a serpent or snake, was especially insulting at the time of Jesus and John the Baptist. A serpent was thought of as cruel, harmful, sly and deceitful creature. So to be called one, was not particularly flattering.

John obviously felt that some in the crowd were merely coming to be baptised, thinking that this would guarantee them protection from God’s anger and wrath on the Day of Judgement. And so he insisted that they genuinely repent of their sins, or face the consequences.

The portrait of John that Luke paints for us in this passage, is one of a fiery individual; a real ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher. Luke tells us nothing of John’s appearance, but we know from both the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew, that he was dressed in camel’s hair, and that he wore a leather belt around his waist. One thing Luke does tell us about John, is that he spent his childhood in the wilderness. So if we couple that, with Mark and Matthew’s description of him, we can picture him as being something of a ‘wild man’; a fierce and scary looking individual. And he certainly doesn’t hold back in telling certain sections of the crowd what he thinks of them. 

In our gospel passage today, we hear John the Baptist talk about several  injustices, which on their own may not seem like significant issues but, when added together with other similar injustices, can make a society, an unpleasant one in which to live. The injustices that John talks about, include the situation where the rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer, which I think you would agree, we can probably relate to in our own society. He also talks about tax collectors taking more from people than what people are obligated to pay; and about soldiers using standover tactics to extort money from people. In neither case does John tell either the tax collectors or the soldiers that they must give up their careers, but what he does tell them is that must stop abusing their position of power or influence to exploit others. 

I wonder what would John say about our society if he were here today? What injustices would he find? How often do we hear reports about people abusing a position of power or influence to further their own goals? Imagine what he would say about our banking industry and its senior executives! How much have they abused their positions of power and influence to exploit the average person?

And it’s not only the banking industry that are guilty of exploitation. Sections of the hospitality industry continue to exploit their workers by paying cash in hand, to avoid paying minimum award rates and other employee benefits such as superannuation. Then there are those companies who move their manufacturing offshore, to various countries in Asia, where the cost of labour is so much less than it is here in Australia. Based on their rates of pay, workers in those countries are often treated little better than slave labour.

Last Friday, the Collingwood Football Club formally ended its involvement with the gaming industry when it sold the licences of two venues and its entire gaming operation to the Melbourne Racing Club. It has also entered into a partnership with the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, which is now one of its major sponsors. A number of other AFL clubs have also cut ties to the gaming industry by ending sponsorships with sports betting companies.

It’s really encouraging to see organisations such as Collingwood Football Club, who have the potential to influence thousands of people (especially young people), take such a positive stance towards the issue of gambling in our society. 

I say that for the reason that gambling, and poker machines in particular, can also be viewed as a form of injustice, because it targets those in our society who can least afford it. A report on the impact of poker machines in Victoria revealed that people who are unemployed, low income earners and have mortgages, have a higher spend on poker machines. The report also found that poker machines, and venues with poker machines, are concentrated in areas that are designated as “poorer areas” based on average weekly income. 

Another report, which measured the financial cost of gambling in Victoria, highlighted the following statistics:

  • The emotional and psychological costs associated with gambling are almost $1.6 billion
  • The relationship and family costs, through things such as suicide attempts, emotional distress of family members, and the impact of death by suicide on others are over $2.1 billion
  • The direct cost of crime related to gambling is $100 million

So you can see that it is a big problem for our society. Any initiative, such as that taken by Collingwood and other AFL clubs, that seeks to positively influence the attitude and behaviour of people in relation to gambling and other forms of injustice is then a good thing, particularly for those people who are from a lower socio-economic and demographic background.

On Thursday our Advent Bible Study groups discussed the issue of injustice in our society, touching on a number of the specific injustices I’ve already mentioned this morning. One of the questions posed by our Advent Study Guide is, “How can Christians be more effective in combatting these types injustices in our world?” Some of the answers we came up with in our study groups were: (1) boycott products sold by companies known to be employing people in “sweat shop” type workplaces; (2) only invest (buy shares) in companies known to be socially responsible; (3) switch banking to a financial institution that was found to not have engaged in any of the unethical and questionable practices revealed by the recent Royal Commission into the banking and finance sector; and (4) abstain from gambling and attending venues known to promote and support gambling.

At times, however, we might be faced with an injustice that we feel we cant do anything about as individuals. For example, we might be moved by the status of refugees being detained on Manus Island, or by the plight of children dying of malnutrition in famine affected countries in Africa. We can’t necessarily do anything directly to change these situations. But is there anything that we can we do to help in these circumstances?

Well, as Paul told the Philippians, we can pray about them. We can take everything to God in prayer. “We can pray for ourselves–for forgiveness for the past, things we need in the present, and for help and guidance in the future–and we can also pray for others.” The only thing that Paul insists on, is that prayer must be accompanied by thanksgiving–that we must give thanks in everything; in laughter and in tears, in sorrows and joy alike.

William Barclay writes that, “When we pray, we must always remember three things. We must remember the love of God, which only ever desires what is best for us. We must remember the wisdom of God, which alone knows what is best for us. We must remember the power of God, which alone can bring about that which is best for us. Everyone who prays with a perfect trust in the love, wisdom and power of God, will find God’s peace.” 

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