No babes in mangers but broods of vipers. No chestnuts roasting on an open fire but the rotten fruit of the children of Abraham. No royalty privilege but repentance.
The set reading for this Sunday was a bit of surprise for those who think Christmas has already started. According to the Church of Retail and Commerce, it begins in September when the suntan lotion is replaced by tinsel and baubles. But according to the Church of England lectionary (like Pictionary only without the giggles), we are still firmly in advent. So, for us this week there were no shepherds or kings, no stables or donkeys. Instead, some fiery John the Baptist having a pop at his own followers.
The crowds follow him, as he preaches his message of repentance. He spots a bit of hypocrisy. Some people coming who are in it for the ride, going through the motions, don’t fully get it. He doesn’t have a quiet word. “You brood of vipers!” Wow. These are the people who are coming to him; not the classic scary street preacher having at go at those who don’t come. Why does he do this? Because repentance is a serious business. There is no room for elitism. And definitely no room for hereditary holiness: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our Father'”. To a nation and belief system based on the assumption that they were the chosen ones and therefore were ok, this is big stuff.
We, of course, would never fall into that trap. We, the Church of England, the ‘proper’ church. We would never be arrogant enough to assume that we had it right. That all others were a pale reflection of proper worship, proper repentance, proper priesthood. Would we? We, the nation of the United Kingdom, a ‘proper’ country, would never assume we have a right to be healthy, wealthy, rich and comfortable at the expense of any others. We are the good people. Aren’t we?
When questioned, John goes on to give examples of living out true repentance, rather than paying it lip service. “Anyone who has two shirts should give to one who has none. Anyone who has food should do the same.” Here comes the Christmas crunch. In a time of excess of things and food, we are called to share. Our food our clothes our presents our chocolate our families our wealth. Not just some loose change as an after-thought.
This is bigger than you, me and our next-door neighbours. A global economy means global consequences. Who makes the clothes we wear? Who makes the chocolate we eat? If we close our ears to those difficult, very un-festive questions we are no better than a brood of hypocritical vipers looking for a salve to our conscience without a change to our lifestyle.
Did you know that if your chocolate isn’t marked as fair-trade, then there is no guarantee the farmer was adequately paid? Or that slaves were not used in its production? Slaves! Often children. Most of our cheap chocolate comes from the Cote d’Ivoire, where use of chocolate slaves is rife. Now, thankfully there have been some significant victories in the world of chocolate production recently. Some of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars are now Fairtrade. Nestle have recently announced that their 4-finger Kit Kat bars will be Fairtrade from January. These are big hitters and this is big news. It is an encouragement to people who have been campaigning for years. But it is still a tiny proportion of the market.
If we want to take seriously John the Baptist’s challenge; if we want to take seriously the true, raw, honest and painful meaning of Christmas; if we want to be followers of Christ and not the crowd, then we must act differently. It may make us unpopular. Our families may not like us only buying fair-trade chocolate as presents. It is more expensive, so we buy less. (Why is it more expensive? Ask Tescos why they cannot absorb the extra cost into their vast profits.) Our families and friends may not like us turning our lives around to fit Jesus in rather than just turning the lounge around to fit the tree in. Tell them why. And tell Cadbury’s, tell Nestle. Thank them for the fair-trade 4-finger Kit Kat, then give them 2 fingers, and ask them why not that bar too. Because we have no inherited right to chocolate produced in the dark, underbelly of slavery. We have no inherited right to have 2 shirts when others have only 1. We have no inherited right to speak of repentance if it does not impact us where it hurts.
Now that is a Christmas message. And John ended up dead for it. Nice.
For more information on these issues go to the Stop the Traffik campaign, the Fairtrade Foundation, visit your local Oxfam shop, and remember to always ask for Fairtrade coffee in in your local coffee shop. Contact Cadbury’s, Nestle and Mars here to thank them and ask them for more Fairtrade products.