I have an idea: John the Baptist themed Christmas cards! Picture it: A brightly colored picture of John on the cover, dressed in his best camel’s hair outfit, holding a baggie of fresh locusts, just in case he gets hungry, with the greeting: “Prepare the way of the Lord!” On the inside: “Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers!”
Or maybe one showing John in action, wielding a shiny new ax, with the greeting: “He’s making a list and checking it twice…and is going to find out if you’re bearing good fruit or not!”
Or what about one with a more abstract, artistic approach: softly flickering candles on the front…and then on the inside, a blazing inferno: “Wishing you a happy holiday of unquenchable fire!”
Every year on the Second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist stands at the center of our Christmas preparations. There’s no getting to the silent night, holy night, in the little town of Bethlehem without getting past John – with all his rough edges. His storyline appears in all four gospels. There’s simply no Jesus without John. But his message feels undisputedly harsh – not exactly the warm fuzzies of a happy holiday.
Then there’s Isaiah’s vision from our first reading: the “peaceable kingdom” where wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, calf and lion, nursing child and snake, shall dwell together in harmony. It seems a far cry from John’s message…but we can’t get to Isaiah’s vision of peace and justice and hope without John’s message of judgment and repentance. Indeed, the ax at the root of the tree needs to cut down what is dead in order for the new shoot to come out of its stump.
But we don’t like to talk about judgment very much. We don’t like to hear it, and we pastors often shy away from preaching it. And for good reason, since judgment has so often been misused in Christian circles to assert moral superiority and justify hatred and discrimination against entire groups of people. In fact, didn’t Jesus himself say something about “judge not, lest you be judged”? And yet our gospel text calls us squarely and clearly to judgment: Every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit will be cut down and burned.
If last week’s gospel didn’t sufficiently scare you with talk of an unknown day and hour and “one will be taken and one will be left,” John the Baptist gives us: brood of vipers, stray axes lying around, unquenchable fire…this is scary stuff. But is it any scarier than what John calls us to clear away to prepare the way of the Lord?
We live in scary times: with violence between nations and on our city streets, environmental disasters threatening our planet and all who live on it, and an increasingly polarized and divisive culture that only seems to be getting worse. It feels like we don’t even know how to talk with each other anymore. We vilify those we disagree with. We call them names. We post all sorts of things on social media. Even within groups of “our own people,” we can’t seem to get along: “You’re not [blank] enough.” “Well, you must not be a real [fill in the blank].”
Truth be told, we’re dehumanizing and distancing ourselves from each other, and it makes it really easy to judge a person when we don’t truly know them, let alone take time to have a conversation with that doesn’t involve yelling at them.
In her recent book, Lutheran pastor and journalist Angela Denker seeks to explore the intense divide between red and blue, right and left, that has only become more entrenched since 2016 and will surely only get worse as 2020 draws near. Her aim is not to further dehumanize or demean either side, but exactly the opposite: to encourage her readers on both sides of the divide to listen more deeply to each other and re-discover each other’s humanity. It’s about re-humanizing one another: Once you get to know a person, it’s harder to judge them.
But I’d also suggest that the more you come to learn and care about, even love, a person, it’s difficult not to judge them – and I think this is kind of judgment John is proclaiming. Not the kind of judgment that leads to moral superiority and discrimination, but judgment that refuses to settle for apathy and to let us keep going on in the ways that hurt and degrade one another.
John’s proclamation in the wilderness is a judgment without condemnation and rooted in love. This is a kind of judgment that doesn’t seek to hurt or destroy but strives to foster new life. This is a kind of judgment that leads to repentance – in the New Testament sense of the word, meaning a change of heart and a new way of thinking. This is a kind of judgment that prepares the way of the Lord, the way of the peaceable kingdom, the way of the kingdom of heaven. John the Baptist calls us to prepare the way of the Lord and to repent of the ways that we have hurt creation and each other.
John’s judgment is not his alone, either, but it’s the judgment of the “one who is more powerful” coming after him. John points us to Jesus, the Messiah for whom we wait in our Advent anticipation, who shall judge, not with vengeance and brute force, but with “the rod of his mouth” – his tongue – and “the breath of his lips” – his words. There is power to this judgment. But it is not utter destruction and violence. Nor is it exactly passive. It is deliberate and measured. Imagine a fighting match with your parents or your spouse: How much gets accomplished when you’re yelling at each other? But what happens when their voice gets quieter, slower, more deliberate and measured? We’ve all been on the receiving end of that voice. We know at that point: they mean business. It is not shouted at, but it’s a pleading with.
This is a different kind of judgment…that sees clearly, that cares deeply. As Debie Thomas writes, “What if John is saying that the Messiah who is coming really sees us? That he knows us at our very core? Maybe the winnowing fork is an instrument of deep love, patiently wielded by the One who discerns in us rich harvests still hidden by chaff. Maybe it’s in offering God every particular of our lives that we give [God] permission to ‘clear’ us – to separate all that’s destructive from all that is good, beautiful, and worthy.”
There is promise in this judgment! And John is eager for us to receive it: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” That’s another interesting word in Greek: euthus, translated “straight,” can mean that something is physically straight, or ethically upright, and it can also convey a sense of immediacy: Make his paths straight and straight away!
John proclaims God’s judgment: “The kingdom of heaven has come near!” There is proximity and urgency to this promise! Christ is coming soon! Get ready! The kingdom of heaven has come and is coming near. The space between God and humanity is getting thinner. And when God becomes flesh and enters into our reality, you can be certain that it will change everything and make all things new.
Heed the baptist’s clarion call – calling us to a new way of life that acts with intention and speaks deliberately…in a spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. These are the words spoken over us in our baptism – where we also promise with the entire community of faith to strive for peace and justice in all the earth, a peace and justice breaking in even now.
This Sunday, John calls to us: Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight and straight away! With a sense of urgency, we are called to practice the way of repentance. We are called to clear away everything that gets in the way, everything that hurts and destroys. We are called to practice the way of justice and peace. Because our lives and the wellbeing of the creation depend on it. For indeed, Christ is coming soon!