St. Philip Lutheran Church
4 December 2022 + Advent 2a
Matt. 3.1-12; Isa. 11.1-10
Rev. Josh Evans
In the midst of all the holiday preparations this time of year, it’s not difficult to get lost in all the things to be done. So, to make at least one thing easier to prepare, might I suggest for your holiday mailings … Cards by John™ …
Design #1: A brightly colored picture of John the Baptist 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 design #2: This one depicting 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 even perhaps design #3: 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 holiday preparations. There’s no getting to the “silent night, holy night,” in the “little town of Bethlehem” without getting past John.
John’s storyline appears in all four gospels. There’s simply no Jesus without John. But his message feels a bit (lot) 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, will dwell together in harmony. It seems a far cry from John’s message …
But we also 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 preachers 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. And 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, perhaps more at home in The Nightmare Before Christmas.
But … is it any scarier than what John calls us to clear away to prepare the way of the Lord?
We live in increasingly scary times: with continued war and unrest between nations, mass shootings upon mass shootings, environmental disasters threatening our planet and all who live on it …
Not to mention a polarized and divisive political and social landscape that only seems to be getting worse …
It feels like we’ve lost the ability to even talk with one another. We vilify those we disagree with. We call them names a lot worse than “brood of vipers.” And we stubbornly dig in our heels, refusing to even come to the table, and inching out any shred of hope of understanding, let alone reconciliation.
Truth be told, we’re really good at dehumanizing and distancing ourselves from each other. And it makes it really easy to judge a person when we don’t truly know them.
This isn’t to say that our differences don’t matter and that we should all just sweep those differences under the rug, sing “Kumbaya,” and get along.
But there is something powerful in reclaiming the ability to listen deeply to those who think, look, or act differently from us. And in that listening, we just might find that once we get to know the “other,” it’s harder to judge them.
I’d also suggest that the more you come to learn and care about, even love, a person, it’s also difficult not to judge them. This is the kind of judgment John is proclaiming.
This is 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 calls it like it is and strives to foster new life. This is a kind of judgment that leads to repentance, 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 also 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 will 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 isn’t utter destruction and violence. Nor is it exactly passive. It is deliberate and measured.
Imagine a shouting match with a family member or close friend: 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, and we know at that point: they mean business. It is no longer shouted at, but it’s pleading with.
This is a different kind of judgment … a judgment that sees clearly, that cares deeply, that prepares us for a Messiah who sees us, knows us, loves us, and urges us to make room for the new thing God is doing.
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!” Physically straight, or ethically upright, yes. And also 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 baptist’s cry calls 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 …
… 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.
There might be something after all to Cards by John™. At the risk of adding one more thing to our holiday preparations, maybe we could use a kind of Advent card to prepare us for the message of our Christmas cards.
In a season culminating in the angels’ announcement of “peace on earth,” we first need to hear John’s announcement on Jordan’s bank: Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight and straight away!
With a sense of urgency, John gets us ready for Jesus … urging us to practice the way of repentance … to clear away everything that gets in the way, everything that hurts and destroys.
“Let every heart prepare him room!” the carol sings.
In this season of preparation, prepare room for Jesus, for Jesus is bringing peace.