Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 3rd Sunday in Advent + December 13, 2015
I read the gospel passage out loud to myself a few times as I was preparing this sermon, and every time I got to the very last line, I felt like my tongue tripped over the words: “So, with this and many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
I couldn’t say it with a straight face. John proclaimed the “good news”? What good news? He’s calling the crowds that came out to see him a brood of vipers; he almost seems upset that they’re coming to be baptized: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” It’s like he’s grabbing them by the shirt collar and shaking them until they really do fear God’s judgement. No more relying on God’s promises to Abraham’s descendants, no more relying on being part of God’s “chosen people.” God is pulling back the ax to swing, and if you’re not bearing the kind of fruit God wants, you’re going down.
It seems strange that when the people hear all this, they wonder: could John be the messiah? The one we’ve been hoping for? Even stranger-sounding is John’s reply: No, I’m not the messiah. But he is on the way, and he’s bringing the real fire. I stand in judgement of you, but I am not worthy to touch his feet. The messiah is the true judge, and he will bring God’s judgement on us all.
It sounds strange to us, because we believe that Jesus is the messiah. And at St. Andrew we don’t usually associate Jesus with winnowing forks and fire and judgement. That’s not really the Lutheran way. Especially as we look forward to Christmas, we associate Jesus with words like “meek” and “mild,” with love and kindness and forgiveness — y’know with grace. Not judgement.
But maybe we’re making a mistake by thinking of “grace” and “judgement” as two opposing forces. Maybe God’s judgement comes from God’s grace.
I bet we can all agree that judgements can be a force for good. Parents correct their children when they misbehave; we let our friends know when we think they are making a poor choice; work evaluations generally help a staff to improve. The trouble comes with how we imagine God’s judgement.
As I was thinking about this, I remembered an animated film from 2000 called The Road to El Dorado. Apparently it was not very successful, but my parents bought it for my brother and me one Christmas, and I loved it. (I still love it.) The movie takes place in the 1500s, the time of Columbus and Cortes, when Europeans first began to explore and conquer the Americas. It tells the (fictional) story two Spanish men — and their horse — who accidentally end up in South America and find their way to the legendary city of gold, El Dorado.
The people of El Dorado see these Spanish men for the first time: their skin is oddly pale; their clothes are of a totally unfamiliar style; they are riding an animal no one has ever seen before. The people think: these must be gods; the gods have finally come to us!
The high priest of El Dorado, Tzekel-Kan, might be the most excited of all the people — but in a disturbing way. He believes the gods have come to usher in the “Age of the Jaguar.” They have come to show their power, to judge and punish the people, to demand slaves and sacrifices and death. He is thrilled about the total destruction that is to come. He’s relishing the idea of watching his city and his people burn. It seems like he’s following the “gods” around the city, offering to sacrifice every other person they encounter.
A lot of the time when we hear the phrase “God’s judgement” or hear those stories of winnowing forks and threshing floors, we imagine something like Tzekel-Kan’s Age of the Jaguar. Maybe it’s because of the centuries of emphasizing that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” the Fall in the garden of Eden, original sin, and how all humans are totally depraved. We imagine that if God let God’s judgement run free, we’d all be done for. And that doesn’t square with the message of the gospel: that God loves the whole world so much that God would live and die among us, that God wishes for all of us to have abundant life. The “Age of the Jaguar”-type judgement is so opposed to God’s love and grace.
And so we hear the messages of judgement from the Old Testament prophets and then dismiss them as messages from a different, wrathful God. We hear that the crowds who gathered around John the Baptist expected a messiah who would bring judgement; we hear that John expected a messiah who would judge even more harshly; and we dismiss them as people who had not yet been proven wrong by Jesus Christ.
But here’s the thing: one of the main goals of every gospel writer was to prove that Jesus Christ was the very messiah dreamed of in the Old Testament, that Jesus Christ fit into the pattern of the God we hear about in the Old Testament. And that means that Jesus Christ was and is, among other things, the divine judge of the world. That’s why I think that God’s judgement is not the enemy just barely held at bay by God’s grace; rather, I think God’s judgement is an extension of God’s grace.
Because Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t all hugs and kisses and forgiveness. He did proclaim judgement. He scolded religious leaders in the public square (ex. Lk. 20:45-47). He foretold the destruction coming upon Jerusalem (ex. Lk. 19:41-44). He even scolded his disciples from time to time (ex. Matt. 16:23). And he prescribed a very strict way of living: “You have heard it said, ‘Do not murder,’ but I say, don’t be angry at your brother and sister, don’t insult them” (Matt. 5:21-22). “If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek…If a soldier forces you to carry his pack for a mile, carry it two miles” (Matt. 5:39, 41).
But we can see that his judgement always came from a place of compassion. He judges because he wants a better world for his people. He scolded the religious leaders because their abuses of power hurt God’s mission and God’s people. And his judgements often seem tinged with mourning: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you are not willing” (Luke 13:34) Jesus’s judgements are one of the ways we see Jesus deeply caring for people, one of the ways we see God deeply caring for people.
A professor of mine (Dr. Bruce Morrill, S.J.) said, “a God who doesn’t judge, doesn’t care.” What would God be like if God just sat back and said, “Do whatever you want, it’ll be ok.” We want a God who judges. A God who stands against violence and abuse and oppression — we need that God, because that God cares, and that God helps create a world where more people can flourish. Even on a personal level, we want a God who corrects us when we’re on the wrong path, we need a God who convicts us when we’re wrong and who sets us straight — because that God cares for us enough to help us change for the better.
That’s the kind of divine judgement we see in Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, that’s the kind of divine judgement we see threaded throughout the Bible. God doesn’t judge in order to punish every sin we’ve committed. As it says in the book of Psalms: “If you should mark our sins, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you” (Ps. 130:3-4a). God judges in order that there may be justice, in order that lives may be made better. That doesn’t mean it feels good to be judged, that doesn’t mean that God’s judgements are light; that doesn’t mean we won’t suffer. Correction and change are hard to bear.
It does mean that God’s judgement should be a source of hope. John the Baptist and the crowds there at the riverbank hoped for a messiah, they hoped for judgement — because they wanted the world to change. The news of the coming messiah is the news that God is changing our world — and that is good news indeed.