I would love to have John the Baptist’s job, wouldn’t you? Think of how fun it would be to have license to thunder down judgment on the deserving. While most of us wrinkle our brow and talk quietly and earnestly about how difficult it is to speak the judgment of God, we take secret delight in doing it. I’d trade my vestments in a second for some scratchy camel hair, even a taste of honey-dipped grasshopper, if I could stand in the pulpit and shout, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!”
Okay, I over dramatize that a bit, but I know something about this because I’m an only child; and of course, my role among my cousins (mainly my younger ones) was to be the mighty moral force—to teach them right from wrong. After all, I didn’t have any siblings at home to do this to, so I had to use this gift somewhere! One time at Grandma and Papa’s house in Valley City, ND I was left in charge of my younger cousin Craig, when everyone else had stepped out to go to the nursing home where my grandfather was the chaplain. Craig wanted some of Grandma’s homemade ginger snaps and the only way that he would get one was if I were to get it off of the high shelf that only I could reach. I wasn’t very hungry, but I told him that he needed to give me half of his cookie if I got one for him. His sin was immediately apparent when he said, “No.” We fought back and forth, but in the face of evil, I stood firm. And, of course, when he finally gave in to me, I said, “You can have the whole thing.”
How satisfying it is to be the righteous one, to bear the fruit of morality and to tell those sinners to repent. The truth of it is that we all like to play the role of John the Baptist. Judgment makes us feel like we’re right. Being self-righteous makes us feel like we’re worthy; and, of course, the way that most of us know that we’re good is by pointing out those who are bad.
Announcing judgment is usually easy, and maybe it’s true that during the Christmas season we need a little fire and brimstone. In some ways, the nearer we get to the coming of Jesus, the crazier we get. We shop and shop, sure that the pile of presents under the tree will be a measure of our love. We may be stingy all year, but by God, we’ll make up for it at Christmas time. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, especially if you’re part of the credit card industry. This season more than any other points out the gap between our inner lives and our external behavior, smiling and cheery at the work party while inside we’re drowning in loneliness and pain. The images of the happy family and the perfect Christmas become standards that announce judgment over our failed relationships and our inability to make things right.
John the Baptist points to the gap between our rhetoric and our behavior. He’s the voice of the Law, showing us our sin and calling us to bear fruit worthy of repentance. Repentance is part of the Christian journey, and it’s part of getting ready for Christmas. God is coming and all of us probably need some light shed on our darkness. But if we’re going to be really honest this Advent season, we probably need to be honest about our eagerness to judge rather than repent, our willingness to play the role of John the Baptist pointing out the sin of the world and our propensity to enjoy it. What’s Christmas without a little complaining about all those Christians who only come to church on Christmas Eve? What’s Christmas for the itchy, honey-tongued preacher if not thundering about the materialism and the commercialism of the season?
But John does a really interesting thing after his tirade against the religious leaders who are coming for baptism. He stops wagging his finger at them, and he points away from their sinfulness and their need for genuine repentance, and he points to One who is coming after him. He points beyond his preaching to the horizon where the Son is beginning to rise. “I am not worthy to carry his sandals,” he says.
Preaching judgment is the easy part. What’s really worthy is saving the world. What John points to is the God who is not willing to stand by and wag the finger of judgment, tossing the unrighteous into unquenchable fire. It’s a God who is willing to enter the burning chaos of human life and save it. John can only talk about those things that stand in the way of our faithful living. He blusters. He yells. He spits out his judgment, but he remains in the wilderness, far away from the lives of those who are streaming to him.
Jesus, on the other hand, is the one who enters into the heart of human life, takes into himself all those things that separate us from God. He steps into the gap between our inner life and our external behavior. His work ends, not in self-righteous satisfaction at letting those sinners have it. It ends at the cross when the power of sin and separation and self-righteousness is burned off like the morning dew. On Easter morning, what those sinners get is his ongoing life. They may indeed be worthy of judgment, but what they get is new life.
If we think of life apart from God as a great tree that produces nasty fruit, the cross is the ax that cuts it down, for now we have life with and in Jesus.
To understand this text and many of the other verses in Matthew that talk about the coming of Jesus as fiery judgment, we need to rethink repentance and faith. Faith is about trusting Jesus to save us, and repentance is about opening our hearts to Him.
I am often afraid that Christianity has perfected the art of judgment but hasn’t finely pointed to the One who really does the judging, who is, of course, the same One who does the saving. When I have talked to people who aren’t interested in the church, it’s almost always because they believe that the church is more interested in judgment than it is salvation. We’ve communicated really clearly about sin but not so clearly about the love of Jesus. We’ve given the impression that our sinfulness is more powerful than the saving One, Jesus, who is the heart of God beating in the world. The one who is coming is more powerful than I, even more powerful than my ability to keep him away. It is only the relentless and ongoing announcement of love’s coming that will inspire us to change and to live from its power.
What all of us so deeply desire is to hear, that even though we know what we might deserve, love will come again. Judgment may burn us up, but grace ignites us to be something alive.
I should tell you that even though I told the story about my cousin that sounded funny, the memory of that day is not pleasant, because what I did that day was damage my relationship with him. I was the one that needed repentance. I’m pretty sure he’s forgiven me, but I learned the price of forgetting that the relationship comes first, and that’s what the coming one reminds us of—that God’s relationship with us comes first, and it changes everything..
Fortunately, Jesus never forgets this, and that’s what turns us around so that we can find the grain in the midst of the chaff. Jesus is going with us into Christmas, and he’s going to sort through all the chaff in our lives and in our world, and he’s going to find the grain. He’s going to plant it in his own heart, and he’s going to bring us to life, even when the winter days get longer and darker and when our pain gets closer to the surface. Praise God for loving us this much!