John, Judgment and Jesus

Matthew 3:1-12    

Second Sunday of Advent

We are busy this time of year! Has your credit card melted yet? Buying presents,  then wrapping them, making our plans to travel, or getting ready to host house guests, parties and baking butter cookies and cookies with chocolate and nuts—there is a lot we try to accomplish before December 25!  What’s on your to-do list? What things do you push yourself to get finished before Christmas?  We do all this hoping for a picture-perfect Christmas. What would make this a memorable Christmas for you?

Interrupting our own ideas and visions of celebrating the birth of Jesus is John the Baptizer.  We know that Christmas is near when we hear “You brood of vipers!” come out of his mouth.  While sugar plum fairies dance in our heads, along comes this very strange man dressed camel’s hair and setting new trends in diets.  We cannot get to sweet baby Jesus without listening to John first.

Chances are that our preparations, our Christmas to-do list has a different focus than John’s.  John’s list begins with repentance, which literally translates “turn around.”   Turning around means that we see things differently.  It’s a reorientation.  “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” John commands.  Is this on your to-do list?  John reminds us that we cannot get a pass because we are children of Abraham.  We cannot avoid God’s judgment because of our birth certificate, or because we come to church.

There is one more powerful than I coming after me, John warns, …his winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.  The consequences of our sin are dire, a matter of life and death.

Lutherans don’t speak much of God’s judgment and its consequences.  Our Lutheran Confessions say more about justification, being set right with God, than they do about judgement. Exactly what God’s judgement will look like is not clear, but make no mistake,  we have been judged.  We are guilty.  We are sinners.  God loves us enough to expect something of us.  We are responsible for what we do.  John the Baptizer sounds the alarm.

God expects us to work to bring about justice, and to have respect for both ourselves and for our neighbor.  Move from works of the flesh, anger, greed, jealousy to works of the spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control [Galatians 5:22].  It comes from loving God.  One theologian explains, It is the nature of faith to do good works just as it is of the nature of love to love and care to care, of the parent to pick up and comfort that hurt child.  To say that is not naïve; it is the expression of confidence and hope.[1]

What we do matters.  I have a story.

            One December afternoon…a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas class session. As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each one carried in his hands the “surprise,” the brightly wrapped package on which he had been working diligently for weeks.  One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave to his parents, all at the same time, slipped and fell.  The “surprise” flew from his grasp, landed on the floor and broke with an obvious ceramic crash.

            The child…began to cry inconsolably.  His father, trying to minimize the incident and comfort the boy, patted his head and murmured, “Now that’s all right son.  It doesn’t matter.  It really doesn’t matter at all.”

            But the child’s mother, somewhat wiser in such situations, swept the boy into her arms and said, “Oh, but it does matter.  It matters a great deal.” And she wept with her son.[2]

“Repent,” John tells us. God through Christ weeps with us as we confront our sins.  We are awaiting the birth of the one God sent to sit with us as we weep, as we confront our sense of privilege and entitlement, as we face head on systemic injustice in which we participate, as we bring to the forefront the harm we cause by justifying ourselves.  God has judged us guilty.  Through the water and the Word of baptism, God forgives us our sin.

One theologian elaborates:

In repenting, therefore, we ask the God who has turned towards us, buried us in baptism and raised us to new life, to continue his work of putting us to death.  Repentance is an “I can’t experience.  To repent is to volunteer for death.  Repentance asks that the “death of self” which God began to work in us in baptism continue to this day.  The repentant person comes before God saying, “I can’t do it myself, God.  Kill me and give me new life.  You buried me in baptism.  Bury me again today.  Raise me to a new life.”  That is the language of repentance.  Repentance is a daily experience that renews our baptism.[3]

 “Repent.  Prepare the way of the Lord.” says John.  “Get ready for something new because the One who will change everything is coming.”  When Christ comes again, the wolf will live with the lamb, calves and lions, cows and bears, blacks and whites, Christians and Jews, the poor and the rich, cat people and dog people, all feasting together—these are God’s hopes and promises to come.

In the name of Christ, who was, who is, and who will come again.

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] Forde, Gerhard O.  Justification by Faith:  A Matter of Life and Death.  Mifflintown, PA:  Sigler Press, 1990.  56.

[2] Quoted in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4.  Bartlett, David and Taylor, Barbara Brown, eds.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.  46.

[3] Reverend Doctor Richard Jensen, as quoted by Brian P. Stoffregen http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt3x1.htm

Author: Pastor Cheryl Griffin

Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin thinks God has a sense of humor for leading her into ministry, but can’t imagine doing anything else! Pastor Griffin received her BA degree from the College of William and Mary. She worked as an accountant before God led her to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, where she received her Master of Divinity degree. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Griffin is a member of the Ministerium Team and frequently leads small groups at synod youth events. She is also a representative to the VA Synod Council.