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Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2013

I don’t watch horror movies. They give me nightmares. But I have read that one of the conventions of these movies is that the teenagers who are usually trapped somewhere where the serial killer is likely to be are irresistibly drawn to places in the old abandoned house or wherever they are to head directly for the dangerous places there where the ax murderer might hide. They are drawn to the strangeness and wildness of their situation like a moth to a flame.

John the Baptist may not be a dangerous guy (except to the authorities), but he is a wild man. He comes from the desert, he eats funny things, he wears funny clothes and he continually yells at people to repent or face judgment. Not a very savory character to be drawn to, you would think, yet people from Jerusalem and the surrounding areas are coming to him in droves. They crowd around him to be baptized for repentance. Why are they drawn to John the Baptist? First, he comes out of the desert. The desert is a special place for the Israelites. It is where God fashioned a covenant people out of a group of oppressed Egyptian slaves. They rebelled and sinned there, but they also learned to trust and obey God (John P. Burgess). It is their heritage. They also come because they know their Scriptures. They know that Isaiah has said there will be a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord, and that John looks like he might be it. His clothes are like Elijah’s and his food is like Elijah’s. People said that Elijah would return before the Lord came in glory to judge the world. They are drawn to John because he shows all the earmarks of being a prophet. Like one of our modern shock jocks, he rants on and on about the coming kingdom and the need to repent. He warns of God’s coming wrath if people do not bear good fruit. And perhaps they are drawn to John because he is talking about something new happening, something new and out of control, and they are tired of their controlled lives. Lives controlled by religious authorities who have religion down to a science and lives controlled by the emperor, who oppresses them with unfair taxes.

Even the Pharisees and Sadducees are drawn by this crazy person. They come from their cozy spots in Jerusalem out to see John. It says they come to be baptized, but more than that, they come to assess the danger John poses to their authority. People were coming to him for instruction instead of them.

John’s message is one of warning. The kingdom of heaven is near, so repent and be open to the Lord.

People are flocking to Isaiah, too, but he is not at all like John, at least not in this passage. Isaiah offers a message of mercy. He is talking to the faithful remnant of Israel and Judah, the ones that are left after the Assyrians have killed many of them and taken the rest into captivity. Captivity is almost at an end he says. The Assyrians will be punished by a new sprout from what was the dead stump of Jesse. A new king in the Davidic line will rule in righteousness and peace. Isaiah offers beautiful images of the new creation – the vulnerable and the powerful will no longer be enemies; everyone shall be equal. The newIsraelwill once again be God’s covenant people. Isaiah sounds a note of hope, of promise. A new leader is coming to help God’s people.

Are Isaiah and John talking about the same person, about Jesus? Yes they are. They have different slants on his coming, but both of them talk about his righteousness. Isaiah says that Jesus will have the spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. He will wear the armor of righteousness as a belt around his waist and faithfulness as a belt around his loins. John talks about Jesus’ insistence on his people bearing good fruit, the fruits of love of God and neighbor. He insists on baptism for repentance, which doesn’t mean just saying “I’m sorry”, but being open and available for God to come into your hearts and change you into the people God wants you to be.

They both say that Jesus will be able to see right through people. He will be able to see beneath the surface to the inner workings of the mind and spirit. He will insist on integrity – that our actions match our character. John warns the Pharisees that they cannot just look on baptism as a ritual to be performed. They must then carry out actions that indicate they have been changed from exploiters of the people to encouragers of the people.

Though it may not seem like it, both passages speak of the judgment and mercy of God. Amidst Isaiah’s comforting words is the simple statement that this new ruler will kill all the wicked people before the peaceable kingdom – the new creation – can come forth. Amid his fierce warnings, John the Baptist preaches hope. The One who is coming will baptize those who are open to it with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The fire here is a refiner’s fire, one that burns away the impurities in the people, and the Holy Spirit is the mercy of God living and true, always available to those who seek it. John also says that there will be wheat that will be gathered into the granary. Both of them are giving the same message. God is sending a righteous savior to bring justice and mercy, so repent and be open.

Many of us do not think about God’s judgment very often if at all. We think that God will forgive everyone, even the worst sinners, when the time comes. We think that hell will be empty because all people will repent. But there are evil people in the world who exploit and manipulate and oppress people. There are evil people who take money from the poor and the old through get-rich-quick schemes. There are murderers and child molesters. Would we really want to think that they would not be held accountable for their actions? Yes we are taught to pray for our enemies, but that does not mean that they stop being our enemies. Maybe we do not see evil people in our lives, but they are out there, and they may not want to be forgiven by God for their evil deeds. They may not even acknowledge God as someone who has any right to judge them. These people will be destroyed, say our prophets.

We may feel like judgment is bad, like the Hebrew Scriptures reek with the judgment of God and the New Testament does not, so we’d rather have the new one, thank you very much. But Jesus judges. He judges the religious authorities, he speaks of judgment in his parables. He speaks of the final judgment. He judges the Canaanite woman who came to him to heal her daughter as a foreigner not worthy of his help, until she – and God – change his mind. And the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is full of mercy for God’s people. God delivers them fromEgypt. God brings them out of captivity. God sends them the prophets and the judges and the kings to help keep them together as God’s covenant people.

The truth is that judgment is not bad but good. Judgment holds us responsible for what we do. The world would be a terrible place if there were no judgment for sins of commission and omission. People would be able to do whatever they wanted with impunity. And without judgment there can be no mercy. Mercy assumes judgment and the setting aside of the judgment in favor of God’s reconciling love in Jesus Christ. We are all subject to judgment because we all have sinned and separated ourselves from God. And we have all received mercy because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. The fire of judgment purifies us so that mercy can enter our lives in the person of the Holy Spirit. God is sending a righteous savior to bring justice and peace to the world. Our job is to repent, bear good fruit and be open to the Spirit entering our lives.

AMEN.

     - Rev. Ann Barker

 Works Cited:
John P. Burgess, Feasting on the Word, Vol. 1, Year A (Louisville:Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 46