Mark chapter 1 doesn't tell us all that much about John—Mark's not known for being long-winded—but the other gospels paint a fuller picture and fill in some of those details. Like in Luke, where you get a taste of John’s preaching: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?... the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!” (3:7,9) John's the fire and brimstone type. We used to have people like that on campus at LSU at least once a week, preaching at you as you walked by, handing out their pamphlets outside the student union. They all came from a church called (I kid you not) Consuming Fire Fellowship.
As preachers have long noted, John the Baptist doesn’t exactly scream ‘Merry Christmas!’. Nobody's sending out Christmas cards with the baptizer on them—you know, This holiday season, bear good fruit or burn. Merry Christmas, the Hixons. He’s a rough guy, with the camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. He makes me think of bullhorns, sandwich boards, and sand paper—not exactly mistletoe and sugar plum fairies. I used to wonder what John was even doing here, why we have to hear about him during Advent every single year.
Until, one day, I learned why we need John the Baptist during this season.
Thursday, December 14th, will mark the five-year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. The 20 students who were killed would be 5th and 6th graders today. Even with all the mass shootings we’ve seen in the last few years, that one still stands out; it doesn’t disappear into the crowd. It was a Friday. I had written a clever, cute, Christmas-y sermon that week, but then came Friday, and that weekend I couldn’t think about anything else. That Sunday morning I looked over that sermon in my office, and I knew that we needed to hear something different, that we needed to face this horrific nightmare of a tragedy.
And there in the gospel reading was John the Baptist, talking about the wrath to come and chopping trees down. He said that Jesus was coming to “clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire” (Luke 3:17 NLT).
And as I was trying to wrap my mind around what had happened in Newtown and reading these words, it all suddenly made sense.
We often think of judgment, the final judgment as this terrifying, harsh, dark thing—all that talk about unquenchable fire. Judgment’s uncomfortable, and it's scary.
But the judgment is supposed to be good news.
Because when we’re faced with a Sandy Hook Elementary, or 58 dead and over 500 injured in Las Vegas, or what happened at Sutherland Springs, or the more than 200 murdered during Friday prayers at the Rawdah mosque in Sinai—when we see these tragedies that we don’t even have words for in the news again and again, and the raw heartache and pain and the pure evil that’s in our world, the only thing I know to say is that Jesus sees it too, and he’s coming back; he’s going to clean house. He’s coming to judge that evil, and he’s going to bring healing. He’s the only one who could bring healing, and he’s coming. Sometimes, when we see just unspeakable horrors being perpetrated, the good news we need, the only hope we have, is the righteous judgment of Jesus Christ. Because he can make things right.
Judgment is supposed to be good news. As N.T. Wright likes to point out, that’s why we see things like Psalm 96:11-13:
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD;Why? Why this jubilee?
for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.The whole earth, all of creation, is dancing for joy because the Lord is coming to judge the world, with righteousness, with truth. And don't we need some righteousness and truth in this world? Well, they’re on their way. The Lord is coming to set things right. Judgment is what gives us hope, even in the face of the darkest evil, because the light is gonna shine in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1:5).
It's true, John isn’t very Christmas-y. But he’s not here for Christmas. He’s here for Advent. Because Advent is a season when we’re expecting Jesus, watching for his coming—not just in Bethlehem, but also to his coming back to this world to judge what is evil, heal what is broken, and make things right again.
And in a world of Sandy Hooks, we need that promise and hope of judgment. We need John.