Monday, December 16, 2013

You better watch out, You better not cry...

Yesterday morning in worship, the choir at Grace Church presented its Christmas Cantata. Every year it's a fun, pretty, jubilant sort of service, an hour of celebration of the coming of Jesus at Christmas.

This year, right before the music began, I stood up and read our gospel lesson, Matthew 3:1-12, about John the Baptist. John was yelling at the Pharisees and Sadducees - "brood of vipers!" - and warning folks about judgment: "Even now 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."
The passage ends with the words "unquenchable fire."

This is not really the best way to lead into a Christmas Cantata.

The Cantata is full-blown Christmas. The last thing the narrator says is "Christ has come, Hallelujah!"
The gospel reading is full-blown Advent. We're still waiting on Jesus to come - waiting for his birth at Bethlehem and waiting for his coming again in glory.

John the Baptist doesn't seem very Christmas-y, yet every December he rears his shaggy head in our worship services, bellowing his words of judgment. (Think Charlton Heston in The Greatest Story Ever Told.)
We hear about John each year because the weeks leading up to Christmas are the weeks of Advent, and part of the hope of Advent, one of the things we're all waiting for, is Christ's coming again to judge the world. Jesus is the one appointed by God to judge the living and the dead (Acts 10:42).

And that's a good thing!

Throughout scripture, judgment is actually something God's people eagerly anticipate. Why on earth would that be?
There's an Old Testament way of answering that and a New Testament way. The OT answer would be: because the Lord will judge the world with righteousness and truth and equity, that's why! (Ps 96:13; 98:9) The NT answer might say: Well, who is in a position to condemn? "Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us!" (Rom 8:34)

Judgement is good because the Judge is good.

That's why we hear about judgment during Advent, while we wait for Jesus, no matter how un-Christmas-like it might sound. Judgment is something we hope for, not something we fear.
This time last year, two days before I was supposed to preach on John the Baptist and judgment, a young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, and killed 26 people. That atrocity helped me understand: judgment, God putting an end to all the mess in our world, that's a good thing. God's going to judge the world and set things right.

Or maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best. When faced with the very un-Christmas-y words of John the Baptist in the gospels, Bonhoeffer wrote:
God comes in the midst of evil, in the midst of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And in judging it, he loves us; he purifies us; he sanctifies us; he comes to us with his grace and love.

We've still got a week of waiting until Jesus comes in Bethlehem. May God fill you with anticipation and hope for the arrival of our Lord, for his birth at Christmas and his coming again.

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