“…and with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”
The Gospel this week requires a bit of wrestling with scripture. How are we to approach John’s strong text that begins with the words, “You brood of vipers!” and ends with Christ carrying a winnowing fork? Sure, I could stand here like a street corner evangelist, shaking the bible and telling you that God’s wrath is coming—so prepare, stay awake, be vigilant. Do good, or else. But for those who know me, you know that is the very last thing I would ever do. So, in truth, this passage in the Gospel left me wondering, in all his zealousness for justice, did John the Baptist miss the mark?
Sure, John seemed right on track when he told the crowd that he was not the Messiah and that one who is more powerful than him was coming, but then he keeps going, and he paints an image that is nothing short of a nightmare. He tells his audience that Jesus will one day come with a winnowing fork to sift through humanity, separating the wheat from the chaff. The good from the bad, and the chaff will then be burned with unquenchable fire. Not to mention he says that an ax is waiting at the foot of the tree to cut down any branches that do not bear good fruits. This is John’s good news? Really? What do we do with this text? Do we simply write it off as metaphor? Well, yes and no.
This story is full of metaphor that speaks of the day of judgement, but I am not here to tell you what that day will look like, mostly because I do not know, and that is not my message today anyway. Furthermore, even if we accept John’s words as a metaphor, that does not dismiss the fact that his words are harsh and violent. After three weeks of opening to this text, and hoping that John’s message would have miraculously changed, the conclusion I have come to is this:
John, being mere mortal like us, could not imagine that judgement could come any other way than through a violent separating of good and bad, just and unjust. He could not image salvation without damnation, or peace without violence. For you see, we humans have a tendency to be violent creatures.
Think about it. Even when we are doing good we say that ‘we are fighting for what is right.’ Or, ‘we are fighting for peace.’ Or, ‘we are fighting for justice.’ We wage wars to bring peace to our nations and the world. But, peace in our time, and in our way, means that there is a winner who lives happily ever after, and a loser who is punished if not eliminated entirely. We are so quick to raise up arms against our enemies and in the moments of uncertain fear, but at what cost? To what ends? More destruction? More pain? We know full well that violence begets violence, maybe not right away, but if you look at history there is a pattern.
We as humans are so used to violence and it is so much a part of existence that even when Jesus came 2000 years ago people did not think he was the Messiah. They expected a great king to come and turn over thrones, and cast out rulers. They expected a great general to lead them into battle. This was not the Messiah that they got. Instead the one who came was the Prince of Peace. I do not mean this to say that Jesus was weak or always pleasant. He was neither, but his message was one of love, hope, and charity.
If we only anticipate one who will come to judge, than we risk the potential of seeing punishment as God’s ultimate goal. This sort of anticipation provides us with justification to enact God’s judgement by taking matters into our own hands. It gives us the power to go after those who are not living up to our expectations of what it means to be Christian. Even worse, it give us the power to choose who is good and who is bad, right and wrong. This mentality justifies violence because we imagine that if the violence leads to peace it is somehow permissible. A few weeks ago a man walked into Planned Parenthood, opened fire, and killed three people. This man was clearly deranged, but his motivations were not isolated. They came from people who openly proclaim that the murder of these doctors was justified because of the procedures they perform. They believe that humans are allowed to enact the judgement that belongs to God alone.
Furthermore, if we believe that we have the power to identify who will be saved and who will be damned, we are at risk of ourselves on a pedestal as somehow better than our neighbor, and not equal to our neighbor. In this country there are people who are crying out for religious freedoms while at the same time demanding that our Muslim brothers and sisters carry an ID and wear identification, or not be permitted into this country at all. We have been there before folks. It did not end well.
It is not our job to separate the wheat from the chaff because we as humans will never know who is truly good and who is truly bad in the eyes of God. But I will tell you this, gender, race, sexuality, or religious affiliation can never be the dividing line. There is no religion in this world that truly promotes violence at its core. Violence is a human invention; it was never God’s desire for us.
God gave us two commandments. We are to love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s it. Love God. Love our neighbors. Nowhere in there does it say that we should judge our neighbor. It does not say that we should grab our weapons and enact God’s judgement. There will be time for judgement and it will come through God’s hands alone, not ours.
John the Baptist could not imagine that peace would come through any other means than through violence. He believed that Christ would be the judge who punished those who did not live up to the laws. But this message was not what the one who came after him actually proclaimed. In the Gospel of John 12:47, Christ tells his people, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” Rather than living out our faith through violent judgement and hate speech. I ask you to choose love and mercy. Make this your New Year’s resolution on January 1st.
Last Tuesday, December 8th, Pope Francis and the Catholic Church ushered in an Extraordinary Jubilee Year. It is extraordinary because this jubilee year is being brought about because of a necessity and not because of an anniversary. For this Jubilee year, the Pope has challenged Catholics to find new ways of building community. He wants them to be open, and to accept the change and vulnerability that comes with living a life guided by mercy. Most of all, he has invited his church to truly see the face of God and mercy in the people who stand in front of them. This is an idea of radical love. We may not be Catholic, that is true, but I would challenge each and every one of you to live out this jubilee year. Choose mercy over fear, love over violence, and be open to the change that will come in your life when you partake in the radical love of Christ.
This Advent season, when we look to the already not yet, I ask you to imagine a love beyond all measure. We already live in a world that is hurting. We already experience daily violence on the news and in our own lives. Violence is not God’s message; it is not what we wait for with great anticipation. So, rather than quake in fear at the words of John the Baptist, I invite you to sit and rest in the words of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always… Let your gentleness be known to everyone… and let the PEACE, which surpasses ALL understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
This is the good news my friends. Christ will come again not in judgement, but to usher in a new peace which surpasses the imagination of John the Baptist. And we will rejoice! For when God comes again, he will restore his creation to good.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” Amen.