Isaiah 11:1-10 • Romans 15:4-13 • Matthew 3:1-12
Every year I am surprised. Advent begins and I start to settle into the waiting.
Waiting for a baby. I remember waiting for a baby. Perhaps some of you do to.
Getting everything ready.
I start to settle into that warm, hopeful waiting, and I feel better – you know?
I know that something special, something beautiful is happening, something that I know, or at least I hope, will bring me to what I want, what I need:
peace, new wonderful life, untarnished possibilities
hopes for new ways of being that are good and lovely.
We wait for that baby, God’s promise to me, to the world.
It’s a lovely, warm, beautiful waiting.
And then every year I am surprised, shocked, saddened even, when John shows up. He shows up every single year at this point in Advent (no matter the gospel we are reading – he is in every single one), and he shows up shouting, proclaiming judgment, promising wrath.
“You brood of vipers! – you snakes – [you lowlifes.] Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Let the world see in your actions that you have indeed turned to God. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. It’s no use claiming that you come from a long line of people who are close to God, and that you somehow are different, that you know more about what this life with God is like. Even now one is coming who will judge the fruits of our faith and none of your claims of religious heritage will matter – not one little bit.
Every year at this time, he comes, yelling, preaching repentance and threatening retribution and wrath from the one who is to come. And if I give him more than a cursory glance, my initial sad surprise turns a little bit to irritation and a deeper, edgier uneasiness. What about the baby, what about the warmth and beauty, the lovely newness, the peace that we wait for? What about the consolation and the Advent hope that is growing in me as I wait. But there he stands year after year, incredibly unlovely, in the wilderness, yelling, convicting, judging. I want to dismiss him, ignore him, turn back to that baby and what I think he offers, but this John, he is part of our story of faith and we just can’t get around him. He persists year after year. So what is it as he crashes into our Advent time that he is trying to tell us about this one who is coming – this baby we wait for?
According to Matthew, John is Elijah. Elijah was a prophet taken by God and he was to return again to announce the coming of the Messiah. The book of Malachi closed with a messianic promise, in which God declares: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” Great and terrible is the way Matthew’s John sees the coming of Jesus. So let’s just for a few minutes hold that image next to all the other things that Matthew would have us know about this one who is to come.
Matthew in his story tells us many things about Jesus. He tell us about the nature of this baby for whom we wait. He is a baby born to a young mother in circumstances to which the poor, the isolated and the vulnerable can relate. He comes without obvious power or resources, he is at the mercy of powers who would destroy him and he is completely reliant on others to keep him safe. Matthew tells us that this baby grows into a teacher and a healer. He offers compassion and renewal. He proclaims the forgiveness that John leaves out. He desires mercy, not sacrifice. He comes in the name of a God who throws banquets to which all are invited and he offers a way to all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens. His yoke is light, he is humble and gentle and he offers rest for our souls. And he comes as a leader with the passion to give everything for the sake of his mission. He comes as a living sacrifice, one who would die rather than deny who he is... who would die so that we know we are loved by God.
There, in all these other things that Matthew has to say, is the beauty, I am waiting for so what is John talking about? What is so terrible about this one? Where is the judgment and the conviction? Is John just plain wrong?
Well, let’s think for a minute about those places where we have in our own experience seen the kind of honest-to-good need, the healing presence, the wonderful integrity, and the powerful passion that we see in Matthew’s Jesus.
What about those babies, those little ones who look to us to show them how to live well; who wince and cry when they see suffering because that’s just how we are made, and who remind us that we are meant to do the same; who look at the world with wide eyes and with questions of why we live like we do. These little ones are beautiful. They possess the same clarity of vision and the innocent incisiveness that we see in Jesus and it is also terrifying to face their demands that we help them find a world that is different, that is safe and kind. What if we fail them, what if we can’t answer their questions, what if we let them down?
And what about those others without power who ask for a better way, who tell us they are in pain – homeless and abused moms and children at the Center of Hope for example, and those who might just have perished in this cold were it not for the Severe Weather Shelter currently operating in the City of Renton, those who ask and wait so often in vain for the help of others who are more powerful, who have more resources. They are beautiful in the vulnerability and in the humanity that they share with Jesus and with all of us. But isn’t it also terrifying to get close to such pain and injustice, to share the experience of their hopelessness and yearnings for a better way? Isn’t it also terrifying to be implicated in their plight and have to deal with the hopes they place in us?
And what of the healers, those who reach out in compassion and care? Aren’t they like Jesus - just beautiful - and isn’t it terrifying to feel like we should measure up to their example and to imagine that we don’t have what it takes to do what they do?
And what of those leaders who will give everything they are because they just can’t do anything else -- a leader who spends 27 years in brutal captivity only to forgive his captors and inspire a nation to reconciliation. They are beautiful, like Jesus, in their living sacrifice, in their ability to do what we just know is right thing to do, and if we are honest they terrify us, they judge and convict us in bringing to light the brutality of the world in which we live. And what of the murder and suicides of too many young people, students, who cannot but live into their sexuality, even if it offends. Their honesty and integrity is, like Jesus’, an absolutely beautiful thing, and their deaths are terrifying, they judge and convict us. It is terrifying to think that we might be called to the same thing: to step out in who we are and what we need only to be dismissed and ridiculed, beaten up and vilified.
These things, these ways of the Lord, these aspects of Matthew’s Jesus are indeed great and they are terrible. There is in the words of the Irish poet, William Yeats, as he witnesses his countries struggle for independence a “terrible beauty” to these things. There is a hope, a deep call to a different way that is beautiful. And there is a terror, a kind of judgment that comes in knowing that we are part of the injustice and part of what it will take to find the peace that we hope for. The advent of Jesus, this baby, this leader, healer, this living sacrifice is a beautiful and it is a terrible thing.
John catches the terrible. He knows of the judgment that will come as we do not measure up, as we wish it were different, as we hide and cower from all that Jesus calls us to be. But there is a deep and complex beauty in who Jesus is that John simply does not catch in these opening verses of Matthew. It’s the beauty that we see elsewhere in Matthew’s book, it’s the beauty that we glimpse in the goodness that exists around us and more than this it is the beauty of the kingdom of God that comes in its fullness with the advent of Jesus.
It is the beauty of the kingdom that exists for us no matter what we do or how we be, no matter our fruits. It is the beauty of a peace that passes understanding, the absolute promise of a place where the wolf shall lay down with the lamb, where all of us are loved, claimed and forgiven, where we are restored to new life. This baby brings these promises to us, this baby reminds us of who we are as those who cannot, cannot, cannot even when most judged in all our failings, be separated from the love of God.
John was right. We are judged by this baby, this leader, this healer, this living sacrifice. We do stand convicted and we must pursue justice and peace. And John was wrong, we are, no matter what we do, claimed, we are loved by this baby, this leader, this healer, this loving sacrifice, this God.
And so we wait, we wait in hopeful stillness, we wait for beauty, we wait for the shoot of Jesse, the God of all creation to come again as a human that shares our lives. We know that something special, something beautiful is happening, something that will bring us what we need -- peace, possibilities, God’s promises to us, to the world.
We wait for this terrible beauty to be born, and we remember that we are forgiven and safe, that we have all we need in the love of this God to give our lives to the work of justice, compassion and peace, no matter how terrible it might get.
A terrible beauty is born, born for us, and we are utterly changed, utterly saved.
Thanks be to God.