Saturday, December 15, 2018

Year C, Advent 3, Luke 3.7-18, Good Judgment

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
John the Baptist was a firebrand of a preacher.
And by that I mean that he was passionate, calling for a radical change in the hearts of all who heard him.
And he came with a word of judgment, or more specifically, a warning about the judgment that was to come.
The most amazing thing about John the Baptist is that though he preached a radical message, calling the people to repentance, he was popular.  People came out to hear him. 
“You brood of vipers!” John proclaimed, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
The irony of that statement was that it was John himself that was giving the warning.
God will judge his people.
Those words incite a fear and trembling within us.
“Now is the day of judgment!” is not a sentence that produces a warm fuzzy feeling within us.
We do not like preachers who preach a word of judgment, even if they are right.
For me, that was never so clear as when the issue of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright came up within the 2008 presidential election.
You no doubt remember that he was Barack Obama’s pastor, and his preaching stoked a controversy during the campaign.  So much so that Obama ended up having to resign his church membership.
The most controversial of Wright’s words were:
“And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains, the government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton field, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing "God Bless America". No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America — that's in the Bible — for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.”
Now this is the thing.
The Indian reservations are a fact.
The Japanese internment camps were a fact.
And the plight of the Black people in this country, from the days of slavery till now is a fact.
These are not the brightest parts of our history.  Prejudice has impacted us in negative ways.
But we don’t like people speaking a word of judgment, even though we acknowledge that these things happened.  And we certainly didn’t like the way Pastor Wright spoke that word of judgement.
“No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America — that's in the Bible — for killing innocent people.”
We didn’t want to hear such a word of judgment then.
We still don’t like those words.
But this is the thing.
Prophets have never been popular when they spoke of God’s judgment of his people—which is why John the Baptist is so unique.  Even King Herod enjoyed listening to John.
Sometimes prophets are appealing to us, especially if we view their words as pertaining to others.
President Trump campaigned on the basis of what could be called a ‘prophetic’ message:
“Make America Great Again”.
Implicit in those words is the criticism, the judgment, that it isn’t doing so well right now.  And so he called for things like ‘draining the swamp’ of Washington, a call for political reform, and getting rid of the politicians he sees as the problem in Washington.
Trump’s message is a call for a radical change, but I’d suggest that few who embrace that message hear it as an admonition to change themselves.  The focus is on other things and other people that are the problem. 
To a certain extent, the reaction to Jeremiah Wright’s message, and to Trump’s message is the same.  Both of those messages ring true to a group of people, though not the same people, but neither group that embraces those messages see themselves as being the problem.
Who are the prophets in our midst today, who’s message rings true, and who will indeed inspire us to repentance?
In the Apostle’s Creed, week after week, we confess our faith in Christ Jesus as we recite the words:
“On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
The final judgment will be Jesus’ judgment.
That is the good news in John’s exhortation:  That one greater than he is coming, and it is he, Jesus that will judge the world in righteousness.
The judgment will not be Jeremiah Wright’s.
The judgment will not be Donald Trump’s.
It will be Jesus, the child born in Bethlehem, God’s only son, who speaks that word of judgment.
Should we fear that child?
Or wait in anticipation for his judgment of our world and our lives to be spoken?
When Jesus judges the world, is that day to be dreaded or hoped for?
Is judgment a good thing?  Or a bad thing?
Well, the answer to that question lies in who is doing the judging.
The dictionary tells us that “judgment” means two related things:
1.       the ability to make decisions or to make good decisions, or the act of developing an opinion, esp. after careful thought.
2.       A judgment is a decision.
Does someone exhibit “good judgment” or “poor judgment”?
And when someone renders a judgment concerning us, our lives, and the world in which we live, will that judgment, that decision, be favorable or unfavorable.  Will we be vindicated?  Or condemned? 
John’s message was that “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
It is a message that we will all experience both vindication and judgment.
Of all the images of the judgment in scripture, this is the one I embrace most whole heartedly, the separation of the chaff from the wheat.
You see the world is not divided between those that are wheat, and those that are chaff.
Chaff is the outer layer that surrounds each kernel of wheat.
As wheat is harvested, the chaff is separated so that you are left with just the kernel of wheat.
The judgment that John speaks of, the judgment that Jesus will render, is a judgment that will purify each of us by separating the child of God within each of us, from the sinfulness that has so often been part of our lives.  The chaff, which is our sinfulness will be destroyed, but we will not.  We will be gathered into the granary.
“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
“Born of the Virgin Mary, to judge the living and the dead.”
Should we fear that judgment, or wait for it with hopeful anticipation?
The truth lies somewhere in between.
We fear the judgment that is to come, but rejoice in the judgments that have been made which have set us free.
It’s like the judgments made by our doctors.
We fear finding out what is wrong, but rejoice when on the basis of that judgment we have been healed.
I dreaded hearing the word of my cardiologist that I had a mitral valve failure, but now rejoice that I have had the surgery done to repair that valve.
I dreaded hearing the words of my doctor that I was an alcoholic, but rejoice in the fact that now I’m enjoying a life of sobriety.
We don’t like to find out what is wrong, but without that knowledge we will never be made right.
And that is the judgment of Jesus.
It’s not to condemn us, but to cure us.
“But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
In order to save us from our sins, Jesus must first render a judgment about our sins.
We won’t like it, at first.
But when we have been made whole, we will look back at it as the greatest thing that ever happened to us.
As we gather at the manger, and celebrate again the birth of Christ, know this: that he came to save us, and that in that saving there is both judgment and healing.  Both.
There will not be one without the other.
Judgment without healing is cruel punishment.
But healing is not possible without judgment.
But both the judgment and the healing are the work of Christ, who loves us.  Amen

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