In the name of one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This Sunday is the second Sunday of Advent, and the traditional theme for this day is Peace, but not just a peace that is the absence of violence. The peace that we talk about today is big, confounding, a peace that Jesus says passes all understanding, a peace that Zechariah refers to at the end of his effusive prayer of joy when he says, “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Darkness. The Shadow of death. To guide our feet into. These hint for us at what is so confounding, paradoxical, about the peace that we celebrate today. Our feet must be guided into peace and away FROM something else. The dawn from on high breaks upon us who live and dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. This dawn, this peace that passes all understanding, they have the quality of what Malachi calls this morning a refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap. They purify us, which of course, means we have things that need refinement, that need purification. The only way to that peace that passes all understanding is through and not around. Dare I say that peace requires judgement.
Now, judgment is, to say the least, a loaded word, particularly in our Christian community. We are all familiar with Christian traditions and denominations that make judgment the very heart of their message, though it often seems they themselves and the groups they belong to are exempt from the judgment they proclaim on others. I grew up in a tiny country church in Alabama called Christian Faith Church in the era of the Left Behind novels, and their, um, let’s say robust, ideas about the rapture caused me many a night of grief. Any time the moon wasn’t milky white, I was reminded of the passages in Scripture that talk about a blood red moon being a sign of Jesus’ return. Every time I came home to an empty house after school, my first thought was that my father and mother and brother had been raptured, taken up into the clouds, and that I had been left behind. I suspect that it’s this kind of self-righteous end-times indignation that is conjured up for us when we hear the word judgment in a Christian context. It certainly is for me.
And yet, despite all that cultural baggage that has been loaded onto the notion of judgment, despite the way we use the word, to talk about “judgmental” people, it is unavoidably ever present in Scripture, an essential element in the notion of salvation, in the notion of God’s peace that passes all understanding. It is in the message of Malachi, the prophet, who proclaims that a messenger is coming to us, a messenger of the covenant in which we delight. After he tells us this, Malachi says, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” It is present in John the Baptist, the very messenger Malachi prophesies about, who proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins FROM THE WILDERNESS.
It’s not a bad first impulse for us to be uncomfortable with judgment. If we were too comfortable, I fear we would turn into the kind of Christians that society often thinks we all are anyway. But we also must come to terms with it because it is only through it that we enter into the way of peace, the straight path that we are called to that is created then, now, and always only by leveling mountains and filling up valleys. It takes a lot of effort to fill a valley and it takes an earthquake to level a mountain, but with God, all things are possible. This is what John the Baptist comes to tell us. The way of peace is repentance, and repentance only can happen if we know that we have things to repent of, if we know that what we do has been judged. When we turn to the world to work and make it more like God’s vision for reality, the only reason we can do that work is because we know what it’s NOT supposed to look like. The poor and the marginalized and the oppressed are not meant to be poor and marginalized and oppressed. Creation is not meant to be used and abused for our monetary gain and comfort. As we work against these things, we do so knowing that we participate in them ourselves, that we and the whole world are judged.
Judgment isn’t an ending but a beginning. John the Baptist is a messenger, not the message himself, and his message is a life, it is God made human in Jesus Christ who loves us unconditionally and, because he loves us unconditionally, judges us. God’s unconditional love is the only appropriate context for judgment. It leads us to repentance, to amendment of life, to the Reign of God. Judgment doesn’t end in fire. It ends in peace. It ends in love. And for that, thanks be to God. Amen.
The Rev. Dillon Green
December 5, 2021
St. James Episcopal Church, Wichita, KS