Second Sunday of Advent, Year A. December 8, 2019
Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans , 5:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The thing most people don’t understand about the Pharisees is that the Pharisees were good, God-fearing people who were genuinely trying their best to follow God. It’s understandable; they clashed with Jesus a lot. In today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and forerunner, and a prophet in his own right, calls the Pharisees ‘a brood of vipers.’ So we assume that they must have been really terrible people. But the thing is, in the entire Bible, if you’re looking for a group similar to most modern American Christians, the Pharisees are it. There are no people in the Bible as much like us as the Pharisees are.
The Pharisees were, by and large, middle-class people. They were the ones very concerned with reading the Scriptures, and teaching people about God, and genuinely trying to follow God’s will. They were the ones who created and ran the local places of worship, the synagogue. They were the ones who took the most active role in local charity, feeding the hungry and tending the sick and so forth. They were faithful, moral, reliable people. They were the pillars of their communities. They were genuinely committed to following God. That’s why they show up all over the Gospels. They heard there was a new and exciting religious teacher who was bringing people to God, and they wanted to know more. Just like we would if we heard of a new and exciting religious teacher. So why did they have conflicts with Jesus? And why does John the Baptist call them a brood of vipers?
The problem is judgment. Not God’s judgment of humanity, but the human capacity for judgment. More specifically, the human capacity to get judgment wrong. This is something I struggle with a lot as a pastor, and I’m probably going to spend a lot of time this year wrestling with it. You see, judgment is one of the main themes of Matthew. God’s judgment of humanity, and the ways in which we judge and misjudge one another and ourselves. God is the righteous judge, and humans consistently judge wrongly. Our Gospel reading is one example of this: the Pharisees would have been shocked to hear themselves condemned by a prophet. They wanted to see sinners repent, of course, but they would not have believed that they themselves needed much repentance. After all, they were the good people! Not like those sinners they condemned!
Judgment is necessary. Some things are simply wrong. Some things are completely incompatible with God’s good gifts of life and love, and need to be pointed out and condemned whenever they occur. Some things simply are not compatible with God’s will for the world. The problem is, humans are terrible at figuring out what deserves condemnation and what doesn’t, who deserves judgment and who don’t. People who are mentally healthy almost always judge themselves far more leniently than they deserve. “I’m a good person, I had good reasons for anything I’ve done wrong and all my sins are only tiny ones, I’m fine,” we think to ourselves. “It’s those people over there that I don’t like who need to be judged!” Meanwhile, people with mental illness or who are abuse survivors almost always judge themselves far more harshly than they deserve. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who genuinely believe they are evil, that they could never be a good person, that they deserve damnation, that God hates them and they deserve it. And these are not bad people, by and large. They are ordinary people, no better or worse than average. This is why it’s so hard to preach about judgment: I know that most people listening will fall into two camps. One group will assume that they don’t need to examine themselves, and that the only people in need of judgment are the people they don’t like. The other group will assume that I am talking about them, and that they are uniquely sinful and deserve only condemnation. Every person has both good and bad inside them, but we don’t do a very good job of recognizing that. We do a terrible job of acknowledging both the good and bad in a person, and judging it accurately. Very few people actually have a healthy balance where they can judge themselves—or anybody else—accurately. We either judge too harshly or not at all.
The same is true of our view of the world around us. We tend to judge not based on God’s plan for the world, but rather on what is comfortable and familiar to us. If it is comfortable and familiar, if we think it is normal, if it’s just the way the world works, then it must be good. And if it’s not good, then it can’t be that bad, can it? And if it’s strange to us, if it’s different, if it takes what we think we know about the world and turns it on its head, then it must be bad. And the truth is, neither of those are accurate guidelines for whether something is good or not. Sometimes what is normal is good, and sometimes what is normal is deeply harmful. Sometimes what is comfortable is good, and sometimes it is deeply harmful. Sometimes what is new is good, and sometimes it is deeply harmful. And most of the time, there are both good and bad aspects to it. It’s not as simple as we would like to make it. And so we judge wrongly.
In order to judge rightly, we need to see the world through God’s eyes. We need to be able to recognize what God wants of the world, and what God is working to create. And our reading from Isaiah is one of many places in the Bible that shows us what it looks like when God’s will is done. ‘He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.’ In other words, he’s not going to be judging by the things the world judges by. ‘But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.’ In other words, God doesn’t share all the prejudices that we have about poverty, and God cares deeply about people that our society ignores and abuses and lets fall through the cracks. It’s not that God loves poor people more than God loves anyone else. Rather, it’s that the poor are more in need of God’s love and support than most people. They’ve had harder lives, and have often had to face really terrible times when there are no good choices, and are more likely to have been chewed up and spit out by life than the rest of us. And God is going to take that into account in God’s judgment. And going forward in God’s kingdom, there will be no more injustice. There will be no more abuse. There will be no more people falling through the cracks and getting chewed up and spit out by life. All people will receive what they need to live good and full and happy lives, both their material needs and their emotional and spiritual needs.
‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.’ Notice that he doesn’t say that the wolves and the leopards will become lambs. They’ll still be themselves. But they won’t prey on others. The parts of the world that are based on the strong preying on the weak and creatures devouring one another for their own profit will no longer work that way. In no part of creation will anyone or anything take advantage of another or use them for their own benefit. All people and all creatures will live together in peace and harmony—harmony not based on being the same, but based on mutual respect and seeing that everyone gets what they need without hurting someone else.
And obviously there are parts of that that we can work towards in the here and now and parts of that that are going to have to wait for God’s coming. And that’s what God judges us and the world based on: how closely do we conform our lives and our hearts to God’s coming kingdom, and how much do we just go along with what the world tells us is normal. How much do we work so that all people and all of creation are treated fairly and get what they need to thrive, and how much do we buy into the dog-eat-dog mentality where you just have to look out for #1 and the people like you and if people you don’t like are suffering, it’s not your problem.
We are called to follow Christ. We are called to live into the coming reality of God’s kingdom. And within each of us, and within every human being and every social institution, there are good parts and there are bad parts. There are weeds that need to be pulled out, and there is good grain that needs to be nurtured and grow so that it can bear good fruit. Judgment is based on whether we take out the weeds and fertilize the wheat, or whether we just accept the weeds as normal. We will fall short sometimes. We will sin. We will have times when we make terrible judgments. But the point is not perfection, because that’s God’s job. Our job is to do the best with what we can, and trust that Christ is coming and that God’s judgment will prevail. Our job is to live in the light of that coming kingdom, where all people will receive peace and joy and love and support. We pray that that kingdom comes quickly, and we pray that we can do our part in helping it take root in this world.