Sometimes even prophets struggle to understand

Who likes to play cops and robbers? Who likes to watch movies where the good guys win, and the baddies are made to look ridiculous, or are thrown into jail, or are blown into smithereens? Most of us love the idea that bad people are punished, and good people win. Even the prophet John liked the idea. As we just heard, he preached that someone was coming—Jesus—who would gather all the good people together, and would burn the rubbish with unquenchable fire. John’s preaching was so alarming that people came from all over the countryside to be baptised and to confess their sins. Yet John roared at some of them. He called them names—“You brood of vipers!”—and said that everyone who did not bear fruit, that is, everyone who did not live well according to God, would be chopped down with an axe and thrown into the fire. And the implication is that the axe, and the fire, are God’s punishment.

This time before Christmas is called Advent. It is a time of waiting and preparing for the birth of Jesus, the king. And so this is a time for thinking about what sort of king we are preparing for. Is Jesus a king who has wicked people brought before him so he can chop off their heads with a battle axe? Is he a king who sends soldiers out rampaging to burn cities and fields? Is that the sort of king we are waiting for? And is that the sort of king John thought he was? Maybe.

When Jesus came, he wasn’t quite the king John had in mind. John had expected anger and judgement and punishment, but Jesus preached peace. Jesus taught that we are not to judge others; we are not to rip out the weeds from the wheat. Instead, we are to let the good and the bad grow together: and we are to love both. Jesus was different, and John was so confused by his teaching that he later asked, “Are you the one, or should we wait longer?” Even prophets struggle to understand.

Earlier in this service, we sang a song which draws on the vision of another prophet, Isaiah. In the original text, Isaiah teeters between two views of God. He describes God as violent, who will kill the wicked with his breath; but he also describes God’s culture of peace, where the lamb and the wolf, and the child and the tiger snake, can all play safely together. It is hard for humans to believe there is such a thing as a peaceful God, who wants no one to be hurt or destroyed. It is hard for humans to believe there is a peaceful king, who loves and forgives even the people who torture and kill him. It is so hard that even the prophets move in and out of understanding. And so Isaiah describes a God who kills the wicked, and in the next breath a God who will not allow anyone to hurt or destroy. John forecasts death through fire and axe, yet also describes God as so passionate about life that God can draw life out of stones. Even prophets struggle to understand.

For prophets are human, and are shaped by human ways, even as they give us glimpses of God’s longing for peace. But God’s ways are not our ways, and nor are Jesus’. It is not God who hurts and destroys; it is not God’s son, Jesus, who punishes with fire and sword. We are the ones who tear people down with our words and our deeds; we are the ones who wield the axe. We are the ones who send armies to kill, and to patrol our borders. We are the ones who judge and exclude others, and declare ourselves to be righteous. And, like the prophets, we find it hard to believe there could be a king who does not use his power to punish, and who is not violent. Like the prophets, we struggle to believe that a king could willingly take on the violence of the world. And yet this is the king we are waiting for.

For we are waiting for the king of the peaceful kingdom, the kingdom in which there are no goodies and no baddies; no insiders and no outsiders; no punishment and no violence. This king doesn’t kill the wolf; instead, to borrow a phrase from James Alison, this king sees and loves, even in the wolf, the often well-hidden heart of the sheep; or, in the imagery of Isaiah, this king shows the wolf, the lion, and the tiger snake how to live with others in peace. And since we all have a bit of the wolf, the lion, and the tiger snake in us, this king shows us the way out of our own violence, and draws us into loving community. And this, and only this king, is worth waiting for.

So question the prophet John’s expectations, even as you pay attention to his call. Prepare the way, but not by judging others; instead, learn how to forgive. Prepare the way, but not by cutting people down; instead, build each other up. Prepare the way, but not by wielding anger or violence; instead, practice gentleness and peace. For the kingdom of heaven has drawn near, and the king is coming. Let us be ready, and waiting. Amen. Ω

A reflection on Matthew 3:1-12 and Isaiah 11:1-10 for Sanctuary, 4 December 2016.

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