When Even Judgement Can Be Good News

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, December 8, 2013
Lisa Wiens-Heinsohn

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'" Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

When I was twenty years old in college I went on a foreign study program to the Middle East to study the Arab-Israeli conflict.  We spent 3 weeks in Amman, Jordan, getting to know Palestinian refugees there, and then we spent three months mostly in Jerusalem but also touring all over Israel and the West Bank and Gaza.  We interviewed so many people – Jews and Palestinians of all different political and religious persuasions.  It was an amazing experience.

As most of you know I was raised in a pretty conservative Christian tradition, and when I arrived in the Middle East, I still more or less considered myself a part of that tradition.  But gradually over the course of the time there, as I saw more and more people doing violence to one another in the name of God, I started feeling less and less comfortable with the faith I had grown up with.  Finally one day we met with this ultra conservative Jewish rabbi in Hebron, in the West Bank, who looked like a prophet.  He had the most peaceful serene face.  Yet what he was telling us was incredibly violent.  He belonged to the group of people who had car bombed elected Palestinian mayors in Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian government in the West Bank.  He had done this because he was certain that these Palestinians were evil, that they ought to be stopped.  And you know—the peace, the total certainty he had about his position reminded me of similar people I had grown up with—people who weren’t car bombing anyone, but who were equally sure, in an oddly peaceful kind of way, that most of the world was going to hell, which sounded pretty violent to me.  Well at that point I lost all faith in organized religion.  It seemed to me that anything that could make one group of people judge another group of people to such an extent that it justified violence, was not for me.  I had woken up that morning a Christian.  I went to bed that night convinced of only one thing: that religion, when it led people to judge each other, was inherently bad.

So in today’s text, in rolls the prophet John the Baptizer, preaching fire and brimstone, talking about repentance and unquenchable fire and such.  He says, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.  According to the text he looks a whole lot like that rabbi I met years ago in the wilderness of Judea, in Hebron, and at first glance, he’s about as likeable.  In this time of Advent, when a lot of us are fondly looking forward to eggnog and presents, he’s a jarring note.  Why are we talking about repentance and judgment right now, of all times? 

The strange thing is that this is what prophets always do—they always talk about repentance and judgment—and this is always the message that needs to be heard and digested to prepare the way for the coming of Christ.  Many of us wince when we hear the words repentance and judgment, and for good reason.  But in fact both repentance and even judgment are realities whose healing power we could use reclaiming.  Let’s start with repentance.  Repentance is not about feeling shame or feeling bad and wrong or considering ourselves to be the worthless worms we heard about in the King James version of the Bible or the churches of our childhood. Repentance just means to turn around. Prophets are the ones who help us to repent, to do an about- face:  They do this by telling difficult truths.  Nelson Mandela, who died this week, named the difficult truth that apartheid in South Africa was evil, and he sacrificed his freedom to bring freedom and justice for his people.  Martin Luther King named the evil of racism and segregation in the United States and quoted the Old Testament prophet Amos when he called for justice and righteousness to roll down like an ever-flowing stream.  Repentance is about turning away from the personal and systemic evil we participate in, and turning toward the life of God.  

What is the life of God that we turn toward?  John the Baptizer says that evidence of this life lies in “bearing fruit worthy of repentance.”  Many people think the “fruit” he is talking about is just means we ought to quit doing bad things and start doing good things, and they’re not wrong.  But it goes way deeper than that.  Fruit comes from healthy life and makes new life possible.  Fruit bears the seed of future life.  A life without fruit is a life that is dying.  So what John the Baptizer is inviting us to do, by bearing fruit worthy of repentance, is to turn away from those things in our lives that have no future, that are leading nowhere for ourselves and others, and instead to turn in the direction of life.  When we are facing in the direction of life, we bear fruit.  And ironically, we can’t will fruit to come.  Anyone who has dealt with infertility knows that one cannot by force of will be able to bear children, and that’s true for repentance as well: the truth is that fruit is a miracle, like the birth of the Christ Child is a miracle, and what we can do and what we must do is to turn from those things that lead to death and toward those things that lead to life, and then pray for God’s grace to make our lives creative, and vital, and life-giving—not just for ourselves, but for others. 

Let me tell you a story about Nelson Mandela’s life that might help explain what repentance and bearing fruit is all about.  Nelson Mandela spent years in prison, imprisoned for his work for the African National Congress which used both non-violent and violent means to fight apartheid, to fight for racial justice and freedom in South Africa.  For long periods when he was in prison he was only allowed two letters and two visits per year.  He was not allowed to attend the funerals of his mother and his own son.  He contracted tuberculosis from the damp conditions in his cell and was physically and emotionally abused by his captors.  According to the foreward of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, hatred kept him alive for a long time in prison.  When he was finally released from prison after twenty-seven years, as he was leaving the prison, he realized that if he continued to hate his enemies, they would still have him.  And he wanted to be free.  So he let his hatred go.  And that paved the way for the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa, where oppressors were invited to come together with those they had harmed, tell every detail of the wrongs they had committed, hear from their victims what they had experienced--and then receive unconditional pardon and amnesty, as long as they faced the horrible truth of what they had done.

So you see, even Nelson Mandela, that great prophet for justice, had to face repentance.  His hatred was justified, just as we’ve had mostly good reasons for doing the things we’ve done and the attitudes we’ve had.  But hatred led Mandela to captivity and a lack of inner freedom.  So Mandela turned away from his hatred and toward truth and a willingness to work toward a free South Africa where neither whites nor blacks could dominate the other. 

So let’s talk about judgment.  Judgment is just naming the natural end result of where our sins are taking us, individually and as a system.  Repentance is the choice to turn from that path that leads to death and toward what leads to life.  Judgment sounds like good news when those who are being oppressed finally hear the truth publicly named.  The next time you read a difficult Psalm, a Psalm asking God for judgment against the wicked, just imagine how healing those Psalms might be for people who are being oppressed and for whom there has been no human justice, like the young homeless man at Youthlink who was beaten and kicked in the face by police officers at 5:00 am this Thursday in Minneapolis.  Judgment sounds like good news when it offers us the chance to let go of negative patterns in which we are entrenched and open ourselves to the miracle of new life.  Judgment is never about justifying the violence we want to inflict on other people we consider unworthy.  It is always about facing the end result of the violence that tempts us and choosing life instead.

So as we prepare for the coming of Christ, for the miracle of Emmanuel, I would invite you to a daily practice of turning to face in the direction of God’s life.  You’ve probably heard it before if you’ve been in Dan and Judy Johnson’s faith forums. It’s called the Examen, and it’s an ancient Jesuit practice.  At the end of every day, I would invite you to survey what you saw in your day and notice what was most life-giving and what was least life-giving, for yourself and for those around you.  In fact let’s do that now.  What in your life do you notice is bringing increasing life and love for you and those around you, those in your world?  Conversely, what in your life – attitudes, behaviors, or habits of mind--are not going anywhere—what has no future, for you and for the world you live in?  Over time, as you do this Examen every night before you go to bed, you will begin to see patterns.  You will see where God’s grace and God’s joy and vitality are showing up in your life –places where you experience gratitude and a greater capacity to give and receive love.  You will also see dead zones, areas where you are closed off from yourself, from God, and from the well-being of others.  Then make the choice to align your whole life in the direction of God’s life, in the practical areas it is showing up in your life.  This is one way to practice discernment, one of the eight spiritual practices the people of St. Matthews have identified as central to us in following the way of Jesus. As we see, discernment is an essential precondition to repentance. One has to see where the life is, and where it is not, before one can turn toward life.

And then, once you have discerned where God’s life is and have made the choice to align yourself in the direction of that life. be prepared for the miracle of fruit. The point of the prophets and all their strange talk of judgment and repentance is not just to get us to do a daily examination of conscience. It is to prepare for the coming of Christ, for grace.  Nelson Mandela let go of hatred, but the fruit of that was liberation and reconciliation for a whole country, black and white alike—something he alone could never accomplish.  When we orient ourselves toward the life of God, God comes to us, God is with us. God’s life moves in us and we ourselves become pregnant with God, with the life God wants to birth in this world.  Amen.