Isaiah 11.1-10; Matthew 3.1-12
A poem by Edmund Banyard
He stood before the court in nondescript clothes,
no papers, no fixed address.
The judge cleared his throat,
“Have you anything to say
before I pass sentence?”
What might have been his answer
had the prisoner the gift of speech
and the court the gift of hearing?
“I am condemned because your law
allows no place for me.
My crimes I freely admit:
I am homeless, seeking shelter
where I may rear my family in modest decency.
I am stateless, seeking a country
where I may belong by right to God’s good earth.
I am destitute, claiming a share of the wealth
that is our common heritage.
I am a sinner, needing aid from fellow sinners.
“You will dispose of me according to your law,
but you will not so easily dispose of him
who owns me citizen in his kingdom.
He frowns on crimes your law condones;
pride, selfishness and greed,
the worship of all things material
and the refusal to acknowledge me as brother
“By your law I stand condemned;
but one day you must answer
to the master of us all
for the havoc caused by your law
in his realm.”
We need to talk about judgement. Advent is a traditional time to address the subject. But we need to talk about judgement also because this week, we are told, we, the people, will pass judgement on those seeking office in our land. Our politicians will receive the judgement of the people. And where will that leave us, I wonder?
Of course, from the perspective of history, of future generations, the decisions we collectively make will help form the judgement on us. We will be judged, and found – wanting? Misguided, confused, surprising?
Judgement is one of those words – seemingly straight-forward, yet heavy with history and reference – that becomes more complicated when examined. And all too slippery, and difficult to work out, in the messy realities of our present. How do we form a judgement on our present time, on ways forward, on ourselves?
Isaiah, just as he did for Matthew when he was writing his gospel, articulates our hope for God’s Chosen One, the Prince of Peace by whom and through whom all that we long for will come to be: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord,” says Isaiah. And then, “The wolf shall live with the lamb … the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
When we turn to our gospel reading, we are confronted by a more disturbing articulation of what is to come. John the Baptist, dressed in camel’s hair clothing, chewing on a locust, perhaps, is abroad in the wilderness, proclaiming the need for repentance in the face of God’s approaching kingdom. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he exhorts the crowd. In Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist is an uncomfortable figure: raging – “you brood of vipers,” he accuses the local leadership – and solitary; yet charismatic in drawing the crowds; and always pointing beyond himself to the One who is to come, to come with the Holy Spirit and fire, with salvation and judgement.
John the Baptist can seem a harsh and jarring interruption into our longings for peace, so beautifully articulated by Isaiah. And yet, judgement is inevitably bound up with such longing. If our longing is anything more than generalised feel-good fodder for Christmas, it must find expression in action. As we are drawn by the articulation of Advent hope into God’s longing for the world, so we realise that such longing involves us, disturbs us. If we look again at Isaiah, we find there a very concrete sense of how God’s promised peace and justice will come: “With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” In its original context this was a passage directed at Israel’s king: this was the standards by which his rule was to be judged. It became in Christian understanding a passage that looked forward into the future, to the coming of Christ, but originally it was a concrete prophetic blast at the leadership of his time. Our longing for God’s future asks questions of our present, of our concrete relationship with the poor and the meek of the earth – those excluded from society, disregarded in the pursuit of wealth and status. The longing for something more than we currently possess asks questions of what we do possess. To speak of judgement means that we approach Christmas not just in anticipation, but also in apprehension: what might that Prince of Peace, born anew in our hearts and minds, lead us into and toward? For that Prince of Peace, as Isaiah puts it, shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear. Instead, unswayed by the rich and powerful, he will get to the heart of things, to the truth beyond our lazy half-truths and evasions. That ability, to get to the truth of us and our world, is disturbing, and yet, in our current confusion, also healing.
Last week, the campaigning housing charity, Shelter, released a report about the current extent of homelessness in the UK. It estimated that at least 135,000 children will be homeless and living in temporary accommodation across Britain on Christmas day – the highest number for 12 years. It further estimates that a child in the United Kingdom loses their home every eight minutes – 183 children per day. “With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
When speaking of judgement it is all too tempting to slide into ourselves becoming arbiter and judge, the occupier of the moral high ground over others. Our readings today point to the opposite conclusion: that if our longings are taken seriously, then they make demands upon us; to enter into Advent hope is to find ourselves judged. But that is not to point the finger, it is to deepen our realisation of our need of God’s grace and mercy; as John the Baptist reminds us, of our need for repentance and God’s grace for the disturbing task of incarnating, of living out the more peaceful and just relationships we long for. We are judged by what we long for; or more accurately, we are judged by God’s longing found in us.
Yesterday, at Brian Hardy’s funeral, I was told of his response to the challenge of summing up the gospel in one sentence. Well, Brian said, it might be summed up thus: Jesus comes along and says: ‘We can’t keep going on like this you know.’ That is God’s word of judgement – not of condemnation, but of disturbing companionship; for the Word is coming among us. And we can’t keep going on like this, you know. “He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
God our healer,
whose mercy is like a refining fire,
touch us with your judgement,
and confront us with your tenderness;
that, being comforted by you,
we may reach out to a troubled world,
through Jesus Christ, Amen.