Scripture Readings: Matt 3:1-12; Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13
Hasn’t it been lovely, these past couple of weeks, to watch the snow fall? Such weather makes me want to snuggle up inside, next to a warm fire, drinking hot cider. If you’re hearing strains of “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow,” you know what I mean. Of course, snow can make travel treacherous, but, as long as we still have heat and light, many of us secretly enjoy the excuse it provides to indulge in winter comforts. Whatever the weather, this is the feeling we cultivate at “Christmastime,” trying with our decorations, family letters, and food preparations to recreate such coziness, the wonder of beauty, comfort, and family.
Of course, the weather always changes. This past Thursday, the rain descended, turning the crystalline beauty into slush. The ugly, half-melted remnant revealed the gritty asphalt and dead branches which had been hidden beneath the soft, smooth line of snow. No one sings “Let it slush!” for a reason. Nothing romantic or charming about it. We don’t want slush for Christmas.
We don’t want John the Baptist for Christmas, either, but that is what we get this second week of Advent. Of course, while slush is a melting mush which exposes the dirty under-layer of snow’s pristine white, John the Baptist all hard angles and desert severity. He comes in his coarse camel clothing with locusts and honey on his lips, preaching bare-bones wind, water, and fire. There is nothing nostalgic or comfortable in what he says or what he does. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” And if that doesn’t touch us, he moves onto insults. “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” No one is going to sell us a Christmas snow-globe with scenes of John the Baptist, and we are grateful for it.
We’d much rather dwell on Isaiah 11, wouldn’t we? “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.” Such hopeful imagery plays on deep longings, and it makes us catch our breath. Harmony between former enemies, predator and prey in repose together, a world safe for small children to reach out towards beauty. This is the imagery of childlike wonder we want at Christmastime. This is the world we want to capture in miniature.
But sometimes, without children around, adults find holiday preparations a bit pointless. The childlike wonder is gone, and when we look at the world, all we see is grey slush. What is there for us to do at Christmastime when the children have moved away and the world we inhabit seems exceedingly far off from “Peace on Earth, Good will to all?”
But if we look more closely at these scriptures, we see they both offer good news, challenging us to prepare ourselves for a blessing which goes far deeper and lasts far longer than any fleeting warm-and-cozy wonder we can work ourselves up to. They remind us that the preparations of Advent are different than the preparations of “Christmastime.” At Christmastime, we try to organize our outer environments to recapture feelings of inner contentment. But during Advent, we prepare by opening ourselves anew to the inner transformation of the Holy Spirit, by which we are truly able to bear nourishing fruits of righteousness and peace in our world.
The prophecy of Isaiah 11, for all the heartwarming imagery at its conclusion, begins with the stark image of a stump. A tree which has been cut down, a family lineage which has been cut off. The “stump of Jesse” is all that remains of the glorious dynasty of King David, of whom Jesse was father. The people of Israel had seen David’s royal family as the bearers of “God’s goodness and God’s faithfulness,” but in the prophet Isaiah’s time, David’s line had been exiled and crushed, first by the Babylonians and later by the Assyrians. For this conquered people, the promises of God’s faithfulness and goodness seem to have concluded in a “stump.” It is an image of “despair and resignation.”
And yet…“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The prophet predicts new life from that cut-down tree, as the Spirit of the Lord, the wind of God, which blows where it will, is able to breathe new being into the most lifeless of situations. The prophet announces that the Spirit will blow over that “stump.” A little shoot will grow, a Spirit-empowered king, who will bring incredible transformation. God’s Spirit resting upon him, this king will make righteous judgments. He will see through all appearances to decide on behalf of the poor and the meek. This righteousness and faithful justice will be so characteristic of this king’s governance that they shall be like clothes he wears. In and through this ruler’s righteous judgments, the Spirit will inaugurate a new world, in which creation itself will be renewed. Human justice will make peace for all creation possible.
Sounds like a bumper sticker: “Want peace? Work for justice.” And it turns out that we don’t receive a world with fuzzy lions we can cozy up to the way we might receive stuffed animals under the tree. God’s newness is not an easy gift to unwrap. It requires something from us. Here’s how Walter Brueggemann puts it:
“That new world, however, is not just a pious expression of hope that will come to fruition automatically or by osmosis. The newness is an intrusive reality that disrupts all that is old and destructive. The reception of the new public possibility requires a decision that is both daring and costly. It is daring because we will not know how to act in a genuinely just community. It is costly because we benefit from and are comfortable with old, deathly patterns of life.” 
This is where John the Baptist enters the picture. Matthew, borrowing from Isaiah, tells us that his task is to “prepare the way of the Lord.” His job is to prepare us to make daring, costly choices, to reorient our lives, away from false hopes, and toward God’s newness. John’s words grate like gravel on our ears, as he invite us and warn us to scour away that which hinders our path toward the new world we long for, confronting us with the imminent arrival of a day we’d rather avoid. As one commentator notes, “John overturns the secular definition of Advent as number of shopping days left until Christmas. John the Baptist’s version of Advent is number of repentance days left until judgment.”
For it is towards judgment that John the Baptist’s gnarly finger points, and it is good news. “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees,” he tells us. “One who is more powerful than is coming after me.” The One who is coming brings unquenchable fire for trees which have not borne good fruit and for useless chaff, sorted out from the threshing-floor. How is this good news? It sounds fearful. Some of us hear John’s language of the “fire” and “wrath to come,” and we equate his urgent warning to prepare for judgment to an imminent threat of punishment.
And most of us have been taught to fear punishment. Some of us learned to fear punishment when we received our “just desserts” for misdeeds. But others learned to fear punishment because they were abused for no reason by an abuser who told them they deserved it. And still others were taught by teachers and preachers that God is an angry punisher who must be obeyed or else. In all cases, the threat of punishment has often been used to motivate changes in behavior.
But judgment is not the same as punishment. Judgment is a decision. As we saw in the Isaiah passage, righteous judgment is an essential element of the justice which makes possible the coming of the “Peaceable Kingdom.” And so, we prepare for peace by preparing for righteous judgment. As has been noted, “The way to prepare for punishment is to flinch. The way to prepare for judgment is to repent.” My friends, we are not called to flinch. We are called to repent.
So, in calling us to repentance, John is calling us to a moment of truth, to make our own decision to accept and find hope in the coming righteous judgment. Here is why this is good news: Friends, we already know the end of this story! The righteous “shoot of Jesse” prophesied by Isaiah is also the “more powerful one” John says is coming after him. The One who baptizes, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire, is none other that the one who comes to lead us as a little child at Christmas, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
To accept and find hope in Christ’s judgment is to look into the loving eyes of the only One who, as one preacher puts it, “judges in order to forgive, accuses in order to justify, gives law in order to show grace, and dies that we might have life.” To open ourselves to the righteous judgment of Jesus Christ is to allow the chaff of our lives to be burnt away so that the essential, nourishing kernel of our true, whole selves can be gathered into his granary, fruit worthy of repentance.
Now, it is not easy or comfortable to repent. Few of us voluntarily admit our sins; none of us enjoy it. It is like intentionally choosing to muck around in winter’s gritty slush to clear a path. As one author describes it, “Repentance is an ‘I can’t’ experience. To repent is to volunteer for death. Repentance asks that the ‘death of self’ which God began to work in us in baptism continue to this day. The repentant person comes before God saying, ‘I can’t do it myself, God. Kill me and give me new life. You buried me in baptism. Bury me again today. Raise me to a new life.’”
Now, it is only December. Depending on how the weather goes this year, we may have a few more cycles of snow-slush-mud before the first breath of spring. But there’s no denying that slush is a necessary turning point between the soft, crystalline cover of winter snow and the new life birthed from the earth in spring, and so it is a sign of hope. In the Advent weeks to come, let us prepare ourselves to celebrate God’s coming among us at Christmas, and to work, each in our own way, for the justice that makes for peace, repenting and giving ourselves up to the transformation God wants to work within and among us, trusting and hoping in God’s eternal promise: new life is on the way.
All glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Snow globe idea from Alyce MacKenzie, “Fear of Punishment,” http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Fear-of-Punishment.html
 Brueggman, Walter, in Texts for Preaching Year A. Brueggemann, Cousar, Gaventa, and Newsome, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995, 10-18.
 Walter Brueggemann, in Texts for Preaching Year A, Brueggemann, Cousar, Gaventa, and Newsome, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995, 10-18.
 Alyce MacKenzie, “Fear of Punishment,” http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Fear-of-Punishment.html
Alyce MacKenzie as above.
 Alyce MacKenzie as above.
 David Lose, Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=428