Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
You brood of vipers! Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. The one who is to come has a winnowing fork in his hand and will burn chaff with unquenchable fire.
Whoa. This doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know and love, does it? Sounds a little scary and judgmental, even. Is this the Good News?
John the Baptist is kind of a scary guy with a scary message. Some consider him the last Old Testament Prophet.
John’s got the prophetic chops: he has a special birth story (his parents were sort of like Abraham and Sarah—old and told that they would have a child who would grow up to be someone special). He has a weird lifestyle and appearance that sets him apart. He’s got a clear message, and he’s not afraid to say things we don’t want to hear. He’s not particularly smooth, and he’s not trying to please everyone or impress anyone. Not surprisingly, he ends up losing his head.
John’s message sounds more like Ezekiel or Jeremiah speaking on behalf of the one some call “the God of the Old Testament” than a message from the one we think of as “the God of the New Testament.”
Which is why this John-the-Baptist-Sunday is the perfect time for me to try to put to rest, once and for all, the idea that there are two different Gods: the mean, vengeful God of the Old Testament, and the gentle, loving God of the New Testament.
The mean Old Testament God is typified when God is angry at his beloved Israel. This past week, those of you who pray morning prayer read from Amos about a God who smites with mildew, sends worms to destroy gardens, slays armies of young Israelites, and does all manner of other things to entice his people back to the fold.
There is not time this morning to give examples of all the readings from the Hebrew Bible that make some people say: “I only like the God of the New Testament.” You can find these passages in the Book of Genesis, where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son for no good reason. Or the psalms, where people cry out to God and get no reply. Or—my personal not-favorite—the Book of Joshua, where God instructs the people of Israel to “utterly destroy” the cities and towns in the region he has given them. Lovely.
And then there’s the nice God of the New Testament: the God who gives us Jesus with a lost sheep over his shoulder, or sitting with children on his knee. The God who gives us Jesus of the Beatitudes, who says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you for your coat, give your cloak as well. “ Et cetera.
Like the story of King Solomon and the disputed baby, it seems easier to split God in half than to reconcile all of the ways that God appears to us. Seems.
But ours is a both/and God. On the Sunday after Christmas, we’ll hear the first verses of the Gospel of John: “in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” If we believe these words—and I do—then we must search for, rather than deny, the absolute continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. This continuity expresses itself in the person of John the Baptist and in the person of Jesus.
What can we say about the parts of the Old Testament we don’t like? At the risk of sounding heretical (didn’t I say something heretical last week??) we can say that Holy Scripture is the Word of God written in the words of humans, humans who sometimes use their own words to interpret what has happened to them as a critique that they attribute to God. There are times when we might do well to think of Old Testament stories of destruction and punishment as confessional.
Prophets in our time who speak out against our treatment of the earth God has given into our care, for example, might speak with the same angry and vengeful language that makes us bristle when we read it in scripture. God’s abundant love sometimes gets lost in translation. My favorite illustration of this is that we are used to reading that Jacob hated Leah, but Jacob and Leah had seven children together. If we look hard enough, we can find love and grace just about anywhere.
There is only one God, and the Hebrew Scriptures are our scriptures.
A word of warning, however. As I urge all of you to cozy up with the Old Testament, these are our scriptures BUT they are not exclusively ours. To say that Jesus is the expression of God’s love that was there from the beginning is different from saying that all the parts of the Old Testament we like are the parts that predict the coming of Jesus. We can claim the Old Testament as ours without saying it is only ours.
Ours is a Both/And God. Both a God whose messengers say things we don’t want to hear, and a God who sends us prophets like Isaiah who promise that the wolf shall live with the lamb, and children shall play without fear near the den of snakes. Ours is a both/and Jesus, both a Jesus who judges our priorities, separating wheat from chaff, sheep from goats, and a Jesus who welcomes sinners and teaches love.
The message of Advent, the message from John the Baptist is the ultimate both/and message: “repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.” A little later, Jesus says: “repent and believe the Good News.” Yes, there is work to be done, minds and hearts to be changed. Ours. As Bill Shonley used to say at Blazer games, “No one ever said it was going to be easy.” God’s love and grace is for everyone, and it is hard work following Jesus. We are called to repent, to change our hearts and minds and there is very, very Good News. The Kingdom of God is coming near to us. Within our reach. Sins forgiven, peace promised, healing offered, hope proclaimed.
Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.