Here is Advent - all nicely trimmed in violet and rose - and what are we doing with it? What is it all about? what is it for? In Advent we look for the coming of Christ in the flesh - that's what the word 'Advent' means; but what do we look for in his coming? How shall we prepare for his coming? For John the Baptist the coming of the Messiah meant the coming of the Judge: the one to set all wrongs to right, to vindicate the righteous, to punish the wicked, to uphold God's law; and if Christ is coming as Judge, that means our preparation must consist in repentance. And what is repentance? it is measuring ourselves not by own edited version of moral standards, but by the standard of God's law. It means facing the truth about yourself, without excuse, evasion, without blaming others, without self-exonerating self-punishment - and being ready to change.
Now John also had recognized Jesus as the promised messiah or Christ; but when John was unjustly thrown into prison, and Jesus begins his own public ministry, the putative Messiah's ministry was not quite what John and his disciples were expecting. Like John, Jesus proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God, and calls sinners to repentance in preparation for the day of judgment - but as an event still in the future. With John himself a victim of injustice, the question becomes acute: where is the promised day of judgment, of vindication and retribution? This is what lies behind the two questions of today's gospel lesson - one about Jesus, and one about John. Is Jesus really the Messiah? art thou he that should come, or look we for another? And if John was mistaken about Jesus, what about John? what place did his ministry have in the unfolding purpose of God?
John deals with the question about Jesus by sending his disciples to Jesus - and Jesus answers by pointing them to the evidence of the eyes and ears. As he said on another occasion: If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him. (John 10:37, 38). But on this occasion he specifies the works that he does in the Father's name: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. This is not the ministry of wrath that John expected - but these are unquestionably the works of salvation foretold of God's coming kingdom (as foretold e.g. in Isaiah 35 and 61). They manifest Jesus not as Judge but as Savior - as the one who delivers humanity from death, disability, defilement, and the poor from the crushing burden of debt. They are signs of the one who has come to grant us full remission of all our debts to justice, in the forgiveness of our sins, and regeneration by his Holy Spirit. This is the grace that makes the desert of our souls to rejoice, and blossom as the rose. Just as the judgment preached by John calls for repentance, so the gospel preached by Jesus calls for us to trust him exclusively as Savior and Lord. As Jesus himself says, blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.
So John's ministry preaches judgment and calls for repentance; the ministry of Jesus preaches the gospel of saving mercy, and calls for faith; and like John or his disciples, we may think there is a disconnect here. But the psalmist assures us, that in Christ's coming, Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other. There are in fact three ways in which John's ministry of judgment unto repentance and Jesus' ministry of saving mercy unto faith are connected; and the first is the one that Jesus himself points to explicitly, in his answer to the question about John - what went ye out for to see? No softie, no shyster, not at all - a witness of fearless integrity. For this is he, says Jesus, of whom it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
The ministry of John - the preaching of judgment unto repentance - is the preparation God has willed for the advent of his Son - the preaching of salvation unto faith. The gospel of saving mercy is proclaimed to the poor - but it is John who exposes our spiritual poverty, that Christ may make us rich in his mercy. It's by John's preaching of judgment unto repentance, that we know our need of saving mercy, and are prepared to receive in faith Christ when he comes in saving justice. John binds, that Jesus may loose; John puts all under judgment that Jesus may have mercy upon all; John shows that we are blind, lame, defiled, deaf, and dead, that Jesus may make us see, hear, walk, be cleansed, and live unto God. Without the conviction of sin that we receive from the preaching of John, the free and full forgiveness of sins, of love for sinners, is just cheap grace. Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
So that's the first connection - that judgment prepares us for mercy - but it also works the other way around - mercy is the basis of judgment. Christ comes once in saving mercy, but he will come again in glory, to judge the world, just as John foretold; when Christ, as his Apostle Paul testifies in today's epistle lesson, both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God. It will be justice most exact and perfect, a justice that vindicates the righteous and punishes the wicked, a justice even for the dead, even for John the Baptist and countless other martyrs who died unjustly for the gospel's sake; for on that day the dead will rise, the righteous to glory, and the wicked to shame. The ransomed of the LORD shall return, as Isaiah prophesies, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
On that day, we shall be judged, not only on the basis of the law to which John bears witness, but also of the use we have made of the gospel proclaimed by Jesus in word and deed - "the usings and misusings of thy grace" as one of the hymnographers puts it. As St. Paul says, we are stewards of the mysteries of God; and it is required of stewards, that a man be found faithful. Jesus himself said, Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. As Jesus gives himself and all the blessings of the gospel to faith alone, to be offended in Jesus, to stumble at believing in him as Messiah and Savior, is to refuse the salvation he brings - it is to bring down judgment upon yourself, by your own choice. So there will indeed be a day, when the judgment John looked for is made final and permanent; but it is a judgment that is being worked out here and now, not as something imposed on us from outside, but in the choices we make every day and every hour: to receive and live by faith in Jesus, or to reject him. As St. John the Evangelist said, God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light... (3:17-19).
So judgment prepares us for mercy, and it is on our receiving or rejection of his mercy that we shall be judged. Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other. But there is a third way in which these are connected - and that is in the cross of Jesus; for there he takes upon himself the wrath that our sins deserved, our misusings of his grace - that he may give us the full favor that his righteousness alone deserves. It is at the cross that judgment passes over into saving mercy; and if we would repent according to the preaching of John, and believe in the gospel according to the preaching of Jesus - then we must look to the cross. There we shall see the truth of our vile sin exposed, and also the yet greater gracious love of God. To repent, as I said earlier, is to face the truth about ourselves, the truth that we like to avoid, and to accept the need for us to change - but truth alone is not enough, it crushes us. For us to change, we must also know and believe that we are loved, deeply, and completely, despite all our failures, more than we dare think possible. And when that happens, the place where mercy and truth meet together, and righteousness and peace kiss each other, is our own soul. This is what Advent means; this is what it is for; God give us grace to use it well.