Judgement and Justice: Second Sunday of Advent

Winnowing in Palestine, c. 1942.

You may know the tradition--not much observed now--that on the four Sundays of Advent, sermons are delivered on the cheery topics of death, judgment, heaven, and hell. 

There is obviously a disconnect between nearly all of these themes and the feast the world around us is now observing, and which happens to coincide with Advent, called "Christmas." The secular (or "Macey's") Christmas does not coincide at all with the Christian one, which begins after it finishes, but is at least in theory a season of unrelenting goodwill; judgement is certainly taboo, as we or our neighbors try to hold at bay the gloom of midwinter with symbols of comfort and joy, and perhaps emerge from the trenches of ideological warfare to play brief games of goodwill to remind ourselves of our common humanity. 

Some of the things that this too-soon Christmas celebrates are of course things we should celebrate too, even if the timing is off. If the one whose coming we anticipate through Advent is indeed the Word made flesh, through whom all things were made, we can always be ready to celebrate  the good gifts of God, in creation, in plenty, in family and friendship, and in generosity of spirit that may be shown at this or any time, because all of it comes through him and belongs to him, whether or not that is understood by those celebrating. So be of good cheer as you navigate the worldly Christmas along with the Advent season.

What is wrong with the other Christmas though (timing aside) is not its celebration of goodwill but its pretense that this suffices. Over here in Advent we know, or should, that we cannot proceed quickly or easily past John's warnings-- or those of Jesus--merely to embrace world-affirming messages, without reckoning with judgement. 

We need not rely on old preaching traditions to foreground the contrasting theme, given how John the Baptist in the Gospel today places the question squarely before us. John warns his hearers to become metaphorically-fruitful trees that bear a crop worthy of repentance, lest they be cut down. While we expect this wild man of the desert to speak unseasonally-harsh words of preparation, he actually  suggests that Jesus' response to how we grow and bear fruit or not is more radical, not less: "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."

This image of Jesus enthusiastically wielding a great garden implement around us could only be seasonal if you think of some moralizing figure like Krampus, meting out punishment to the naughty rather than as the Santa-like bearer of presents for all assumed to be nice.

Admittedly the image of dividing the world into the wheat and the chaff can still be attractive for the worst of reasons, even if we are pressured to deny it seasonally. We live in a remarkably divided society politically and ideologically, where liberal and conservative may smugly attribute the status of chaff to each other because of their opinions. Division is real, but the name-calling and blame often misses the point; ideological rifts are not always correlated with the deeper ways we are divided.

Consider that the top 10% in this country hold nearly 70% of the wealth, the bottom 50% about 2.5 percent, and that these obscene gaps are strongly correlated with racial and ethnic identity. Yet those who are denied fullest participation in, and benefit from, the good things that all should enjoy are variously lulled, amused, provoked and of course divided by claims and arguments that fail even to consider the truth, let alone to reveal it. The hateful resurgence of anti-semitic tropes is one instance of this--of false narratives such as racial scapegoating, that are not only vile and untrue, but distract from where real and deeper divisions lie and attempt to pit the marginalized against each other.

We do need judgement--Jesus' judgment--because we often judge poorly, and thus neither recognize fruit nor bear it. And this is not merely about social relations; it is about ourselves. For the false narratives of division are not all political and external; we keep at bay how we ourselves may in fact be ripe for judgement too.

Rowan Williams has put it this way: 

"...[judgement] is far more than a simple separation of the already godly from the already damned: the scope of Jesus' work is the world – so, we must assume…a newly discovered identity in encounter with Jesus represents a change for at least some."

In order for the real joy that we will celebrate in the incarnation to be more than superficial, we have to be changed;  we must in fact both judge and be judged, not as an end in itself or merely to expose who is good and who is bad. 

The point of all judgement of course is justice; which ultimately means not the division of people into two categories, but the unification of people into one. So judgement, despite its appearance of dividing, is ultimately about reconciliation--not the merely compulsory seasonal goodwill that ignores unpalatable truths. The division of wheat from chaff is the separation of reality from appearance, of what is fruitful from what is not. And this process may entail sorting things within us as much or more than between us.

The truth however hard is what needs to be winnowed into visibility, within us and in our broken society. Desmond Tutu, in his 2004 book God has a Dream, said 

"True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking, but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing."

This why Jesus comes heaving the winnowing fork, and not merely the presents. This one through whom all things were made, the joy of whose Advent is sketchily remembered even in the secular world, does comes with gifts, but they are gifts deeper than most are initially likely to want. Yet we need them all the more; his truth to expose the truths that must be faced if we are all to celebrate with the real joy, and his judgement to test and sift and refine us, that we may at his coming be ready to meet him and to bear good fruit. 

[based on a sermon given at Christ Church, New Haven, December 4 2022]


  1. Anonymous10:52 pm

    Dear Fr Andrew, as I wrestle for an appropriate description concerning the above article, the search seems a rather selfish one: to impress. But essentially what I feel is humbled. You have taught me a lot. Thank you! Mark.


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