The Fear of Punishment: Advent Reflections on Matthew 3:1-12

I was driving my son to school one morning and a police car was behind me. It wasn't following me; it was just driving along behind me. Still, I pulled over. I figured it was only a matter of time until I committed some traffic violation, so I just pulled over to get it over with. Then, of course, rather than passing me, he pulled over too, to see what was wrong, and that led to a completely ridiculous conversation. He should have given me a ticket for public paranoia.

In her book Prophetic Preaching: A Pastoral Approach (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), Leonora Tubbs Tisdale outline seven qualities of prophetic preaching:

  1. Rooted in the biblical witness: both in the testimony of the Hebrew prophets of old and in the words and deeds of the prophet Jesus of Nazareth.
  2. Countercultural and challenges the status quo.
  3. Concerned with public issues, not just personal ones.
  4. Requires the preacher to name both what is not of God in the world (criticizing) and the new reality God will bring to pass in the future (energizing).
  5. Offers hope of a new day to come and the promise of liberation to God's oppressed people.
  6. Incites courage in its hearers and empowers them to work to change the social order.
  7. Heart that breaks with the things that break God's heart: passion for justice, imagination, conviction, courage, humility, honesty and a strong reliance on the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

It seems to me that John's preaching excels in #s 1-4. But for #s 5-7 we look to one who comes after him. He has a winnowing fork; he seeks to destroy sin, but he offers hope, courage, and compassion in the meantime. There is still time to prepare for the coming of this righteous judge.

Judgment is not the same as punishment. The peaceful kingdom described in Isaiah 11:2-11, this week's Old Testament lectionary text, is a kingdom of righteous judgments in which the wicked face the consequences of their actions, but in which the ultimate goal is peace and justice in the land. The way to prepare for punishment is to flinch. The way to prepare for judgment is to repent.

The good news of the Incarnation is that God meets our fear of punishment with the hope of peace. It is the hope of one who "shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth" (Is. 11:3, 4).

Phillips Brooks wrote the lyrics to "O Little Town of Bethlehem" after a Christmas visit to the Holy Land in 1865.

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,

While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.

O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,

And praises sing to God the King, and peace to all the earth!

Read John C. Holbert's Old Testament reflection for this week here.

For more resources for preaching, visit the Patheos Preachers Portal.

11/29/2010 5:00:00 AM
Alyce McKenzie
About Alyce McKenzie
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.