…when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, [John the baptiser] …said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor;” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt. 3. 7-10)
In our churches we hear a lot about how much God loves us. And who could doubt it, especially as we look forward to Christmas and to the extraordinary step that God took in deciding to become one of us – human, as well as divine – and all that flowed from that astonishing decision? But that love has more than one aspect.
Think about it in purely human terms. Think about being a parent. You don’t have to be a parent yourself for this purpose – in fact, you may well see more clearly what I mean if you are not yourself a parent. Parents love their children – be they babies, adults or, increasingly nowadays, old age pensioners themselves. These offspring never cease to be their parents’ children, and a good parent’s love will never cease toward them. But loving, for a parent, is not a primrose path – certainly not during their offspring’s childhood – and maybe into their adult lives too. Parents remember all the fights which they had to break up. All those “it’s not fair, she started it, you always blame me” and so forth. Then a loving parent has to step in as judge and jury, to decide what is right, to make plain what is good and loving behaviour and what is not acceptable. There are even times when it seems right to punish children for their misdemeanours. Whatever those parents’ policies about punishment or sanctions, there has to be a clear understanding that they will fail their children if they do not pull them up on behaviour that is unkind or foolish or dangerous. In their roles as judge and, sometimes, jailer, they are, of course, acting out of love for their children – even at those times when they feel like hitting them in their anger and frustration.
You get my drift, don’t you? Yes, we hear about the God who loves us – we who are God’s children. And we need to hear that, in that love, there has to be an element of judgement. We need to be told what is wrong with how we are running the world God has given us, what is wrong with how we share or don’t share this planet and its goodness with the rest of God’s children. We have to be told when what we are doing (or just going along with, so it’s not my fault really!) is foolish or cruel or dangerous.
God is not a violent, vengeful or cruel parent and will not hit us. But God might well bring us to our senses with a bang to open our eyes to how we live our lives, to show us what kind of society we are helping to maintain or to run.
The prophets of the Old Testament were consistent in their message, the message that John the Baptiser repeats in the ministry described in our gospel reading today. God lays down clear guidelines: there must be righteousness done for the poor and for the powerless of the earth. God’s people are to live faithful to their calling as God’s sons and daughters. Nothing less will do. Only then can there be peace on earth, only then can there be that earthly paradise which the prophet Isaiah longed to see in our Old Testament reading today.
And it will be no good, says Isaiah, no good, says St Paul, no good says the gospel writer, no good relying on God’s ancient promise that we are God’s children. Because we are all of us God’s children, and God’s love (like that of any loving parent) is for all those children – not just a favoured religious few. The message of God’s love remains that of a parent who will see justice done, who will not condone neglect, or exploitation, or cruelty or self-righteousness.
I am not a good Christian – this is no false modesty – and some of you probably are, though I suspect that many of you are more like me. However, if the promise held out by Christianity is what stirs the fire in you as it does in me, then you will know what I mean, when I say that God’s love is like a refining fire. You find yourself having to make choices, having to make priorities in your life, having to make and keep promises that are sometimes hard, having sometimes to go against the general tide, having to think new and sometimes disturbing thoughts about where you and I and the rest of us are going in the society of which we are all parts.
Today in South Africa, people are assembling in halls, in temples, in churches, in mosques and in synagogues to remember and to be thankful for a man who, in their experience, came closest to meeting those demands. Nelson Mandela was not a perfect human being. But, in the testimony of those who knew him, who opposed him or who supported him, he made those difficult choices. One word used consistently about his life and his witness is “love”. He himself fought for justice for the oppressed, for the poor and the marginalised. He would not be bought off, but went against the stream and paid the price. He made firm judgements and used his righteous anger to confront wrongdoing.
The other word used about him by opponents such as Pik Botha and by supporters such as Denis Goldberg is “forgiveness”. It is that term that enables parents to hold together their love and their righteous judgement, their embraces and their sanctions. It is a pattern that has its origin in the nature of God who is parent, lover and judge of us all.