And then, to add insult to injury, the police officer who came to the scene gave me a ticket for failure to yield. That means I got in the way of the other car when I was supposed to let it go first. Oh, the unfairness. I was lost. I had an appointment that I was late for. I was working for a church. And now I was being punished!
I had to appear in court several weeks later in Atlanta. So I found my way to this large room full of Formica tables and chairs, all facing forward to the judge’s bench. I stood on the cold, hard, light gray tile floors with cold hard light gray walls around and faced the judge, in her black robes on her high, dark oak bench. The police officer was there to bear witness regarding the accident. The judge did her job appropriately. She asked me whether I contested the citation. I said that I did not contest the citation. So she politely referred me to the treasurer’s office, where I went to pay my fine. I walked out of the courthouse chastened and repentant, to drive more carefully in the future.
Judges on high benches who do their jobs appropriately are good. They keep us from driving too fast and swerving out in front of other cars and causing wrecks.
In Jesus’ day, the people of Judea felt a great need for a judge on a high bench. In Hebrew tradition, a righteous judge showed no partiality. It did not matter if you worked for a church. It did not matter if you were rich or middle class or poor. It did not matter if you were famous or popular or powerful or if you held high political office. Did you do it, or not? That was the question.
A righteous judge showed no partiality, but the righteous judge did make sure that the system listened just as carefully to the people who were weak as it did to those who were strong. The judge looked out especially for the interest of the widow and the orphan and the foreigner, someone from another country, and the poor.
They wanted God to send a righteous judge because the Romans, for all of their talk about bringing peace and civilization to the barbarian savages beyond their borders, the Romans were pushing the common Judean folk closer and closer to slavery. They wanted a righteous judge to attend to them.
The problem with a judge on a high bench, though, is that the judge is also going to attend to you. All those times when we feel pleasure at the discomfort of somebody we don’t like. Those times when we enjoy an advantage that somebody else does not, and we just let it pass. Or we see someone at a disadvantage, but we take no notice. It’s not that big a deal, really. All those times we have hurt people, then kind of forgotten about it. They should just get over it. Those times when we have sold ourselves out. The judge comes to me and you.
In the verses before the Gospel lesson for today, John the Baptist appears on the edge of the wilderness and says “Repent,” change your mind, your way of looking at the world, “For the kingdom of God is near.” Now, he doesn’t just speak to us as individuals, saying, “You, over there, repent. And you need to repent too. And you, you really need to repent.” No, he is speaking to many people. He is saying “You all repent.” “You guys need to repent.” He is speaking to a nation, a people, a species.
The judge on the high bench, the One who is coming is close.
Matthew makes clear to us that Jesus is that One, the judge on the high bench. Since the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew has traced Jesus’ lineage through King David all the way back to Abraham. The angel has told Joseph that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and will save his people from their sins. The magi have brought Jesus gifts of homage from far away countries as Isaiah foretold. The petty tyrant Herod has committed genocidal atrocities against the children of Bethlehem in an effort to destroy the newborn king. Jesus is the One.
John says that Jesus is coming. His winnowing fork is in his hand. He will gather the wheat into his grainery and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
That scares me. I want to be in the barn with the wheat. I don’t want to have to deal with that unquenchable fire. And indeed in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus does get mad. He gets furious, purple faced with rage at hypocrisy and at those who forget the love of the poor. Jesus is a judge.
But the very next word, after “unquenchable fire” begins our Gospel lesson for today. John says “fire unquenchable!” And right after that, it says “Then Jesus came down from Galilee.” Then Jesus came down from Easter Kentucky. Then Jesus came down from the farm country of central Indiana. Then Jesus came down for seventeenth and Muhammed Ali in Louisville. Then Jesus flew in from Somalia, from Mosambique.
And Jesus, the judge on the high bench, wanted John to baptize him. John is confused. John seeks to prevent him. John says it should be the other way around. “You should baptize me.” But Jesus says, “Let it be so for now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Notice that he says “For us to fulfill all righteousness,” not for me. Not for Jesus as an individual. Jesus has come to us and joined us as a nation, a people, a species.
He repents with the rest of us, even though he does not need to repent. He is baptized with us, literally, he takes a bath as we do, even though he does not need to.
It is as if the judge in her black robes came down from her high oak bench to join me there on the hard, clean light gray floor. It is as if she accompanied me to the treasurer’s office and rode next to me in the car so that I might be safe. It is as if the judge came down form her high oak bench and became my cell mate as I served a prison term for all of the beauty I have destroyed and the human dignity I have disregarded and the bright creation I have polluted. This is the way Jesus is.
And this is the One. Jesus is coming up out of the water, and God says “This is my Son,” my embodiment on earth. You do something to him, you do it to me. If he says or acts, that’s me speaking or acting. “This is me, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Some chapters later, Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer and die and on the third day be raised. Peter does not understand. He tries to prevent it just like John the Baptist does. Jesus says “If you want to be my follower you will do the same thing. You will follow on the journey of the cross. A little later, they are on the mountain praying, and God says, again, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
This is the way God works. This is the nature of the One who sets things right, the judge on the high bench. God joins us, God walks with us, Jesus suffers and dies with us and for us. Yes, there is judgement. But there is also mercy.
So next time you wish for a righteous judge to set things right, give thanks that our judge is Jesus, who scares the devil out of us, yes. But who is also always with us giving strength to our hands and courage to our souls, the we repent, change our minds, our ways of looking at the world, for the realm and redemption of God are close.