Advent II, Year A
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He 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;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name”;
and again he says,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him”;
and again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he 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 ax 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.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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.”
What chaff is this?
If we aren’t careful, we’ll decide that the Pharisees are the chaff, along with anyone else whose ideas we don’t much like. That certainly fits with the mimetic distortion of God that we like to call upon when we’re feeling threatened.
But what does the text really suggest if we read it without our old glasses, our mimetic assumptions?
1) Do not think that your accident of birth makes any difference to God. He speaks, it would seem, to those who believe that their social location, by virtue of their birth, matters to God. Apparently not.
2) Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Apparently, the Pharisees have the opportunity to bear fruit borne of their reliance on God’s mercy rather than their social location. Here is an identity available to anyone and everyone. Here is a fruit anyone can produce.
3) God is in the business of deconstructing structures that do not bear the intended fruit. Here we have an oblique reference to the “fig tree” that represents the Temple establishment, whose fruitfulness (or lack thereof) parallels that of the tree Jesus will later “curse.” The tendency we have to make the tree at whose roots the axe lies into a person or group of people rather than a system speaks more about our love of scapegoating than it does about the text. John says again, do not rely on the system of which you are a part, into which you were born. God will soon cast that system onto the fire.
4) Now it is easy to see that the text goes on to say that the One who follows after John is the One through whom our victimage systems will be undone. That is the chaff. The fruits of repentance are those that will survive. The fruits of repentance represent the new life into which Jesus will lead his followers.
It is frightfully important that we be as willing as John to speak truth to the systems that God continues to undo. Many these days are fleeing to rituals like John’s to hedge their bets, confident even so that their social location, their membership in a certain group is what stands them in good stead with God. John says that reliance solely on God’s mercy makes one a bearer of good fruit.
John speaks of a coming One whose advent destroys systems that give us a sense of inclusion at the expense of others. What identities are those that we have?
Most of our readers identify themselves by their place of birth. “American.” With that identity comes a sense of privilege, of entitlement. This is most assuredly not an identity that can be made available to anyone. By its exclusive nature, it stands against the “fruits of repentance” to which we are called by John.
The other identity that we need to be wary of is that of “Christian.”
Too many of us feel as though our calling to be messengers of the Gospel gives us a special status in God’s eyes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our grasp of the nature of God’s mercy is the result of that mercy and not of our choice or act. The only “status” it grants us is greater responsibility.
What, then, do we preach?
That God will surely destroy those systems and identities that stand between us and God’s merciful reign over all creation. To the extent that we’ve confused our identities with those that God intends to destroy, this may not seem like Good News, but to those of us who have eyes to see and ears to hear, this Advent promises to us that God’s reign will not be thwarted, that every thing, every system that stands between us and God’s peaceful kingdom will be destroyed.
Let it never be said that those who pursue peace are passive!
The example of Jesus as a “suffering servant”, as one who took the place of the scapegoat without retaliation is highlighted here. Jesus who was ‘strong’ became ‘weak’, that is, he intentionally let go of any pretense to power and thus any right to retaliation. As the one who thus comes into the mechanism of human justice and suffers its indignity, its pain and the nightmare of its injustice without threats of reprisal or an attitude of entitlement, Jesus breaks apart the unjust justice of scapegoating by forgiving his enemies. This is the call of the text to contemporary Christians, particularly white American Christianity. When churches call for retaliation or military action against ‘enemies’, when they fail to pray for their enemies, and bless those who attack them (whether ideologically or though acts of terror), they cannot be said to be following Jesus, who did precisely that.
It is God who gives both endurance and encouragement through the biblical text to believers who are downtrodden, hurt, marginalized and broken, especially when those who claim to follow Christ commit the acts of injustice. The biblical texts are not used as an apologetic tool to prove correct doctrine; they are instead seen as the narrative of the God who is faithful to keep promises made (vs 8). These promises do not have to do with Deuteronomic blessings of wealth, fame and fortune but rather with eschatological vindication. Paul looks to the figura Christi, the suffering Christ when he reads his Bible.
We, who are not Jews by birth, have been included in the gracious promises made to the Jewish patriarchs, not by virtue of our having accepted Christ as our personal Lord and Savior, but because God is one, who has made all one and who gives a ‘spirit of unity’ wherein we might all acknowledge the ‘other’ as also included in the promises.