- Isaiah 11:1-10
- Romans 15:4-13
- Matthew 3:1-12
Advent 2, Year A
Main Text (Hover for Text)
Let it never be said that those who pursue peace are passive!John comes baptizing in the wilderness, and when he sees the Pharisees coming to hedge their bets with him, he pulls no punches. He perceives that in his own day God is at work separating wheat from chaff, and that the chaff will be destroyed.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.
On John the Baptist consult Advent 2 and 3 in Year B and C.Back to top
How do we preach John’s message to today’s church? Do we have the courage?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!
Three themes converge in today’s text: the use of the Scriptures (the Old Testament), the example of Jesus and the inclusion of the Gentiles as part of God’s plan of redemption. As a text used for Advent, it is this last that theme that would have struck the composers of the lectionary but it also raises the specter of supercessionism. The exegete must be careful here, remembering the warning of Paul to the Gentile Christians not to boast (Rom. 11:11-24) inasmuch as it is their inclusion in the salvific promise that is highlighted, not their replacement of Judaism as the people of God. There are not two peoples of God, Israel and the church, but one God who works to effect the salvation of all.What is it in the past that was written to teach us (vs 4)? The focus is on the suffering of Jesus (citing Psalm 69:9), it is Jesus the servant whom Christians are to follow. This service is not described as generic charitable acts, but as the willingness to suffer at the hands of others. Here we run into the difficulty of preaching this text in North America, for in many churches there is a lack of awareness of how consumeristic lifestyles cause others to suffer. It behooves us then to immediately recognize that the text before us is a call to repentance to learn how to follow Jesus by letting go of “our God-given rights” (sic) and the imperative of learning to suffer. Modern Christians are not the marginalized of the Roman house churches, so to read this text from a perspective from above, from the place of wealth and power can only lead us straight into the paths of supercessionism, the justification of poverty and the self-justification of charity. We must begin to learn to read texts like this from below (as Bonhoeffer has taught us).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.