Matthew 3:1-12 & Isaiah 11:1-10
December 8, 2019 2nd Sunday in Advent
John the Baptist is not messing around. He looks wild and unkempt, and he speaks in ways that would feel at home among most street corner evangelists of our day. “You brood of vipers” he calls the Pharisees and Sadducees. He cries out “Repent!” over and over. He speaks of any tree that does not bear good fruit being chopped down and burned up with fire. And he makes Jesus, whose way John is preparing, sound waaaaaay worse, judging and burning.
I much prefer what Isaiah has to say that the shoot from the stump of Jesse will have the spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might. That he shall judge in favor of the poor, without bias, and with equity for those most downtrodden. He shall bring peace: predators and the vulnerable coexisting together, and no one shall again hurt or destroy. Yes! That is the Jesus I am waiting for this Advent season. The bringer of peace, and justice, not the bringer of wrath and fire. I’m awaiting the one who is clothed with justice and faithfulness who is the new branch from what seemed like a barren stump, not the one with an ax ready to chop down trees and burn them up.
Unfortunately, this is a false dichotomy. We cannot separate out a messiah who brings justice from one who judges and burns up that which is evil. We cannot have the image of the peaceable kin-dom where lions and lambs lie down together unless the venom and violent instincts are first stripped away. We cannot have a new shoot coming out from the dead stump unless the tree which was rotted has been first cut down to make way for the new branch.
And in fact, Isaiah knows this. If you look at the verse directly before our Isaiah reading, Isaiah chapter ten ends with See, the Lord, the Lord Almighty,
will lop off the boughs with great power.
The lofty trees will be felled,
the tall ones will be brought low.
He will cut down the forest thickets with an ax.
Then the shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse, the new branch on the line of David.
Judgment is a necessary step in the process of justice. Justice is essential for any meaningful Peace.
As much as we wish we could snap our fingers and have the world turned right-side up, bypassing all the hard crap and work that has to come on the way, there is stuff that has to be pared away, separated out, judged and discarded.
Let’s be clear: I do not think this is talking about people. There are versions of faith where the judgment that the Bible talks about is interpreted very clearly to refer to people. Some are judged worthy others are burned up, discarded, trash. Yet if this is how we understand the judgment of God, the judgment of Christ, that just sounds like making God in our own image. Because isn’t this what we as human society already do? Judge each other as worthy or not? Judge some as valuable and others as discardable, disposable, fit for being tossed aside?
In the era of monarchs when Isaiah was active and for a couple centuries before and after him, kings would boast of their feats of power as part of their claim to the throne. It spoke to their legitimacy if they could brag of their prowess at combat. Which enemies had they bested. We can chalk a lot of this up to royal propaganda. But one of the most common boasts was defeating wild animals: lions, bears, especially lions though. This demonstrated both a strength of force and also divine favor. It was a strange commingling of the worst of ego and religion and definitions of power. “I have bested lions and survived! See how mighty I am! Surely I am God’s favored one and chosen, otherwise I would not have bested the lion so handily.” Even the famous Israelite king David in arguing his case to be allowed to face Goliath describes fending off lions and bears from harming his flock as a young shepherd. This speaks to his kingly characteristics and foreshadows his eventual reign.
Yet in Isaiah 11, the ruler who is described is not slaying lions and dragons and beasts of the most ferocious variety. Rather, he is somehow transforming them. He is taking away their predatory instincts. He is eliminating the violence that preys upon innocence from within them. This is a different rule that is being proclaimed.
And it is one, Isaiah tells us, where a child will lead us. This Advent season, of course we think of the newborn Jesus. That is appropriate, to be sure. In our own times, we are seeing the surge of children—legally, literally, children under 18—stepping up to call us all to account. We see it with teenage water defenders in Canada, like Autumn Peltier, who are saying no to oil pipelines and the ransacking of sacred watersheds by industrial companies. We see it in the coalition of teenagers who are unceasingly asking why our country worships at the altar of guns and is willing sacrifice our children’s lives for that idolatry. Recently, Anya Sastry, who is a lead organizer for the Youth Climate Strike movement said: “When leaders start acting like children, children have to start acting like leaders. We shouldn’t have to do this but I think our elected officials and people in power are not taking action on the issues that need to be solved…[we are] taking matters into our own hands.”
Powerful. And there is a tension there too. We who are adults have—on the one hand—a responsibility to help raise our children (our children together as community) in the ways of peace and justice. And on the other hand, we have to accept that they will develop their own wisdom, they will come up with their own solutions and perspectives that may be very critical of how we adults of previous generations have handled things. You may have heard of the trending phrase “ok boomer.” In essence it is a dismissive catchphrase that some millennials and Generation Z-ers are using to wave away critiques they hear from older generations. For example those who criticize the low rate of homeownership or the high amounts of student debts among young adults these days, rather than have the skyrocketing costs of housing and higher education and the diminishment of good paying jobs, might scoff: “Okay boomer.”
While I think the implied eye-roll of “ok boomer” isn’t particularly diplomatic, there is a question as to whether we will support our young people in their efforts for peace, in their struggle to neutralize that which poisons us, to disarm our violence to one another and the earth. Will we be offended by their not taking our advice and dismiss them? Or will we say together, across the generations: Peace cannot wait! Will we bicker and judge one another for our particular strategies or focus, or will we put aside in-fighting and cast our judgment together upon that which is corrupt, that which is racist, that which is crushes the poor and eclipses our shared future?
This Advent season we wait for the birth of a messiah who comes to bring peace, to bring new life and growth, to burn up and cast aside that which does not serve us anymore. And we shall choose to say together: Peace cannot wait. The time is now. Another world is possible.