While I’m at it, here’s the “sermon” I preached on Sunday. (I have a habit of volunteering to preach, and speaking for two or three minutes and then making everyone meditate.)
Reflection – Advent 2 (Dec. 4, 2016)
Isaiah 11:1–10; Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19; Romans 15:4–13; Matthew 3:1–12
We have some beautiful texts today looking to the coming of a peaceable kingdom. Isaiah and the Psalmist imagine a king utterly unlike any the world has seen – one who lifts up the poor and oppressed, who defends the needy, who is known for justice and righteousness. Who is as constant as the sun and moon, as nurturing as the rains. As the metaphors become more supernatural, we see that this is not simply a hope for a wise king who will bring peace and prosperity, but for a fundamental reordering of creation. A new creation in which the vulnerable need not fear, and predators cease taking life. This is not just a nationalist dream of a great leader, but a hope for the renewal of the whole world and all nations. It isn’t easy to know how to understand this vision in our own time, but it is a powerful vision nonetheless – a catalyst to imagine the complete transformation of structures of power and violence.
Yet sensitized as we are to hints of violence and condemnation, I know we’re all wondering what to make of John the Baptist’s words to the Pharisees. Images of fire in scripture are often about transformation rather than destruction, and John’s reference to a baptism of Spirit and fire is often read as a prophecy of Pentecost. Yet in this case the tone of condemnation seems unambiguous, as John foretells the cutting down and burning of trees that do not bear fruit, and speaks of winnowing away chaff from grain.
It is easy to read this passage through the lens of a theology of heaven and hell, of the salvation of the righteous and punishment of oppressors and hypocrites. Yet our popular images of heaven and hell owe more to Greek mythologies and later Christian theologies than to any belief system that John the Baptist would have known. Judean theologies of the time had begun to posit the idea of a resurrection of the dead to face judgement, but to this day Judaism has no theology of a hell of eternal punishment.
No, the core of John’s message is what he says first: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The Kingdom of God has come near – replacing God’s name with the word “heaven” was a pious habit of the time to respect the sanctity of God’s name. The gospel writer identifies John as the one crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” What John preaches is a return from exile. He brings people out into the wilderness to the river Jordan, the traditional boundary of Israel, submerges them in its waters, and turns them back towards their homeland, as if to say, “This is still the promised land. God’s kingdom is still coming here.”
The symbolism of the river Jordan suggests a return from exile, yet the act of baptism itself is a symbol of death and resurrection. To a people who did not learn to swim, submersion in a bath or pool suggested cleansing and purification, but submersion in a river usually meant drowning. To be baptized was to face death and rise from the waters as a new person, free of past sins. With this in mind, I’m wary of interpreting John’s words to the Pharisees as condemnation to destruction. His words do suggest that repentance can burn – that the humbling of those accustomed to power and respect is often experienced as a loss of self, a symbolic death. Yet all of us have both grain and chaff within ourselves. And though John denounces the Pharisees as vipers, Isaiah’s vision of a peaceable kingdom includes the homes of adders and asps that no longer cause harm.
So, let’s imagine what the peaceable kingdom, the reign of God on this earth, might look like.
Lectio Divina – Isaiah 11:1–10
Guide for Lectio Divina: http://www.emptybell.org/articles/pray.html