Critics and Energizers

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year A
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

The light is growing.  The Second candle in our advent wreath has been lit.  As the light grows brighter, so should our sense of expectation.  With Mary we are expecting.  The fullness of time is almost here.  Her days and ours are almost complete.  Soon, a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us.  But not yet…

This season of advent is filled with growing light, opened calendars, preparation.  Prepare the way, O Zion, your Christ is drawing near.  The readings for Advent are populated by an unlikely cast of characters and an unexpected set of readings.  Unlikely and unexpected, that is, if you don’t normally make it to church until Christmas Eve.  The readings in Advent aren’t sentimental, full of shepherds and angels and wisemen.  Instead, the readings in Advent are full of apocalypse and warning, at least in the Gospel readings.

On this Sunday in particular we find our stage populated by prophets, namely Isaiah and John the Baptist.  It is hard to think of two more diverse approaches to prophecy.  Isaiah’s vision is of a peaceable kingdom, wolves and lambs lying down together, and children playing over the holes of snakes.  Snakes make an appearance in John’s prophecy as well, but it isn’t good news.  Rather than peaceable, the coming kingdom John is describing seems rather violent, with axes, winnowing forks and fires.

This is the two-fold nature of prophecy in scripture – good news and bad news.  Walter Brueggemann makes this distinction a bit more clearly when he points to examples of “prophetic criticizing” and “prophetic energizing.”  It’s not hard to affix labels this morning to which prophecy energizes and which one criticizes.

Prophets were seen as mouthpieces for God.  Hence we are familiar with the line, “Thus saith the Lord.”  Prophets arose in the midst of the people of Israel much like the Judges did.  Prophets typically arose in times of trouble, whether it be under a wicked king or while the children of Israel were in exile.  They spoke out about injustice and infidelity, calling the people to repent and remember God.   They pointed to how things should be, but also how the people had fallen short of God’s ideal – again this two-fold nature of prophecy – energizing and criticizing.

Marcus Borg describes them this way, I see [the Prophets] as God-intoxicated, filled with the passion of God.  I speak of them as God-intoxicated voices of radical social criticism and God-intoxicated advocates of an alternative social vision. Their dream is God’s dream.”

The prophets were an interesting hodge-podge of characters.  Some lead relatively sheltered lives full of vision and proclamation.  Others spent their lives on the run like Elijah or on the margins of society as we see this morning with John the Baptist.

In Matthew’s Gospel, this John the Baptist, or more accurately John the Baptizer, suddenly appears on the scene.  In Luke’s Gospel we get his back story – this cousin of Jesus who is also the product of a miraculous birth, John leaping in his mother’s womb when Mary arrives.  But not in Matthew – John simply bursts onto the stage sounding very much like one of the prophets of old.

John’s tone may be a bit different that the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures.  John seems convinced that God’s coming kingdom and God’s coming messiah are here – now!  But this coming kingdom, this kingdom that is now on their threshold is not good news for all of them.

John was in the wilderness, calling people to repentance and baptizing them as a sign of that repentance.  But not everyone who came to him was welcomed.  The Pharisees and Sadducees came too, but John turns them away, and not lightly.  He calls them, in the words of the Cottonpatch Gospel, “You sons of snakes!”

Why would John turn them away?

Perhaps because by baptizing them, John felt he would be too closely identifying with the religious parties they represented.  Perhaps it was that he wanted no religious leaders coming down into the waters of baptism until the messiah was on the scene.

The text seems to imply it had something to do with a sense of entitlement.  The religious leaders were coming to get baptized, not because they had shown signs of repentance but because they believed they were entitled because of their status.  This scene sets the tone for Matthew’s gospel, the source we will become very familiar with over the next year as our companion on the journey.   The writer of Matthew both highlights and criticizes the deep roots of Judaism that were a reality for that original audience.

The axe is lying at the root of the tree.  The messiah is coming with a winnowing fork in his hand to separate the wheat from the chaff.  These are images of change, of upsetting the status quo.  John is the premier example of prophetic criticizing.

The passage from First Isaiah, however, is markedly different.  Rather than cutting down a tree – new life is springing up.  This messiah comes with both power and righteousness.  Yes, the wicked will be judged, but that isn’t the focus of the prophecy.  Instead we hear in great detail this vision of peace.  God’s ultimate plan for the human race will be fulfilled – this is prophetic energizing at its finest.

Hearing this I think of someone like Dr. King who looked beyond the turmoil that faced his people to a day in the future when all the struggling and violence would be over – the Promised Land.  This may be Isaiah’s version of “Keep your eyes on the prize.”  Former enemies will not just live in peace, but they will prosper together.  There will be plenty to eat and no reason to lose sleep.  The messiah will judge the poor with equity and righteousness.  There will be no violence or murder.  The knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth like the waters cover the sea.  And this peaceable kingdom will draw all nations to the Lord.

Who doesn’t prefer this kind of prophecy to John’s tirade?

And yet, we have both.  Advent is a time of preparation.  We know the good news of Christmas morning, and with Mary we wait for the birth of this child, this child that shall lead us all in the peaceable kingdom.  And yet, this kingdom, this commonwealth of God is not to be had in passivity.  That, if anything, is John’s word to us.

Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  The kingdom has come near.

Prepare the way.

His rule is peace and freedom, and justice, truth and love.

We prepare not just by lighting candles or opening calendars.  We prepare for the coming kingdom by living like that kingdom was a reality already – working for justice and righteousness, treating the poor with equity.  When we live like the kingdom is a reality, something already in our midst, it has consequences for our lives and our actions.

Where do we need to repent?  How can we make a level path, a road in this wilderness?  These are questions to be pondered as we wait with Mary.

Speak ye to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them; tell her that her sins I cover and her warfare now is over.  Amen.

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