A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 8, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
These words from the prophet Isaiah are even more powerful when read in their context. Chapter 11 begins with the line, “A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse.” “At the end of chapter ten, the prophet says that God is going to cut down all the trees; that’s why there’s ‘a stump’ in the first place. It’s not accidental, or random, and it’s not just sitting there; it’s the result of God’s sweeping movement across the land.”[i] And the clear cutting is coming because the Hebrews have not been living according to God’s will. They are not treating the needy justly, the widows and orphans are not cared for, and the poor lose their rights.
“We aren’t sure whether this text dates from the time of the threat from the Assyrians (8th c. BCE) or from the Babylonians (6th c. BCE), but in any case, the political situation of the people of Israel is in total disarray. Into this setting, however, just when things appear hopeless and the future looks very bleak, the prophet promises that God will send a leader who will rule with justice toward all, and with mercy toward the most vulnerable in society. The little ones, the defenseless ones, the innocent ones will be protected and cared for.”[ii]
The result of this new kind of leadership is earthshaking. Not only are the Hebrew people transformed, but nature itself is transformed. What we learned in science class – about the natural order of predator hunting and killing the prey – will become out of date. Wolf and lamb will live together. The leopard will lie down with the goat kid. The calf and the lion will live together. Bears will graze along side cows and lions will eat straw like the ox. A child shall lead the animals and toddlers will play safely around the home of poisonous snakes.
All of this is the result of justice. “The rules of life will be changed, bent in the direction of gentleness and peace, not just any peace, but shalom. ‘Shalom,’ Walter Brueggemann says, ‘is creation time, when all God’s creation eases up on hostility and destruction and finds another way of relating’ (Peace). Things are going to go back to the way … things were meant to be. ‘This poem,’ Brueggemann says, ‘is about the impossible possibility of the new creation!’ We are told that ‘the old practice of the big ones eating the little ones is not the wave of the future,’ and we can actually look forward to a ‘detoxified’ world, including nature itself, that will be ‘safe for the vulnerable’ (Isaiah 1-39, Westminster Bible Companion).”[iii]
This earthshaking transformation of the world happens because the situation of the poor and vulnerable changes. When the principalities and powers change their ways, an opening is recreated for peace. “Note that the promise is not social evolution or developmental improvement. It is rather the inversion of the present in which the devalued will become the properly valued. So the promise is, at the same time, an enormous hope and a heavy judgment on how things now are.”[iv] And so, this promise makes “the present provisional and tentative, even while we tend to make it absolute and treat it as an eternal arrangement.”[v]
John’s call to repentance takes on a new dimension in this context. John doesn’t shout only about confessing our personal, petty sins. John calls the whole community to repent. No wonder he calls the Pharisees and Sadducees, “you brood of vipers.” You who treat the present order of oppression and injustice as an absolute and eternal arrangement are a brood of viper.
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John challenges them. I think he has in mind a new order, an order where the poor are judged with righteousness and the meek of the earth with equity.
“God’s interruption into human history is not without its consequences. As true peace, God’s peace is forged with justice. According to the psalmist, the Messiah will ‘defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor’ (Psalm 72:4). In assuming human form, God teaches us a new way to be human and to relate to one another: with justice, righteousness, and a special love for the poor and the needy. John reminds us that God does not request that we love justice, God insists upon it. Therefore, we too must take stock of our actions and beliefs, separating the wheat from the chaff and cutting down ‘every tree … that does not bear good fruit’ (Matthew 3:10). The justice and compassion that serves to nourish the world, like wheat, will be retained, but the chaff of judgment, exclusion, and hatred ‘he will burn with unquenchable fire’ (Matthew 3:12).”[vi]
Advent is a time of anticipation, a time for pondering the promise. We hear in Isaiah what John the Baptizer heard: the promise of one coming who will establish justice and, by establishing justice, establish peace. And John was right. “Jesus did indeed come to do exactly what … Isaiah 11 had promised. He came to cause [the great] inversion, to displace the old marginalizing arrangement. He summoned people to abandon the old patterns for God’s new truthfulness.”[vii] And “Jesus was received, celebrated, and eventually crucified precisely for his embodiment and practice of this vision of social possibility.”[viii]
This week, the world started mourning the death of Nelson Mandela. The Mandela I knew was the Mandela who led South Africa out of apartheid and into democracy after he was released from prison in 1990. During the days that followed his death, I learned more about the earlier life of Mandela, including information about his leadership in the African National Congress during the struggle for equality in the 1950s.
Prior to 1960, the ANC had been a nonviolent organization. Then, on March 21, 1960, after a day of demonstrations, a group of several thousand black South Africans went to the police station in Sharpeville. The police open fire on the crowd and killed 69 people.[ix]
After the Sharpeville massacre, things changed. The government banned the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress. The ANC went underground and decided that an armed struggle was necessary.[x] As a Christian committed to social change through non-violence, as someone who believes that non-violence is the only means for social change, I find this decision impossible to embrace. But I know that I am a white man living in the United States in 2013, not a black man living in South Africa in 1960.
Regardless, in retrospect, many contend that it was not the violence of the ANC in the 1960s through the 80s, but international pressure that finally brought down apartheid. George Houser, cofounder of the American Committee on Africa in 1953, an organization that supported antiapartheid work, said: “I contend, however, that what really brought the change in South Africa was not the armed struggle, which was never equal to what the government had, but international pressure, sanctions and all that sort of thing which we helped work on here. And also the internal struggle in South Africa, the boycotts and the strikes and such that took place within South Africa while the ANC was banned and other movements arose.”[xi]
Once apartheid fall and democracy was established, I was amazed that there wasn’t a bloodbath. We all know how horribly black South Africans were treated by the white South Africans. We all know that black South Africans had ample reason to be filled with hate, to be filled with rage. And yet there wasn’t a bloodbath.
Why was that? Justice, I think.
Reflecting on his prison experience, Mandela said,[xii] “As I walked out the door toward my freedom, I knew that if I did not leave all my anger, hatred, and bitterness behind that I would still be in prison.”
Mandela realized how fundamental justice is to establishing peace – real peace that is more than the absence of war. He said, “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is people who have made poverty and tolerated poverty, and it is people who will overcome it. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”
He realized the importance of education in establishing justice: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
And he understood that imperfect people are called to this kin-dom work: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Reconciliation became the key to establishing justice and avoiding the bloodbath. Rather than punitive justice, South Africa, under the guidance of Mandela, pursued restorative justice. During his imprisonment and after his release, Mandela issued a constant, nonviolent demand that he and other blacks be treated with dignity. Ultimately, this demand allowed the white minority government to negotiate first an end to apartheid and finally a new constitution and democracy. He demanded what Isaiah said the new shoot from the stump of Jesse would bring. “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.”
This is an image of justice that stands in sharp contrast to our notions of cold neutrality. The justice that brings peace is a “justice that takes sides with the oppressed-poor and leaps into the struggle to liberate them from their oppressors.”[xiii] “One is reminded of Jesus, who wasted no energy on the legions of the Roman Empire, but kept his attention on the sick, the marginalized, and the broken, and exerted his power on their behalf.”[xiv]
I am struck by contrasts today. The United States, the world’s most powerful nation; Isaiah’s Israel, waiting for another empire to invade and crush them. We, the domesticated great-great-grandchildren of The Way; John the Baptist, the feral prophet crying out in the wilderness that we should prepare the way of the Lord.[xv]
Each week in Advent, we light another candle on the wreath and claim another aspect of the promise of the kin-dom of God. Last week, we claimed a hope that empowers us. Today, we anticipate the peace that is so much more than the absence of war.
And I hear John crying out – not just to the Jews of his day, but to me and to you – “Prepare the way of the Lord.” There is work to do to create the conditions for the kin-dom’s peace, and the first step is moving ever closer to the justice that freedom demands.
This is our work as we anticipate peace.
[i] Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermonseeds – December 8, 2013,” The United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/december-8-2013.html (7 December 2013).
[iv] Walter Brueggemann, “The End of the Known World,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/end-known-world (3 December 2013); emphasis added.
[vii] Brueggemann, op. cit.
[viii] Brueggemann, in Isaiah 1-39, Westminster Bible Companion, quoted by Huey, op. cit.
[x] George Houser, No Easy Victories (2008, Africa World Press), quoted in an email from the Fellowship of Reconciliation USA, dated 5 December 2013.
[xii] The quotes of Nelson Mandela are gleaned from various sources circulating on social media.
[xiii] Tom Hanks, “Why People are Poor,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/why-people-are-poor (3 December 2013).
[xiv] Huey, op. cit.
[xv] Thanks to Rose Marie Berger, “Being John the Baptist,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/being-john-the-baptist (3 December 2013) for this image.