Last revised: January 15, 2017
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SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT — YEAR A
RCL: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
RoCa: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12
1. In 2013, I’m preaching a series on the Isaiah readings in Advent, based on a presentation by Barbara Lundblad at the 2013 Festival of Homiletics, titled “The Word Isaiah Saw.” The image for the week is a tree stump with a green branch sticking out of the top. That week I had spent one day in a caregivers conference with gifted speaker Paula D’Arcy and Nelson Mandela had died — representing new shoots of life on the personal and cultural levels, respectively, and yielding the sermon, “A New Shoot Has Begun to Grow.”
2. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred. His general summary of Isaiah is as follows:
Isaiah prophesied about 745-700 B.C.E. His vision of the new age includes a new Davidic king (Isa 9:1-7; 11:1-8), but there is no clear evidence that he knew or appealed to the Exodus-Sinai tradition. Likewise unclear is his view of how the sacrificial cult began. But there is no doubt that he condemns it in unmistakable terms. In fact, the connection of sacrifice and violence is made more explicitly than in Hosea and Amos. Those who bring “vain offerings,” who think YHWH delights “in the blood of bulls,” have hands “full of blood.” This image, whether hyperbole or not, pictures mass violence and murder. The prophetic alternative is an ethical exhortation given in a staccato series of brief imperatives:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Torah, which for Isaiah is synonymous with the word of YHWH (1:10), does not make victims in cult offerings or in any sort of violence. Rather, it draws all the peoples to it in peace and leads them to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:4). This vision of the new age mentions “the house of the God of Jacob,” undoubtedly a reference to the Temple, but quite strikingly there is no mention at all of a reconstituted sacrificial cult. The “house of Jacob” is associated with torah, with teaching, not with sacrifice (2:3). (pp. 151-152)
The wider context of Williams’ comments on Isaiah is chapter 5, a Girardian reading of biblical view on “Kings and Prophets: Sacred Lot and Divine Calling,” pp. 129-162.
4. David Froemming, Salvation Story, the chapter on Isaiah 11, pp. 10-11.
Reflections and Questions
1. Isaiah 11:2 is part of our baptismal liturgy, in the prayer for the Spirit during the laying on of hands for confirmation. In context from Isaiah, it is spoken of the one who will represent a shoot out of the stump of Jesse. Does this image translate well as a parallel to the baptismal imagery of dying to the old self in the waters of baptism and rising to new life in Christ? God brings life out of that which appears dead. Ultimately, for Christians, isn’t Christ the stump we ourselves cut down, out of whom God raised new life? And we join in that dying and rising in baptism, with an important ingredient being the gift of the same Spirit which led Christ to let himself be cut down by us, and to trust that God brings new sprouts of life out of such things.
2. What does the “spirit of wisdom and understanding…” counsel us? Does it help us, through the cross of Christ, to first of all understand that it is our violence, and not God’s, which cuts down the tree? Does it help us to admit that we rely on such things, that we regularly tell ourselves that we can’t live in peace without cutting someone down? Think of our current efforts to win “peace” from terrorism. Can we conceive of any other way to keep that peace than to threaten to cut someone down? And does it help us to further understand that God has taken precisely one of those trees we cut down as the vine of true life (John 15), the vine to which we might be grafted?
3. If we thought that Isaiah was wildly unrealistic last week, with his “dream” of nations ceasing to make war anymore, what do we say this week, as he broadens this dream of peace and harmony to take in virtually all of creation? The passage that is usually in the background for me with such ultimate visions for creation is Romans 8. There, St. Paul seems to indicate a certain order to things: the rest of creation is groaning for us children of God to first get our act together. But the ultimate horizon is for the whole creation to experience a rebirth. Jesus came as the first true Son of God; then, comes the rest of us children to both follow Jesus and to lead the rest of creation into living God’s intended harmony. Alongside Romans 8, Isaiah 11 has always struck me as one of the most passionate passages in Scripture when it comes to the contemporary concern for creation, eco-theology. Ultimately, “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord” (vs. 9). What is that knowledge? To use James Alison‘s phrase: “the intelligence of the victim” (excerpt)? In other words, the earth itself will someday be full of the same knowledge of the one who was cut down by us and raised up as a new shoot by God.
Reflections and Questions
1. What an incredible follow-up to the reflections on Isaiah 11 and Romans 8. St. Paul makes sure that we know that our Christian hope, which he has spoken of so eloquently in what lies before (especially chapters 5 and 8), is rooted in the Scripture, and even quotes Isaiah 11 among his examples. His emphasis in all the quotes is inclusion of the Gentiles. Do the Gentiles represent those whom the Jews themselves most often want to reduce to a stump? The Christ is, scandalously, one who is essentially both: born a Jew (of the Branch of Jesse, no less) but made unclean as a Gentile by virtue of being branded a blasphemer and executed via a Gentile means of capital punishment.
1. René Girard. John the Baptist figures rather prominently in Girard’s writings, especially the story of his beheading as a pre-figuring of Jesus’ own fate. Yet there is also a contrast: John the Baptist entered into a relationship of scandal with Herod, whereas Jesus did not scandalize those who scapegoated him in the same way. There is a whole chapter devoted to “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” in The Scapegoat, pp. 125-148. He also mentions this story in the essays reprinted in The Girard Reader, pp. 196, 213-214, and in the interview there, p. 264.
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 125: the contrast of John the Baptist’s preaching with Jesus’ is mentioned as an example of Jesus subverting the apocalyptic language and imagery and turning it into the eschatological imagination. He writes,
What I have called the eschatological imagination is nothing other than the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. That is, Jesus used the language and the imagery which he found around him to say something rather different. There are various ways of glimpsing this in the Gospel, for example in the contrast which is made between the preaching of John the Baptist, which does indeed fit within the apocalyptic imagination, and that of Jesus. Maybe we can see this better if we draw up to it in an indirect way: that is, Jesus’ attitude with respect to the social and the cosmic dualities would already be a good indication of his attitude with respect to the temporal duality.
It is evident that Jesus did not simply accept the social duality of his time, the division between good and evil, pure and impure, Jews and non-Jews. In fact, his practice and his teaching add up to a powerful subversion of this duality.
3. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled. The relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus is treated in the section “Scandal,” pp. 207-210.
4. Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian, ch . 7, “What Signs Did He Give?”, pp. 220ff. Bartlett’s climaxing chapter attempts to sketch a Historical Jesus in grounding his thesis that Jesus’ change of meaning is anthropological — grounded in a real human life. Jesus must have intentionally “orchestrated meaning and did so in reference to his own person and activity” (p. 221). And Bartlett begins this sketch by presuming Jesus as a former disciple of John the Baptist who breaks from his mentor for specific reasons.
When we get to the New Testament we see that the question of wrath is very much on peoples minds. John the Baptist assumes that the coming of Jesus is to produce wrath, since he tells the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to be baptised:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (Mt 3:7)
He then goes on to compare what he is doing with what he imagines Jesus is going to do, which will be a Baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire:
His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Mt 3:12)
And yet curiously, when Jesus does come, he doesnt seem to act in the way that John thinks hes going to. In fact hes so little wrathful in his appearance that John, from prison, sends to ask:
Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another? (Mt 11:3)
Yet in fact Jesus does warn that the effect of his mission is going to be to produce wrath, in the passage I have already quoted to you [Mt 10:34-36]. And in fact, he then gives himself to the sacrificial mechanism in a way which the Gospel writers point to as being the way proper to the great High Priest, and he becomes the lamb of sacrifice. In fact, he reverses the normal human sacrificial system which started with human sacrifice and then is later modified to work with animal substitutes. Jesus, by contrast, substitutes himself for the lamb, portions of whose body were handed out to the priests; and thus by putting a human back at the centre of the sacrificial system, he reveals it for what it is: a murder.
Now here is the curious thing. It looks for all the world as though Jesus is simply fitting into the ancient worlds views about sacrifice and wrath. But in fact, he is doing exactly the reverse. Because he is giving himself to this being murdered, and he has done nothing wrong, he brings about an entirely new way to be free from wrath. This is not the way we saw with Achan, where the temporary freedom from wrath comes with the outbreak of unanimous violence which creates singleness of heart among the group. What Jesus has done by substituting himself for the victim at the centre of the lynch sacrifice is to make it possible for those who perceive his innocence, to realise what it is in which they have been involved (and agreeing to drink his blood presupposes a recognition of this complicity). These then begin to have their identity given them not by the group over against the victim, but by the self-giving victim who is undoing the unanimity of the group. This means that from then on they never again have to be involved in sacrifices, sacrificial mechanisms and all the games of wrath which every culture throws up. They will be learning to walk away from all that, undergoing being given the peace that the world does not give.
So, there is no wrath at all in what Jesus is doing. He understands perfectly well that there is no wrath in the Father, and yet that wrath is a very real anthropological reality, whose cup he will drink to its dregs. His Passion consists, in fact, of his moving slowly, obediently, and deliberately into the place of shame, the place of wrath, and doing so freely and without provoking it. However, from the perspective of the wrathful, that is, of all of us run by the mechanisms of identity building, peace building, unanimity building over against another, Jesus has done something terrible. Exactly as he warned. He has plunged us into irresoluble wrath. Because he has made it impossible for us ever really to believe in what we are doing when we sacrifice, when we shore up our social belonging against some other. All our desperate attempts to continue doing that are revealed to be what they are: just so much angry frustration, going nowhere at all, spinning the wheels of futility.
The reason is this: the moment we perceive that the one occupying the central space in our system of creating and shoring up meaning is actually innocent, actually gave himself to be in that space, then all our sacred mechanisms for shoring up law and order, sacred differences and so forth, are revealed to be the fruits of an enormous self-deception. The whole world of the sacred totters, tumbles, and falls if we see that this human being is just like us. He came to occupy the place of the sacrificial victim entirely freely, voluntarily, and without any taint of being run by, or beholden to, the sacrificial system. That is, he is one who was without sin. This human being was doing something for us even while we were so locked into a sacrificial way of thinking and behaviour that we couldnt possibly have understood what he was doing for us, let alone asked him to do it. The world of the sacred totters and falls because when we see someone who is like us doing that for us, and realise what has been done, the shape that our realisation takes is our moving away from ever being involved in such things again. (pp. 41-43)
7. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” wrote a brief essay on this passage in 2013, “Whose Ax? Whose Winnowing Fork?.”
8. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, sections on Advent-Christmas, pp. 88-94. He writes:
In this conviction, John the Baptist cried out with Isaiah’s words: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Isa. 40:3; Mt. 3:3) Isaiah was referring to the return of God’s people to their rightful home from which they had been uprooted by the Babylonians. Even today, we live in exile by not living our lives in God as we ought. In this way, we make the world a distortion of what God intended. The call to repentance (metanoia) in John’s baptism means, literally, to turn our minds. This does not mean filling our minds with new ideas; it means aiming our whole embodied selves in a new direction to see and live in a different way, a way that will be more in tune with the desires of our Creator.
Isaiah inspired many of the proclamations John made. The prophet prophesied a leveling process where the valleys will be filled in, the mountains brought low, and the crooked ways straightened. That is, the obstacles within ourselves and within our culture that prevent God from coming to us will be removed. The image of leveling seems to suggest a social upheaval where the mighty are brought low and the lowly are raised up, so that all come together on the same level. This would be to overlook the real obstacle to God: our tendency to compare ourselves with one another without reference to God. This leaves us preoccupied with being better than others or fretting that others are better than us. This preoccupation and the resentment it fosters maintain the isolating barriers of valleys and mountains and block the way to God.
Repentance takes the form of renouncing our rivalrous entanglement with others so that we can open ourselves to God’s leveling process that holds everybody in the same regard without exalting some or lowering others. Unfortunately, while God is smoothing out the way for us, we prefer to maintain the barriers that we think protect us. Opening a highway for God makes us vulnerable, not only to God but to all of God’s people. Take out the valleys and mountains and anybody could come deeply into our lives! Isaiah gives us fair warning of where this leveling process is going by declaring that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” (Isa. 40:5) Note that we are to see God’s glory together, not as isolated individuals.
Like all analogies, the analogy of smoothing out the landscape has its liabilities. Flat ground makes for boring scenery, while valleys and mountains take our breath away. God doesn’t destroy the landscapes God has made. That means, if we turn our embodied minds around, we see that God’s leveling process is to rejoice in the valleys and mountains and twists of the road without rivalry or resentment.
Two other astounding prophecies by Isaiah offer us intriguing, inspiring, but puzzling hints about what the Kingdom might be like. He urges us to turn “swords into plowshares” and “spears into pruning hooks” so that we will not “learn war any more.” (Isa. 2:4) Then, he promises, “The wolf shall live with the lamb.” (Isa. 11:6) So, now we have all of Creation at peace? Not quite. Isaiah tells us that the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” (Isa. 11:1) will “smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” (Isa. 11:4) Apparently taming lions and tigers and bears is easier than taming predatory humans. The predatory lenders of today seem just as untamable. John seems to have thought that humans needed taming when he warned the people that another would be coming with a winnowing fork in his hand. He will “clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Mt. 3:12) As it turned out, John’s successor didn’t wield the kind of winnowing fork John expected he would. (pp. 88-89)
10. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2013, “The Ax, the Bridge, and Nelson Mandela“; and a sermon in 2016, “A New Fire!“; Suella Gerber, a sermon in 2016, “Waiting: Kneading.”
11. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, pp. 220-221.
Reflections and Questions
1. In verse 10, whose ax is lying at the root of the trees? Do we assume it’s God’s? That’s the natural assumption, isn’t it? It calls to mind pictures of judgment day. And that may have been what John the Baptist himself had in mind. But the Girardian angle on John the Baptist also raises the issue of the contrast between John and Jesus, a contrast which the evangelists put in the mouth of John himself, stating that the one who comes after is greater. If Jesus represents, as per Alison, a transformation of the apocalyptic into the eschatological, the major feature of which is pruning God of the violence normally attributed to him in apocalyptic, then might we reasonably ask if the ax ends up representing our human violence. The Girardian transformation of apocalyptic involves a coming to see the approaching time of violence as being about our violence, not God’s. (St. Paul manifested this transformation in his reworking of the “wrath of God” in Romans; see “My Core Convictions.”)
And the dominant image from the Isaian prophecy involves God’s bringing new life out of a tree stump. Let’s step back from John’s words here for a moment and ask how Jesus fits into this picture. Isn’t it our violence that cuts him down? And yet God raises out of that stump a shoot of new life, a new culture that is completely different than all those before it which have depended on cutting down someone. Yet God precisely takes that which we have cut down and raises a totally new shoot out of it. Isaiah’s prophecy works not just in terms of a new branch out of the Jesse-David stump, but it works in terms of what we did to Jesus himself: we cut him down, and God raised him up. God can, and does, do these sorts of things. Matt 3:9, the verse before, calls our attention to the fact that God could even raise up children out of stones (the stone which the builders rejected?).
The problem with this interpretation, of course, is the next phrase about cutting the tree down because it does not bear fruit, which certainly implies divine judgment. Still, I would not completely back down from these questions, because we often are faced with the biblical images and language in the midst of their process of transformation. Scripture is not as shy as we might be in taking the language loaded with violence and using it to lead us to something else. Girard, for example, was initially reluctant to claim the heavily sacrificial language of Hebrews, but has since recanted. He is finding himself bolder to watch how a letter like Hebrews will take such sacrificial language as a means of leading its hearers into a transformation away from sacrifice, or, more appropriately, into a transformed kind of sacrifice: Christ’s self-sacrifice to our powers of sacrifice changes sacrifice forever. Isn’t that the message of Hebrews? Likewise, Christ’s being cut down by us as a tree not bearing fruit is taken as the very thing that helps us to both truly see who it is who is doing the cutting, and who it is who does the bringing to life. This is the theme of the first Christian sermons recorded in Acts: we kill, God raises to life (see former, long-time welcome to this website).
2. The harvest image in verse twelve raises some quite different images. Laying an ax to a tree that is not bearing fruit is more clearly a destructive image, one of doing away with the bad. Harvest is a different sort of image in that one is primarily cutting down the wheat to make positive use of it, and the chaff is the discarded, destroyed byproduct. It still is a questionable image, however, when one considers “the stone which the builders rejected.” God has the habit of taking those we discard and using them as the ones on whom to truly build. Does the harvest tend to be another apocalyptic image that the Cross means to transform? God redeems our harvesting, our efforts to pre-maturely separate the good from the bad. (Does it help to consider the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, Matthew 13:24-30, in this context?)
3. Link to a sermon that continues the themes of reflecting on being Left Behind, “Baptized into Christ Jesus: Part Two of ‘Surviving the Flood.'”