Last revised: December 3, 2017
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2ND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
RCL: Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
RoCa: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8
1. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 28-31, the conclusion to chapter 2, “The Cycle of Mimetic Violence.” Girard takes a unique reading of Isaiah 40 as describing the undifferentiation, the leveling, of a mimetic crisis which will be resolved only with the murder of a scapegoat. In Second Isaiah, that resolution is described in the Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53. Girard suggests that the gospel writers all use Isaiah 40 in the mouth of John the Baptist to similarly set up the situation of a mimetic crisis, the resolution of which will come in the Passion Story.
2. Tony Bartlett, the first study in a series on Second Isaiah (on 40:1-11) — a series sponsored by PreachingPeace.org. These studies are among the finest examples of how Mimetic Theory is a key to opening the revelation of Scripture.
3. 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 2014, “A Highway to Seeing the Glory of the Lord.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2014 I reflected on the pairing of Comfort and Challenge in light of Second Isaiah, especially as the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ according to Mark. Second Isaiah begins with a message of comfort but closes with the challenge of an anointed Servant who suffers. In most cultures comfort is seen as a lessening or expelling of suffering. In God’s culture comfort is apparently achieved through a willingness to bear one another’s suffering. What a challenge! Here is the sermon “Comfort and Challenge: A Testimony about Our Changing Ministry.”
2. I would like to begin this week’s reflections with a question: When Second Isaiah begins his message in ch. 40 “speaking tenderly to Jerusalem,” why have all the commentators come to assume that this message is not literally to Jerusalem but to exiles in Babylon? Weren’t there also people left behind in Jerusalem who arguably suffered even more hardship than those who were exiled? Why could not Second Isaiah have been speaking to them, to those literally in Jerusalem? Yes, there are references to Babylon and the return of the exiles to Jerusalem throughout Second Isaiah, but wouldn’t that have also been an important matter to those left behind in Jerusalem? They had the wealthiest, cream of the crop skimmed away from their land, and they longed for the return home of their exiled comrades to once again strengthen their numbers and economic power. The task of rebuilding their city and restoring their land would have been almost impossible without the return of the exiles, so, yes, the references to having Cyrus free them for return and exacting revenge on Babylon would have been understandable.
I reread Isaiah 40-55, with this other way of looking at it in mind, and found many more references to rebuilding the wasteland of Judah and their city. Virtually all of the direct addresses are to Jerusalem and to Zion. I read in the commentaries about knowledge of Babylonian cultic life speaking in favor of an exiled audience, but I don’t see any detail that would preclude general knowledge of idol worship that was also common among the other peoples who shared Palestine.
I am intrigued by the possibility of this other reading because, as I have shared in recent weeks, I remain fascinated by Paul Hanson‘s (The Dawn of Apocalyptic) thesis regarding two conflicting communities reflected in Third Isaiah. He talks about two lines of priesthood: the Levitical and the Zadokite. The latter were in power at the time of the defeat to Babylon, and so they were the ones who were exiled. Their view is represented more closely by Ezekiel, who likely was a Zadokite priest. He theorizes, then, that Third Isaiah was written by Levitical priests who filled the void in Jerusalem during the exile but then were marginalized upon the return of the Zadokite priesthood who assumed power once again. If this is the case, then might not Second Isaiah have represented the agonizing experience of those left behind, longing for the return of their exiled comrades? When the return experience turned out differently than their hope for it, that might also explain the terrible bitterness in Third Isaiah.
3. “double for all her sins.” What does a double penalty for sins mean? Israel was in exile, an oppressed group. We all suffer from sin, but can we say that the victims of our sinful games suffer double? People of Color, for example. There is a sense in which we all suffer from the sin of racism. Could we say that People of Color suffer double for our sins?
2 Peter 3:8-15a
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, ch. 6, on “The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Delayed Parousia” (repeating much of what we said about 1 Thess in the Proper 27A comments). One of Alison’s overall theses is that Jesus subverted the apocalyptic imagination from within. The latter was an improvement over the pagan notion of an eternal return (Nietzsche?) but remained stuck within the notion of a violent God. So, says Alison,
It seems to me that what we have with Jesus is precisely and deliberately the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. 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. (p. 125)
The next step, in the light of the Resurrection, was for the apostolic witness to have the apocalyptic imagination of their Jewish heritage transformed into an eschatological imagination. They had to go back and recover the insight that Jesus himself brought to the notion of Judgment Day. But it did not happen overnight. The NT texts reflect the process of transformation, especially one in which all violence only gradually becomes purged from their view of God and the Judgment Day. 2 Peter is considered one of the later writings in the NT and shows development toward Jesus’ eschatological imagination with its more gracious notion of the Parousia being delayed to allow for repentance.
2. Ibid. Alison also takes on the popular modern thesis that Jesus might have had the timing of the Parousia wrong, that he preached an imminent Parousia. Then, as the thesis goes, when it was delayed, the early church created its own theology to deal with it. Alison suggests that the entire duality between this age and the next is proper to the apocalyptic imagination, not to Jesus’ eschatological imagination. And so Jesus’ understanding of the Parousia was also transformed:
where the heavenly reality of the crucified and risen victim is already present to the apostolic group, allowing the beginnings of a human life and sociality which are not marked by death, but whose members are free to live a life of self-giving in imitation of Jesus thanks to their faith in the death-less nature of God, then a continuity is already coming about between this age and the next. Human time itself, an unalienable dimension of the physical creatureliness of the human being, has begun to become capable of sharing in life without end. (p. 127)
So Alison says of the development from 1 Thess to 2 Peter:
If we take the notion of the ‘end’ understood as vengeance, just as it is found in 1 Thessalonians, it is a vengeful end which depends exactly on there being insiders and outsiders, so that the afflicted are vindicated, and the persecutors punished. But in the degree to which the perception of God changes, becoming, as we have seen, shorn of violence, two realities are altered simultaneously: the separation between goodies and baddies, insiders and outsiders, enters into a process of continuous collapse and subversion, and at the same time the ‘end’ cannot remain as a vengeance if there is no longer any clarity about who’s an insider and who an outsider, and under these circumstances the notion of the end itself changes towards what we see in 2 Peter: it becomes a principle of revelation of what had really been going on during the time that has been left for the changing of hearts. . . . In this way the End, rather than being a vengeful conclusion to time, comes to be a principle, operative in time, by means of which we may live out the arrival of the Son of Man, the being alert for the thief in the night, the whole time. (p. 127)
3. Ibid. What so many of these passages have in common, including this text from 2 Peter, is the image of the “thief in the night,” which gospel references (Mt. 24:42-44, Lk. 12:39-40) would seem to indicate comes from Jesus himself. Alison anchors his argument with an image or illustration that lends the book its title. Imagine if Abel was resurrected to confront his brother Abel like a thief in the night. But instead came to forgive him. Again, I’ll let Alison speak for himself:
What I wanted to suggest is that, in this, very exactly, does the Christian faith consist: in the return of Abel as forgiveness for Cain, and the return of Abel not only as a decree of forgiveness for Cain, but as an insistent presence which gives Cain time to recover his story, and, with the years which remain to him, which may only be days, who knows, to begin to construct another story. . . . However the story is to finish, between this arrival of his brother like a thief in the night, and the end of his days, Cain will be hard at work in the construction of the story of one who can look into his brother’s eyes neither with pride nor with shame. He will look instead with the gratitude of a man who has received himself back at the hands of the one he himself killed, killed so as to fill the vacuum of the feeling that, before that other, he, Cain, had no ‘himself’ to give, no ‘himself’ with whom to love. This is the story of which we are talking when we speak of the human story in its working out starting from the resurrection. It is what I call the time of Abel. (p. 134)
So the time of Abel is prompted by the sudden appearance of the brother slain, who has already come like the thief in the night; the ‘delay’ in his return is a time of grace that allows the slayers a time to rewrite their stories. The 2 Peter text seems very much to have moved toward this idea in vs. 9.
5. N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church and Early Christian Letters for Everyone. For another dose of moving forward from the Bultmannian thesis about mistaken apocalyptic expectations in the First Century, consult Wright’s books on a passage such as this one. Here, for example, is an excerpt from his essay on this passage from Early Christian Letters for Everyone:
As with the rest of the New Testament, Peter is not saying that the present world of space, time and matter is going to be burnt up and destroyed. That is more like the view of ancient Stoicism — and of some modern ideas, too. What will happen, as many early Christian teachers said, is that some sort of “fire,” literal or metaphorical, will come upon the whole earth, not to destroy, but to test everything out, and to purify it by burning up everything that doesn’t meet the test. The “elements” that will be “dissolved” are probably the parts of creation that are needed at the moment for light and heat, that is, the sun and the moon: according to Revelation 21 they will not be needed in the new creation. But Peter’s concern throughout the letter is with the judgment of humans for what they have done, not with the non-human parts of the cosmos for their own sake.
The day will come, then, and all will be revealed. All will be judged with fire. That is the promise which Peter re-emphasizes here over against those who said, at or soon after the end of the first Christian generation, that the whole thing must be a mistake since Jesus had not, after all, returned. Many in our own day have added their voices to those of the “deceivers” of verse 3, saying that the early Christians all expected Jesus to return at once, and that since he didn’t we must set aside significant parts of their teaching because, being based on a mistake, they have come out wrong. But this merely repeats the mistake against which Peter is warning — and, in fact, this is the only passage in all first-century Christian literature which addresses directly the question of a “delay.” It doesn’t seem to have bothered Christian writers in the second century or thereafter. They continued to teach that the Lord would return, and that this might happen at any time (hence: “like a thief,” in verse 10, picking up an image from Jesus himself).
The misunderstanding, both ancient and modern, seems to have come about partly because “at any time” could of course mean “therefore perhaps today or tomorrow,” and partly because there really were some things which Jesus did say (in Mark 13 and elsewhere) would happen within a generation. But those events concerned the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, which did indeed happen within a generation of Jesus’ day, (AD 70, to be precise). But Peter warns, as Jewish teachers had done before him and would do again, that God doesn’t work on our timescales. Psalm 90.4 put it well: a thousand years in God’s sight are like a single day, and vice versa. We can’t box God in to our chronology.
The point here, which will be developed in the final section of the letter, is about patience. This virtue, as we have often seen, was emphasized by many early Christian writers, partly because it is always necessary in ordinary human relationship, and partly because it was, for most of them, quite a new idea. Patience wasn’t seen as a virtue in the ancient pagan world. But here it’s elevated to a new level. The patience we practise in day-to-day relations with one another must be translated up to the cosmic scale. God will indeed bring upon the whole world “the day of the Lord,” the day when all will be judged, all will be revealed. But he will do that in his own time. And that doesn’t mean that we simply have to sit around and twiddle our thumbs. What appears to us (in our impatient moments) as God’s delay is in fact God’s moment of fresh vocation. There are tasks to do in the meantime. (pp. 119-21)
Reflections and Questions
1. Isn’t verse 9 — “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” — the essence of Good News? Peter as much as says so in v. 15 by urging us to “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”
I’m inclined to combine this with the central insight I’ve gleaned from Raymund Schwager‘s Jesus in the Drama of Salvation — namely, that Jesus reversed the usual order of repentence and forgiveness (see, for example, Epiphany 7B for more on this theme). The offer of forgiveness comes first, and then God waits thousands of years for that grace to turn our lives around in repentance. It is forgiveness that even permits us to begin a life of repentence in the Spirit.
2. In 2002 the theme of God’s patience dawned on me as a central theme that Girardian anthropology again helps to accentuate. The scope of evangelical anthropology takes us back to human beginnings. Since the foundation of our human cultures, we have worshiped false gods. Many millennia later, we still do. The Biblical story can thus be seen as the story of God’s infinite patience with us as the truth of the Living God seeks to fully dawn on us, beginning with Abraham’s decisive move away from human sacrifice; continuing through Israel’s gradual move into monotheism, accompanied by the prophetic critique against all sacrifice in favor of mercy (Hosea 6:6); and climaxing in the revelation of the Crucified Messiah.
Yet those who consider themselves as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, have lapsed even further into sacrificial violence to the tune of millions consumed in apocalyptic violence last century. Yes, it is incredibly gracious to be able to “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” Link to my 2002 sermon “The Good News of God’s Patience.”
3. A phrase that really catches my eye is “without spot or blemish” in vs. 14. To most modern people that might sound like talk of moral purity. But mimetic theory alerts us to the sacrificial references: “without spot or blemish” was the common phrase used in reference to the sacrificial lamb. In other words, isn’t the writer trying to get us to strive for identity with the victim, not for some sort of morally pure superiority?
4. On the elements being consumed by fire, Walter Wink has, in Naming the Powers, some good pieces on “the elements” (Gr stoicheia) in the NT as connected with the powers and principalities of this world. The reference to fire also catches the Girardian’s eye as often a veiled reference to sacrifice.
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 60-68. Hamerton-Kelly’s extended comments on the opening of Mark’s gospel include: (1) how the open ending of 16:8 invites the reader to begin re-reading, “The Way Is a Spiral”; (2) the “beginning” (Gr: arche) of the Gospel in comparison with the beginning of Creation, including a comparison to creation myths such as Enuma Elish; and (3) the theme of New Exodus. See more extended commentary by Hamerton-Kelly on Mark 1:4-11 at Epiphany 1B.
2. Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story; (1) pp. 45ff. on two parallel beginnings in Mark 1 and 14, beginnings of the rising action and the falling action, respectively; (2) pp. 109ff. on the christological titles of Mark 1:1.
(1) Two Beginnings. Beck uses Gustav Freitag’s pyramid of narrative action: rising action of complication reaching a climax, and then falling action with a reversal or resolution of the problem set-up with the rising action. In Mark’s Gospel, Beck suggests that John the Baptist helps to launch Jesus’ ministry which, as he encounters resistance, reaches a climax with the cleansing of the temple and the ensuing controversies. Chapter 14 begins the falling action of the Passion narrative, with Judas as the catalytic figure parallel to John the Baptist. We could chart the two beginnings as such:
1st Beginning 2nd Beginning Catalytic Figures John the Baptist – 1:2-8 Judas – 14:1-11 Symbolic Actions Baptism – 1:9-11 Cup – 14:12-31 Temptations In the Desert – 1:12-13 In the Garden – 14:32-42 Arrests John – 1:14 Jesus – 14:43-52
Notice that the symbolic actions of baptism and cup come together in the middle, with the story of the Sons of Zebedee, 10:35-40:
But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38)
(2) The christological titles of Mark 1:1. The two titles offered to the reader in 1:1 are Messiah and Son of God. Within the story, disciples need to discover what the reader is told from the beginning. The first crucial moment is 8:29 in which Peter gets the first half correct. But the ensuing passion prediction and rebuke of Peter shows that he hasn’t yet been able to see what kind of Messiah. Beck suggests that this section of Mark, 8:27-10:52, is specifically about teaching the disciples what kind of Messiah is Jesus: a servant Messiah. For more, see his sections “Messiah: Christological Lessons,” pp. 96-98, and “Servant: A Nonviolent Christology,” pp. 99-103. He summarizes this teaching:
We see then an integral connection between the cross of 8:35 and the slave and ransom of 10:45. To gain one’s self means to put one’s self at risk, but to risk one’s self in order to interrupt the flow of violence in its cycles is to ransom others. It is a ransom because it delivers others from the history and consequences of violence as force or as injustice, in this particular concrete instance. (p. 102)
Beck also offers the following formula:
Messiah + servant = Son of God
Unfortunately, the disciples never seem to get this, and so there is a stand in for the disciples at the cross: the centurion confesses Jesus to be the “Son of God” (15:39). On the matter of these christological titles of 1:1, Beck says:
The preceding might be summed up by saying that Jesus’ relation to the disciples inside the story replicates the narrator’s relation to the reader. Jesus extends his own mandate to the plot, to the disciples, in his invitation to follow him. The invitation Jesus extends to the disciples the narrator likewise extends to the reader. The discourse that the narrator directs to the reader parallels Jesus’ teaching of the disciples by way of themes that give meaning to action in the main plot. The christological structure inside the story, based on the themes of Messiah and servant and on part of the characters’ awareness, is matched by the structure outside the story, based on the titles shared by the narrator and the reader but not disclosed to the characters. In other words, the Gospel story of nonviolent confrontation and conflict resolution is not simply shown for our admiration. It does indeed have a “rhetorical” aspect that takes it beyond the interests of literary poetics to the arena of practice. It does invite us, calling us as well as showing us. It not only scripts a way of nonviolent resistance but engages us to go and do likewise. (p. 113)
3. René Girard, The Scapegoat, ch. 11, on the general role of John the Baptist in the gospels. In more recent essays, he has also stressed the importance of the parallel in the gospels between John’s death and Jesus’ death. See the essays “Satan” and “The Question of Anti-Semitism in the Gospels,” on pp. 194-221 of The Girard Reader. Here, for example, is a portion of that discussion:
It has been suggested that Pilate’s handling of Jesus reflects a pro-Roman bias or rather, once again, an anti-Jewish bias. The parallel handling of the Herod/John the Baptist relationship makes this interpretation most unlikely. There must be an intention common to both scenes, and it is readily intelligible. The sovereign, each time, must make his subservience to the crowd manifest. It will be manifest only if his personal desire differs from that of the crowd and yet in the end, the crowd has its way. Herod and Pilate would like to save John and Jesus, but it cannot be done without antagonizing the crowd, and the two sovereigns yield to mimetic pressure; they become part of the crowd. The purpose is to show that a crowd in a lynching mood is the supreme power. For the Gospels, political power has been rooted in the crowd since the foundation of the world. (p. 214)
4. Gil Bailie has extended the comparison of John to Jesus around the theme of skandalon. There are structural similarities between their deaths, but there are also differences. John the Baptist was still in a mode of being scandalized by Herod’s behavior. See his discussion of this in his section on “Scandal,” Violence Unveiled, pp. 207-210.
He extends the comparison and contrast even further by bringing in yet a third murder account in the gospel tradition: Luke’s account of Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts 7. In his more recent tape series, “At Cross Purposes,” he deals with John and Jesus briefly on tape 3, and then in an extended reflection of Stephen’s martyrdom on tape 4.
When the lesser festival of St. Stephen, Dec. 26, falls on a Sunday, the preacher will have an opportunity to talk about Stephen then, with John the Baptist still fresh in people’s minds.
5. Ched Myers, with Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, Ch. 1, “The First Call to Discipleship.” A key to understanding Mark involves the symbolism of place:
Mark 1:3 now cites Isaiah 40:3, which announces a messenger in the wilderness — exactly where John the Baptist shows up (1:4). Through this deft editorial combination of Malachi and Isaiah, Mark has introduced a major theme of his gospel. It is the tension between two archetypically opposite symbolic spaces: Temple and wilderness — center and margins.
When reflecting on our time and place, Myers and his team write,
The experience of wilderness is common to the vast majority of people in the world. Their reality is at the margins of almost everything that is defined by the modern Western world as “the good life.” This wilderness has not been created by accident. It is the result of a system stacked against many people and their communities, whose lives and resources are exploited to benefit a very small minority at the centers of power and privilege. It is created by lifestyles that deplete and pollute natural resources. It is created by the forced labor of impoverished farmers who strip steep mountainsides in order to eke out an existence from infertile terrain while the most arable land produces profit for a few families. Wilderness is the residue of war and greed and injustice.
The urban wilderness is a belt of misery around cities like Lima and Mexico City or a core of poverty in the heart of Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles. These are places where people from the margins gather seeking a modicum of economic or social security and too often find just the opposite. The wilderness is the dwelling place of the world’s 23 million refugees and far too many of the world’s children. It is most common in the Southern Hemisphere but increasingly is found in wealthy countries in the industrialized North as well. Globalization of the economy, based on freedom without accountability, is exacerbating the spread of this wilderness. That is how the system survives: One group of people thriving at the expense of others and the earth; one belching on the other’s hunger; one powerful because the others have no power.
Life in modern wilderness places such as the pauper’s cemetery at Rabinal is intense, stark, fragile, bereft of comforting distraction. Survival is not assured — even the plants by the gravesites are wilted. Yet a deeper gaze reveals that this wilderness can be an empowering place.
On the margins of society, an encounter with self and truth is inevitable. Out of the Rabinals of our world have emerged people who are very clear about who they are, where life is, and what their destiny should be. These are people determined to speak the truth to the centers of privilege and control. In facing death, they have found life; on the cross of dehumanized existence, they are embracing resurrection.
One of the first steps of hope for people in such wilderness places is to understand that their situation reflects social and political forces, not the divine will. (pp. 11-12)
This last insight is crucial. Mimetic Theory helps us to understand that the sacrificial structures of center-margins is a result of our evolved anthropology, not God’s design. People at the center have held people at the margins using the sacred violence of “orders of creation” — ‘God made things this way’ — since the foundation of our human worlds. An evangelical anthropology is the key to liberating knowledge in Christ Jesus that God all along has actually been with those on the margins — which is where Jesus’ ministry begins.
6. 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.