Last revised: January 27, 2016
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3RD SUNDAY IN ADVENT — YEAR C
RCL: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
RoCa: Zephaniah 3:14-18; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
1. Verse 19 is the what most catches my eye as a Girardian: “I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” It recalls to mind for me another gem from James Alison‘s Raising Abel: the first portion of the concluding chapter on the theme of “Reputation and Shame.”
1. See last week’s resources (Advent 2C) for the full context of the letter to the Philippians.
Reflections and Questions
1. Here is what I wrote for Advent 3B regarding 1 Thess. 5:16-24: Constant prayer, rejoicing and giving thanks. These are themes in several of Paul’s letters, most notably Philippians 4. (Philippians is also the letter that most emphasizes positive imitation.) Are prayerful rejoicing and thanksgiving remedies for mimetic rivalry? Giving thanks in all circumstances would seem to counteract the felt lack of things when mimetic rivalry comes knocking.
I believe that Advent 3 has also been traditionally “Jubilate” Sunday (sometimes distinguished by a pink candle), a day to emphasize joy and celebration. The choice of second lessons seems to follow this tradition.
1. The word or metaphor that catches my attention this week is “fire” (pyr in the Greek), which appears three times (3:9, 16, 17), with three completely separate references, in these 12 short verses of Luke. There are only four other uses of this word in Luke: 9:54, 12:49, 17:29, 22:55. By comparison, Matthew leads the gospel writers with 12 occurrences, with his common theme of hell fire; and John the least with just one occurrence (15:6), though his is a key use, oft quoted by Gil Bailie in his more recent work on the Vine and Branches passage as a psychological apocalypse (e.g., Spring ’97 issue of Contagion,” pp. 120-145). (Btw, it probably isn’t too surprising that the Book of Revelation leads the way in talking about fire in the NT, with more than one-third of the occurrences, 25 out of 70.) The first and third uses of this image from Luke’s version of John the Baptist (3:9, 17) are similar to that of John 15:6. All three instances reference the burning of agricultural waste, presumably as a metaphor for Judgment Day. Sandwiched between these two more traditional metaphors is the use of “fire” specifically in connection to Jesus: he will come with a baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire, not just water. How do we understand this use of “fire”? I think it provides a key to the passage, and I will say more below under “Reflections.”
2. More generally, “fire” signals mythological references to sacrificial violence for Girardians. When Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed in a rain of fire, for example, it’s likely that they were destroyed by a human enemy which burned them to the ground. But it gets mythologically reframed as divine fire from above because the nature of sacred violence is to justify human violence behind an aura of the sacred. Two of the occurrences of “fire” in Luke are of this type. Luke 17:29 speaks of Sodom; Luke 9:54 is an important passage where Jesus sets his sights on Jerusalem and skips a Samaritan town. The disciples take this as a sign of judgment from Jesus and ask, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus tells them “No!” in no uncertain terms. The Christian demythification, in light of Girard’s anthropology, seeks to see fiery, destructive violence for what it truly is, i.e., violence of human origin, not divine. (See an excerpt on Luke 9:51-62 from my article “The Work of René Girard as a New Key to Biblical Hermeneutics.”) What we have talked about in recent weeks with regards to apocalyptic, then, is that the Christian faith does not back away from the fiery apocalyptic imagery, but it begins to remove the veil of the sacred. What we must come to see is that any fiery end to the world will be our violence not God’s.
1. N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God. What does the ‘wrath to come’ (v. 7) refer to? Wright takes a historical approach. When the prophets speak of the ‘wrath to come,’ Wright states that it “refers to hostile military action” (p. 596). And the reason that there was an impending wrath at the time of Jesus had to do with how John’s and Jesus’ fellow Jews lived out their identities as “children to Abraham” (v.8). They thought that such an identity assured them of military victory over their enemies. John and Jesus came to warn them that that was not the case. As the prophets before them, they warned God’s people that trust in military solutions would only bring ‘wrath’ upon them. Here are two paragraphs that summarize Wright’s view that Jesus came bringing a different paradigm from those who expected another Maccabaean military victory. The first paragraph speaks to the mistaken identity as “children to Abraham,” and the second to the coming ‘wrath’:
First, Jesus, unlike his predecessors in this paradigm, had announced and was enacting a programme aimed not at nationalistic victory over the pagans, but at making Israel what she was called to be, namely, the light of the world. Indeed, the zeal which characterized both the Maccabees and their successors in the first century, making them intensify Torah-observance and draw their boundaries (actual and symbolic) ever tighter, was precisely what Jesus had opposed in his teaching and was now opposing in practice. Israel was called, he believed, to be the people of the creator god for the world. Whatever interpretation he put on his own death, therefore, it could not simply correspond to the interpretation the martyrs had put on theirs, namely that they were enabling the nation of Israel to escape from her exile while the rest of the world lurched towards its doom. His symbolic actions had pointed towards a renewal of Israel which broke the boundaries, the wineskins, the taboos, and which incorporated a new set of symbols. His last symbolic action [i.e., the cross], we may assume, was intended to continue and complete this process.
Second, Jesus therefore not only took upon himself the ‘wrath’ (which, as usual in Jewish thought, refers to hostile military action) which was coming upon Israel because she had compromised with paganism and was suffering exile. He also took upon himself the ‘wrath’ which was coming upon Israel because she had refused his way of peace. Like the Maccabaean martyrs, he suffered what he saw as the results of Israel’s pagan corruption. Israel had flirted with paganism; suffering would come of it, as it always had; the martyrs took it upon themselves. Unlike them, he saw as pagan corruption the very desire to fight paganism itself. Israel had become a hotbed of nationalist revolution; suffering would come of it, specifically in the form of Roman swords, falling masonry, and above all crosses planted outside the capital city. He would go, as Israel’s representative, and take it upon himself. As in so many of his own parables, he would tell Israel’s well-known story one more time, with a radical and multiply subversive twist in its tail. Only he would tell it, not as a wordsmith, swapping aphorisms in the marketplace, but as the king, exiled outside the gate of his own beloved city. (pp. 595-596)
John, as forerunner to Jesus, preached a foretaste of this message.
2. Sarah Dylan Breuer, “Dylan’s Lectionary Blog,” for Advent 3C. (New in 2006.) Breuer lifts up both the continuity of Jesus’ message with John’s on the matter of call to repentance, but also the discontinuity involving the form that judgment would take. And so she points ahead to Luke 7:18-35, where John sends disciples to investigate Jesus’ ministry, an indication that John is feeling the difference.
A crucial exegetical note for her relates to the usual translation of “winnowing fork.” The Greek word ptuon “always refers to the winnowing shovel, not the fork.” Dylan writes:
This actually makes a significant difference in how we read the Baptizer’s expectations. A winnowing fork is used to separate the wheat from the chaff. A winnowing shovel is what you use after someone else has done their work with the fork and the wheat and chaff are already separated to do what John says the coming one will do: “gather the wheat into his granary,” while “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Jesus is only fulfilling half of what John says the mighty one coming would do: he’s baptizing with the Holy Spirit and gathering people for healing, good news, and blessing, but the fire to destroy the wicked is nowhere to be seen.
John the Baptizer calls everyone to conversion so they may avoid destruction when the name-taking and butt-kicking starts. Jesus’ response of “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” (Luke 7:23) to the Baptizer’s pleas to bring on the fire of judgment against the wicked challenges John himself to a kind of conversion. In Jesus’ ministry, John is invited to rejoice at what God is doing in the world, and to let go of what God is not doing, to release his preconceptions and take in the reality of God’s presence and work.
From the perspective of Mimetic Theory this is a crucial insight: to separate God from judgment fires. Not that God has nothing to say about them, but that they won’t be God’s judgment fires. They will be ours, as we insist on living by the fires of sacred violence. In the view of St. Paul, for example, the “wrath of God” is God ‘handing us over’ to the consequences of our own idolatry (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). After turning the corner from Romans 1 to 2 on the theme of judgment — “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself” (Rom 2:1) — St. Paul makes it clear both whose fires will dominate the Day of Judgment and that God is a God of mercy
Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:3-5)
Paul is using traditional language in a new way, isn’t he? He still talks about the “judgment of God.” But it is one marked by “his kindness and forbearance and patience,” in contrast to the wrath we store up for ourselves. As I explain elsewhere (“My Core Convictions“), Paul, having begun us with the “wrath of God” in Rom. 1:18, uses the word “wrath” (orge) twelve more times in Romans but never again paired with the word “God” as in 1:18. The verses in between 1:18 and 2:5 make it clear that God’s righteous judgment is mercy and kindness while ours is the wrath. The day of wrath is about the wrath we store up for ourselves. If we are to speak at all about a “wrath of God,” we must learn to think about it as God handing us over to the consequences of our own idolatry, our own wrathful idols.
To conclude concerning the difference between Jesus and John the Baptizer: Rom 2:4 speaks about God’s kindness leading to repentance. That’s the God we come to know in Jesus Christ. The God who leads us to repentance by threatening a firey wrath is still an idol of our sacred violence. Jesus and John proclaimed different ways to living lives of repentance. In 2006 our main service was the Sunday School Christmas Program, and I offered a hybrid bible study/sermon on these themes at the other service.
3. James Alison, an essay new in 2006 entitled “Wrath and the gay question: on not being afraid, and its ecclesial shape”; a talk originally prepared for the Salisbury Diocese Clergy Conference at Swanwick (4-7 July 2006) with a view to its later presentation at Mount St Agnes Theological Center for Women, Baltimore (11 October 2006); currently posted on the James Alison website. On p. 7 (of the .pdf version) Alison quotes the Matthean parallels to today’s Luke text to make very similar points to those made in the previous note from Breuer. Here is Alison’s explication:
When we get to the New Testament we see that the question of wrath is very much on people’s 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 doesn’t seem to act in the way that John thinks he’s going to. In fact he’s so little wrathful in his appearance that John, from prison, sends to ask:
Art thou he that is to come, or wait we 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. 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.
These points about John the Baptist and Jesus are surrounded by a superb and masterful weaving of sources that provides a rich understanding of Mimetic Theory. Highly recommended.
5. I’ve already mentioned Gil Bailie‘s recent work and emphasis on psychological apocalypse. In the Spring ’97 issue of Contagion (an essay entitled “The Vine and Branches Discourse: The Gospel’s Psychological Apocalypse,” pp. 120-145), he uses the Vine and Branches Discourse as a centering image. In John 15:5-6, Jesus would seem to present us with a basic choice: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” It provides a theme for Bailie’s recent work in his taped lecture series, as well, most notably his series on Luke, in which he makes this connection in discussing Luke 3:17. Part of the problem with the “psychological crisis” of our times is ironically the fact that our modern understanding of the psychological is itself so deficient. It is too highly focused on the individual. Bailie suggests that we might be better off seeing this as an ontological crisis, rather than a psychological one. Ontology has to do with the nature of our substance, our being, as persons. The individualistic approach of modern psychology ends up being a shallow, diminishing one in the context of ontology. He frequently references Henri De Lubac’s “the diminishing of our ontological density” as describing the modern psychological or spiritual crisis; or Gabriel Marcel’s “loss of ontological moorings.” In other words, to be people of substance, we need to be connected with the One who gives us being. This is Jesus’ point in the Vine and Branches Discourse. If we are not connected with the one who gives us being, then we shrivel up psychologically and are ready for the fires of apocalyptic violence. Lacking ontological density or moorings, we are susceptible to getting swept up with the escalating violence around us. We are like the chaff which gets blow away and collected for the fires. The metaphor of wheat and chaff in Luke 3:17 beautifully this idea of ontological density. Without the ontological substance provided by being connected to the Vine, we are prone to being blown away and swept up into the rising fires of human violence.
6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from December 14, 2003 (Woodside Village Church).
7. Sermons from a Girardian perspective by members of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby in 2012, “Searing Sorrow, Deep Darkness and Advent Waiting“; and in 2015, “The Barn of Peace; and Suella Gerber in 2015, Advent 3C 2015.
Delivered just two days after the 2012 slaughter of innocents in Newtown, CT, Truby offers the Good News that Jesus came to help us live together in peace:
Is The Coming One different from John the Baptist because he makes himself the chaff, and this is what changes people’s hearts? He allows himself to be burned by our violence and then forgives us as we do it. Is this his refining fire? Is this how he gathers the wheat into his granary? Rather than inflicting violence and revenge, Jesus absorbs the violence we inflict on him. His forgiveness is the flame. This is how he changes our hearts and burns away our chaff. The good news is that this is coming and has already happened. Not even John can imagine it!
The Coming One turns us from violence. He changes even our desires. This Christmas, let your gentleness be known to everyone. Let your hearts be filled with expectation. Our Savior has come! He will renew us in his Love.
8. Russ Hewett, pastor of MeetingPlace near Bangor, Maine, offers this blog on John the Baptist, “The Winnowing of John: How René Girard Helps Me Understand John the Baptist.”
9. For additional Girardian resources on John the Baptist see the section on Matthew 3 for Advent 2A.
Reflections and Questions
1. The question for me centers on the Jesus who brings a baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire. Is this a positive instance of fire, a purifying fire? I have generally tried to separate this use of “fire” from the other two and make it more positive. Jesus wouldn’t come to baptize us in the fires of Gehenna, would he? Yet we are later confronted with these words from the Lukan Jesus (Luke 12:49-53): “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” What a shocking passage! Yet one that would seem to be directly related to Luke 3:16.
I am more inclined today to see the “fire” in Luke 3:16 in the same negative context as Luke 3:9, 17. Jesus came to be baptized with the same fire of human violence as many victims to go before him. But his baptism into this fire will be one that he survives through the power of God’s Holy Spirit that raises him to new life. Without the Holy Spirit, it is no longer really a baptism but simply a consuming fire. Without the Holy Spirit, we lack the substance to avoid being blown away like the chaff for the fire, or like the branch that bears no fruit. The baptism of the fire of human violence will be unavoidable for Jesus, but with the Holy Spirit it will be a baptism into new life and not simply a devouring fire of death. With the Holy Spirit, the fire of human violence will begin to be transformed into something else.
2. See also my Pentecost 2000 sermon on “The Fire of Love.”