Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
4th of December 2022
‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’
You know me; I want to preach sermons of love and light, talking about God’s overwhelming, unfathomable, unmerited, inclusive welcome. Give me my choice and I will always choose to preach on passages like those in the First Letter of John: ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.’ (1 John 4:7-8) As I have said before, God’s love is my comfort zone as a preacher. And yet here we are, the second Sunday of Advent, Peace Sunday, and the lectionary has given us John the Baptist accusing people of being vipers.
Matthew tells us that John is the one of whom Isaiah spoke, the voice crying out in the wilderness. John is preparing the way for the Lord, and he has a very particular understanding of what the coming of the Messiah will involve. According to John: ‘His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ John saw the coming of the kingdom as the coming of judgement; judgement that would vindicate the righteous and condemn the unrighteous. As someone who frequently worries that I may be in the category of ‘unrighteous’ I find all that talk about burning chaff with unquenchable fire moderately terrifying. I know I am not alone in that. Sadly, one of the things that the church has been exceptionally good at has been inculcating a fear of judgement in Christians, whether those Christians are divorced, ill, LGBTIQ+, doubting, or just not giving the church what the church considers to be enough money. This week I read about a thriving church in the UK, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), whose young members apparently ‘sold clothes, phones or jewellery for donation money. One person said their church donations left them relying on credit cards, another that they were left with only their student loan, and one said she had to ask for donations from the church’s own food bank’. I do not want to preach judgement from the pulpit, because I know how much damage such preaching has done and continues to do.
Yet God judging the world with a righteous judgement is in both our readings today. All the prophets from Isaiah to John the Baptist look forward to God’s judgement, because they believe that it will vindicate those who are oppressed or mistreated. They believe that God’s judgement is good news, because it will bring about the justice for which they long. (The only exception is the reluctant prophet Jonah, who complains when God does not punish the people of Nineveh: ‘I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing’. – Jonah 4:2) So in the prophecy that we hear today First Isaiah takes images commonly used of kings, but reinterprets them to suit them to a ruler who can be called the ‘Prince of Peace’. The Messiah is given spiritual gifts not to enable him to impose his will on other people, but to enable him to deliver justice. At first I found confusing the promise that the shoot from the stump of Jesse will not judge by what his eyes see, or his ears hear. In our legal system there is no other way of doing justice. Juries are told very specifically that they can only make their decisions based on the evidence that is presented to them in court, and court cases end in mistrials if it is discovered that a member of a jury has done their own research. But the Messiah is not an ordinary jury member. Unlike human judges, the Messiah will not be tempted to make judgements based on what people look like, or how they present themselves. He will not judge the unemployed as lazy, or the mentally ill as frightening, or the disabled as stupid, or the addicted as weak-willed. The Messiah will make judgments with righteousness and equity. He will be able to give judgement for the poor and meek rather than favouring the rich and strong. Therefore the prophets can look forward to the Messiah’s judgement; they know it will bring about justice.
Even so, just as John the Baptist’s language about ‘burning chaff with unquenchable fire’ is frightening, so is Isaiah’s promise that the Messiah ‘shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked’. But the powers that prey on the vulnerable do need to be destroyed. Warmongers, arms manufacturers, unethical pay day lenders, those who force refugees from their homes, those who abuse children, those who poison the rivers on which people rely for drinking water – the list of those whose acts must be condemned if God’s new creation is to come is long. We may not believe that the breath of God is going to kill the wicked individuals (and indeed the story of Jonah suggests that God will always incline to mercy rather than punishment) but like the prophets we can look forward to God destroying wickedness itself. There are many things that currently exist that will have to die if the peaceable kingdom to which Isaiah tells us to look forward is to be born. Today’s prophecy, like John the Baptist’s preaching, reminds us that there can be no peace without justice.
There can be no peace without justice and true justice, the justice brought about by the judgement of God, will lead to peace. Isaiah’s prophecy looks forward to the overturning of the natural order and the end of violence in all its forms; it is an oracle of the eschaton, the end-time. In the age to come natural enemies will lie down together, even the most vulnerable of humanity, children, will be safe, and ‘[t]hey will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’. I have mentioned before that commentators believe that the Book of Isaiah contains the writings of three prophets: First, Second and Third Isaiah, and that the situations into which each of them speaks are vastly different. I find it fascinating that today’s prophecy comes from the eighth-century prophecies of First Isaiah; that it is obviously a prophecy that had not come true by the time Second and Third Isaiah were prophesying two hundred years later; and yet those later prophets were happy to continue prophesying in Isaiah’s name. Ordinarily, if a prophet prophesied peace and peace did not come he would be seen as a false prophet, as were the prophets who prophesised that the exiles would soon return from Babylon in contrast to the true prophet Jeremiah who warned that the Babylonian Exile would last generations. Given that we are still looking for the fulfillment of this particular prophecy, why was it collected in the Scriptures and why did two later prophets take Isaiah’s name?
I suspect that the people of Israel heard this prophecy as true for the same reason that we are hearing it in church two thousand years after the birth of the one we Christians believe is the Messiah. Prophecies of the peaceable kingdom speak to our deepest longings. They describe what we believe, in the core of our hearts and our guts, God’s good creation should be. This is not the way the world is, God’s justice and peace do not yet prevail, the earth is not yet as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Yet we know that were the world to be as God created it, good, this is what we would see. That we continue to look for the fulfilling of this prophecy and others like it, that we celebrate Jesus as the ‘Prince of Peace’ even in a world filled with violence, is not because we are denying reality. We are simply standing firm in our belief that God did not intend creation to be a world of violence and injustice and so, since as Christians we are trying to live as God wants, we will always work for peace and justice rather than accept their opposites as inevitable. This season of Advent, with its Sundays of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love, reminds us of that. As one of my favourite fantasy television shows describes the mission of its heroes, ‘We live as though the world were what it should be, to show it what it can be’. That is the mission of the church.
In the meantime, as we live between the coming of Christ that we celebrate at Christmas and the end of time when the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea, there is another reason for hope. Isaiah describes the Messiah as a shoot from the stock of Jesse, a branch growing out of Jesse’s roots. It is a metaphor of growth from something that appears dead, of new life coming from something seemingly lifeless. Just as our faith tells us that the world is meant to be a place of justice and peace, our faith tells us that life can come from death. As we look around at a church in decline, in the week in which we hear that Christianity has become a minority religion in England and Wales, we remember that we believe in a God who is always doing new things. The new things may not look like the old, but they will still be done by God. For that we give thanks to the God who is always faithful, and always with us. Amen.