Sunday, December 8, 2013

Phil Kniss: Peace and judgment

Advent 2: Fear not, peace is coming
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7; 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-17

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That choir anthem—both music and text—
    is powerful beyond words.
    It feels like we need to just sit in silence, and soak it in a bit.

    The text is inspired by the Gospel reading we just heard.
    Both the Matthew text, and this anthem,
        when we allow ourselves to listen deeply,
        will take our breath away.

    I’ll come back to it,
        but while we catch our breath,
        let me step away from that
            to an image more restful and idyllic.

Who doesn’t love the image of the peaceable kingdom,
    that Isaiah described so powerfully and poetically?
    This one prophetic oracle we read from Isaiah 11
        has inspired hymn writers and composers of symphonies,
        has stirred preachers and poets,
        has animated sculptors and painters.
    The most notable of its creative retellers
        is Edward Hicks, of Berks County, Pennsylvania,
        the painter responsible for the image on display here.

    He was so inspired by this passage that he painted
        no less than 100 different versions of this same scene.
    Hicks was also an itinerant Quaker preacher.
        He went all over the country, painting this scene,
            and giving the paintings to the churches where he preached.
        This painting depicts the Isaiah prophecy
            of animals who were natural enemies,
                grazing together,
                lying down together,
                even rubbing noses—
            and merges it with early American realities.
                The background shows reconciliation between
                    immigrant Europeans and native Americans.

This is a lovely scene.
    It inspires us.
    Helps us imagine possibilities.
    Gives hope.

Isaiah, prophesying to the exiles in Assyria,
    enslaved by the brutal King Sennacherib,
    looked, and saw, a peaceable kingdom,
        with wolves resting beside lambs,
        and leopards and goats and lions and calves,
            all grazing peacefully, with children playing nearby.
        It was not a picture of real and present life.
        It was divine imagination.

Preacher Hicks was also seeing something
    that wasn’t there at the time.
    There was active warfare in 1800, in many parts,
        between the Europeans and Native peoples.
    There was also a painful split in his Quaker church,
        that wasn’t being resolved.
       
    But he saw something in the brokenness
        that others could not see.
    He was seer. A prophet with a paintbrush.

We know that both prophet Isaiah and preacher Hicks,
    suffered ridicule and resistance,
    on the part of those who could not see what they saw.
_____________________

But speaking of seers, I have to wonder . . .
    I wonder how the painter and prophet saw their vision
        actually coming to pass?
    What could possibly make their vision reality?
    Were they just putting their vision out there
        to make people feel good?
        Or did they actually see it happening, in their lifetime,
            and how?

Did Isaiah have a plan in mind about how
    his people would move out
        from the oppression of slavery,
        into the peaceable kingdom?
    His vision was that lions, bears, wolves, venemous snakes—
        and other predators—
        would peaceably live with their prey—
            lambs, kids, calves, infant children.
    It was pretty obvious, in Isaiah’s context,
        who were the predators, and who were the prey.
    Did Isaiah have any bright ideas
        how King Sennacherib and the Assyrian forces
        would one day sit down peaceably at the same table
            with the Israelites?

I can hardly imagine Isaiah was being strategic here—
    that he was trying to motivate his enslaved people
        to rise up and do something themselves,
        to transform their situation from violence to peace and justice.
Neither do I think that Isaiah was just practicing psychology,
    telling his people a sweet, imaginative bedtime story
    to give them relief from their nightmares.

Given the context, and the role of the prophet,
    it was clearly neither of those two things.
    Neither a call to rise up and fix it themselves,
        nor giving personal, psychological comfort.
_____________________

So isn’t it interesting,
    that when we read this prophecy of the peaceable kingdom,
        with our own modern eyes and ears,
        we often read it, in exactly one of those two ways.

    We Western Christians tend to read this as a call to human action—
        a call to make peace with our enemies—
            to live more peaceably as wolves and lambs together.
        It’s a should and ought text.
        If we’re the lion, we should learn to eat straw like the ox.
        If we’re the cow, we ought to take courage
            to graze in the presence of the bear.

    Or, if we’re not of a mind to be peace and justice advocates,
        we read it simply as a utopian vision for a future age,
        to comfort us through the nightmare
            that is life in this broken world,
            and get us safely into the next life where all will be peace.

I think Isaiah would be truly perplexed, if he knew that one day
    people would read his words,
    and think he was telling Assyrians oppressors and Israelite slaves,
        to be nicer, and sit down and talk out their differences.
    And, he would be dismayed to learn that people read his words,
        and thought he was only talking about some future
            heavenly age,
        and that his prophecy had no bearing on life here on this earth.

So if this was a real vision Isaiah had,
    about lions and cows and wolves and lambs,
    how did he see it happening, in this earthly age?
    Actually, that’s no mystery.
    He makes it crystal clear right there in the text,
        in the verses that we modern, rational, feel-good
            Western Christians
            tend to skip over . . . or at least, not notice very much.

The peaceable kingdom comes about
    through divine wrath and judgment.
    Yes, peace comes through God’s judgment.

Can we Christians of the pacifist tradition live with that?
    It’s pretty hard to ignore in this text.
And if we successfully managed to ignore it in Isaiah,
    the entire reading from Psalm 72 today
        is all about God judging the wicked oppressor,
        and putting things right for the oppressed.
And if we escaped the psalm somehow,
    the Romans reading tells us it’s God alone
    who rises up and rules with justice
        giving hope that Jew and Gentile might live together reconciled.
And if we managed to get through all three of these readings,
    with our peaceable, moralistic,
        human-oriented version of pacifism intact,
    then we are hit upside the head with John the Baptist,
        the camelhair wearing, insect-eating, prophet of doom.

    Who says to the people, without any attempt to be tactful,
        “You brood of vipers!”
        You sit there so high and mighty,
            thinking you have God’s favor
            because of your righteous religious traditions.
        God the judge is watching.
            The axe is lying on the ground at the foot of the trees.
            Every tree that does not bear good fruit,
                will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.
        And, John says, you think my message is hard to hear?
            Wait for the one who comes after me,
                the one whose sandals I am unworthy to tie.
            I baptize with water.
            He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
                His winnowing fork is in his hand.
                He will put the good grain into the barn.
                But what is chaff,
                    he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Although that might not be the most popular message to our ears,
    it did bring the people out to John, in huge numbers,
    and he baptized them with water for repentance.
Including Jesus himself,
    the one John described as God’s agent of judgment,
        carrying a winnowing fork.

I’m not just imagining things here in these texts.
    There is a lot of divine wrath and judgment here
        that we conveniently ignore each Advent.
    Because it’s so much more suitable for this season
        to think about the quiet babe in the manger,
            come into the world to speak softly and tenderly to all,
            and win everyone over with his gentleness and love.
    Simply to be honest with what I’m reading here,
        I have to wonder, whether divine judgment
            might be the key to a more faithful understanding
                of Isaiah’s picture of the peaceable kingdom.

Look again at verses 3-5 of Isaiah 11.
    This is widely seen as a prophecy about the Messiah,
        the one we now understand to have been Jesus, the Christ.
    Isaiah says,
        “He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
            or decide by what his ears hear;
        4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
            and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
        he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
            and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
        5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
            and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”

Hmmm.
    The Messiah, as agent of God’s judgment,
        is depicted as striking the earth with a rod,
            and killing the wicked.
    Then, as a result, in the very next verse,
        we see the wolf lying down with the lamb,
        and all kinds of predators and prey,
            living together in a kingdom of peace.

Peace comes through divine judgment,
    meted out through the hands of God’s agent,
        the Messiah.
_____________________

But look again,
    even here, in the Old Testament,
        tucked in among a whole collection
            of stories of war and God-directed conquest,
    here God’s judgment, as carried out by the Messiah,
        is not what we have come to expect.

V. 4, God judges for the poor,
    God decides with equity for the meek of the earth.
And how are the wicked oppressors killed?
    With the rod of his mouth.
    With the breath of his lips.
        In other words . . . words.
    God the Lord, through the Messiah,
        will speak truth, will decide,
        will judge right and wrong.
    The violent and oppressive and unjust people of the earth
        will be exposed by the fiery strength of truth-telling.
    The evil which can only live in the dark,
        will be exposed to the blinding, burning sun of God’s truth,
            and it will die.

But it is God’s Word that triumphs over evil and injustice,
    not human rhetoric.

We can do nothing, powered by human energy alone,
    to make wolf and lamb lie down together.

But the Messiah can, and will.
    Truth trumps oppression.
        Not just in a future age.
        Here. Now.
        Wherever the Messiah is at work.
    And might we add,
        wherever the messianic community exists
            and is at work as God’s agents of reconciliation.
    Can we, the living church,
        the body of the Christ in the world,
        be so bold,
            as to now reclaim our role in seeing the peaceable kingdom
            take root and grow here, in our time.
    As I said,
        Isaiah saw it happening,
            not in a heavenly age,
            but in this age.
        He saw earthly oppressors (the wolves and lions)
            sitting at table with the oppressed (the lambs and calves).

If we are the body of Christ in the world,
    if we represent the real presence
        of the saving, healing, reconciling, truth-telling Messiah,
    then we can find the right place to stand
        in regard to this vision in Isaiah 11.

We are not the makers of peace.
But we are not disinterested parties, either.
    We are the duly-commissioned agents
        of the God who judges for the poor and meek of the earth,
        whose burning word of truth and love
            breaks down the power of darkness and evil.

That implications of that overwhelms me.
    It takes my breath away.
Just like the Gospel of Matthew did this morning,
    and like the choir anthem, the Advent Herald did as well.

Do we, the church of Jesus Christ,
    dare step into this stream of Holy-Spirit inspired
        discerning, judging, deciding, proclaiming, and truth-telling
        that will confront the violent oppressors
            not with our strength,
            but with the strength of God’s true judgment?
    Is that where we want to go?
    Is this the mission of the Messiah we want to name,
        and make our own?
Let’s not be too quick to answer.
_____________________

One of the things about the choir anthem
    that just blew me away,
    was the insight and perspective of the hymn-writer Brian Wren,
        in his particular interpretation of this story of John the Baptist.

I’ve been singing with the choir,
    and practiced this piece a number of times this fall.
    But I admit the words didn’t make much of an impression
        until I looked closer at them this week.
    What was almost revolutionary for me,
        was the way he interpreted the experience of Jesus
        as he came to be baptized by John.

Today’s Gospel readingended just before Jesus entered the story.
    But we know that part of the story.
    Jesus steps from the crowd, and asks John to baptize him.
        Despite John’s claim to be unworthy,
            he does so,
            and as he does, a voice comes from heaven,
            announcing Jesus as God’s beloved Son.

    I always imagined Jesus going to John,
        sure of his identity,
        and what he was called to do and be,
        and stepping forward with clarity asking to be baptized.
    It doesn’t say that in the text, exactly,
        but that’s the way we generally see it.

That’s not how Brian Wren saw it, nor how we sang it.
    Look again at the words in your bulletin.

He first describes John as the wild, unkempt, desert declaimer,
    who “hails the impending flame-giving Spirit’s enveloping fires,”
    proclaiming God’s wrath
        against the palace, the priests, and the scribes.

Now look, in v. 4, how he writes of Jesus,
    “See now the young one who lingers and listens,
        standing intent in the buzz of the throng,
    waiting in line, on the brink of decisions,
        seeking the Spirit that beckons through John.”

Here, Jesus is not the confident, decisive one
    claiming his God-given identity.
    He lingers at the edges of the crowd.
        He listens.
        He is being drawn in by John’s teaching.
        The Spirit that John is invoking,
            now is beckoning to Jesus.
        Jesus, who is “on the brink of decisions.”

I love that thought.
    Jesus, I’m sure, knew that in his context,
        a mission of peace-proclaiming and justice-declaring
            would, by definition,
            include embracing God’s judgment against the powers.
    And that day, he was only inching toward the decision
        to join the mission God intended for him.
    And the Holy Spirit, speaking through John, the wild one,
        drew him in,
        and he said yes.

How are we—as the body of Christ
    in a broken and fractured and violent world—
    at any different of a place today,
        than Jesus was, that day?

Do we think God’s vision of shalom and peace and justice
    will ever come to pass in this world,
    without God’s penetrating truth of judgment
        against those who, with evil intent,
        actively undermine God’s agenda?

Are we ready to be among those calling them out?
    Not using violence to force our vision or agenda on anyone.
    But using truth-telling as our weapon,
        like the Messiah,
        who wore not a sword, but righteousness
            as a belt around his waist, according to Isaiah.
    Are we ready to speak truth when it’s fraught with risk.
        To get in harm’s way,
            to shine light where there is darkness?

What better time to be reflecting on this text, and this question,
    than three days after the death of Nelson Mandela—
        a man, imperfect though he was—
        willing to speak truth to power, at a great personal cost,
            and when given the opportunity to exercise power,
                chose forgiveness, and reconciliation,
                rather than perpetuating the wrongs already done.

May we, the body of the Christ in our world,
    discover ways to join with God’s mission,
        no matter the cost,
        and rejoice when we see God doing God’s work,
            of inviting wolf and lamb to lie down and graze together.

May it be so.

—Phil Kniss, December 8, 2013

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