How many of you in your life time have lain an ax or chainsaw to a tree, or the menfolk around you have? As a ten year old child I always carried a pocket knife and many a sapling has fallen to my blade. I have created many stumps, some that sprouted back and some that did not. In my hand and imagination the fallen trees became spears, guns and knives. I employed them in cosmic battle with evil lurking behind weeds and rocks; fleeing before me through the forest. In those days, long before I had met and begun to understand Jesus, I understood John the Baptist. He and I were on the same page.
We both operated in the wilderness; he the wilderness of Judea. Me, the wilderness just north of the house in the chokecherry infested place of enchantment we called “the trees.” Two acres of growth so thick, adults had difficulty finding us and when the wind blew, the rustle of trees obscured all sound emanating from the world of responsibility. Yes, John the Baptist and I were both on crusades. We were righting the world of its wrongs, clearing out everything bad and warning all inhabitants of our imagination of impending doom if they did not yield to our righteous judgment. When the winds were howling and no adult could overhear us, my sister and I became “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” In our fantasy we enacted the redemption of our world and almost always it required violence.
Could it be that every child begins with John the Baptist’s kind of thinking? We all want to save the world and see the problem as good versus evil. If that’s the problem the solution is obvious. Root out the bad, burn it; ban it from the earth, cut the bad tree down. The violence of the cutting is worth the peace when it is gone. This is at the heart of most of our movies, video games and literature; adult and children’s. There is a cosmic fight between good and evil and we all know the side we are on. It is so obvious.
It is only later that we begin to realize that the bad stuff is in us too. That makes getting rid of it much more difficult. But John the Baptist isn’t there yet and won’t ever get there. It will take Jesus to move us from John the Baptist to something far deeper that can actually respond to our problem. But I am getting ahead of our story.
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John the Baptist is full of wrath and the people respond to it by coming out in droves. They picture this wrath sent down from God and look forward to seeing their enemies burning in it. Their only concern is making sure they are protected against the coming fire. When the Sadducees and Pharisees, the cultural leaders at the time, come, the ones the rest of the culture sees as the problem, John calls them “a brood of vipers.” Translated to our cultural context it would be like the Episcopalians and Methodists, the ones the un-churched see as the hypocritical problem, coming for inclusion and being told they are a snake pit. In John’s quest to purge the land of evil, they will be the first to go. With fiery eyes he anticipates the Coming One carrying a pitch fork and using it to separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheat gets stored in the granary of God’s redemption while the chaff burns in “unquenchable fire.” Does this sound like radio and television evangelism?
John the Baptist thinks “The Coming One” is going to be like him only more effectively wrathful. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John can’t imagine any way to cleanse the world of evil other than through more violence. He is right in thinking the world needs someone more powerful but as we have learned, his response of meeting violence with more violence only deepens the problem.
On the “how” of it, John is profoundly wrong about how God should respond to our human dilemma. Being a man born before Jesus he can’t imagine anything other than wrath for solving the world’s problem with evil. His commitment to violence has cut-off his thinking, his imagination, and the scope of possibilities he can see. An ax or chainsaw set at the base of the tree will not solve the problem of trees being cut down. We are the ones who wield the ax and chainsaw. We are the ones who create the stump of Jesse and all other stumps. But God is the one who brings life after the cutting. God is the one that promises, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Isaiah, like the Bible as a whole, presents us with text on the bridge that spans from the side that sees God as wrathful to the new shore where God has no wrath at all. Jesus is the one who finally completes the bridge and it’s for that reason he came. Isaiah’s language, being prior to Jesus, slips from one side of the bridge to the other. This is why we find him saying:
“He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
But in the very next verse he returns to the emerging view of God soon to be revealed by Jesus when he continues:
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
Here Isaiah presents us with a vision of a world without wrath. We are camped on the forward movement of history with Jesus and his new kingdom. The lectionary passage ends before Isaiah can return to the old side of his bridge; the side where we make God violent like us. Being Advent and in preparation for Christmas the lectionary puts us with the non-violent Jesus who shows us the true character of God.
I want now to give a very brief picture of what Jesus’ non-violence, imperfectly applied, look like in our contemporary world. On Thursday of this last week, Nelson Mandela died. The Washington Post article, published in the Oregonian, had a section on Mandela that spoke to my heart.
To a country torn apart by racial divisions, Mandela became its most potent symbol of national unity, using the power of forgiveness and reconciliation to heal deep-rooted wounds and usher in a new era of peace after decades of conflict between blacks and whites. To a continent rife with leaders who cling to power for life, Mandela became a role model for democracy, stepping down from the presidency after one term and holding out the promise of a new Africa.
Mohammad Ali wrote:
He made us realize, we are our brother’s keeper and that our brothers come in all colors. What I will remember most about Mr. Mandela is that he was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge.
On July 11th, 1996 Mandela penned his thoughts on racism:
Racism is blight on the human conscience. The idea that any people can be inferior to another, to the point where those who consider themselves superior define and treat the rest as subhuman, denies the humanity even of those who elevate themselves to the status of gods.
On October 29, 1998 Mandela expressed his views on the ending of apartheid rule:
We are extricating ourselves from a system that insulted our common humanity by dividing us from one another on the basis of race and setting us against each other as oppressed and oppressors. The system committed a crime against humanity.
On poverty, writing in July of 2005 he wrote:
Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.
At age 90 and in 2008 Mandela wrote:
As the years progress one increasingly realizes the importance of friendship and human solidarity. And if a 90-year-old may offer some unsolicited advice on this occasion, it would be that you, irrespective of your age, should place human solidarity, the concern for the other, at the center of the values by which you live.
My final quote is from our beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
God was so good to us in South Africa by giving us Nelson Mandela to be our president at a crucial moment in our history. He inspired us to walk the path of forgiveness and reconciliation, and so South Africa did not go up in flames.
With this quote we tie back to the dangerous ax we humans wield, the bridge of meaning the whole of scripture presents us, culminating in Jesus and his non-violence, and Nelson Mandela, one of Jesus’ disciples, along with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who lived Jesus’ message in the context of our 20th century world. Amen.