Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
Click here for directions
|A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation||
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Peace Be With You
2nd Sunday of Advent
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:Isaiah 2:1-511:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness of Judea, preparing the way for his cousin Jesus. He had an interesting advance team strategy. He threatened people with seven kinds of destruction if they didn’t change their ways. He called them snakes fleeing from the wrath of God, and chaff that would be burned up in unquenchable fire. His sermons must have made you feel so good. Just the kind of thing you want to put on your Christmas card.
John was preparing the way for a certain kind of Jesus, the kind of Jesus he wanted. He looked around and saw that the world was going to hell in a handbasket, saw that there was evil and corruption and poverty and injustice. He wanted someone to restore decency and kindness and law and order. He wanted there to be a reckoning. So he went to the wilderness and preached his messages of the coming wrath and judgment with snakes and fire.
John wanted a certain kind of Jesus. That’s who he was preparing for. On this second Sunday of Advent, we might ask ourselves, “What kind of Jesus do we want? What kind of Jesus are we preparing to receive?”
John’s biggest gripe seems to be against the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees and Sadducees were the two main religious parties in John’s day. On the one hand, they some major differences of doctrine, but on the other, they were probably still more alike than different. We might picture them like Protestants and Catholics or like Methodists and Presbyterians, for example. Since they had some political power as well, we might stretch to imagine them as Democrats and Republicans. John was probably angry with them for their complacency, their smugness. There seemed to be little room to consider another point of view, to change their minds or their behaviors. John called them snakes.
What kind of Jesus did John want? He wanted Jesus to kick butt, to clean house, to call down fire and judgment, payback and destruction.
What kind of Jesus do we want? What kind of Jesus are we prepared to receive?
Some of us might be right there with John. We are ready to receive a Jesus who will deliver us from our current context. We want a Jesus who will clean up the mess the world is in, a Jesus who will deliver some swift kicks and send certain people packing.
Others of us might also want the mess cleaned up, but we aren’t very fond of the images that John evokes. John is too harsh, too legalistic and punitive and full of judgments. We have had our fill of judgmentalism and so we shy away from making judgments about other people. The Jesus we want is kind and loving. He tells funny stories and good jokes and never raises his voice. He makes personal connections with all kinds of people and those connections change lives. That’s the Jesus we want.
As I read the rest of Matthew’s gospel, it seems to me that John did not get the Jesus he wanted. He certainly did not get the Jesus that Matthew understood and wrote about, the Jesus who was accepting and forgiving and non-violent and self-giving. John didn’t get the message all right, but he didn’t get it all wrong either. Like John, Jesus’ harshest criticisms were for the church folks, those who thought they had arrived. And like John, Jesus clearly said that some behaviors and attitudes were just plain wrong and needed to be changed.
John did not get the Jesus he wanted. If we want that Jesus, we are also going to be disappointed. But if we want the other Jesus, the meek and mild one who never raises his voice, we are also going to be disappointed.
There is a third possibility. This possibility takes the idea of God’s judgment seriously. Let’s jump back to the Isaiah text for a moment. We heard a very familiar passage from Isaiah 11. What is less familiar is Isaiah 10. Isaiah 10 describes the evils committed by Israel -- writing oppressive laws, denying justice, impoverishing the poor even further, preying on the weak and vulnerable. For doing those things and for repeatedly refusing to change their ways, the text says, God punished them.
One image of the punishment is of clear-cutting, a destruction of mighty forests, the cedars of Lebanon. That’s at the end of chapter 10. Then chapter 11 picks up with the familiar line “ a shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse . . .” The image is of a massive forest reduced to stumps. The hope is that one of those stumps will give forth a shoot, new growth. And in the new growth, there will be true peace. But before the peace, there is judgment.
John the Baptist offers picks up on similar imagery when he says “even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.”
Sometimes you hear people say that in the Hebrew scriptures, God full of anger and wrath, but in the New Testament, God is loving and forgiving. That is a huge generalization. I want to suggest that Jesus is every bit as outraged as Isaiah about economic oppression and exploitation, every bit as angry as John the Baptist was about the perversion of justice and mistreating the poor and vulnerable. As one of you said in Sunday School last week, “Jesus was not neutral.”
But what John did not anticipate was Jesus’ ability to make judgments without being judgmental, to work against oppression in ways that transform both the oppressor and the oppressed. This is the very difficult work of true peace-making. Baptist journalist Walker Knight described it this way,
“Peace plans its strategy and encircles the enemy.
Peace marshals its forces and storms the gates.
Peace gathers its weapons and pierces the defense.
Peace, like war, is waged.
But Christ has turned it all around:
the weapons of peace are love, joy, goodness, longsuffering
the arms of peace are justice, truth, patience, prayer
the strategy of peace brings safety, welfare, happiness
the forces of peace are the sons and daughters of God.
“The forces of peace are the sons and daughters of God.” And if there were ever a time when such a force was needed, it is now. We have to make judgments about right and wrong. We cannot acquiesce, we cannot agree to a kind of civil unity which accommodates racism, misogyny, religious bigotry, power grabbing, and fear mongering. We absolutely cannot. At the same time, if there is to be lasting peace, we cannot continue to speak of Us and Them, we cannot demonize those whom we see as the oppressors. I don’t know what kind of Jesus you are hoping for, but the Jesus we got calls us to this difficult work.
This work is so hard that not many engage it, not many have engaged it in the 2000 years since Jesus so we need to learn the stories of those who do. Here are a couple of them:
At the beginning of last month, some women involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance organized a walk for forgiveness. It was a couple of weeks after one of the early encounters with law enforcement, during which the police had fired bean bags and rubber bullets and pepper spray and arrested 141 protestors. The invitation to the event said, “This is a time for water protectors to relieve themselves of the burdens of pain, bitterness and anger due to traumatic experiences with police. Forgiveness does not mean that what is happening is okay. It means we choose to respond to hatred with love. When we fall to anger and to hatred, we become the very thing that hurt us. With this release we can then think clearly, act constructively and truly serve all our relatives.”
Do you hear it – what is happening is not ok, not ok at all, but still, we will work for peace with those who hurt us.
The Rev. Peter Storey is a former Bishop of the Methodist Church of South Africa, now retired. For forty years, he was part of sustained opposition to the apartheid government and its oppressive racist policies. He also served as chaplain to Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners on Robben Island. He is white.
One time a black clergyman named Ike was arrested by the secret police in a very racist town. Peter went to the prison and taken to Ike’s cell by a white Afrikaner guard. Peter said to the guard, “We are going to have Communion,” and he took out his portable Communion elements and set them up. When it was time to give the Invitation, he said to the guard, “This table is open to all, so if you would like to share with us, please feel free to do so.”
Peter said, “This must have touched some place in his religious self, because he took the line of least resistance and nodded rather curtly. I consecrated the bread and the wine and noticed that Ike was beginning to come to life a little. He could see what was happening here. Then I handed the bread and the cup to Ike, because we always give communion first to the least of Christ’s brothers or sisters—the ones that are hurting the most—and Ike ate and drank. Next must surely be the stranger in your midst, so I offered bread and the cup to the guard. You don’t need to know too much about South Africa to understand what white Afrikaner racists felt about letting their lips-touch a cup from which a black person had just drunk. The guard was in crisis: he would either have to overcome his prejudice or refuse the means of grace. After a long pause, he took the cup and sipped from it, and for the first time I saw a glimmer of a smile on Ike’s face. Then I took something of a liberty with the truth and said, “In the Methodist liturgy, we always hold hands when we say the grace,” and very stiffly, the ward reached out his hand and took Ike’s, and there we were in a little circle, holding hands, while I said the ancient words of benediction, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all.”
Peter said, “One of our important tasks in South Africa’s long struggle for liberation was to help people imagine what they found unimaginable: a South Africa where black and white lived together hand in hand and at peace. It was crucial for the church to incarnate that dream in the life of the Christian community.
Sisters and brothers, what kind of Jesus are we expecting this Christmas? Do we want a sweet baby in a manger who requires nothing of us? Do we want a charismatic prophet who tells it like it is and condemns the wicked and rewards the faithful? Or could we be ready for a Jesus who calls us be sons and daughters of God, the forces of peace. Could we possibly be prepared to receive a Jesus who asks us to make friends with our enemies, to pick up the phone and call someone who we haven’t talked with in months or years, the Jesus who says us to tell the truth, even if our voice shakes, the Jesus who tells us to share our possessions, to lay down our lives for each other and for those who oppress us. Could we possibly want that kind of Jesus? And if we do, what are we doing to be ready to receive him?