Preaching to vipers

8 December 2019; Second Sunday of Advent; Advent IIA (RCL); Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

We often forget that all of scripture is politically situated. None of the prophets, or storytellers, or letter-writers, or poets were writing in a vacuum. Religious hope and political aspiration went hand in hand. This is clear in these readings. Isaiah is likely writing at the beginning of a period of religious renewal (although scholars dispute when this passage was written). It is likely that the Northern Kingdom was waning, or had already been overthrown, and priests from Samaria were showing up in Jerusalem.

They would have been hoping for a renewal of the religion, and trying to account for the political disaster. Kings who only looked after their own interests would have been seen as the cause of the catastrophe, and as priests and prophets in Jerusalem looked at their own situation, they would have seen uncomfortable parallels to Samaria’s fate. The prophet imagines a new king, growing from David’s stock, who would restore the monarchy to its imagined original purpose (though Samuel would have had something to say about that) of protecting the vulnerable and executing justice.

This seemed so unlikely given current affairs that it would require a whole new creating work by God, undoing the enmity between predator and prey. If kings were going to work for righteousness, wolves and lambs, lions and calves would have to live together. If predators no longer prey on domesticated animals, things can only get better for humans, too. But the prophet sees this in God’s future.

John the Baptist, of course, also preached into a political context. Like the Qumran community, he imagined something new to replace the completely compromised regime in Jerusalem. Baptizing at the Jordan would have alluded to Joshua crossing the Jordan to take possession of the land (and this would not be lost on Matthew, as Jesus is just Joshua transliterated into Greek).

We don’t have good evidence of Jesus’ time (and therefore John’s), but not long after, baptism came to be seen as a way into Judaism. What made one a Jew was participation in the Passover, and a bath was required before eating the Passover (both men and women could be Jews). If John understood his baptism as just such an initiation, his message is that the whole nation has to start over. Even if baptism were just a repeatable washing, baptism in the Jordan suggests reentering the land from the wilderness, calling into question the legitimacy of its current occupants.

It isn’t too hard for us to imagine the wrath to come, given all the rebellions going on currently. We all might be tempted to flee like snakes from a fire, but in Matthew, John seems to aim his ire particularly at those he sees as responsible for the compromised state of affairs. And if John is preaching a baptism of initiation, then one’s religious bona fides won’t matter. Paul sees to be saying the same thing. God’s promises were originally intended for all, and not just the religious chosen few. However we define the chosen few, God intends to extend the promises beyond that boundary.

Matthew seems to imply that setting things to rights won’t happen without disturbance. The chaff will have to burn. The way Matthew lays this out, along with several of Jesus’ parables, implies that certain people are wheat, and others are chaff, but perhaps we can find a different way of reading that. We will have to give our claim to special place in the order of things for justice at last to be done. The distinction between predator and prey will have to be undone at its most fundamental level. God promises a new creation. Pray we have the courage to live in it.

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