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4th December 2016 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
1 December 2016

Readings

Isaiah 11:1-10

This is the third of the great restoration passages found in the first 12 chapters of Isaiah and these all have their own dimensions which can be added to each other. 

Maurice Andrew wonders if the mention of the ‘stump of Jesse’ indicates some judgement on the Davidic dynasty. [1]

If Andrew is correct the Stump of Jesse becomes a back to basics metaphor that bypasses the excesses and iniquities of David and his successors and returns to first principles of justice and righteousness of his shepherd background and giant killing attributes.  It also goes back to the family DNA before it was corrupted by foreign queens. 

Matthew 3: 1-12

Warren Carter links John the Baptist to the Hebrew Prophets as he writes of this section of Matthew’s Gospel:

The narrative locates him (John) in the wilderness, a place marginal to the centres of power. His call for repentance and scathing denunciation of religious elite indicate a role opposite to the centres interest. Yet he interacts with both religious and political centres.[2]

He goes on to say that this is akin to the way Israel’s prophets spoke against the society in which they lived.  They interacted with kings, prophets and priests, but in speaking of an alternative world they did not say what the elite wanted to hear.  Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 17-19 is a classic example. 

Sermon 

In an edition of Politico Magazine Nick Hanauer wrote a memo to his fellow Zillionaires in Politico Magazine.  He pointed out that he was not only part of the one percent of Americans who owned most of the wealth but the gap between the very wealthy and the poor was growing at a rate that would soon eliminate the middle class.   He then went on to say:

And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won’t last.

If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us.  No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality.  In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out.  You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples.  None.  It’s not if, it’s when.[3]

Historians tell us there was no middle class in Roman ruled first century Palestine and there was an unsuccessful uprising which resulted in defeat and the destruction of the temple.  That revolt was undoubtedly brewing at the time of John the Baptist and there was certainly an expectation that a shoot from the stump of Jessie would arise and lead them to liberating victory. 

As Hanauer suggests, popular uprisings are usually about an unbearable gap between wealth and extreme poverty but as the Arab world today demonstrates religious zeal can unite people into revolt.  Furthermore the hope of divine intervention can incite radical fundamentalism.  

Unfortunately the Hebrew scripture contains a number of seeds of messianic expectation and images of a God who is going to destroy their enemies.  Even in amongst all the marvellous images of peace in our Isaiah reading we find the prophet stating at the end of verse four, ‘And with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.’ (Isaiah 11:4)  

No matter how inclusive loving and peace inspiring the rest of the passage may be such phrases encourage revolutionary movements to help God to eradicate the wicked.

John the Baptist uses similarly violent imagery in our Gospel reading as he speaks of the one who is to come.  ‘Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’  (Matthew 3:10)

That is exactly the sort of passage that invokes an image of a warrior messiah that will be good for the revolutionaries and bad for those others.  After all Michael Leunig explains in his Eternal Mantra ‘we are good and they are bad, always.’

The gospels clearly show Jesus’ mission evolving from the mission of John the Baptist.  In many ways Jesus’ baptism was a passing of the baton from one to the other.  However Jesus took the mission in a significantly different direction. 

Jesus’ mission direction was so different that in chapter eleven John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another’. (Matthew 11:2)  

John was most likely worried that Jesus’ ministry showed no inclination to be the axe at the foot of unproductive trees.

Jesus’ answer to John defined what we now understand as the true peace mission of Jesus and the ongoing mission of the Risen Christ.

‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. (Matthew 11:4)

Certainly, as Bill Loader points out, both John and Jesus make it plain that only one thing counts: change and the behaviour which indicates such change.  John declares that there is to be performance based assessment, as we know it today. Status, birth, pedigree, past religious experience, including one off conversion experiences, even a whole CV of spiritual experiences, counts for nothing if there is not ongoing evidence of the new orientation in the way we live.[4] Both John and Jesus expect there to be fruits of change but how that change happens is the crucial difference in their approach. 

John’s sermon in our reading was the traditional fire and brimstone tirade, a call to reform or perish.  It was very similar to Hanauer’s words to the excessively rich.  

John also called for one who would follow and sort the world out, separate the wheat from the chaff.  Jesus on the other hand looked to rebuild his world from the bottom up. 

Through Jesus’ ministry the blind received their sight, the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, the deaf could hear, the dead were raised, and the poor had good news brought to them.  (Matthew 11:4)  

I am sure John wanted all those things for people too but he believed they had to repent first.  No doubt he saw the scribes and the Pharisees he called a brood of vipers as most in need of repentance.  In our world they would be the self righteous and the virtuous wealthy.  People who felt they had worked hard and deserved their wealth. 

The drive to eliminate evil is very strong and very tempting because reformers can be strong and courageous, people can go on crusades to make the world a better place by eliminating the bad people.  Bad people as Leunig pointed out are not our friends and family, they are other people. 

If we are poor they are rich people with dubious business practises if we are rich, they are lazy poor people who won’t get jobs.  It is easy to see bad people as immigrants and foreign investors that buy all our houses.  They are people in faraway countries that exploit child labour, but of course not the people who make our cheap clothes and shoes.  We can go on protest marches and congratulate ourselves on changing the world.

But seeking peace by attacking ‘the other’ is a slippery slope and Hitler is the classic example of someone who tried to build a better world by eliminating those he felt were dragging humanity down.

Desmond Tutu on the other hand headed the Truth and Reconciliation Committee that forgave and restored those who had committed atrocities in apartheid South Africa.  New Zealander Father Michael Lapsley was part of that struggle and reconciliation.  He lost his hands from a letter bomb. With the support of his Bishop, Desmond Tutu  Lapsley went on to lead an organisation dedicated to healing through forgiveness and reconciliation, not just in South Africa but around the world where atrocities had occurred and revenge could easily lead to more atrocities. 

Both Tutu and Lapsley were called to be extraordinary people by the Spirit of Christ we meet in the Jesus of the Gospels. 

The Jesus who the gospel writers fit into the tradition of first century Jewish messianic expectation through allusion and direct quotation of Hebrew scripture.  But the gospel writers then added that extraordinary twist of a non-violent confrontation with authority and the acceptance of people where they were.

Rather than demand repentance for real or imagined sins Jesus identified with the marginalised of his world and thereby inspired the future to seek a better way of being human. 

The gospels give examples where so called sinners like Zacchaeus the Tax Collector immediately repent and offer restitution on sharing hospitality with Jesus.  John called for repentance but Jesus’ offer of friendship was unconditional and miraculously the result was transformational. Rather than just repentance people’s lives were changed by a meeting with Jesus. 

Jesus offered a new way of relating to others that he called the kingdom of God. 

Jesus’ transformation of individual lives avoided the violent confrontation of rebellion.  Jesus’ life gave an example of empowering others through acceptance, an example of restoring the lost and re-empowering the marginalised. 

Jesus’ example sowed the seeds of peace and brought extraordinary change to our world despite the wars that have raged and continue to rage over the last two thousand years. 

The Jesus way of quiet transformation continues to surface in the most unexpected places like the lead article on business ethics in a recent Toyota skite magazine.  The author was Mark Powell, former CEO of the Warehouse and now CEO in residence at the Massey Business School.  Powell suggested that businesses do not exist in isolation but need good societies and societies need good businesses.  He outlined his leadership philosophy and his achievements at the Warehouse, all of which he says was based on the DNA of the business that Sir Stephen Tindal installed.

Powell concludes by saying that he didn’t carry out his policy expecting praise but because it was the right thing to do.  He then asks ‘Why should we do the right thing, why ought we be fair, why should we care?’ Are such principles just social constructs or are they some objective realities that we ought to follow?’[5]

Powell then makes his confession that as a Christian he believes that ethical principles are objective realities grounded in the character of God. 

As Christians, we discern the character of God through the Gospel vision of Jesus who has become Christ for us, the Christ who is alive in us, and in people like Mark Powell.  The Christ who calls us all to do what is right.

Throughout history a massive gap between rich and poor has often created the sort of bloody revolution that gives Nick Hanauer nightmares.  However his attempt to frighten his fellow Zillionaires out of their gated communities is no more likely to awaken them to create a more just society than John’s call to the vipers of his time to repent.

Peace comes into our world in the same way it came into the violent chaos of the first century.  Peace comes quietly into to our world in the most unlikely places.  Peace comes though the birth of a child with an extraordinary future, a shoot from the stump of Jesse and a growing vision that was truly divine. 

Peace is the fruit of the lives of people like us who believe that ethical principles are objective realities grounded in the character of the God we image in Jesus Christ.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p., 410.

[2] Warren Carter, Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading (London, New York: T&T Clark International 2000),p.90

[3]http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/the-pitchforks-are-coming-for-us-plutocrats-108014

[5] Mark Powell, Believe Issue 14 (Toyota New Zealand 2016 

 

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