Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
The stump, the brood of vipers, unity, and repentance.
Isaiah opens with the image of a stump. Until today I’ve always seen the stump from the illustration in The Giving Tree, cleanly cut. No longer, the stump is what’s left after the tree has fallen because it rotted from the inside out, and could no longer stand. It’s fallen so long ago, the stump is all that’s left. It’s desolate. It’s an image of death. And yet, for Isaiah, for Judah there is more, there is hope, there is a shoot, tiny, fragile, but green, full of new life, full of hope [i] for a future as grand as a perfect image of its predecessor.
For John the Baptist, it’s a brood of vipers. Until today, it’s been a like the scene from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusades with all the snakes slithering around all over the floor of the hidden chamber. Now it’s a vision of the common room of Slytherin House at Hogwarts, whose members put all their trust in “pure blood heritage.” [ii] It’s ego centric, exclusive, it could not see what may be for its focus on what was.
For Paul it’s unity. Until today it has been a utopian image, of all kinds of folks, who all agree on everything, who walk in perfect harmony, enjoying a magnificent banquet, where one eats all the fatty salty food imaginable, with no health consequences. Now, it’s a group of very different people, where no one is quite comfortable, where everyone is at risk, while everyone shares a diverse but common faith in Jesus’ promise of life in the glory, the presence of God. [iii]
For the Psalmist, well it’s a psalm, perhaps a poem, perhaps a song, perhaps a liturgical setting. Until today it’s been a crucible expressing the values of days past. Psalm 72 enthrones a king; not very relevant to democracy, we elect leaders; not very relevant to Christians, Christ is King. Now it’s repentance, it’s a change in how we envision political, elected leadership, and what we expect of them. Now we ask God to deliver justice and righteousness to the world through our secular elected representative leaders. [iv]
What might all this look like? Think back to the early 1990’s, recall South Africa, ruled by an oppressive minority by the principles of apartheid. Apartheid is Afrikaans meaning being apart. It is a corrupt racist political philosophy. It was a stump, morally deficient, it was dead. It had its supporters, a brood of vipers, pure bread of Slytherin house, in South Africa, and in the United States. But from that rotted stump there was a shoot, actually many, one we remember today is Nelson Mandela. Born in 1918 to a royal tribal family, he actively fought Apartheid, until his arrest, conviction and sentence to life in prison in 1962. He was granted release in 1990, elected President of South Africa in 1994, and unlike other African revolutionary leaders served only one term. [v] Think back to the 1990’s to the brood of vipers, dedicated to true blood heritage. There were voices from around the world crying in the wilderness for repentance, for a change of behavior; naming South Africa’s leaders for what they were, ego centric, exclusive, oppressive leaders of a stump. All heard, some listened, at least one caught a vision of what can be nothing less than Christ centered unity, at least one repented, truly repented, changed his ways, and lead his people to justice and righteousness in rejecting apartheid and accepting a more democratic system of governance. F.W. de Klerk was president of South Africa when Mandela was released. He engaged with Mandela in negotiations for peaceful transition to freely democratic elections. In 1993 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela. [vi]
A stump, a brood of vipers, a vision of unity, true repentance.
We live in a world of stumps; in a world full of institutions that because of their own actions, or inaction, that because of rapidly changing context are rotting away, are failing are dead. It’s easy to be depressed. Today’s scripture readings call us, to see and name the stump, and then, to see and nurture the shoot, the possibility for new life.
We are surrounded by broods of vipers, with Slytherin House commitment to pure blood, to true ideology, of all stripes. They are cleaver, speaking in language of security, and prosperity; in truth, they are egotistic, self-centered oppressive thinkers. And we to one degree or another are in their midst. We hear the prophetic voice, and we cringe at its biting truth. Today’s scripture readings offer us the hope they offer the invitation to repent, to change; and we know, the one who calls us, will walk with us through all the challenges that journey will bring.
We are surrounded by clusters of common identity, racial, political, economic philosophy, religious, you name it there’s a group claiming to be the [quote] true believers. They all promise acceptance, security, and a whole host of worldly values, if we look like, think like, worship like, act like, the group’s definitions. Today’s scripture calls us to unity in Christ, while feely acknowledging that to truly invite others in, or to accept another’s invitation into requires us to risk, because we will be changed. That is the truth with our now very different neighbor; it’s the truth with Jesus.
It is Advent; we are surrounded with the language of repentance. We’d shake our heads in agreement, and leave church headed to the nearest special sale, so we can check off one more box on our pre-Christmas to do list. It is Advent, we are surrounded with the invitation to change, how we see the world, shoots not stumps, neighbors not others hope not despair, a divine presence here and now not out there some day. It’s a vision that can change the world, that begins with one new shoot that begins with one transformed person, that begins in our common bond in the incarnate God, whose dynamic presence is continually emerging.
[i] Barbara Lundblad, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1940, Isaiah 11:1-10
[ii] Arland Hultgren http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1913 Matthew 3:1-12
[iii] Valarie Nicolet-Anderson http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1893 Romans 15:4-13
[iv] Henry Langknecht http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1907 Pslam 72:1-7, 18-19