John the Baptizer’s Call to Relinquish Privilege

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Romans 15:4-13

Matthew 3:1-12

Prayer of the Day: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming nurture our growth as people of repentance and peace; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“….for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.” Isaiah 11:9.

This passage cannot properly be understood from the English translation that substitutes “Lord” for the divine name YAHWEH. To fully understand what it means to have “knowledge of the Lord,” we need to go all the way back to the third chapter of Exodus where God reveals God’s self to Moses in the burning bush as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” This is the God of Sarah and Abraham who fled their homeland to escape starvation and were so desperate to get across the border into Egypt that they were willing to trade sexual favors to obtain refuge. This is the God who told Moses, “I will be who I will be” and was the God who took the side of slaves against the wealth, power and status of empire. This God is no mere theological abstraction. This God reveals God’s self consistently as the God who takes the side of the slave and the refugee.

So what would the world look like if everyone were privy to such “knowledge?” What if everyone believed that God’s face can only be seen clearly in the faces of the poor, hungry and oppressed? What if we all knew that God cannot be offended, blasphemed or disgraced by damage done to any shrine, icon, or church building, but is offended, blasphemed and disgraced in the death of every person through violence, malice or neglect? What if we believed that there is no god other than the God who hangs on an implement of torture and bleeds for the reign of justice and peace where there are no closed borders, no gated communities no streets strewn with the sleeping homeless?

Isaiah answers that question for us.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   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 cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain…”  Isaiah 11:6-9.

Anyone reading this, both in our own time and that of the prophet, has to know that this is hyperbolic imagery. Clearly, lions cannot survive long on straw and without predators to keep their numbers down, herbivores would soon strip the land of vegetation bringing about all manner of ecological disaster. Nonetheless, the prophet’s hymn testifies to the harmony within humanity and between humanity and the natural world God intends. Neither the world nor any part of it is the possession of any nation state to be sealed off and guarded against trespass. The so called “wilderness” is not an enemy to be conquered, brought into submission and exploited for profit. The earth is not a dead ball of limited resources to be ruthlessly drained and fought over by competing national and economic powers. The earth belongs to the Lord-more specifically, the God of slaves and refugees. Human beings are here, not to dominate and exploit the earth, but “to till and keep it.” Genesis 2:15. We are the gardeners, not the owners of the estate.[1]      

I have no doubt that Jesus’ preaching of God’s reign was deeply informed by Isaiah’s proclamation and other prophetic texts like it. The Sermon on the Mount set forth in Matthew’s gospel is not an ideal to which we can aspire but never attain. It is a blueprint for the life Jesus lived, a life that led him to the cross. Ironically, I remember a man in a Bible study on the Sermon remark, “If I tried to conduct my business like that, I’d get crucified!” I don’t remember what I actually said in response. But I should have simply replied, “Well, yes. And your point is?” The reign of God does not come without struggle, suffering and sacrifice.  

Enter, John the Baptizer. He has got some choice words for the scribes and pharisees[2] who came to him for baptism:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Matthew 3:7-8.

The scribes and the pharisees are not being turned away. To the contrary, they are being called to repentance. They have misconstrued their association with Abraham as privilege. They have forgotten that they are the descendants of aliens and slaves, non-persons who by God’s call and saving acts have been made God’s people. To be children of Abraham is to be in solidarity with the tax collectors, harlots and the rest of humanity living on the margins. Repentance for these folks means renouncing privilege in order to embrace their identity as God’s suffering people whose lives glorify a different understanding of what it is to be human.

I think we ought not to be too critical of the scribes and the pharisees. After all, few religions have enjoyed the privilege and status known by white American protestants. Notwithstanding the constitutional separation of church and state, the church in its white protestant manifestations has exercised profound influence over American society. Our clergy were exempt from military conscription, our organizations are free from taxation, we are permitted to discriminate, segregate and exclude in ways no commercial entity can. Given this reality, it is nothing short of comical to hear white evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham whining about persecution.[3] Like the scribes and the pharisees John confronts, we are called upon to renounce our privilege and to “know” that we are the disciples of a crucified messiah from the God of slaves, refugees and aliens. That, of course, changes everything.

I believe that John’s challenge to us as white protestant Christians is to find ways to disengage from our privileged status.[4] That might sound rather frightening. But, in reality, there is no real choice in the matter. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25. We can relinquish our privileged position and renounce our belief in the god who we imagine has blessed us with privilege, or we can have our privilege ripped away from us as we desperately and vainly try to hang onto it. Only empty hands can receive the promise of abundant and eternal life.  

Here is a poem by Samuel French Morse inspired by Sunday’s lesson from Isaiah.

The Peaceable Kingdom

He looked up, like a savage: nothing there,

No starlight, not a star to help him now.

And nowwhere else to turn. He held his ground

For some sure sign or word, and tried to see.

He caught a flicker, as of fireflies

High up, then farther off; the summer air

Stirred once, still warm around him, Then the night

Was all there was between him and the past.

But what he saw out there was more than light:

A hand as broad as heaven reaching down

To touch eternity gave something shape

And being and first form; the moving deep,

Then mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and plains,

And afterword the hazy grasses, trees,

Birds, beasts, and fishes; and at last a child.

And he became the very child he saw.

He watched. The child sat down beside a stream.

The lion came, the lion and the lamb

Lay down together, dozing in the sun.

The flowering trees were full of singing birds

He called by name, and apples red as blood.

But when he touched the leopard with his hand,

To prophesy before Isaiah’s law,

He drew back, frightened; and the lion roared.

He stood in darkness, like the man he was.

Source: Poetry (May 1958). Samuel French Morse (1916–1985) was an American poet and teacher. He had a poetry prize named in his honor which lasted from 1983–2009. For twenty three years he taught at Northeastern University. He published five poetry collections during his lifetime and ninety of his previously unpublished poems were published posthumously. He lived in Boston until his death in 1985. You can learn more about Samuel French Mores and read more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] The command given to the human race in Genesis to “fill the earth and subdue it” has been the source of much mischief. Standing alone, this verse might lead one to believe that humans are free to do whatever they wish with the planet. But this verse does not stand alone. It has a context. We need to recall that the Hebrew word “CABASH” translated in Genesis 1:28 as “subdue” is the same word employed in God’s command for Israel to subdue the land of Canaan. Numbers 32:22Numbers 32:29Joshua 18:1. The subjugation of the land meant more than merely driving out Israel’s enemies. Very specific commands were given to Israel directing the people to care for the land and its non-human inhabitants. For example, trees were to be spared from the ravages of war. Deuteronomy 20:19-20. Egg producing birds were to be spared from slaughter. Deuteronomy 22:6-7. The sabbath rest mandated for all human beings, from king to servant, extended also to animals. Exodus 23:12. Moreover, the land itself was to be given a year’s sabbath rest from cultivation every seven years. Exodus 23:10-11. God was worshiped not only as the provider for human beings, but for all living creatures. Psalm 104:10-23. The Bible is big on ecology. In fact, insofar as the New Testament declares that God’s goal for the universe is the reconciliation of the world in Christ (II Corinthians 5:19), you could say that the Bible is all about ecology.

[2] I am mindful of the dangers of antisemitism lurking beneath so many attacks on the pharisees and scribes. Though Jesus could be critical of these folks, he also respected them and urged his disciples to do the same. Matthew 23:2-3. It is helpful to remember that all but a very few actors in the gospels are Jewish. Though disputes within a family are often sharp and bitter, the family remains family. Jesus never considered himself anything other than a faithful Jew preaching a gospel of renewal to his beloved people in the tradition of the prophets who came before him. He was crucified by Rome under Roman law for sedition. That some Jews colluded with the government of Rome in this matter does not reflect in any way on the many scribes and pharisees who loved the Torah and shared the same hope for God’s reign as did Jesus.

[3] In that regard, see An Open Letter to Rev. Franklin Graham by a “Small Church Pastor,”

[4] How do we do this? That is a very big and very important question. But for making a small start, see An Open Letter to the ELCA Presiding Bishop and Synodical Bishops: A Modest Proposal for Reparational Tithe.

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