Thoughts for the Second Sunday in Advent, 2016
(On Matthew 3:1-12)
“Repent,” said the Baptist, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
And it seems that they did. Many came to be baptized, “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan”—in other words, all the parts of the ancient kingdom of Israel—“and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
Among those who came were “many Pharisees and Sadducees.” This we should expect. The Pharisees don’t get a very good press in the New Testament, but they were in many ways Israel’s heroes. They’d stood courageously for her laws and traditions when others were willing to abandon them at the hands of foreign oppressors. Their almsgiving, fasting, and prayer life would put most of us here, certainly me, to shame. The Sadducees were, of course, Israel’s official ruling class: the high priest was invariably a Sadducee, and so were most of the Sanhedrin. They don’t get a very good press in either the New Testament or the rabbinic writings. Nevertheless, more conservative and limited in their views than the Pharisees though they were, they too in their own way upheld Israel’s national and religious traditions, and especially the glory of her Temple.
So it was only proper that such people should be part of a national repentance.
But then something shocking happens, something scarcely credible: John the Baptist turns on these national leaders!
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
In God’s name what is he talking about? Why does he address the leaders of Israel in this way?
Fortunately for us, he answers these questions.
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” he says—and then specifies how: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’”
“We have Abraham as our father!”
Pride of nation, pride of race, pride of religion, “us-and-no-others”: these good men’s weaknesses are the flip side of their strengths. False pride was the very danger inherent in that ardent upholding of Israel’s Law that was their glory. It is, alas all too easy—and God knows we Christians have done it often enough—to slip from “we have been chosen by God to be God’s witness to the world”—which is what the prophet Isaiah told Israel (e.g. Isa. 49.6)—to “we have been chosen by God because we are great and mighty and special and wonderful and awfully important.”
Against which folly, if the Baptist had been in the mood, he could have quoted Moses: “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you…!” (Deut. 7.7).
Or, as St. Paul would later say to the Corinthians, “What do you have that you didn’t receive? And if you received it, why boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor. 7.7)
As it is, he simply says with biting sarcasm, “I tell you, God can raise up from these stones children to Abraham!” There is no one in God’s eyes who is irreplaceable. There are no exceptional nations. There is only what God creates and chooses out of God’s free grace: and that, according to the Scriptures, is “all that God had made,” all that God named in the beginning and saw that it was “very good” (Gen. 1.31), the “all” that our Lord promises he will through his cross draw to himself (John 12.32).
Why does this issue matter to the evangelist? Why does he tell us about it? No doubt because he was writing fifteen or so years after the disastrous Jewish war against Rome of AD 70, the war that had brought about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the devastation of Israel, and untold suffering for the Jewish people, as well as the deaths of many foreigners caught up in it. Fifteen years meant time to reflect, and Matthew could now see that this meaningless and unnecessary war — see Martin Goodman’s magisterial Rome and Jerusalem if you want the details — this “give me liberty or give me death” war which had been started, so the zealots claimed, in the name of God and God’s honour because the children of Abraham were too special to be part of any pagan empire — though God knew and the Scriptures tell us, they had in their history been part of several such empires, not always unhappily, and it was in fact, pagan, Persian money that had gone to build the second Jerusalem Temple – this revolutionary war was what the great teacher Yochanan ben Zakkai—known to Jews who know their history as “father of wisdom and the father of generations,” because he ensured the continuation of Jewish faith and hope and learning after Jerusalem fell—this war was what ben Zakkai said it was: “sinful and foolish.”
So it is, as foreseeing the horror that will be caused by this xenophobia and national arrogance, that Matthew completes the Baptist’s words of warning: “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” As of course our Lord also foresaw when he was invited to admire the magnificence and beauty of the Temple. “You see these great buildings,” he said, “There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).
What we have here then is an ancient story of folly and arrogance and xenophobia leading to chaos and destruction: a story of tragic dimensions, worthy a Homer or an Aeschylus or a Shakespeare. Is it then only an ancient story? No indeed. Greatness of any kind—moral, intellectual, political, military—always brings its danger: pride and arrogance.
Rudyard Kipling saw this quite well when he wrote his poem The Recessional, at the height of British imperial and world power:
God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
And what happens when nations do forget?
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
And that of course has happened to at least one great nation, one world power, within the memory of some here.
One advantage I have in being able to remember World War II and the London Blitz is that I have vivid recollections, even as a five-year-old, of the transformation of a society that seemed ordinary and comfortable into one on which all Hell broke loose every night. And I seem to have seen from the beginning those pictures of the refugees: grimy black and white photographs of men and women who looked just like my mum and dad, with children clutching teddy bears just like mine, being machine-gunned by Messerschmitt 109s. So I have had some notion from the beginning of my life of how the fabric of civil society is fragile, much more fragile, I believe, than those of us who have always had the privilege of living our lives in such societies realize.
Britain did not collapse: whether that was because, as Winston Churchill claimed, it was our finest hour, or whether less romantically, in the words of a Ministry of Defence poster that has now become iconic, it was merely because we kept calm and carried on, I don’t know. Perhaps it was a bit of each. But at any rate we muddled through, and emerged at the end at least in some measure recognizably what we had been at the beginning.
The society that did collapse, and that had already collapsed when World War II started, was Germany. Were the Germans a civilized nation? Of course they were—civilized and deeply Christian. Yet somehow, in the bitter aftermath of World War I there was a decay of rational hope and conversation, and permission given to the arrogant and narcissistic to rule. Those things broke the bonds of true community. I commend to you Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45. Mayer tells first hand of the gradual erosion of civil liberties that followed the election of Chancellor Hitler. He writes,
To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.
How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now.
Personally, I think that Martin cannot see a sure way of avoiding this decay because there is none. “There was,” as the compilers of our first Book of Common Prayer pointed out, “never anything by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in the continuance of time hath not been corrupted.” In other words, it doesn’t matter how good something may be, there’s always someone who’ll come along and find a way to screw it up. And that surely applies as much to constitutions and systems of law as it does to liturgies.
But of course that does not mean that one gives up—either on devising liturgies or on trying to create rational and civil societies in which to live. God himself gave laws to Israel, and even, in time, a king. John the Baptist’s abrupt and arresting address to the political and religious leaders of his nation is as valuable to us as it might have been to them had they listened, because it reminds us of the seriousness of the decisions we make. The things we choose actually matter.
From the viewpoint of my poor wit—being, incidentally, myself an immigrant to this country—there are two things that seem to me especially important for us to choose, as we endeavour here and now to be a humane and civil society at this point in history.
First, as Albany puts it at the end of King Lear—a drama that shows us what happens to a society when humane and civil values are abandoned if ever one did—we must always endeavor to, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” What I mean is, we must be very fierce about what the ancient Greeks called parēssia: the right of free citizens to speak their mind, the right that our founders placed first of all in their reflections on the constitution of this nation: freedom of opinion, freedom to argue, freedom to criticize the government, the right of the press and the media to ask awkward questions, even silly questions, the right to protest peaceably and openly to disagree with what our governments say or do. Once a society gives up those, it is only a step to the knock on the door at two in the morning, the unexplained disappearances of dissidents and reformers, the bodies in unmarked graves, all that we associate with tyranny and dictatorship.
Second: the prophets repeatedly challenged Israel as to how it treated “the widows, the strangers”—that is, the aliens in its midst, the immigrants—“and the orphans.” Winston Churchill famously said, “I judge whether a country is civilized or not by how it runs its prisons.” They were all, I believe, making essentially the same point: that it is how a society treats the weakest and most vulnerable—those who have no rights or have forfeited their rights or aren’t like us in some way—that tells us what kind of society it is. The Jewish American poet, Emma Lazarus, in her sonnet The New Colossus (which is slightly misquoted on the base of the statue of Liberty in New York Harbor) offered a vision of the United States as a nation gracious to the vulnerable:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…!
Of course a society where people can say and think what they like and are different from each other in all sorts of ways is also a messy society, an untidy society, a disorderly society. And we love order. But beware of order without true law. Order is another of those good things that if made into a god becomes a demon. The fascisti and the Nazis brought order. They got the trains to run on time. And they did it while accustoming their people to mass murder. Actually, if you think about it, there is nothing more orderly than death. What could be more orderly than a row of coffins? But if you want life, think of a puppy: squirming, bouncing, tail-wagging, pooping, peeing, licking—totally messy. But how alive!
All that said, all that remembered, as Christians we do of course look beyond all these things to our final, Advent hope—to which the Baptist points us in this morning’s gospel. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.” Thank God for that! Advent reminds us that at the end of all things we will fall into the hands of the living God, which is, as the writer to the Hebrews said, “a fearful thing”; but which is also, as famous British biblical scholar used to say, a good deal less fearful than the alternative.
Let us, nonetheless, be clear. God is not mocked. Our Advent hope can sustain us amid whatever perils and judgments we may bring upon ourselves in the present age, but it cannot deliver us from them. What will happen in history, we do not know. We never know. For the moment we can only, mutatis mutandis, take for our own the words of President Lincoln at a great crisis in this nation’s history: “fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray” that all may be well for this country and for the world over these coming years. But whatever happens, “as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
 Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (London: Penguin, 2007).
 See e.g. Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987) 32.
 Martin Mayer, They Thought They Were Free (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1955, 1966). For an excerpt, including the portion quoted above, go to http://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/511928.html.
 παρρησία: “outspokenness, frankness, freedom of speech, claimed by the Athenians as their privilege” (Liddell and Scott, Greek English Lexicon in loc.); cf. “a use of speech that conceals nothing and passes over nothing, outspokenness, frankness, plainness (Demosth. 6, 31)” (BDAG in loc.).