12/8 Readings: Peace and Judgment

2 Advent

Isa. 11:1-10
Ps. 72:1-7, 18-19
Rom. 15:4-13
Matt. 3:1-12

In one of the most beautiful messianic texts in the Old Testament, we hear of a shoot that shall come forth from the stock of Jesse, one filled with wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, a messenger of peace, “the wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid . . . and a little child shall lead them” (Isa. 11:6). This is the peace we hope for, and it is the peace of Christ our Lord.

At the center of this announcement, however, there is a phrase so incongruous to our expectations that we may pass over it unnoticed. We have ears, but we do not hear. We must, therefore, discipline ourselves to see and hear an unusual and startling word. “For whatever was written in former days,” says St. Paul, “was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). At the center of this messianic announcement, we are told this: “He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Isa. 11:4). The psalter augments this with the promise, “he shall crush the oppressor” (Ps. 72:4). In the gospel reading, John the Baptist warns the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the tree; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:10).

We have in this world, to be sure, human beings who plan and intend harm. There are people who take pleasure in inflicting suffering and misery on others. There is individual and collective evil to which a civil society cannot turn its back. The innocent and vulnerable must be protected and there are people who work night and day to do just that, to whom our respect is owed and for whom our prayers are needed.  This is captured well in a collect appointed for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the commemoration of Herod’s order to slaughter all male children under the age of two. In this prayer we say, “Receive into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace” (BCP, p. 238). Yes, this is work that must be done.

Evil and goodness, however, are not neatly divided. Evil is a contagious distortion of the good to which all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve are subject. One of the reasons we are so horrified at explicit and egregious evil is that we recognize something of it in ourselves. Earlier versions of the collect for the Holy Innocents, one from 1549 and the other from 1662, say something quite different, envisioning the children as martyrs to be imitated. This may trouble us, but there is an important theological truth in what these earlier prayers say: “Mortify and kill all vice in us.”

Ultimately, we must speak of evil, face it, and repent of it because it exists in us. We will never have the full peace of Christ while housing demons. Coming to Christ in baptism, we were asked to “renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, to renounce the evil powers of this world that destroy the creatures of God, to renounce sinful desires that draw you from the love of God.” This must be done if we hope for and really want hope, joy, and peace.

Look It Up: Ps. 72:4

Think About It:  Jesus is crushing the oppressor in you because he loves you. Your contrite heart is his home.


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