This reflection on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12 was inspired, in part, by Rev. Dr. Peter Leithart’s, “The Axe of Advent.”
Christmas is about family. It’s about being with the ones one loves. It’s about celebrating simple things, not all the crass consumption that surrounds us from Halloween until January 15. It’s about a good meal. When it comes to Christmas, many, perhaps most of us have warm, soft focus images that flood our imaginations and, to use some new lingo I learned from the last election, control the narrative.
In other words, these images provide the framework within which we are permitted to think about this festival. And we are surrounded by them, aren’t we? They are on our TV screens, they are pumped at us through store Christmas-music playlists. Right now, you’re humming Johnny Mathis, “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” aren’t you?
It wasn’t always this way. I recently saw a picture of an old Anglo-Catholic Advent booklet that explained the four week run-up to Christmas. It was striking to me for a number of reasons. First, it simply took for granted that Advent was not Christmas and that Christmas did not begin until December 25. When Walmart and Costco seemingly hold special overnight decorating bees to take down Halloween stuff and put up the red and green, that is a radical assumption to make.
Not only that, but it suggested that Advent was a time of special, penitential preparation, like Lent. If we observe the weeks of Advent in church today, we are likely to name the Sundays Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. They fit quite nicely with the soft focus images that we’ve spoken of already. The booklet, on the other hand, brought me up short by reminding me of the original themes in the four Sundays: Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven.
Advent, in the booklet, was a time to clean one’s spiritual house. To get ready for the coming of a guest. A guest who comes in memory at Christmas, a guest who comes to feed us in the sacraments, a guest who will call our name at the moment of our death, a guest who will finally end all that’s wrong with the world at his appearing. The very same guest at each.
The booklet was produced for a culture very different from our own. It reminds us in ministry, whether vocational or avocational, whether established or church planting, that our own culture is not simply different from the ones before that challenge it, but from the one that is to come that will change it. Counter cultural leadership is not for the sake of effectiveness in the current culture; it is for the sake of faithfulness to the next.
Let me offer what one act of counter cultural leadership entails: Tearing down.
Isaiah 11, a Scripture passage from the Advent season, speaks of a shoot rising up from the stump of Jesse. In itself it sounds good; sounds hopeful. But have we ever stopped to ask just why Jesse is a stump? The previous chapter gives us our answer. The axe that stripped the tree is Assyria. The enemies of the people of God coming with all the military might of the ancient world to conquer and disperse the northern kingdom of Israel leaving only little Judah. A stump. A nothing.
But note, while the Axe is Assyria, the lumberjack is not Assyria’s king, nor her generals nor soldiers. No, the axeman is God. The prophet tells Judah to see the hand of God wielding the Assyrian Axe and turning Jesse—that is the royal house—from a great tree into a stump. They are to see the Assyrian conquest as God’s judgment.
Counter cultural leadership does not begin with us; it has already begun with God! With this in mind, we can begin to see just what wild-eyed John the Baptist is on about in his end-time preaching. When he says, “The axe is at the root of the tree!”, it is no generic metaphor he’s after. He’s calling to mind the image of Isaiah. The image of military destruction. The image of Assyria. But now, knee deep in Jordan River, Isaiah’s Assyria has a new name: John points squarely and plainly to Rome. Rome stands in the Holy Land now. The exile may indeed be over; the people may indeed have returned to the land from Babylon centuries past; but Jesse’s still a stump. Judgment still rests on God’s people. While Rome is the new axe, God is still the one who swings it. The wrath to come that John speaks of is again a conquest, again a dispersion. And being a blood relative of Abraham will not be enough to spare anyone. If they would live, the people would have to Repent—would have to transform their ways of thinking and living to get in step with God’s coming kingdom. Rome was going to clear house so that God could again take his throne.
Counter cultural leadership does not begin with us; it has already begun with God! It is not Assyria; it is not Rome, but the Axeman has His axe. There are parts of our cultures being stripped away, torn down, made into stumps. Our cultures might not know it, but we do. We are counter-cultural because followers of God, and of his Christ, have always been counter cultural. We are not contra-cultural. We are not simply against culture; we are simply for a different one: one that will perfect all that is good and strip away all that is not.
Now, when Scripture has gripped and re-oriented our imaginations, perhaps we can hear the words of the prophet in their intended voice, the voice describing the new culture for which we long:
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
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;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Already the axe is at the root of the tree. Repent and Believe. The kingdom of God is at hand. Welcome to Advent. Welcome to counter cultural leadership.