In his book titled “The Beginning and the End of Religion,” Nicholas Lash invites us to look upon the world. “Summon up quietly,” he says, “with such clear-sighted courage as you can, all the cumulative evidence- from the depths of each one’s psyche to the centre of our politics; from the arbitrary and sporadic barbarism of our wars and cities to the well-oiled structures of rapacity and greed we call world trade- which suggests that the answer to the question is: ‘there is indeed, only power; and violence is master of us all’.”1
Perhaps violence really is what makes the world go ‘round. Surely, the events of the past week make it difficult to argue otherwise. Moreover, at first glance, today’s readings from Scripture don’t seem to be much help.
“The Lord God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory,” proclaims Zephaniah. What? God is a warrior? “Well there you have it!” our accusers shout. “This is the stuff of cults, and ancient people. Every tribe had its own deity, and every tribe called out to that deity for help in battles. Of course the Israelites called their God a warrior—all those people did! You Christians are crazy!”
“Well, uhhh… well, that’s just the Old Testament God,” we are stammer back. “OT God is the killer; but we believe in New Testament God. NT God is the peacemaker.” This, of course, is not true. But even if it was true, we might find the latter premise—that NT God is the peacemaker— challenged by today’s Gospel reading:
“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’” The wrath to come? What happened to peacemaking God? And to make matters far much worse, when a group of solders hear John’s words, they ask him what they should do, in light of the coming wrath.
The baptizer replies: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
Come on, John?! What happened to the wild-eyed apocalyptic prophet that came charging down the hill at us a few minutes ago? Here you have a chance to tell the soldiers to drop their swords—to announce Christ’s reign of peace. And you decide to go with, “I know you have to make a living, so swing that sword, but just don’t get too rich doing it.” Why did you choose now to become the stone-faced pragmatist?
1 Nicholas Lash. The Beginning and the End of ‘Religion’, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1996), 225.
John’s reply has not been lost on commentators—ancient or contemporary. Augustine argues that:
“If the Christian Religion did forbid war altogether, then those who sought advice in the Gospel would rather have been counseled to cast aside their arms, and to give up soldiering altogether. On the contrary, they were told: ‘… be content with your pay.’ If he commanded them to be content with their pay, he did not forbid soldiering.”2
In the second part of his magnum opus, Thomas Aquinas develops the just war position by repeating Augustine’s treatment of Luke.3
And In our own day, a group called “The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property,” also picks up Augustine’s exegesis and carries it toward the conclusion that:
“Military life is in itself perfectly legitimate. If the military as a cause is legitimate, so also is the military’s end: to wage war.” Thus, the teachings of Jesus, “apply to the interior life and how one must be meek even when punishing another.”4
And, if you’ve got a problem with that, then you either hate tradition, family, property, or all three.
Here then, is your answer: the Holy Scriptures are no help. God is a warrior, and soldiers deserve their pay. “There is indeed, only power; and violence is master of us all.”
These are precisely the types of conclusions that we should expect to come to, when we read human beings as the principal actors in the story of the world. Our obsessive, narcissistic gaze tempts us to “find ourselves” in the story—to identify with one of the characters, and no doubt, we all just happen to be John the Baptist.
But friends, this story is not—firstly—about us at all. It is because we are so intent on deriving some ethical precept from the passage, so obsessed with what “we would do in that situation,” that we cannot see what God is doing.
John warns the crowd of Jews: “Do not begin to say”—to whom?— to yourselves!” ‘Do not begin 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.”
2 Summa Theologica II-II, Q 40, A 1
Do not begin to imagine that just because you are in the line of Abraham, that you have the faith of Abraham. Do not think that, simply on account of your membership in any particular group, or because of the color of the skin you were born in, or because of the sex organs that you have, or because of any certain orientation that you may have been born with—that you stand privileged before God! Do not dare to believe—as Ryan reminded us on the day of his baptism— that just because you are a member of a Mennonite Church, that you hold the corner on truth.
For God does not say such things to us; we say them “to ourselves.”
God says, “Behold! I am doing a new thing!”
God says, “Look! I am raising up children with the saving faith of
Abraham—and I am doing it from among the most unlikely of people!
God says, “Look! the gentiles have heard my call to repentance—even gentile tax collectors!
God says, “Look! Romans have heard my call to repentance—
even Roman soldiers!”
Contrary to Augustine, John the Baptist’s comments to the soldiers do not constitute an endorsement of killing—because John’s comments are not about the soldiers at all. They are, rather, a proclamation of God’s generosity. They are evidence of God’s patience—God’s willingness to offer salvation even to Roman soldiers—the very same group of people who will hang Jesus on a cross. 5
Therefore, a few chapters later in Luke’s Gospel, we hear in chapter 7, verse 29 that: “All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.”
By proclaiming the message of repentance—even to tax-collectors and soldiers—and byoffering the cleansing waters of baptism, John made possible the opportunity to receive Jesus—to hear the Word of God, and to acknowledge God’s way as right. Who among us would not want this same thing—to prepare the way for Christ? Who among us would not like to see the church’s enemies turn to Jesus? What a privilege! What a calling! Is it any wonder that John lept inElizabeth’s womb?
5 Richard B. Hays. The Moral Vision of the New Testament, (HarperCollins: New York, NY, 1996), 335. “The role of these soldiers in the New Testament narratives, however, must be seen in proper context: precisely as roman soldiers, they serve to dramatize the power of the Word of God to reach even the unlikeliest people. They are set beside tax collectors as examples of how John’s preaching reached even the most unsavory characters…The narrative and theological force of this story is analogous to that of the saying, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you (Matt. 21:31); just as that saying does not necessarily commend extortionate tax-farming and prostitution as continuing practices, so these stories about centurions cannot be read as endorsements of military careers for Christians” (335).
John the Baptist’s words demonstrate that there is, simply, nobody who lies beyond the gift of divine grace. There is, simply, no state of human existence that God cannot and does not touch.There is no person on this earth—and quite likely, after life on this earth—to whom the good news cannot be preached.
Every drone operator and every terrorist; every armed gunman and every conceal-carry advocate; every greedy capitalist and every violent socialist; every man who oppresses and exploits women, and every woman who aspires to the role of commander-in-chief; every governor who systematically shreds social safety nets designed for the poorest among us, and every poor person who burns with a white-hot desire for revenge against those same governors—everyone— can be reconciled to the God of peace—and therefore, to one another.
And yet, as Luke tells us, it is sometimes the Pharisees—the experts in Holy Scripture, the most pious, most religiously-educated, the most self-righteous—in other words, the brood of vipers— who reject salvation. Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy.
And so, John’s words do not serve to justify the soldier. Rather, they are a movement in God’s gracious invitation by which the soldier may be brought into the justified community. John is not baptizing—as it were—the chosen professions of tax-collector and soldier. He is inviting the tax-collector and soldier to receive baptism, and in so doing, to walk the long road of discipleship whereby all forms of coercion are renounced. I take it that two of the disciples— Matthew, the former tax collector, and Peter, the one who drops his sword in Gethsemane—embody, in Luke’s Gospel, the future of any tax-collectors and soldiers who chose to receive John’s baptism .
In sum: John the Baptizer is insisting that something be done to us, before anything be done by us.
Likewise, Zephaniah’s exclamation that “The Lord, your God, is a warrior who gives victory,” is in no way intended to justifyIsrael’s violence. Quite to the contrary, such a confession puts a limit on the violence thatIsraelmay be tempted to commit.
For, if “God is a warrior,” then God is a warrior.
And who are we? We are, according to Zephaniah, “the lame, the outcast, and scorned.” We are those who “bear reproach.” We are those who stand in need of salvation.
Zephaniah’s description of God as warrior, thus stands in a long line of Old Testament proclamations of peace. It is a statement on par with Moses’s assurance to the Israelites who found themselves with their backs to the sea, staring down the Egyptian army: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
It is Daniel’s defiance before the King: “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and God will deliver us from your hand.”
We say that God is a warrior, for the same reason that we call God our Father. “Call no man Father,” Jesus instructs the disciples, “for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.” Calling God alone our Father serves to undercut all forms of patriarchy—both the paterfamilias that existed in first-century Rome, and the models of “male-headship” that remain alive and well in certain Evangelical and Roman-Catholic churches today.
Call no man Father, for God alone do we obey. Call no man warrior, for God alone will save.
“There is indeed, only power; and violence is master of us all.” But Lash continues: “To make this answer our own is to surrender to despair. And yet, until we feel its force, take the full weight of it as possibility, we have not touched the heart of things, nor entered yet intoGethsemane.”
Advent is the church’s season of hope. But who would dare to hope in days like these? Who would risk something like Christian hope? Isn’t it a better idea to go get a gun—to get ready in case we find ourselves in situations of unspeakable horror like the people ofNewtown,Connecticut? To make this answer our own is to surrender to despair.
Hold fast to hope brothers and sisters. In the words of Zephaniah, “Do not fear. Do not let your hands grow weak.” But if they should—for they will, and they must—then know that hope holds you. This is the good news.