When King Jesus Reigns: “They will pick up snakes”

This second Sunday of Advent, one of the readings was Isaiah 11.1-10 (and the one from which I preached):

11 “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.” (NIV 2011, emphasis added)

In the reign of King Jesus, the promised “shoot” from the “stump of Jesse” and the “root of Jesse”, there would be a full undoing of the present order of existence: injustice and violence as normal parts of life.

The Spirit endowed King would cause even the animal kingdom to align with his reign of life and righteousness over the whole earth. The serpents become not even an enemy whose head would be crushed (see Gen. 3.15) and who would bruise the heel of the ‘seed’ of woman. Instead, the serpent and child live as friends. Seeming eternal enemies playing together. What a strange world indeed! The very image of the toddler with serpent strikes fear into my heart!

snake-and-baby

And the fear I felt sent my thoughts rushing to Mark 16.18* which reports the words of Jesus concerning those whom he was sending out into the world as witnesses of the good news of his reign: “they will pick of up snakes with their hands” without being harmed.

The Messianic Age imagined by the prophet Isaiah appears to be taken up by Mark as the reality of the apostolic witnesses! The King enthroned signaled the end of injustice and violence (even that which was considered “normal” to the order of life as experienced)…the end of the dangers of this age. It was the dawning of a new day…indeed a new creation order! The end was not yet, but was already witnessed in the undoing of injustice and violence at the hands of the apostles, in the undoing of the animosity of serpent and ‘seed’.

King Jesus ascended. His reign commenced. His servants gathered to his banner. He would come again and all of creation would be set to rights. Until that day, the citizens of his kingdom would go out and “pick up snakes with their hands”** as testimony to his soon coming.

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* Despite the later addition of the long ending of Mark this text still offers an intriguing literary and theological intersection with the Isaiah 11 passage.

** I am not here advocating for “snake-handling” as certain within the Pentecostal traditions. In other words, DON’T PICK UP SNAKES! Those who have made this a practice are regularly harmed (and many have died, including the founder of this movement: George Hensley) by doing such. Their experiences actually reveal that the kingdom is not witnessed among them, but offers a deeper understanding of the remaking of creation. I am advocating for the working in light of the reigning King as those who live between worlds and testify to a new heavens and new earth even as we bear the cruciform marks of our Lord Jesus in this world of sin and sorrow.

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The Suffering Pastor

No thanks, Matthew Mason.  I don’t want to “fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Col. 1:24).  I want my best life now. (Crying like a baby)

Er…I guess actually I don’t.  What I really want is to be conformed to Christ.  To follow Him in His life here and now.  To serve Him and His Church faithfully with His all surpassing love that does not look away from suffering, but embraces it with hands and feet scarred, with head beaten and bloodied, with the wounds of a back bearing the world’s rejection.  Make me like you Jesus…even though it will (and must) hurt.

[originally blogged June 19, 2012 at bluechippastor.org]

Please Don’t Prune Me!

Christ the True Vine (Greek Icon 16th C.)
Christ the True Vine (16th C. Greek Icon)

I heard a good message today from John 15:1-11:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples. “As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. (CEB)

Essentially it was preached as I have preached this text myself: we must allow God to prune us that we might be more fruitful. However, I was struck today by the following thought: What if this is NOT about personal piety, but about communal life?

Here’s what I mean: Such texts seem readily enough at hand to describe the biblical notion of God purifying for Himself a people. He indeed is sanctifying us through and through as individual members of His Church. However, this text seems more intent on the notion of cleansing the community of all unfruitful members. This community that is God’s vineyard finds itself rooted in Jesus as “the True Vine”. All who will not abide in him are cut off and will be cast out.

Instead of this text being about how our God sanctifies individuals, it appears instead to be about how God creates His community, His people as a people. Israel of the flesh would be excised if they would not obey the commands of God and His Son. That is their abiding: to trust in Jesus as Messiah and as Lord. Any claims to belonging to that community apart from remaining in Jesus would lead to death and removal.

Further the community of those who abide in Jesus will have joy fulfilled and receive what they ask in his name. He will be the center of all existence for this community. Their very being is established in him and this because God will cut off all that is not to be found in Jesus.

While I still think there are notions of personal piety entailed (“You are already trimmed”), I think this still has community intent given those who had left Jesus in John 6 over his words about eating flesh and drinking his blood and then later by Judas at the supper in John 13. They had been pruned. Who would remain?

What do you think? Is this a faithful reading of the text? Has our personal pietistic reading hampered our ability to hear this text for its congregational (community) intent and force?