Back in the idealistic days of the early 1960s, the folk trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, were singing to popular acclaim: If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening, All over this land, I’d hammer out danger, I’d hammer out a warning, I’d hammer out love between, My brothers and my sisters, All over this land…. It’s the hammer of justice!
But…as the old saying goes, “A man with a hammer sees everything as a nail!” And when justice is your hammer…well…it doesn’t take long and all you’re doing is banging out a one note samba.
Our Psalm in Advent today is all about justice and righteousness. The song sings the plea for God to pour out His own justice and righteousness on the king, on the nation’s leaders. Then, the king and all those leaders will govern their people with righteousness and ensure justice for the poor among them. It is a desire as contemporary as it is ancient.
Oh…but what is so often forgotten with this particular psalm of Advent, as the more zealous among us Christians grab that hammer of justice and start banging on everything—in society, in the government, in the Church, all over this land—what is too often forgotten is that this song of justice is not a solo verse. It is a two part invention within God’s repertoire.
With God there is a justice according to the Law and there is a justice according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These two tunes are quite distinctive, although in God’s hands they sing together and play off each other in a marvelous way. And yet, way too often, in our hands, these two tunes are woven together into something they are not, something far from the beauty of God’s composing Spirit. And with our human voices the tunes get confused, distorted. And what comes out is not music to anyone’s ears!
John the Baptist’s fiery call to repentance always sounds so harsh when we’re in the middle of our Advent preparations for baby Jesus. The birth of a child is usually preceded by joyful expectations. But the child envisioned by John the Baptist will come with an axe, with a winnowing fork and purging fire.
Although John is most severe when he is speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees, he calls all his hearers to repent, and to confess their sins as they are baptized in the Jordan. No one, it seems, is righteous. Everyone needs to repent and be cleansed from sin. And then, it’s not enough to claim membership among God’s chosen people, one’s deeds must be in accord with one’s faith. And that is one of our melodies of justice! It is the stringent, demanding melody of the Law’s justice.
But while John the Baptist sings harsh judgment, our Old Testament Reading from Isaiah offers a very different tune. In Isaiah, a branch will grow from the root of Jesse, a new king greater even than the beloved King David. With the spirit of the Lord resting upon him, this king will reign with righteousness and justice. Oh, but it’s not a fiery justice, an axe to tree kind of righteousness like John.
In Isaiah’s prophesy of justice, a new day of harmony will dawn. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat…and a little child shall lead them.” It is a prophesy about a time when born enemies, predator and prey, will live together in peace. It’s a whole different tune about justice! It’s a tune of a different kind of justice than all that hammering of the Law.
Yet the two prophecies sit side by side, as discordant as they sound together. “They shall neither hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain.” “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Yet these are two sides of the same judgment, two melodies of God’s justice.
And even Isaiah, who promises that the king will judge with righteousness and equity, also says that he will kill the wicked. And John the Baptist, for all his fury about the chaff being burned in unquenchable fire, John sings sweetly of the wheat that will be gathered into the barn. Both tunes are woven together so complexly in both Readings as they are sung before us.
Now, it’s easy to prefer one tune to the other. Who wouldn’t want to be gathered into the kingdom of God? Who in their right mind would prefer burning in unquenchable fire? But all we need to remember is that John singled out the religious leaders for his harshest criticism…it’s a reminder that we dare not let this twisted tune float in one ear and out the other simply of some affiliation with Christ. To appreciate this curious Advent psalm, we do well to keep both melodies very clear in our head!
But we make a good beginning to singing this curious Advent psalm when we recognize that Jesus is the King in all these passages. He is the beauty of this Psalm.
Oh, but to fully appreciate the beauty and wonder of this two-part invention from God’s hand, we need to hear those hard words of Isaiah: “He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips shall kill the wicked,” and those fire-breathing words of John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers,” to hear those words and yet see Jesus in them.
Not a fire-breathing Jesus like John! No sir! This is the King who is so great, who is so righteous, that with the breath of His lips, with His own Spirit, He kills the wicked by saying, “You are forgiven. Your sin is taken away. Go in peace.” This king kills that wickedness by forgiving it!
This is the King who is so just that He Himself is struck with the rod of justice in order to spare the earth. This King is devoured by the lion and the bear of the cross, His hands pierced by the adder’s bite of the nail, in order for us lambs to lie down in such carnivorous company and sleep in peace!
Now that is a very, very different tune that the one all those hammer bangers of peace and justice produce with their noise. For them, you have to pound the wicked in order to have peace. They get the song backwards.
Come to tink of it, dey’re yust like Sven & Ole, ya, dat time dey vere shingling Ole’s barn. Sven vud pick a nail outta da bucket, look at it, and say “nope” and toss it over his shoulder. He picked out another vun does the same ting. Picks out a third and after looking at it uses it to nail in the shingle. Ole sees him doing this and exclaims, “Sven! Vat are yoo doing? Yur vasting nails!” Sven replied, “Vell yoo see, dose nails, dey’re pointing avay from da roof. I can’t use dem. But dese nails… Dey’re pointing toward the roof. I use dem.” “Uff da, Sven, no, no, no!” Ole says. “Yoo don’t yust trow avay dose other nails. Dere pointing dat vey for da other side of da barn.”
Ya, like Sven, ve are tempted to do yust dat, trow away dat fire-breathing harsh melody of this Psalm and keep only the gentle Jesus portions. But the justice of the Law, that justice which comes hammering punishment down upon the wicked, is a sharp melody reminding us of what we have been spared from in Christ…a very pointed reminder of what our lot would be if not for Christ. That’s important to remember in Advent!
But more important is to hear in this Psalm what we have in Christ, what we have been given in Christ. “May He be like rain that fall on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.” The water of life! It’s because of Him that “They shall neither hurt nor destroy in all My holy Mountain,” says the Lord God.
So indeed we sing, “Give the King Your justice, O God, and Your righteousness to the royal Son!” Give Him all Your justice—the justice of Your Law hammering Him there on the cross, so that the greater justice of Your Gospel would reach out from the cross to lift up the poor, the needy, the crushed, whether in body or in spirit, by this King’s forgiveness, breathing new life, His life, into all people by this King’s Spirit.
And having lifted us up, our King carries us out into a world so starved for the greater justice of His grace, a world that is always getting hammered by those who are so zealous for the Law’s justice. Advent carries us out with our King to bring hope by embracing the unjust world in Christ, even if it means bearing in our own bodies the wounds of the world’s injustices, so that by us, in Christ, the world might know that greater justice of His grace, right in the midst of all those noisy hammers!
Of such things this Psalm sings…of the harsh and the joyful, of the oppressive and the liberating, which means that ultimately this is a song of death and of new life…woven into perfect harmony, in one song of one King, our Advent Christ.