Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Third Sunday of Advent Year A

Third Sunday of Advent Year A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:4-9, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

N.B. This commentary assumes a unity among all the readings for Advent. Comments build on succeeding weeks.

This chapter in Isaiah is a hinge chapter; either it belongs to the previous 34 or it is bridge to later additions. But the intensity is consistent. There is nothing nuanced about Isaiah. His descriptions of current events are stark, dire and spare no one. But his expressions of hope pack every human aspiration into them. The landscape around Jerusalem is also full of extreme contrasts. The wilderness is bleak, but where there is water there is lush beauty. Isaiah first appeals to our natural longings for beauty in nature as he imagines time when "the desert shall rejoice and blossom." Then he turns to our longing to be free of human fearfulness as he imagines people with courage and confidence. Next he imagines a time of healing for human afflictions: the deaf, lame, blind and dumb will be restored. Then he returns to nature. He foresees the unexpected appearance of water and its miraculous impact on the desert. When he imagines a new highway, cutting straight and even through the rough terrain, he is imagining a radical change in topography to inspire a change in human aspirations! He mingles the longing for a return to the days of peace and tranquility in Jerusalem which the people of his time felt keenly with another journey-- a journey of the spirit-- which anyone can join. The road of this spiritual journey is the love and practice of God's way's; even a fool can follow that!

The psalmist extrapolates the natural human desire for good government, which in that time and place was solely dependent on the monarch, with trust in One who is more trustworthy. Adopting God's obsession with those on the margins puts us on a way that brings benefits to them, to all society and to ourselves. This way of living "sustains" us. (In his wonderful new translation of the Psalms (W.W. Norton 2007), Robert Alter notes that this is one of only two times the same Hebrew word for "sustain" is used; the other is Psalm 147.)

The Writer of James offers some practical advise to those who are engaged in God's ways and the longing for a time when they are the norm. "You also must be patient."

The relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus is complicated. In which one is God acting more clearly and decisively? With large crowds and wide influence, even to the point of mention in other than biblical sources, John is recognized as one clearly engaged in the same work and action of the great prophets in the past. As depicted by Matthew, John is the one whose powerful proclamation prepared the way for Jesus. John gets reports in prison that the impact of Jesus is exactly what the scriptures, (remember the words of Isaiah and the psalmist) had depicted had dreamed of. Jesus is as great as any of the prophets, but he is "more than a prophet."

Biblical hope was forged in the tragedies of God's people over a thousand years of slavery, war, and the failure of human leaders. It is hard won. The great prophets appeared in the times of extremes-- good times and bad times. Their call always was to return to seeking and putting into practice God's ways, which fall under one grand sign-- justice. Into this word they poured the highest human aspirations for personal and societal well being. Even in the bleakest of times, they insisted that pursuing God's justice was the only way to preserve all we value most, even life itself. They called for patience and trust. For followers of Jesus as the Messiah, "The hopes and fears of all the years" culminate in his words, his life, his fate.

Christians fall easily into assuming that Jesus and the gospel about him is somehow something new from the scriptures which preceded him. Would the human imagination have been prepared for him had not the prophets discovered the value of trusting in God's justice in the least likely situations over centuries? Rather than viewing Hebrew scriptures as a scaffolding which can be taken down once the edifice of the Christian scriptures is erected, it might be more accurate to view them as the foundation which established the footprint and the foundation without which the next phase of building wold crumble. Postmodern writers insist on the reliance of "new" human expression on what has preceded. Jacques Derrida insisted that human imagination relies on texts for its shaping and expression. Especially toward the end of his life, he focused on the never-ending human quest to articulate the ideal of justice, which is driven by the deepest human longing more than accomplishment or finality.    Deeply inspired by Derrida's non-biblical, non-Messiainic messianism, John Caputo's  writes a passionate interpretation of Derrida's work:  "
This now, the Messiah's now, belongs to messianic time and is not the now of ordinary time; the messianic now does not maintain the maintenant of temps ordainaire but breaks it open, and opens it up to what is coming, which is the very structure of messianic time.  So when the Messiah says,'today,' now, he means 'Now, if only you heed me, or if you are willing to listen to my voice.'  The messianic 'today' means if you will begin, now, to respond to the call for the Messiah not with hollow words, but with virtue."  "That call for doing justice is also signaled by the setting of the Messiah's appearance-- among beggars, among the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, those who demand justice now...."  (The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, p. 80)

             "Anyone who has looked Hope in the face will never forget 
                 it. He will search for it wherever he goes."

                                                        Octavio Paz
                                                        Activist, Poet, Writer