Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Second Sunday of Advent Year A

Second Sunday of Advent Year A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7,18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

Isaiah's unrelenting realism about dire current events included the threat of superpowers as well as the failures of the nation's leaders and institutions. Yet he persists in proclaiming hope in an ideal future. From the stump of the Davidic monarchy, which had been leveled as surely as a tree cut back to the ground, a shoot will appear. As shoots of new growth are, it will be tender, fragile, perhaps even unnoticed at first. A tiny, unexpected sliver of green growth will appear amidst all the brown decay of the useless stump. This new monarch will be an ideal leader, known for perfect justice and reconciliation and restoration.

The Psalmist assumes the convention of the time: that the fate of a people depended on a wise, fair monarch. This leader also functioned as the supreme court.

Citing passages from the Psalms, Deuteronomy and the last verse of today's reading from Isaiah, Paul characterizes the life of Jesus as a fulfillment of scripture in a way that meets the idealized expectations of "the circumcised" as well as all Gentiles. These ancient promises of the prophets sustained people in dangerous times over the centuries. The "God of hope" who sustained in the past now acts in a new person, Jesus. Pragmatic Paul calls for certain actions in response: praise, hospitality, unity.

Once again, the fate of the Jews, especially in Jerusalem, is dicey. The Roman Empire deals quickly and devastatingly with insurrection. The appearance of John the Baptizer reminds Matthew of Elijah. Living and prophesying in the wilderness near Jerusalem, all kinds of people come to hear John, including the religious establishment. He spares no one in his condemnation and judgment. But he goes further. He is merely preparing the way for another whose sense of justice is so keen and unequivocal that he will not just warn of judgment, he will execute judgment that is hones and fair.

By the time of the appearance of John the Baptist and Jesus, history had taught the Jews that they were a small, easily conquered people in a world of superpowers and that the faults of their own leadership were exposed and exaggerated in threatening times. Even basic justice and fairness could not be expected. Once again, then, the biblical claim of an ideal One who reliably and regularly dispenses justice so fair it was immediately self-evident is bold and asserts a totally unexpected hope. Also again, this hope is not from human calculations. It is so bold, so ideal, so certain it could only come from God.

Jurgen Moltmann explores the unique quality of biblical hope throughout his work as a theologian. This biblical hope is not a higher degree of optimism or even hope in the usual sense of the word. Biblical hope, however, is rooted in the very foundations of the entire biblical experience. It is an extension of the very notion of God as creator and sustainer. It asserts, against all conventional evidence, that God is not indifferent to the well-being of creation. The twentieth century tested this hope for all and shattered it for many. Wars, holocaust, pogroms, mass murder, saturation bombing, the well-being of a few dependent on the suffering of many, confront us with stark realities about ourselves, our institutions, our abilities and failures. Cynicism is an easy way out. Even nihilism can have a seductive attraction. Anyone who participates in biblical hope, therefore, had better be prepared for no easy answers, no quick solutions. In an essay in his collection
, Figuring the Sacred, Paul Ricoeur writes: "hope is both irrational, as being 'in spite of' death and 'beyond' despair, and rational, as asserting a new law, the law of superabundance, the superabundance of sense over non-sense."  "...[H]ope opens up what knowledge claims to close." (p.216) 

For Christians Jesus Christ becomes a sign of biblical hope. His words and actions indeed his entire fate become a never-ending project of interpretation. The ancient Hebrew prophets carved out that place in the human imagination for hope that could only come from God; for Christians, Jesus Christ is another example and interpreter of that biblical hope. If any one conclusion emerges out of the Twentieth century, it is the awareness of the violence and destruction of which human beings are capable. In all the debris and rot of past human failures, Biblical hope demurely points to a tiny shoot of new growth that, were it not for biblical claims, might go unnoticed and even trampled on.