Saturday, December 04, 2010

Advent 2A

I recently read a sermon on today's reading from Isaiah preached by a Jewish rabbi named Margaret Wening.   The rabbi was preaching about hope, and she made the point that while she loved to attend Advent services when her Christian friends invited her, she also found them troubling.  She said, "you sing songs like: 'O come, o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel',  like it is a one-off event at the end of all things, like God sits back and observes human history for thousands and hundreds of thousands of years and does nothing, and that men and women are powerless to do anything except wait in hope that one day, against all the weight of human history, God will intervene to set things right, that - perhaps at the end of all things - Jesus will return and that will balance the scales.

And the rabbi told a story, the true story of the survivors of Buchenwald, a World War 2 concentration camp that held political prisoners many of whom had been rounded up and interned up in the years before the war, and which had a perhaps enviable record in that “only” about 30% of all the 300,000 captives that came through its gates perished there.  And in Buchenwald, in the dying days of the war, a dream was born that kept hope alive and perhaps also kept many of the prisoners alive - a dream of returning to Palestine and establishing a kibbutz.  And the survivors of Buchenwald did just that, in 1948 in the middle of another war, the war of independence from the British occupation forces, and they founded a kibbutz called simply, Netzer - a shoot from the old stump, regrowth from a forest fire - in reference to the passage we read today from the Book of Isaiah.

And the rabbi made the point that God's people are always waiting, always enduring injustice with hope, always resisting oppression and working for restoration.  And she explained, "to Jews, Isaiah's promise of redemption speaks not only of the advent of the messiah at the end of time but also of our recurring experience of redemption through time."  The promise of Isaiah, she said, has already been fulfilled over and over again, whenever God's people live with courage and live faithfully in hope toward the time when new green shoots of life appear from the ruin of injustice and oppression.  On the other hand, Margaret Wening said, the promise of Isaiah is also forever unfulfilled, because as we look around us we see a world in which competition and violence still reign - it is no safer today than it was in Isaiah's world for lambs to lie down with wolves - people still die of poverty and plague and the earth is filled with violence as water covers the sea.

So we are all still waiting for the advent of justice and peace. But, Rabbi Wening said, the promise of Isaiah is that God doesn't give death the last word. The promise that we see both fulfilled and at the same time unfulfilled is a challenge for us to work and to hope, to give flesh and blood to God's promises and to wait in trust for their fulfillment in situations where human efforts fail and human hope seems unrealistic.

I like Wening's point because it reminds us of our own responsibility, and it is a helpful rebuttal of a particular kind of Christianity that is passive, and that says, look, all you have to do is believe the right things - and of course this kind of Christianity fails the test of being Christ-like because it encourages Christians not to get involved, not to care about this world.  And the other reason I like Rabbi Wening's point is because she understands that God's promises are incarnational, they rely on human commitment and human flesh and blood.  This is the intuition of Judaism which in Christianity becomes explicit as we see it demonstrated perfectly in Jesus.  And I agree with her that the incarnational logic of God's love for human beings and for all creation is not just limited to the life of Jesus two thousand years ago but is built in to the structure of the universe, the breath of God's Holy Spirit which exhales the galaxies and is woven in to the life of every living creature.

But there’s also another, even more confronting, aspect of today’s reading from Isaiah, which is its hint of a great struggle between God’s yearning for human freedom – and the contrary choices so often made by God’s people.  Because right at the end of the chapter before today’s reading the prophet says God is going to cut down all the trees – that’s why the stump is there in the first place – it’s the result of what Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann calls the “great conflict and contest” between Israel’s political ambitions and the spirit of God for justice and renewal.  God’s own people, in other words, are sometimes the problem – but the prophet is desperately calling the people to take notice, and promising that this is not the end but the beginning of something new.  And in the context of Israel’s political situation, and the threat posed by the Assyrian Empire, the prophet promises something specific – a leader who will rule with justice and mercy, who will be guided not just by his own ambitions and his own counsel but by the spirit of wisdom and righteousness and mercy.  And the prophet promises that the whole order of society, indeed the whole order of creation, is going to be reversed – the rules of life are going to be changed, bent in the direction of God’s original creation and the re-establishment of God’s vision of peace, of shalom, of Eden as it should have been - when all God's creation turns away from hostility and destruction and finds another way of relating. 

And the prophet gives a hint as to how this is going to be accomplished, because the most striking and indeed uncharacteristic thing about the promised ruler is that he will live out of the humility of a deep relationship with the God to whom he knows he has to give an accounting, and whose priority is for the protection of the weak.  And it’s a reversal that again as Christians we see made explicit in Jesus, because the power of this ruler is not going to be the arrogance of military power or administrative control but the relational power of humility and compassion.

And of course the lectionary gives us this reading in Advent for a reason, because as Christians we reflect that the promise of Isaiah is fulfilled, and its challenge is sharpened and made more urgent in the person and ministry of Jesus, the one full of power and humility who demonstrates the way of peace.  And Walter Brueggemann points out that the reading from Isaiah is a challenge to images of Jesus that get reduced to a figure of private devotion, because – if we do identify Jesus with the promised one of Isaiah – then actually we are emphasizing the fact that he was “received, celebrated, and eventually crucified precisely for his embodiment and practice of this vision of social possibility”. [1] And Brueggemann asks what might happen if Christians allowed Jesus to come out from behind the curtain of our religious piety and actually committed ourselves to bringing Jesus' vision to reality in our shared, public life.

Part of the problem, I think, is that – even as Christians – we have got so used to the way things are that we have forgotten to long for how they should be.  We’ve got used to hearing, for example, about violence in Iraq and Afghanistan – where just last month alone hundreds of innocent people were slaughtered – we’ve got used to hearing about the military dictatorship in Burma and we’ve even got used to hearing about the misery of tens of thousands of Haitians living in tent cities through the wet season and enduring the entirely preventable second tragedy of cholera.  Did you know that we – that is, Australia, our country – spent $46 million dollars this year on trying to persuade the World Soccer Federation to play a game of football here - but contributed only $10 million dollars in emergency assistance to Haiti after January’s earthquake that killed over 200,000 people?  And we get used to this, we accept it as normal, we forget who we are, children of God who have been promised better than this and whose job it is to demand and to work for better than this.

So this is the work of Advent, the deep listening to the voices of prophets and angels that tell us not just that a baby is coming, but that remind us of who we ourselves are, of what our greatest hope is, and of what it might mean for us to live towards that hope instead of settling for a restricted and insulated vision of reality.  What it is – Advent - is the season for setting aside romanticised and sentimentalised images of the child of Bethlehem, and looking instead with hope towards the upside-down, totally improbable Reign of God - the season of asking ourselves what we actually want, what we really hope for and what we are prepared to live for, to give ourselves for.  The season of asking ourselves: if this is really God’s vision of creation, then what’s yours?  If this is the sort of world you want – the world the prophet promises us – what are you prepared to do about it?


[1] Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39, Westminster Bible Companion