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Sunday, 5 December 2010

Blogging through Advent - 2nd Sunday

Advent 2 (Year A) 
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12
The readings for Advent seem to bring out the best in the compilers of the lectionary. The readings hang together, the connections are not forced and we find ourselves confronted with themes that run deep in the tradition. We sense and are given theological and narrative warrants for the connections between Isaiah, Jesus and the prophet John.

The passage in Romans shows Paul at his most Jewish, writing as a Jew about the inclusion of the pagans in mutual care in the new community that God is bringing into being. Doug Lee in the meditation on the these readings on the Ekklesia Project Blog draws out the political implications of these readings in his critique of the limits of a liberal polity. Paul in his reference to Isaiah declares that the ancient promise is on the way to fulfilment.

The day of hope has come, for Jesse’s root has risen to rule the Gentiles (Romans 15:12). While Isaiah sees only the eventual emergence of the coming king (“he shall stand”), the Greek translation cited by Paul signals something far more startling. It employs the word regularly utilized for “resurrection” and thus ignites Paul’s proclamation that Christ’s rising from the dead actualizes apocalyptic day of hope. “The Lord of our longing has conquered the night,” declares the lyrics of the Catholic hymn City of God. God has fulfilled the longing of Israel and the nations, and so Paul proclaims Christ as Lord of the nations to those who live under the nose of that Roman pretender, Caesar.

But this is far from revolutionary ideology or political theory. For Paul, all politics is local.

Therefore, the politics of hope begin at home, in the church, and around the table. The weak and the strong shall sit together at table and not devour each other with their condescension and condemnation. They can now eat together without qualms about each other’s dietary restrictions or voting affiliations.

Under Caesar and American liberalism, the best humanity can hope for is to maintain a sham unity enforced by power. When we bump up against intractable differences, the most we can practice is a tolerance that allows us to coexist but at a safe distance from one another. “Peace” is won through enforced division.

But under the reign of the coming king, the people of God are liberated from merely tolerating each other, from practicing that forced cordiality that plagues too many of our relationships in the church, and from mouthing that nonsense that we are all the same on the inside.

Christ did not die for generic people; he died as a servant of the circumcised and to fulfill God’s promises to the Hebrew people. Christ did not live at a safe distance from others so that everyone could go on pleasing themselves; he denied himself so that the Gentiles might be grafted and join a redeemed Israel in praising God with one voice. Therefore, we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us. We see that we could never be whole without each other, even in—and because of—our differences. We disturb the powers, liberal and imperial, when people who have no business eating together share one table. Our little welcomes are deeply interpersonal and vastly public, political, and apocalyptic at the same time. Paul’s politics of hope is practiced in the near and now. The Power of Hope : American and Apocalyptic
More particularly according to the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman, the Advent readings announce the end of the world as we know it, not through some spiritual experience detached from the world that we live in, but in practices of hope living towards justice in that very same world. A generic spirituality just doesn't cut it in the Scripture readings for Advent. The account of the readings that he offers us challenges much about what we thought being a Christian was all about. If we are not uncomfortable with the status quo and its distribution of power and wealth then it may be doubtful whether we have begun to grasp, or be grasped by the message of Advent.
In the epistle reading, Paul writes of God's truthfulness, by which he means reliability. God does what God says, that is, keeps God's word. This same God is described as the "God of hope", (verse 13). God's truth is about God's resolve to transform our world, to make it utterly new. That is why Gentiles may rejoice, praise, and hope (verses 9-12). And we believers, out of that promise, are invited to joy, peace, and power (verse 13).

So we ask, what is the promise? As the lectionary is arranged, we are bound to say the governing promise is the coming of a new leader, of the line of David. Both Psalm 72 and Isaiah 11 articulate a new leader who will be empowered by the Spirit (Isaiah 11:2), who will have great dominion and much prosperity (Psalm 72: 8-11, 16). The common element in these two poetic forays is that the new governor will attend to the well-being, equity, and worth of the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised: "May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy and crush the oppressor" (Psalm 72:4). Also, "With righteousness he will judge the poor, and decide with equity for the poor of the earth" (Isaiah 11:4).

... the pivotal point is the transformed situation of the poor. That is what the coming governor will do.

Note that the promise is not social evolution or developmental improvement. It is rather the inversion of the present in which the devalued will become the properly valued. So the promise is, at the same time, an enormous hope and a heavy judgment on how things now are. The function of the promise is to make the present provisional and tentative, even while we tend to make it absolute and treat it as an eternal arrangement.

In Matthew 3:1-12 the promised sovereign now draws near in the words of John the Baptist. Matthew uses the language of Isaiah 40:3 to envision a homecoming of the new king in triumphant procession. John calls for repentance (verse 2), which means ending old loyalties for the embrace of the new regime.

Jesus did indeed come to do exactly what Psalm 72 and Isaiah 11 had promised. He came to cause inversion, to displace the old marginalizing arrangement. He summoned people to abandon the old patterns for God's new truthfulness.

It does not surprise us that John has conflict with the ones who value the present arrangement (verse 7). The establishment figures do not understand that this coming of the new king means the end of privilege and priority. They trivialize the baptism of Advent as a religious act without realizing that it means the end of the known world.

And so John disputes with them, urging that their pedigrees of status, conviction, and influence are of no use, because all these belong to the old age now placed in deep jeopardy. The lesson ends in verse 12 with images of harsh judgment on those who hold too intensely to old power arrangements that do not grant access to the poor and marginal. ...

Advent is for pondering the promise. And so it is a time for joy. But Advent is also a time for sober inventory, to face how deeply enmeshed in and committed to the old regime we are. Many of us benefit from the marginality of the poor, and we do not want it to change. In the real commitments of our lives, we are deeply in conflict with the new reign. And we are without hope, meaning we do not want, expect, or welcome the new leader. In our moments of honesty, we crave our hopelessness because it lets us keep things as they are.

But the new sovereign comes on the wind—by the Spirit (Isaiah 11:2, Matthew 3:11, Romans 15:13). That means he cannot be stopped and will not be resisted. The Spirit works through us, among us, and even against us. The Spirit in these days would indeed work against our hopelessness to let us hope.
Amen and amen!

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