2nd Sunday of Advent

December 5, 2004
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 11:1-10
Reading 2: 
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Reading 3: 
Romans 15:4-13
Reading 4: 
Matthew 3:1-12
By John B. Cobb, Jr.

Whereas the scripture readings for last Sunday could not be read as specifically anticipating the coming of Jesus, matters are quite different today. The passages from Isaiah and Psalms have been understood by Christians as prophecies of Jesus. In these instances, of course, no one supposes that the writers had direct knowledge of Jesus. Their prophesies were expressions of hope.

The two New Testament passages refer quite specifically to Jesus. John the Baptist may have done much of his preaching without specific reference to Jesus, but the early Christians were confident that John had recognized in Jesus the fulfillment of those prophecies. Paul was writing about Jesus after Jesus’ death, claiming for him the fulfillment of other Jewish prophesies, especially those that included the Gentiles as beneficiaries of God’s merciful actions.

Are these exceptions to my assertion in last week’s comments that prophecies are disappointed again and again, although the actual course of history, in all its ambiguity, does bring about hopeful results? Not really.

Jesus did not fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah in the way Isaiah expected. Christians claimed that, as Isaiah expected, Jesus was descended from Jesse. However, for Isaiah the main point was that he would be in the kingly succession. The prophecy is about a king who rules justly. Whatever Jesus’ ancestry was, he was not what Isaiah expected. He did not engage in royal judgment, administering justice to the poor. Nor did he kill the wicked. He did not end predation in the animal world.

Does that mean that Christians have been wrong in seeing this passage as an anticipation of Jesus? In part, of course, they have erred. But it is not wrong to view Jesus as a partial fulfillment of the hopes that Isaiah expressed. We believe that the spirit of the Lord rested on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. We believe that his delight was in the fear of the Lord. We believe that he did not judge by what his eyes saw, or decide by what his ears heard; but that with righteousness he "judged" the poor, and decided with equity for the meek of the earth.

Of course, even to say that much, we have to introduce our interpretations of what we are saying. We do not ordinarily say that Jesus feared God. The idea of fearing God has not played the role among Christians that it played among Jews. In Israel one who "feared God" was one who obeyed God’s law even when that was humanly costly, that is, one who understood that obedience to God was of greater importance than obedience to any human authority. Paul explains how, through Jesus, this relation of fear and obedience was transformed into one of love and participation.

We have already noted that the emphasis on judging in Isaiah presupposes a social role that Jesus did not have. If he "judged" others, it was only in the sense of evaluating them not deciding their legal fate. Furthermore, he preached strongly against "judging" in the sense of condemning. The characterization of one segment of the society as wicked does not fit his teaching.

In short, even here, where we have a prophecy that Christians have often claimed as a prediction of Jesus, the connection is loose. We can affirm that we see in Jesus one who embodied some of what Isaiah hoped for. We must equally assert that Jesus was also different from what Isaiah considered ideal in ways that are important for us as his followers. In Jesus we have both the partial realization of Jewish hopes and also their partial transformation. Further, to whatever extent the expectations were apocalyptic, that is, pointing toward a more than historical change, these hopes continued to be frustrated or rejected.

Jesus in some ways fulfilled Jewish hopes in other ways not. Christians are those who accent the former and allow their own hopes to be reshaped by Jesus. Some of this reshaping is simply retaining some of the Jewish hopes Jesus did not fulfill, the apocalyptic ones, anticipating that eventually these too will be fulfilled. This part we process Christians reject. Some of this reshaping was made explicit by Paul who saw in Jesus a revelation of God’s love as triumphing over God’s wrath. This change, too, was in part a fulfillment of ancient Jewish hopes. We hope as we now do because of Jesus, both the ways he fulfilled Jewish expectations and the ways he transformed them or failed to fulfill them.

For Christians, John the Baptist is the final prophet of Jesus’ coming. His role was itself understood as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy: "the voice of one crying in the wilderness; prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." John’s message, like that of Jesus was: Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near." But for John, the meaning of that coming is a judgment that divides the righteous from the sinners. The one he predicted would "clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff would be burned with unquenchable fire."

Even if John did identify Jesus as the one whom he foretold, he did not rightly understand Jesus’ mission. Of course, there were continuities. Jesus could depict a final judgment in which the sheep and the goats were sharply divided. There were certainly images of divine punishment in Jesus’ teaching. But whereas the burden of John’s preaching of the nearness of the Kingdom, as reported in Matthew, was to inspire fear in the disobedient, Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom primarily inspired hope. Even in relation to John, fulfillment, failure to fulfill, and transformation all play roles.

There have been many Christians whose hope included the destruction of "the wicked." This note is not absent in the New Testament. Too often in Christian history, the wicked have been identified quite extensively with the Jews! Terrible horrors have been visited on them as a result. But we believe that to whatever extent this judgmental habit directed toward those who disagree with one and oppose one remains an important part of the Christian community, this community has not been redeemed by God’s grace as that is understood both by Jesus and by Paul. Both of them taught that judgment should be left to God. They also taught that God’s judgment is not primarily punitive. Even if "punishment" plays a role, it does so as an expression of love. In Paul’s most profound vision of the End, in Romans 8, the whole creation shares in the glory of the resurrection. Judgment and punishment play no role.

This is to say, that the widespread hope, continued in many Christians, for the punishment of enemies and oppressors is not fulfilled or renewed in Jesus. For those who truly believe in him, Jesus transforms hopes as much as he fulfills them. Our hopes as his followers are different from what they would be if we did not have this revelation of God.

Even today we must hope for the transformation of our hopes. Whether this requires some further revelation beyond what we have in Jesus is hard to say. Certainly we are learning much in dialogue with representatives of other religious traditions that informs our new formulations of our hopes. But we may see all of this as a deeper appropriation of what was already revealed to us in Jesus or as resulting from opening ourselves to the continuing work of the Spirit in faithfulness to him.

In conclusion, we turn to Paul’s use of Jewish prophesies in Romans. For him it was a matter of utmost importance to show that the coming of Jesus had brought a new relationship to God not only for Jews but also for Gentiles. In this new relationship, moral rules were superseded by participation if Jesus’ faithfulness to God. In relation to this new possibility, Jews and Gentiles were on the same footing.

But Paul did not at all want to imply that this was a new religion. Quite the contrary. This was the fulfillment of the Abrahamic tradition, that is, of Israel’s faith. At the deepest level, Paul was convinced, the Jewish tradition looked forward to this new situation in which Jew and Gentile would be on the same footing before God. Paul combed the Jewish scriptures for expectations of this new reality, and he quoted them here and elsewhere. He appealed especially to the faith of Abraham.

Was Paul correct? That is a question the answer to which divides Jews and Christians to this day. For most Jews, their scriptures are primarily a call to live by God’s commandments in order to fulfill the covenant God made with them. This covenant is a gift of God, and one fulfills the human side of the covenant gratefully and joyfully by obeying the laws God has graciously given. Gentiles may also be included in the earlier covenant with Noah, but they do not have the same place in God’s providential plan as do the Chosen People, the Jews. To move toward erasing the difference by denying the importance of living by the law is profoundly opposed to the dominant Jewish reading of their scriptures.

On the other hand, Christians must affirm that Paul’s reading is a valid one. Although the Jewish scriptures are also part of our scripture, we do not read them primarily to guide the details of our lives by obedience to the laws they contain. We follow Paul in seeing them as pointing forward to an understanding of God and the world that is most fully revealed in Jesus.

Today we are more likely to say that there is more than one valid appropriation of the Jewish scriptures, so that we are not inclined to say the Jews are wrong. But we do believe that reading the Jewish scriptures through the eyes of Paul enables us to find in them the development of an understanding of the relationship between God and humanity as a whole that does not depend on the Jewish law. We celebrate our inclusion in a new covenant that we enter through Jesus Christ.

Even here, however, we cannot speak unequivocally of Jesus fulfilling prophecy. Jesus understood himself as having come to the lost sheep of Israel. He did not refuse to minister to Gentiles, but this was certainly not central to his calling. We must appeal to the meaning of his life, death, and resurrection as this became manifest after his death, and especially to the interpretation of Paul in order to justify our claim that we, too, apart from the law, are full disciples of Jesus. In this sense, Jesus brought into being new hopes, which he fulfilled more fully than the ones of which he was aware. More profoundly, we may say, that the spirit of hope itself, so important in Israel, came through Jesus to play a similar role among the Gentiles, which means for most of us.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D., has held many positions including Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology, Avery Professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Fullbright Professor at the University of Mainz, Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Chicago Divinity Schools. His writings include: Christ in a Pluralistic Age; God and the World; and co-author with Herman Daly of For the Common Good which was co-winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.