3rd Sunday in Advent

December 12, 2004
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 35:1-10
Reading 2: 
Psalm 146:5-10
Reading 3: 
James 5:7-10
Reading 4: 
Matthew 11:2-11
By John B. Cobb, Jr.

The passages selected for today continue the pattern of those for the previous Sunday. All express hope based on confidence in God. What they hope for depends on the circumstances in which they were written.

The passage from Isaiah reflects the situation after the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of many Jews to Babylon. This was a profoundly dark time. For those Jews who identified themselves with their land and with their city, it seemed to be the end. It seemed, indeed, that their God was ineffective or unreal, or else that God had abandoned them, perhaps justly because of their sins, perhaps capriciously. It would have been easy for hope to die. Had it done so, the Jews would have merged into the Mesopotamian population as did so many whom the Babylonian Empire transplanted.

Remarkably, this did not happen. The expectation that many Jews had had, that God would defend Jerusalem, proved false. But instead of abandoning their faith in God, the Jews came to understand that their God was not bound to any location. They also learned that their God continued to love them and work for them even when their fortunes were extremely bad. That God had not protected them from defeat and exile did not mean that their faith gave them no basis for hoping for better times.

What we find in this passage from Isaiah is a deep confidence that the Jews would return to Jerusalem. Their exile was an episode in their long history, not the final word. And this prophecy was fulfilled. They did return.

Of course, the actual return did not have all the characteristics Isaiah envisioned. The water did not become immediately plentiful. Wild beasts did not disappear. Not all sorrow and sighing fled away. The partial fulfillment of this hope led to new troubles and ambiguities giving rise to new hopes. Nevertheless, it was an event of great importance in Israel’s history, and through Israel for the entire world.

A passage such as this can play a role in other situations. The exile to Babylon was not Israel’s only exile. On the contrary, a far longer exile followed the defeat of the Jews by the Romans. The promise of return, fulfilled in biblical times, was equally applicable to the Jews of the Diaspora through nearly two millennia. It provided a religious basis for Zionism and for the actual return of large numbers after World War II. In this sense, Isaiah’s prophesy was fulfilled a second time.

Again, the second fulfillment was just as ambiguous as the first. The utopian tone of Isaiah’s vision remains unfulfilled. On the one hand, the Jews have restored Jerusalem to greatness. On the other hand, this very process has engendered great suffering among the Palestinian peoples. Hope takes a new form, a vision of peace and justice between Jews and Palestinians. This vision also has its antecedents in the Bible. We Christians find such hope in Jesus’ proclamation of what I like to call the Commonwealth of God.

The other Old Testament passage, from Psalm 146, is relevant to this peace and justice. It lifts us just those characteristics of God that need to be emphasized in Jerusalem, but also in the whole world. God executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets the prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down. Clearly the Psalmist believes that these acts of God should express themselves among those who represent God in Jerusalem and in the world. That was important among those who returned to Jerusalem. It is important for those who have now returned. It is important to all the peoples of the world and especially to us Americans who have such power to impose our will on others.

It is apparent that these passages do not have a single messianic figure in view. Yet they play a striking role in shaping the expectations and claims of the New Testament passages that are more directly Christological. Both of these passages, like most of those from the Old Testament that we have encountered in the two preceding Advent Sundays emphasize justice for the weak and the poor. They assume what we have recently come to call "the option for the poor," often represented in the Bible by widows and orphans, that is, those who fall outside the normal security provided by membership in a family. God loves all, but God takes the side of those whom society is most likely to neglect and exploit.

In the Magnificat, placed on Mary’s lips by Luke, this theme is strongly reaffirmed. Mary celebrates God’s having chosen her lowly self to be the bearer of Jesus. The God who has done this in her is the God who has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

This vision is one we have heard so often that it is easy to take its radicalism for granted. But in human history it remains revolutionary. Most religiousness connects earthly power with divinity. In many instances the rulers, whether Egyptian Pharaohs or Roman Caesars claimed divinity and demanded worship. Religion was an instrument of their political authority. In Israel, where the understanding of God precluded so drastic a claim on the part of kings, there were still traditions that associated kingship and the success of military expeditions with divine favor. Today, even in Christian countries, great honor is paid to those who are rich and powerful.

But the Magnificat follows the other, deeper, traditions of Israel’s thought. For God the understanding of weak and powerful, of rich and poor, are reversed. Mary foreshadows Jesus’ teaching. God does not sanction the status quo. In God’s Commonwealth the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The poor are blessed and the rich are cursed by their clinging to their wealth. Mary’s poem is not couched as a prediction of the work of her son. But it functions all the same in that way. If we treat the Magnificat as a prophecy, it is one that Jesus’ teaching fulfills.

In Matthew we find Jesus himself claiming to fulfill prophecy. It is interesting to see that the prophecy he fulfills is part of the Old Testament prophecies that were not fulfilled in the restoration of Jerusalem. Isaiah thought that with the return to Jerusalem, the eyes of the blind would be opened, the ears of the deaf would be unstopped, the lame would leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless would sing. It did not happen then. But when John inquired whether Jesus was the one who was to come, Jesus replied that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the dead are raise, and the poor have good news brought to them.

The passage from James strikes a different note, one that is different from the emphasis in any of the passages we have thus far commented on in Advent. The focus is once again on hope for the inbreaking of the new. This time the anticipated new is the Second Coming of the Lord. This expectation arose precisely because so many of the ancient hopes were no fulfilled by Jesus. He lived, died, and rose again, but the course of history continued on its way. The apocalyptic expectations interwoven with the historical ones in the Old Testament were not realized. Even such fulfillment as there was of historical expectations fell far short. If the hopes of Israel were to be realized, hopes into which Gentiles had now been drawn, Jesus must return. This time he would not come humbly as a carpenter and die the humiliating death of crucifixion. Instead he would come dramatically on the clouds with hosts of angels to impose his will.

But his second coming was not a soon as expected. Christians eager for this great climactic event of history grew impatient. Some felt deceived and cheated. They were giving up so much because of expectation of an event that began to appear illusory. James reassures them that indeed the Second Coming is imminent, but he urges them to wait patiently. Believers are called to endure suffering while they wait.

From our point of view, this idea that Jesus would return was based on a misunderstanding of the way hope works. I have emphasized that hope is crucially important. It inevitably takes particular forms appropriate to the situation of the one who hopes. Because God truly is at work in history, that which is hoped for in some ways comes to pass. But the way it comes to pass disappoints much of the hope. History continues on its ambiguous path. God continues to work, but evil remains strongly entrenched and often seems to dominate.

Those who are wise do not cling to the old forms of hope in new situations. They learn from both the fulfillments and the disappointments. They learn also from the transformations. They formulate their hope in new ways. From Jesus we learn that God is to be found in all that makes for life and healing, and for peace and justice. God does not force these on the world. We can work with God or join in the massive resistance that is so visible in human history. We can participate in Jesus’ faithfulness even in suffering and to death. Or we can participate in the forms of human life that led to crucifying him. No doubt most of us participate in some measure in both. But our hopes now grow out of this understanding of God’s working in us and in the world.

Despite the influence of the idea that the fulfillment of the monarchical and apocalyptic expectations was just postponed, the reality was that the deeper currents of the church were not dependent on that form of hope. If they had been, patience would have worn out long ago. At a deeper level, people were moved by Jesus transformation of the way God and the world were understood. They wanted to follow him whether or not this would lead to a dramatic vindication in the last days. At the deepest level, Jesus’ inspired the hope of being faithful to God as he was faithful to God.

But Jesus inspired other forms of hope as well. He proclaimed a new age in which God’s purposes would be carried out on earth as they are carried out in heaven. Those purposes are for human beings to live fully and healthily, in mutual love, in a world of peace and justice. This would be just the opposite of the order established by the Roman Empire.

Christians in their own communities could experience a foretaste of what that life would be. They could hope for their communities to embody it more fully. They could hope for more people to join such communities. They could hope for a time when these values, rather that those of the Empire would dominate human society.

These hopes were continually fulfilled in part and frustrated in part. The church did grow and influence society more and more. Eventually it was established, profoundly fulfilling the hope of many Christians. But just this fulfillment also brought profound disappointment. When the Empire became Christian, the church became imperial. Christian hope took new forms. Now it was for the re-Christianization of the church itself. Later, when the Western church fragmented, hope focused on the unity of the church.

Of course, hope took many other forms. There has always been hope for the healing of the sick, the feeding of the hungry, the liberation of the oppressed, the ending of violence, and a world in which there is justice for all. That hope has taken many forms, supporting both establishments and revolutions. In part it is often realized. Always there are limits and disappointments and new problems, forcing fresh formulations of that for which believers hope.

James message of patience and endurance is just as relevant to those of us who hope in this way as to those who hope for an apocalyptic climax to the human story. Our hope always exceeds any historical realization. Our fragmentary successes can only when our appetites for more and lead to reformulations. Our frequent setbacks and frustrations test our hope even more severely. Our hope in God leads to persistence and to the refusal of despair.

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.