In Days to Come

December 1, 2019

Cate Thorn

Advent 1     Isaiah 2:1-5     Matthew 24:36-44

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Today marks the first Sunday in Advent. Advent – that in-between season. Jesus, Immanuel, God with us has come, our tradition says. Yet our tradition also says this Christ, once come, is to come again. And so we wait, with anticipation. Anticipation in the narrative we know – of God born in human form, back then. Anticipation in the narrative we tell – of the restoring Christ who will come again.

 

Today’s reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah begins with words of anticipation, “In the days to come”. These are the words of one who is named a prophet. Does this orient us to hear them speaking of things to come, of things yet to be. Curiously, though, these words of the future from the prophet Isaiah, are centuries old. Isaiah, son of Amoz lived in a particular context, for it says this word is concerning Judah and Jerusalem back in the day of this prophet. The poetry that follows is redolent with images of a restored creation. From what we know of the history of the world, this hasn’t come to pass. We look back in linear time to hear tell of things still to take place in the future?

 

The gospel words come from that hinge time. Put in Jesus’ mouth, the one we’ve since then named as God with us. Hinge time of God present here on earth speaking of things to come, of future hope. “About that day and hour no one knows … only the Father.” All we know is it’s to come and while we wait we’re to keep awake. Waiting, with what we know of what has been and from what we know what we expect is to come.

 

This Advent we’re taking the four Sundays leading to Christmas as opportunity to pay attention to the readings from Isaiah. To return them to their own context and hear what they have to speak to us, without necessarily appropriating them entirely to serve our Christian narrative. Curiously, as I’ve explored the body of work attributed to Isaiah, its potency within the context of its time and place, is enhanced by so doing.

 

Let’s consider a bit of background to the book of Isaiah. As we hear in the opening of today’s passage, the book of Isaiah is attributed to Isaiah son of Amoz. According to the introduction to the book Isaiah worked in reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Isaiah’s main activity takes place during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah (735-687BC).

 

The relationship between Isaiah and Ahaz is introduced when Ahaz is at crisis point, threatened by Assyria and besieged by an Israel-Syrian alliance. Ahaz choice to turn to Assyria for help works but includes Ahaz introducing Assyrian worship practices into the Jerusalem temple. This causes the clash between Isaiah and Ahaz. It also introduces a major theme of Isaiah. The king and people shouldn’t trust an alliance with a foreign power for survival and prosperity they should trust in God, a theme that continues in the reign of Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son.

 

The threat of Assyria formed the background of Isaiah’s ministry, the setting in which he called for faithfulness. However, the book of Isaiah’s concern for faithfulness when threatened by dominating powers isn’t confined to the time of Assyrian domination. Babylon appears as an even more prominent focus. Historically, Babylon succeeded Assyria as the leading power in the region in 605BC. Judah fell and went into Babylonian exile in 587BC. By this time Isaiah had been dead for about a century.

 

Yet Isaiah 40-55 concerns the people of Judah in exile and the beginning of Isaiah 56 and Isaiah 65-66 address a community returned to Jerusalem. Such historical events behind the book of Isaiah suggest it can’t have been written at one time. However much modern scholarship thinks the book of Isaiah has been deliberately shaped as a whole in its present form over a long period of time and interprets it as having a unity and coherence in themes and theology.

 

Of course there’s no way to work out ‘the’ message of Isaiah, once we assume Isaiah didn’t say everything in the book named after him. But we can look at what’s commonly thought about Isaiah’s own work. As we do so to reflect how Isaiah’s priorities have shaped our Christian priorities.

 

Scholars assert Isaiah’s message is based on a single foundation “the belief that Yahweh, God of Israel, is the only one who is ‘high and lifted up’. No other earthly power can challenge Yahweh, nor any other god.” Gordon McConville argues this shapes Isaiah’s thinking in politics, ethics and the future of Judah and Jerusalem. Politically Isaiah argues that in crisis rulers should trust in Yahweh, rather than in political measures to protect the country. For Yahweh has power over all of history, authority over the kings of Judah, other nations and the forces of nature.

 

Ethically and over the future of Judah and Jerusalem, God’s “overriding aim is to establish ‘righteousness and justice’… a vision for Jerusalem that dominates ... this comes from the nature of God … God … desires a certain kind of order because of what God is like.” … God’s power to save is for the purpose of making them a people that shows justice and righteousness. “ [1]

 

Isaiah’s message is a ‘vision’ unfolding a view of what society could and should be like. It declares God’s intention to make God’s chosen people into such a society, even though they’ve failed so far. The book of Isaiah doesn’t record the fall of Jerusalem in 587BC but the question of God’s plan for Jerusalem is worked out in the light of the fact of Jerusalem’s destruction.

 

Isaiah’s vision for Jerusalem … is a vision of a city in which God’s desired righteousness is really found and remains. In one sense, this city will be the historical Jerusalem after the exiles have returned to it; in another it is a city that is greater than Jerusalem. [2]

 

We in our time hold the vision of being God’s people, incarnating righteousness and justice, the nature of God. This is the revelation in Jesus, of how humans can live and be? We know we fall short yet the vision of hope that this can be made real remains. So Isaiah’s twin vision still challenges us. We still look back to such words of future hope. They join the gospel words of the Christian tradition we say stands in continuity that speak also of future hope. Yet we live now, in this time when things are not aligned according to what we imagine divine vision is.

 

Does this impact what we expect of God? Looking back we trace the arc of our scripture and see how God’s been in the life of the faithful and in the world. We look forward as we hear promises of God’s restoration of world that’s to come. We look around our world today and find it hard to imagine God presence here. This world too broken and hurtful, too messy and complicated to coexist with divine presence. We humans are too overrun with our own importance, bent on the destruction of creation for it to be true that God is here. We find it hard to imagine some divine presence as active, real, tangible, and provably able to make any difference.

 

Easily God becomes an optional extra, a nice accessory but not a fundamental requirement for and of life. Is this because we’ve come to fit God to our expectations of what right living, of justice, of righteousness will look like? Because we don’t see things the way we imagine they’d be if God was here then we interpret this to mean that God as largely absent? Surely, when everything’s made good and beautiful, bountiful and full of life then is proof God is here.

 

What if God is here? It is we who fail to recognise such presence because it isn’t what we think it should be. I was struck by the words of a poem by Malcolm Guite on the feast of Christ the King.

 

Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world the he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King. [3]

 

In our in-between time have we come to hold lightly to the possibility of God in real time? Maybe, in this meantime we wait in hope for God to make our world right. I wonder whether this vision of future hope, of divine restoration lulls us to think that ultimately we can’t destroy things. Like a get out of jail free card. So, quietly, we absent our responsibility to grow into the stature of our intended creation. Like children, we expect someone else to provide for us, someone else to clean up after us, someone else to make things all better. Is this our theology? Subconsciously we’re still a little ‘parent God’ dependent? You see it effects how we understand our place, role, responsibility in life, for life. It effects what we expect to find in life now.

 

 

[1] McConville, Gordon. A Guide to the Prophets. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002, 5

 

[2] McConville, 5-43.

 

[3] https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2019/11/23/christ-the-king-3/

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