ADVENT 4, A
Isaiah readings for Advent
For all four Sundays of Advent we have read passages from the prophet Isaiah. What does the word “prophet” mean to you? How would you define prophet? What does is mean to prophesy?
Many people today think that to be a prophet is to predict the future. This misconception leads to drastic misunderstandings of the writings of the prophets. So let’s start with some definitions.
In the Biblical tradition of prophesy, prophets had three possible jobs:
- To speak the truth to power: that is to tell rulers and priests and those at the top of society what is wrong with them or with their behavior. Remember how Nathan, the prophet, came to David and told a story of the rich man who stole a poor man’s pet sheep to kill for a dinner for the rich man’s table. By getting him to condemn the rich man in the story, Nathan tricked David into condemning himself for killing Bathsheba’s husband This is speaking truth to power.
- To speak the truth in love to God’s people: that is to point out to the people the errors of their ways. This often includes telling them what might happen if they don’t wake up and fly right. The prophets do a lot of this, especially since God’s people go astray so often.
- To give the people of God hope in dark days. This is the kind of prophesy we have been hearing all through Advent in the readings from Isaiah.
What’s important to understand is that these visions of better times are not meant as exact predictions of the future. They are painting a picture of the possibility of a better life, of a better world.
There has been much, mostly valid, criticism of Christians for reading back into Isaiah and other prophets, predictions of the coming of Jesus. This is very common among us, but it isn’t entirely honest to the text and the context in which it was written.
However, these passages from Isaiah have been read that way, because people can see that if the people who follow Jesus would act like him, the possibilities for a better life are almost limitless. So it makes sense to read these lessons during Advent when we are awaiting the return of the light into the world.
Like most of the other prophets, Isaiah has some dreadful things to say about the nation or the people who have gone astray, but he also has an incredible ability to inspire the people’s hope for the future.
On the first Sunday of Advent, we heard Isaiah’s vision of peace, how Israel would become a teacher of the nations: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
On the second Sunday Isaiah tells us that somehow a shoot will come from the stump of Jesse, who was David’s father. In other words, somehow that Davidic kingdom will be revived. “The spirit of the lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. . .He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” This is a vision of hope not just for the Messiah, but for all who govern. It is the hope of living under a just government.
On the third Sunday, Isaiah assures us that God will come and save us. The desert shall burst forth in bloom, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongues of the speechless will sing for joy. He goes on to describe a highway for God’s people to return to Zion, where sorrow and sighing shall flee away. This is a vision of the world transformed.
And today, we hear about a sign from the Lord – that a young woman is with child and shall bear a son and call him Immanuel, which means, “God is with us,” a hope for God’s presence with us in the world.
All of these Advent readings in Isaiah are of the third type mentioned above – meant to give hope to the people, to provide a vision of better times, of what might be, but not necessarily what will be.
What we’re hearing here is deep hope for the possibility of a better world: a world where the rulers rule with justice and mercy, a world without war, where people no longer suffer, a world where everyone gets along with everyone else, and where sorrow is no more.
This is indeed the hope with which we approach the coming of the Christ child. These hopes expressed by Isaiah in the ancient days of Israel are the same hopes we have for the world today. The life and ministry of Jesus contained many of these hopes as well. He taught us to turn the other cheek and not to seek vengeance. He healed the deaf and the blind and the lame. He told us not to be afraid. He showed us how to make the world a better place to live. He assured us that the kingdom of God was drawing near.
What we know that the early Christians did not know, is that the coming of Jesus into the world has not yet, even after 2000 years, made the world significantly better. Isaiah’s visions have not yet come to be. Jesus could only show us the way, could only start the process of redemption. He could not finish it by himself. He could only convey to us God’s intentions for us and for creation, showing us by his life and ministry how we might create a new reality. The rest is up to us.
So we need to hear the words of Isaiah, much as the Jews needed to hear them. As people of faith, we approach the birth of Jesus each year with a renewal of hope for the future. Maybe this time. .
Besides this sort of hopeful waiting, it seems to me that there are two ways of dealing with the fact that the visions of Isaiah and the promise of Jesus have yet to become reality. Each of the two ways has adherents in the Christian community today.
One way is to focus on the 2nd Coming as the solution – the final solution to the continuation of evil, injustice, and sorrow in the world. By clinging to this vision of divine intervention by God, one need only continue to believe.
The other way is to understand that we must carry out Jesus’s work in this world, that it’s up to us to live our lives in ways that will make a better neighborhood, that will convince others to do the same, and that if enough of us do this, the ideas will spread and change the world. It isn’t surprising that the first way is the one you hear about on television, but it is not the Anglican way. Creating peace, justice, and good will towards all people on earth is our job. As Steve Schaitberger used to ask us, “What part of all don’t we understand?” And as Tiny Tim said, “God Bless us every one!” Every one means NO EXCEPTIONS! AMEN