Friday, December 24, 2010

Hoping Against Hope

I’ve often wondered why God kept the Israelites waiting so long.  The Exile began in 586 B.C.E. when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and everything in it, including Solomon’s temple, killed a lot of the people and carted off to Babylon a lot of the rest of the population, including the Davidic king.  Since God had promised that David’s kingship would be eternal, the people immediately began looking for a restoration of the kingdom with one of David’s descendants on the throne.  Almost six hundred years later, they were still waiting.  Why did God wait so long?  Six hundred years just seems excessive.  Even if the Exile was punishment for Israel’s collective sin—their idolatry, their forsaking God, their exploitation of their own poor citizens, including their own widows and orphans—surely a couple of hundred years was a long enough punishment, wouldn’t you think?  After all, after just a couple of generations everyone who participated in those collective sins was gone.  What is the point of continuing to punish the great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren of the perpetrators?
But that wasn’t the first time that God waited a long time.  The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for over 200 years before God sent Moses to deliver them.  That’s only one-third as long as the Exile, but there’s an important distinction—the Exile was caused by Israel’s sin, but the Israelites were in Egypt by Joseph’s and the Pharaoh’s invitation, and they were made slaves when a new Pharaoh was threatened by their burgeoning population.  You’d have thought that God would have done something about their slavery almost immediately—and yet he waited 215 years to deliver them.  (Some of you—and I know who at least some of you are—are ready to send me an email pointing out that the Israelites were in Egypt 430 years, but the 430 years refers to the period between the establishment of the covenant with Abraham and the deliverance from Egypt.  See Paul’s reckoning in Galatians 4:16-17.)
Why the wait?  That’s always bothered me.  Maybe it’s because in order to get people to believe that God can do the impossible, they have to be put in positions where the impossible is the only solution.
This is the same God who isn’t content to have a couple in their sixties have a baby.  As impressive as that might have been, it wouldn’t have been as impressive as a couple in their seventies, right?  In 2008 a 70-year-old woman gave birth to twins, and she is considered to be the oldest woman to have given birth.  But that’s not enough for God, because, as unlikely as it is, it obviously isn’t impossible, and God doesn’t want to be known merely as the “God of the Unlikely.”  No, God promises a childless couple, Abraham and Sarah, when they are around 75, that they will have a son, and then makes them wait 25 years before he is born.
And here is what Paul says about the faith of Abraham: Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become "the father of many nations,” according to what was said, "So numerous shall your descendants be."  He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb.  No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.  Therefore his faith "was reckoned to him as righteousness."  Romans 4:18-22)
For Paul, faith was “hoping against hope”, believing, not when things were merely bleak and there was little basis for hope, and deliverance was unlikely, but when things were at their darkest, completely and utterly hopeless, and there was no chance for deliverance.
These were the circumstances into which Jesus was born.  After a hundred years of exile, people probably started wondering if God was going to keep his promises.  After two hundred years, they probably decided he had forgotten them.  After three or four hundred years, the Messiah was probably just an abstract theological concept—something everyone believed in as a matter of doctrine but only the fanatics truly expected to happen in real life.  After five hundred years?  No hope, no real expectation, only a resigned acceptance of the reality of darkness.
It is into this world that the light is born, for God is not the God of the unlikely, but the God of the impossible, the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”  (Romans 3:17)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Peace Sign

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
This verse is well-known to anyone familiar with the story of the birth of Jesus, yet it doesn’t come from any of the Gospels, and it’s not about Jesus.
The verse is Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah is the speaker and he is speaking to Ahaz, King of Judah, who has received word that the king of the northern kingdom, Israel, and the king of Syria are forming an alliance to attack Jerusalem.  It shall not happen, Isaiah tells Ahaz.  The head of Syria is King Rezin, and the head of Israel is King Pekah…and just leaves that thought hanging.  The implication is “…and the head of Judah is…God.”  But then Isaiah issues a warning to Ahaz: “If you stand firm in faith.  If you don’t stand firm in faith, you won’t stand at all.”  Isaiah isn’t telling Ahaz to be true to his doctrinal positions regarding the nature of God.  He’s not telling him be believe certain facts about God without compromise.  That’s nothing.  Isaiah is telling Ahaz not to go to war and defend himself, but to trust that God will take care of things.  That’s fairly easy to do in theory, but when your enemies are gathering armies, joining forces and heading your way, that’s another story.
We don’t know whether Ahaz believed Isaiah—believed God—or not, but he readied his army.  If that would seem to indicate unbelief, one might say he was just being prudent.  “I believe God, but I have a responsibility as king to protect the people and to be prepared for any situation.”  What he believed is ultimately irrelevant; it’s what he did that matters.  If he went against his instincts, his deep belief in what was going to happen if he didn’t defend himself, and then didn’t ready his army—now that’s faith.
So God sent Isaiah to Ahaz a second time.  Isaiah tells him to ask God for a sign,  any sign, as assurance to God is serious about protecting him.  But Ahaz’s mind is made up, and he refuses to ask for a sign.  With false piety he says, “I will not put the LORD to the test.”
You know, if God tells you to put him to the test, you better put him to the test.
But Ahaz refuses, and Isaiah responds:
"Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
The birth of this child would be a sign that God was on the side of Judah in this conflict and wouldn’t allow the invasion to take place.  Sure enough, a few months later Pekah and Rezin were dead and Assyria had deported a large section of the populations of their kingdoms.  It’s unclear from the context who the child was whose birth was to be a sign to Ahaz, but the best scholarly consensus points to Hezekiah, who would succeed Ahaz as King of Judah.  (Hezekiah was one of the few kings of the divided kingdom to receive a favorable evaluation in the book of Kings.)  But the ambiguity of the text allowed later generations after the Exile to look to this passage and see the coming of a future king whose birth would signal that God had forgiven the unfaithfulness that led to the exile of both halves of the divided kingdom.  Through this king God would establish an eternal kingdom, and there would be peace.
Matthew tapped into this understanding when he applied this verse to Mary and Jesus.  This eschatological interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy was based on the conviction of the early Christians (even before Matthew wrote his gospel) that in Jesus God is actually present with his people.
One wonders if, in the expectation that there would be peace in this kingdom, the people understood that it would be a peace that comes not from having mighty armies readied to defend against all others, but rather from trusting that God would protect them.  Apparently not, because many who believed in his lifetime that Jesus was indeed this king still carried swords in anticipation of the ultimate and final conflict. 
But Jesus understood, and told Peter—and the rest of us—to put his sword away.  The Kingdom of God operates differently from the kingdoms of the world.
During Advent, Christians are called to radical faith.  In the midst of all the uncertainties of life, when we are confronted with the outbursts of war and violence, faith and trust in God anchors our lives and helps us stand firm and not fall.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Nobody Branch

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead."  Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.  There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."
Matthew 2:23

Part of the birth narrative of Jesus is the flight to Egypt to escape the murderous plans of King Herod.  In this passage we see Joseph returning to Israel and settling his family in Nazareth, in fulfillment, Matthew says, of the prophets that Messiah would be “called a Nazorean.”
Um, , okay, except we kinda can’t find anywhere where any prophet, much less prophets, said any such thing.
In fact, the city of Nazareth isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament, much less anyone being from there.  It was such an obscure, backwater village that Josephus, writing in the decades immediately following Jesus’ death, didn’t even include it in a list of towns in Galilee.  Nazareth wasn’t just Nowhere, it was the other side of Nowhere.  And nowhere can we find a mention that the Messiah would be a Nazorean.  Some have speculated that Matthew is claiming that the Messiah would be a Nazirite like Samuel or Samson, one who was consecrated and set apart of life-long sacred duty; yet no Old Testament passages claim this for the Messiah either.
Some have suggested that, because Nazareth was a Nowhere town, anyone from there must by definition be a Nobody, and this is what Matthew is claiming—that the prophets said that the Messiah would be a Nobody.  This suggestion has some merit.  Isaiah 53:2 says this of the Messiah: “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
And the first part of that verse perhaps points us in a new direction as well.  One of the Hebrew words for “branch” is nezer, which both written and spoken is close to the word for Nazarite, nazir, which can also be translated as “an untrimmed vine” (as in Leviticus 25:5, 11).  I know this sounds like a stretch, but this kind of word-play is exactly the kind of thing that Hebrew writers liked to do.  So perhaps Matthew is evoking images of the Messiah being a branch that is consecrated for sacred services, and that is an image that is certainly attested to in the prophets, perhaps no more clearly than this passage from Isaiah which is often used as an Advent reading:

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  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.  His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
Isaiah 11:1-3

The stump is the fallen Davidic monarchy, cut down and sent into exile, and Isaiah is prophesying that, in his mercy, God has not washed his hands completely of sinful Israel.  Out of David (Jesse was David’s father) would someday come a righteous king who would rule with fairness.  With the righteous King would come a righteous Kingdom, which would encompass all Creation, so that there would be peace at last:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
Vss. 6-10

So Matthew means for this little phrase, “He will be called a Nazorean,” which we have always taken to mean merely that Jesus came from Nazareth, to mean so much more.  Jesus comes onto the scene as a nondescript little shoot from some stump out in the middle of nowhere, yet that little shoot will grow to be a mighty tree, king of the forest.  And his coming signals the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, which itself starts out as small as a mustard seed, “but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."  (Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 13:32, emphasis mine.)
And in Isaiah’s vision, this kingdom isn’t just for the benefit of a few insiders, it’s for all creation.  Everyone’s invited.
Even Nobodies from the other side of Nowhere.