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)

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