Saturday, June 4, 2016

Weird Hope

In That Day

In that day you will say,
“I will praise you, O LORD.
Although you were angry with me,
your anger has turned away
and you have comforted me…”
Isaiah 12:1

            The reader of this verse naturally asks, “What day? What is this ‘day’ the of which the prophet speaks?”  And: “Who is the ‘me’?  To whom is the prophecy addressed?”  The answers, as one would expect, are in the text proceeding, in chapter 11.  There, Isaiah prophesies of “a shoot from the stump of Jesse,” on whom the Spirit of God will rest.  The “shoot” or “Branch” will judge justly, slaying the wicked and delivering the poor.  The prophecy is aimed at a community, at Israel; the “me” is the whole nation.  But the promise is not for Israel only.  The whole creation will be redeemed:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them…
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as waters cover the sea. 
In that day, the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples…
Isaiah 11: 6, 9,10

            The “shoot,” the “Branch,” and the “Root” of Jesse are taken by Jews as titles for the messiah to come, and by Christians as titles of Jesus.  The “Day,” then, is the eschatological day of salvation.
            In the biblical worldview, history is moving toward an end, the “Day of the Lord.”  History is not just a random sequence of events, not just one damn thing after another.  Nor is it an endless repetition of reincarnation or cosmic cycles.  The Bible teaches that God will intervene to bring about justice and shalom.  Therefore, hope has always been a crucial virtue for biblical people.  The Day of the Lord has not yet come, so it is a fundamental feature of our lives as believers that we hope for it.
            It is important to see that this forward-looking, hopeful stance toward God’s work in the future predates the New Testament doctrine of resurrection.  Christians are sometimes troubled by the lack of explicit Old Testament teaching about an afterlife.  They have been taught that the whole Bible is God’s book, so they expect Christian doctrine to appear everywhere.  And Christian preachers often feed this expectation by finding prophecies of the messiah all over the Old Testament—and by reading Christian doctrines, such as the doctrine of the resurrection, into Bible passages that say nothing of them.  The fact of the matter is that the Old Testament is ambiguous when it comes to the idea of a personal afterlife.  The notions of individual resurrection and a personal afterlife gained widespread popularity among Jews in the Hellenistic period, roughly 300 BC and after.  In Jesus’ day, resurrection was a matter of theological debate.  The Sadducees, stickers for the actual words of the Torah, denied resurrection.  The Pharisees believed in it.  Jesus, for all his conflict with Pharisees on other matters, sided with them emphatically.
            My point is not to question the doctrine of resurrection.  Jesus’ teaching settles the question for Christians.  The point is that hope was fundamental to Israel’s religion even before belief in resurrection.
            Christians, when thinking about hope, often start with resurrection.  It is entirely appropriate that we do so.  Jesus’ resurrection is at the heart of Christian preaching.  Without the hope of resurrection, Paul says, Christians deserve to be pitied.
            But Christian thinking about hope must not stop with resurrection.  We must be especially careful not to reduce hope to a purely individual matter.  Christianity is not just “Jesus and me, a love story.”  Hope was an integral part of the biblical mindset before belief in individual, personal afterlife.
            Israel hoped—and therefore Christians should hope—for “that day.”  Jesus preached repentance because the “kingdom of God” was near.  Jesus’ term, “kingdom of God” (or “kingdom of heaven”), was rooted in Old Testament promises of the Day.  In Jesus’ ministry the kingdom of God was actually breaking into the world.  When Jesus preached to Palestinian peasants, time was bending; the future Day was present now to those who believed.
            (By Jesus’ “ministry” I mean to include his teaching, his miracles, his deliberate gathering of disciples in anticipation of a death he openly predicted, his crucifixion, and his resurrection.  New Testament theologians often speak of his “ministry” in this inclusive way.)
            What do we hope for, when we hope for “that day”?  First, social justice: a lifting up of the poor and punishment for powerful and rich people who have oppressed them.  This theme echoes in Mary’s prophecy about her son (Luke 1:52-54) and in Jesus’ own preaching (Luke 3:16-21).  It almost goes without saying that the “day” will be a time of righteousness; as Paul says, the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit.
            Isaiah’s prophecy widens our perspective.  “That day” will bring an earth restored; or better, an earth renewed: “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1).  Isaiah envisions predators living in harmony with erstwhile prey, and children playing with wild creatures.  Shalom between people will parallel shalom in the creation.
            A mind-boggling vision, to say the least!  Would a leopard be a leopard if it weren’t a carnivore?  Isn’t meat-eating essential to the form of leopard?  Isaiah’s prophecy presses on our imagination.  How could these things be? 
            For many people, it is just as difficult to conceive of human beings living in peace with each other.  Isn’t egocentricity essential to our being?  We maintain ourselves as selves by excluding the other.  A superficial “peace” can be made by military force, so long as the superior power holds the lesser powers down.  But can there be real shalom?
            I am stressing the “weirdness” of Isaiah’s prophecy to emphasize the thoroughgoing nature of biblical hope.  Biblical hope looks forward to “that Day.”  It is, to use Jonathan Lear’s term, a “radical” hope.  We hardly know how to express it.  We cling to it even in dark times, when the earth seems broken by pollution and society torn by hate.

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