Sunday, December 11, 2011

Advent Reflections II: Exile & Promise in Isaiah

Obviously a full treatment of exile & promise throughout the whole book of Isaiah could fill several volumes. I have been looking at chapters 40-44 today (which could also serve as material for much more than a blog post) and thinking about them as an Advent text.

This morning was the first time I've turned on Handel's Messiah this year. The oratorio begins with Yahweh calling his prophet to declare comfort to his people. This is as good a thematic distillation of Advent as any--God's chosen people in pain, waiting for his promised comfort to come to fruition. Handel made a canny choice in his prologue, apparently grasping the primal appeal of the Messiah--comfort. It recalls Christ's promise of rest for the weary, of the Father's pledge to wipe every tear from our eyes. This comfort is best understood not as an explanation for the existence evil, but rather a concrete response to it. The over-arching theme of Scripture shouts, "God has acted for us!" This was my inspiration for opening my bible to Isaiah 40 today.

As I was reading through the following chapters, it struck me how knowing just a little context about the material illuminated a clear narrative unity. I have most often heard different selections from these chapters preached or expounded as though they were a jumble of disparate oracles to be applied in ways separate from each other. Rather, they fit together to address Israel's exile to Babylon, the idolatry that led her there and the respite Yahweh desired to bring to his people. Once I picked up on this in the first chapter, I was fascinated and kept reading.

God's prophetic purpose here seems to be to encourage his people in exile to continue their devotion to him despite their history of idolatry and their enslavement to the pagan Babylonians. Like the apocalypses of Daniel and Revelation, Isaiah wants to turn the tables on the evil empire: it is not Babylon, her idols and her "king of kings" that are in charge. Yahweh is in charge. The LORD is king.

"Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? ...It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing" (40:21-22).

God is in charge and Israel, though they have been judged and exiled, remains his people. "'I have chosen you and not cast you off'; do not fear, for I am with you" (41:9-10). In theology we call this "election" or "predestination" (I prefer the former); I think it is better to forget the controversial baggage of these terms and grasp them with warm-hearted enthusiasm as the bounteous kindness of God, who called forth a people for himself not because they were special but because he would make them special. It is thereby that we can understand how God can exile Israel yet remain faithful to her, how the whole story of the Old Testament proclaims the grace of the God who was faithful to an unfaithful people. We tell ourselves this story not to say we are better than the Jews, but because we should know that we are no better than them (cf. Rom. 11:17-24).

Israel, as a sort of test-case for humanity at large, showed through its unfaithfulness that the human race was unable to answer and resolve the problem of evil and the tragedy of our alienation from God. God's response comes in 41:25 and following--a divinely-called deliverer, a "servant". Cyrus of Persia (45:1) would in the nearer future physically deliver back to her homeland between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, yet they would remain dominated by foreign and pagan powers (read your Apocrypha, children) and finally Christ would come to enact the return from exile which no one expected: "This is the king of the Jews" (Mk. 15:26).

Yahweh makes it clear, however, that Israel's purpose extends beyond serving as "Exhibit A" in his case against humanity. "You are my witnesses," he declares, "and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me" (43:10). Israel not only proved humanity's sinister frailty, but also learned the strength of God's steadfast love: "I, I am Yahweh, and besides me there is no savior" (43:11). Israel's long and winding road formed a people who preserved a key theological insight for recognizing God in the flesh: only God can save. Their past, namely the deliverance from Egypt (43:16-17), points to the future:

"I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert" (43:18-19).

The first glimmer of hope.

Here is the comfort of Israel: God has saved, God will save. "O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me" (44:21). So the people of God, despite their dire situation in Babylon, will not benefit from idols, from man-made contrivances masquerading as saviors. They need not believe they are abandoned to the cruelty of Babylon. "Return to me," he pleads, "for I have redeemed you" (44:22). God, for Israel. By extension, God for the world.

The Advent season is a time for us to remember that while Christ has effectively brought an end to exile through his death and resurrection the world yet remains full of sin, suffering and the evil powers that foster them. In the face of loss, economic hardship, sickness or whatever might trouble us, it will always be tempting to believe that "Babylon" is in charge. When contemporary society frames Christianity as bigoted or irrelevant or nonsensical, it is tempting to believe that the idols of money, sex and power are what really count. Advent is a time to remember that affirming the lordship of Christ does not mean escaping from the very real problems which surround us.

I am reminded again of Simeon and Anna at the beginning of Luke, two faithful Israelites who lived long lives only to be introduced to the infant Savior in their twilight years. They are models for the people of God living among powerful idolaters (in their day the Romans and their Herodian puppet kings). We too stand between God's past and God's future, remembering the vindication of the resurrection yet groaning in anguish until his glorious return.

Try and hear these oft-cited words with me as Anna and Simeon would have heard them: as people standing in the painful middle between God's promises and their fulfillment.

"Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Yahweh,
and my right is disregarded by my God’?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Yahweh is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint"

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