Seeing beyond the Facts.

Just the facts

It’s always a little dangerous to allude in a sermon to anything from TV or cinema occurring much before the early 90’s because in a fast changing culture with increasingly diminished memory span, it’s the quickest way to date oneself as irrelevant. So let me explain that one of the oddities about growing up in New Zealand was that because we didn’t get TV until 1960 I grew up on a diet of American TV shows that by the 60’s and early 70’s were often at least 10 or more years old. I mention this to account for the fact it’s not that I am so old, but that I share the same TV memories as a generation of Americans much older than me. So with that qualifying explanation out of the way, some of you may remember Joe Friday, the hero of the long running detective series Dragnet. In what to us now seems an astonishing display of sexism, Friday implored his female witnesses to: give me the facts, Ma’am, just the facts. So here are some facts.

After the death of Solomon the Kingdom of Israel, which his father David had welded together out of the 12 tribes of Israel, split in two, with a northern kingdom of Israel with its capital at Samaria and a southern kingdom of Judah with Jerusalem as its capital. In 721 BCE, the Assyrian army captured the Israelite capital at Samaria and deported the king, nobility, and priesthood of the northern kingdom into captivity. This left only the poorest of the peasantry, who over time intermarried with the foreign peoples around them producing the racially mixed Samaritans we know about from Jesus’ day.

The virtual destruction of Israel left the southern kingdom, Judah, to fend for itself in the whirlwind of warring Near Eastern kingdoms. At the time of Samaria’s fall, there existed two kings in Judah — Ahaz and his son Hezekiah — who ruled as co-regents. Judah existed as a vassal to Assyria during this time and was forced to pay an annual tribute to the powerful empire.

In 715 BCE, following the death of Ahaz, Hezekiah became the sole regent of Judah and initiated widespread religious reforms, including the breaking of religious idols. He re-captured Philistine-occupied lands in the Negev-dessert, formed alliances with Ashkelon and Egypt, and made a stand against Assyria by refusing to pay tribute. In response, Sennacherib attacked Judah, laying siege to Jerusalem.

It’s in this political context that the prophet Isaiah proclaims his extraordinary vision of a future time when out of the ruined and burned stump of the once mighty Davidic kingdom there will spring a new shoot. The new shoot is a metaphorical allusion to the Messiah, the promised one. He will rise up to restore the fortunes of Israel. Last week we heard that when he comes swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. In the midst of impending crisis and destruction, Isaiah dreams of improbable things.

Moving beyond the facts

Today’s first lesson gives us more of Isaiah’s vision of improbable things. Isaiah envisions that:

the wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf and lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

What seems to me to be the most startling thing, another of the facts, as Joe Friday would say, is that Isaiah’s picture is of the Messiah coming not as a mighty warrior, but as a little child. It is not surprising that the early Christians understood this prophecy as a direct reference to Jesus’ birth and therefore, a powerful corroboration of their claim that Jesus was the promised one, the Messiah.

Last week, I noted that the season of Advent invites us to bold expectation, diligent preparation, and courageous and patient waiting. I return to my reference to the great theologian Paul Tillich who said: …if we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait. 

Tillich’s is such an important message for us, for we are a people who no longer believe that we should wait for anything; so powerful is our need for immediate gratification. Consequently, our dreams are too small being too conditioned by so-called reality. In my view one of the characteristics of our current period is that we have lost the courage to dream, seeming to prefer the accommodation with a culture that is increasingly fearful.

So if we only expect the familiar, what we already know, then we are in real risk of bringing about a future that is simply a projection of our past. Expectation by its very nature must be of things that seem to us from our present vantage point improbable if not impossible. Advent reminds us that we must try to live life with more than an expectation of the future as a projection only of what we assume to be possible.  To do otherwise is to remain firmly within the limitation of past experience. In other words expectation is dreaming beyond Joe Friday’s, just the facts Ma’am.

What are we waiting for?

Christianity gives us a trans-generational vision, which is the dream of the coming of the Kingdom of God. It’s a vision that in each generation remains as authentic, valid and true, as it has ever been. Yet, we cannot accept a previous generation’s interpretation of that vision. We must engage with the Christian vision in order to unlock its truth for the particularity of our own time and place. Our Christian vision emerges out of the story of Jesus as Messiah. This story sets the agenda for our present-time where we must work tirelessly in the service of the Kingdom. The significance of the Kingdom of God is that it is both now, and yet to come.

Matthew’s Gospel reading for Advent II introduces us to the character of John the Baptist. John emerges in time and space within the unfolding of our trans-generational vision. In time and space, John is most popularly identified as the cousin of Jesus. In the trans-generational vision John symbolizes the return of the prophet Elijah, whom it was believed had to appear first to announce the arrival of the Messiah. John, in time and space, the cousin of Jesus now steps into Isaiah’s vision as the voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the lord, make his paths straight. The blogger Bruce Epperly brings out the commonality and connections between John’s dream and our dream as he writes:

John dreamed of the peaceable realm and so do we. He never lived to see its full embodiment, but he planted seeds that enabled Jesus to move forward as its messenger and embodiment. John is Advent personified: he embodies the fierce urgency of the now, but not yet. He is impatient with our foolishness and sin, and wants us to be better. As Advent messenger, he knows that salvation occurs through the transformation of one person at a time. This very moment is the right time for us to let go of the past, turn away from our half-heartedness and complicity with injustice, and find a new pathway to God’s peaceable kingdom, one step and one breath at a time.

Our Christian vision has a past stretching a long way back through the prophecies of Isaiah and the other great prophets of Israel into the primal Genesis narratives of creation. This long, trans-generational vision becomes our Christian vision when it finds its anchor point in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus as Messiah. In Christ, God came to dwell within the conditions of the creation. In Christ God has acted once and for all. Yet, once and for all is clearly not realized all in one fell swoop. The meaning of one fell swoop, is to accomplish everything that needs to be done at the same time and in the same moment. The Kingdom is here, and yet, its full meaning only unfolds over time.

Our expectations, if they are Kingdom shaped, will seem to us to be improbable, even impossible because only a Kingdom vision provides the courage and motivation to move beyond the limitations of imaginations conditioned by the familiarity of the past. There is a 21st century chapter in the story of the unfolding of the Kingdom within which we have our crucial role to play.

The prophet Isaiah dreamed of a time when under the leadership of the most vulnerable and fragile of all God’s creatures – a nursing human child – the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. John the Baptist understood that the Kingdom comes with a fierce urgency, with no time to waste. We dream our way forward guided by the expectations of the Kingdom unfolding through our welcoming it. To welcome the Kingdom means turning away from our half-heartedness and complicity with injustice, finding a new pathway to God’s peaceable kingdom, one step and one breath at a time (Epperly). 

Paul Tillich reminds us if we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait. Alice Miller, one of the great psychologists of the 20th century echoes Tillich when she says we are who we have been waiting for. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot: that which we hope and long for is made real only in the waiting (T.S.Eliot in East Coker). Expecting, preparing, waiting is our work in the season of Advent.

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