Hope Is A Seed

Advent hope

The Old Testament lesson for Advent Sunday comes from the voice we know as the Third Isaiah,[1] writing in the 6th-century BCE during the return of the Exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem.

Like all Biblical texts, the writer has a context, writing for a specific audience facing real challenges as they live out their lives along the horizontal axis of time. Despite recognizing the contextual origins of Biblical texts, the reason they have been preserved and why we still refer to them is because they are regarded as sacred. In the Episcopal Church, we understand this to mean that they have a capacity to speak truth across time, beyond their context of origin. The sacred quality of Biblical texts lies in the way they form part of a transgenerational story.

Third Isaiah writes in a context of tension between national and global-transnational perspectives. Themes of immigration and border control; anxieties about racial and religious purity; questions concerning land ownership and community identity are among the deep currents that run through the period addressed by Third Isaiah. The particularity of this undercurrent of tension makes the voice of Third Isaiah particularly relevant for our hearing this Advent season.

The future, more pointedly a hope for the future, runs to the core of what the Advent Season of a new Church year is all about.

Historical context 

When Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 BCE he transplanted only the upper echelons of Judah’s society to Babylon, leaving the bulk of the peasantry to eek out lives amidst the ruins. With the destruction of Judah, other people migrated in to fill the vacuum left. Cyrus the Great, the Persian conqueror of the Babylonian Empire, in 539 decreed that the Exiles in Babylon could return to Judah. The Exiles, returning in several waves of migration came face to face with the Jewish-mixed race remnant who at first welcomed but eventually came to resent and oppose their return.

In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we get a clearer picture of the multiple tensions between the Jewish remnant, the neighboring peoples with vested interests, and the returning Exiles. For 70 years, the remnant and neighboring peoples had comprised the Persian province of Beyond the River – the river referring to the Euphrates. From the provincial capital at Damascus, they claimed control of Jerusalem and the land that had once comprised the kingdom of Judah. They represented a powerful political force that continually lobbied Cyrus against the returnees.

The voice of the prophet known as Third Isaiah is characterized by what on the surface seems to be a more global -universalist vision. The return of the Exiles would usher in a new age in which all nations would stream to worship God on his holy hill of Zion at Jerusalem. Yet, he also speaks with the voice of the Exiles who beneath the universalist vision harbored ruthless nationalist intentions of exclusion in the interests of religious and racial purity.

The paradox is that the returnees were the beneficiaries of the global multinational vision of the empire and at the same time were the ones insisting on a purist nationalist identity for themselves. We learn in Nehemiah of their rejection of the help offered by the remnant peoples in rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple; only the exilic community was to be allowed to perform this task. We learn in the book of Ezra of the extent to which the exilic community feared and despised the remnant because of their globalist-transnational outlook and their inter-racial accommodations.

The Scribes had spent the period of captivity editing old and writing new sacred texts to hone an exclusive monotheism. Now back in Jerusalem, Ezra and the Scribes around him demanded the divorce and expulsion of all foreign wives taken by Jewish men along with the children born to these interracial marriages; an action even from this distance resonates for with ethnic cleansing.

In Chapter 64, Third Isaiah struggles to make sense of his world. He notes how the Jews needed to remember the great things that in the past God had performed among their ancestors. He also notes their need to remember that it was through unfaithfulness that God had abandoned them. He thus arrives at a significant realization. He writes that we all have become unclean. All our deeds like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and like a wind, our iniquities take all of us away. Kristen Wendland commenting on this text observes that:

When one reads this passage in Hebrew, one is struck by the repeated phrase “all of us” (kulanu). In the NRSV the phrase appears as “we all” (vs. 6a, 6b, 8, 9) but is less obvious than in Hebrew where the word hangs on somewhat awkwardly at the ends of the phrases. We are like one unclean — all of us (vs. 6a). We drooped like a leaf — all of us (vs. 6b). We are the work of your hand — all of us (vs.8). Consider, we are your people — all of us (vs. 9). 

We don’t know who Third Isaiah had in mind as included in the phrase all of us, but contrary to events of the time it presents the possibility for inclusion rather than exclusion.

Contemporary context

So far, I have outlined what we know of the context into which the prophet Third Isaiah’s voice sounded. It’s a voice in which we detect the struggle between national and multinational interests, a tension between racial and religious purity, and a universal message of inclusion.  Yet, in interpreting sacred text we need to pay perhaps more attention to the way we hear this voice speaking into our own context. How do we hear the prophet’s words today?

Among the nations of the global West, we find ourselves facing an unprecedented rise in the tensions similar to those faced by Third Isaiah and the returning exilic community in the 530’s BCE. We appear to be coming to a crucial point in the post-war period’s vision of an increasingly global society of blurred national and ethnic interests in the service of economic realignment and multicultural assimilation. Of course in the US, this post-war trajectory emerges seamlessly out of a national culture built upon the vision of the nation defined as a melting pot of hitherto national, racial, and religious differences.

This period of post-war global-internationalist expansion has triggered a nationalist, and protectionist backlash. Within the US, we witness the alarming resurgence of older tribal and racial identities. We are uncomfortable recognizing that these have always persisted beneath the surface of the melting pot vision. Are we at the end of the post-war liberalism and in transition to something else? No one can really know as the future is yet to become clearly defined.

As with Third Isaiah, all we can do is, with as much honesty and repentance as we can muster, face up to our helplessness in the search for quick solutions to the deep and complex issues of our time.  This is not a counsel of despair. Third Isaiah precedes us to this place. He proclaims an image of humanity as clay with God as potter, molding and shaping us into our future:

Yet, O Lord you are our God: we are the clay, and you are our potter, we are the work of you hand … consider that we are your people.

Advent hope

The future, more pointedly a hope for the future, runs to the core of what the Advent Season of a new Church year is all about.

Advent is the season during which we focus with special intensity on hope. Hope is a quality of the eternal. Hope is hope because it’s the focus on something that is not yet arrived.

Hope is the capacity to project into the future an expectation of something better than what we already have. Yet we have no direct control over how to make our hopes real. But without hope, we will lack the necessary compass settings, without which we will remain lost, having no predetermined direction of travel.

In Advent, our immediate object for our hope is the birth of Jesus. The nativity of Jesus opens upon a deeper truth of God revealed as the Incarnation – the reason for all our hope- the point of intersection between the dimensions of time and eternity.

Hope’s contours

  • The first is that compared or optimism hope appears to be audacious and unrealistic. Optimism is a reading of the evidence as fortuitous. There is always evidence for optimism. Whereas there is no evidence for that, which is hoped for. Yet hope persists.
  • The second is that hope is life-giving because it is sustained by our experience of loss. The pain and suffering of loss become the energy and engine for the projection of hope. Hope is the capacity to project into the future an expectation of something better than what we already have. Hoping is not just wishful thinking, a wouldn’t it be nice, kind of sentiment. Hope requires grit and courage. Arising in the face of confusion and adversity, hope is the determination to not settle for that, which is less than life-giving. Therefore, hope costs.
  • That for which we hope is already present to us through the action of hoping. Therefore hope realizes itself.

Adversity seeks to bury hope little realizing that hope is a seed.

 

[1] The book of Isaiah comprises three different voices writing amidst three periods of crisis spanning a period of 250-300 years


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