Cover picture by the Brazilian painter Miguel Sebastião
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hopeT. S. Eliot, East Coker
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; ….
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Advent’s themes revolve around the tension between two fundamentally competing expectations for the coming of the messiah. East Coker is the second poem in T.S. Eliot’s epic The Four Quartets in which he suggests waiting without hope, because invariably hope will be to hope in the wrong thing. It seems Eliot is getting at the distinction here between the action of hoping and the object of our hope.
On Advent Sunday I spoke about the anxieties surrounding hope. Hope’s risky. You might not get what you risk hoping for. What then? When our hope seems to lead to disappointment, is it because we have hoped for the wrong thing as T.S Eliot warns? How do we know whether our hope is for the right or wrong thing?
We all have expectations. Jesus’ fellow Jews had very strong expectations concerning the coming one, the messiah; the age-old, transgenerational hope of the Jewish people. In the 1st-century a small group of Jews came to understand that the coming one – long expected had finally arrived. That in Jesus the messianic age had finally dawned.
However, there was a hitch – how to explain the paradox of a dead messiah? Although there was a wide variety of views among 1st-century Jews as to the messiah’s actual mission, no Jew believed that the essential aspect of the messiah’s mission was to be ignominiously put to death by the foreign oppressors. And so, among the first followers of Jesus the transgenerational expectation became a drama in two acts. In Jesus, God had initiated the messianic age in a first act, yet not completed it until the second act of the messiah’s return. What had begun with the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah would be brought to an end with his return – at which point the transgenerational dream of all Jews would be fulfilled.
Over the centuries, despite paying theological lip service in the creeds- we believe he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and the Eucharistic proclamation –Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again, we, Western mainline, Christians have effectively abandoned any real expectation of the Lord’s return. We no longer live in expectation of Christ’s return – or at least not any time soon. Hence, Advent’s primary focus has come to be on the Incarnation – or act one – Jesus, the coming one. But if we no longer live in expectation of a second act with the Lord’s return –which is the overriding expectation in the New Testament, what, I wonder, have we put in its place?
The early Christian expectation of the Lord’s return as the fulfilment of God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth has been replaced for us by an expectation of joining him in the bliss of eternal life. We no longer expect the Lord to return to join us on this earth. Instead we expect to be transported out of it. Our expectation is that our biological death will usher us into a new and eternal life with God in heaven. The End. Mission accomplished!
When John the baptizer began his firebrand ministry of preaching a baptism of repentance, many flocked to him because he raised expectations of being the coming one. 1st-century Jews all looked forward with real urgency for the arrival of the coming one. Yet, there was not unsurprisingly, a divergence of expectation concerning the coming one’s exact mission.
Many cherished the age-old prophecies that spoke of the messiah’s arrival to inaugurate the glorious repair and restoration of the creation according to the expectation of the prophet Isaiah in our first reading on Advent III.
Viewed from our contemporary perspective there is a strong environmental element to this expectation: the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, and the desert rejoice and blossom – the burning sands will become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water. This is nothing short of a powerful vision of the re-terraforming -a word much beloved in science fiction -of the earth.
There’s also a strong social justice component to messianic age expectation: the eyes of the blind being opened; the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame leaping like deer, and the tongue of the speechless singing for joy.
However, many Jews smarting under the nation’s humiliation at the hands of the Roman occupation, had a more tribal and political expectation of the coming one’s mission. The messiah would arrive at the head of a powerful Jewish rebellion that would drive out the Romans and restore the fortunes of Israel as a proud and independent nation – an exceptional nation under God.
Again, viewed from our context we can only note the long precedent among certain religious factions to hope for the wrong thing by domesticating the divine vision into a political agenda in support of an anxious tribalism.
We catch a wonderful glimpse of these two conflicting expectations for the messianic age in Matthew’s relating of the incident in 11:2-11. John the baptizer, now in prison, seems to be experiencing a growing doubt and uncertainty concerning Jesus. Languishing in prison and receiving the reports of Jesus activities from his own disciples, did John begin to question his belief in Jesus as the coming one? Could it have been that he had made a mistake?
John thus dispatches his disciples to question Jesus: are you the one or should we expect another? We can speculate about the roots for John’s doubt – as his own previous firebrand tendencies reveal, it’s likely he’s looking for a more muscular messiah. What seems clear for John is that Jesus is not fulfilling expectations!
As we have come to discover, Jesus like a wily politician never answers a direct question. Here, he avoids getting into the nitty gritty of competing messianic expectations – of making a reasoned justification in an attempt to allay John’s doubts. Instead, he simply sends John’s disciples on their way- instructing them to tell John what they see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the poor have good news brought to them.
In this exchange we see which side in the competing expectations about the messiah’s mission, Jesus takes. His, is not the expectation of a tribal nationalist messiah. In simply reminding John of the prophetic expectations for the messiah by quoting Isaiah, Jesus’ rebuke is clear.
The 1st-century’s competing messianic expectations encapsulated so clearly in the exchange between Jesus and John are alarmingly alive and kicking today among America’s Christians. White evangelicals -who incidentally expect the Lord’s return by 2050 – passionately embrace John’s desire for a Jesus with a different – more militantly tribal, racially pure, and nationalistic messiahship. Jesus refuses to embrace this kind of messianic mission. From the heady standpoint of a fusion between faith and politics among the 1st-century equivalent of the white evangelical right – the Sadducees, some Pharisees, and the entire Zealot movement -this is the point at which Jesus starts out on the road to ultimate failure.
This Advent we experience the clash between prophetic and nationalist expectations of the messiah’s rule. Has the messiah come in strength to restore traditional tribal and nationalist ambitions through force of political coercion at home and military power abroad? Or has the messiah, in vulnerability and humility come to announce the prophetic expectation of social justice and environmental protection that signal the kingdom’s inbreaking?
This Advent, do we – Christians of the so-called mainstream, which as a term is now something of a misnomer- continue to ignore the New Testament’s two act messianic expectation in favor of a single act version – to live with our eyes firmly fixed on the reward of heavenly bliss? Our answer to this question will determine which of two very different sets of consequences we choose to understand the work of being Christian in today’s world.
To return to my earlier question: how do we know whether our hope is for the right or wrong thing? Is our hope placed in the expectation of ultimately escaping our present material reality into heavenly bliss – and in the meantime, turn a blind eye to social injustice and environmental degradation because when the Lord returns he’s going to burn up the world with his heavenly wrath anyway? Or do we place our hope in an expectation of the redeeming of material reality as not only our future hope in God putting what is currently wrong to rights – but also the blueprint for understanding our present responsibilities in real time?
Huge consequences for how to live in the present flow from the expectations for which in Advent we wait in hope. Ah there’s that prickly waiting word again. How will we know whether our hope is for the right or the wrong thing? If it’s hope in the waiting that collapses our future hope into present reality, the real time fruits of our hope will become abundantly clear.