December 01, 2010
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
It wasn’t surprising on that November night two years ago when people poured out onto the streets of our San Francisco neighborhood cheering and beating pots and pans after the media called the election for Barack Obama. What was surprising was the way that Obama’s election resounded in many corners of the country far less blue than this Left Coast City. Not since the 1960s had both Virginia and North Carolina gone Democratic.
No matter one’s view of Obama then or now, the fact of his election revealed a welling up of desire for the healing of centuries-old divides in race and politics. It highlighted the longing of many Americans for someone who could transcend the politics of entrenched despair and usher in a different way of relating, a politics of hope.
Two years later, it’s clear that a politics fueled only by hope in American optimism and virtue cannot come close to surmounting fundamental human divisions animated by greed and suspicion. Human rulers, even ones committed to civility and reflection, do not possess the authority or skill to mend these deep rifts. Two years later, the longings remain, but now submerged, muted and dormant.
While these longings may have been misplaced, Advent tells us that they were far from wrong. Advent tells us that such longings are ancient and decidedly fitting for the people of God.
Into a similarly barren political and moral landscape, Isaiah prophesies a new day for a royal line sputtering along on the fumes of a promise made long ago. David’s lineage has long been bankrupt of legitimacy. Yet Isaiah dreams God’s dream of a righteous ruler born of Jesse, one who will defend the vulnerable against the predatory ways of the wicked and enact the Lord’s justice and truth. The coming king will not yield to the manipulations of the powerful or cater to those who contribute the most to the party’s campaign coffers. Empowered with the Spirit’s discernment, he will speak forth justice for those without social or economic leverage.
But Isaiah’s dream of a new day doesn’t end here. So just and true is the coming king’s rule that it rectifies not only the realm of human relations but the entire created order as well! There is peace among species that have been at each other’s throats since Genesis 3:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the kid,
The calf and the lion and the fatling together,
And a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
Their young shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
When God’s appointed ruler is enthroned, all creation is brought into such loving communion that even the most carnivorous predator will learn to be a vegan and enjoy it!
This may sound like a pipe dream. But Paul the Apostle declares that this ancient dream has come to fruition. The day of hope has come, for Jesse’s root has risen to rule the Gentiles (Romans 15:12). While Isaiah sees only the eventual emergence of the coming king (“he shall stand”), the Greek translation cited by Paul signals something far more startling. It employs the word regularly utilized for “resurrection” and thus ignites Paul’s proclamation that Christ’s rising from the dead actualizes apocalyptic day of hope. “The Lord of our longing has conquered the night,” declares the lyrics of the Catholic hymn City of God. God has fulfilled the longing of Israel and the nations, and so Paul proclaims Christ as Lord of the nations to those who live under the nose of that Roman pretender, Caesar.
But this is far from revolutionary ideology or political theory. For Paul, all politics is local.
Therefore, the politics of hope begin at home, in the church, and around the table. The weak and the strong shall sit together at table and not devour each other with their condescension and condemnation. They can now eat together without qualms about each other’s dietary restrictions or voting affiliations.
Under Caesar and American liberalism, the best humanity can hope for is to maintain a sham unity enforced by power. When we bump up against intractable differences, the most we can practice is a tolerance that allows us to coexist but at a safe distance from one another. “Peace” is won through enforced division.
But under the reign of the coming king, the people of God are liberated from merely tolerating each other, from practicing that forced cordiality that plagues too many of our relationships in the church, and from mouthing that nonsense that we are all the same on the inside.
Christ did not die for generic people; he died as a servant of the circumcised and to fulfill God’s promises to the Hebrew people. Christ did not live at a safe distance from others so that everyone could go on pleasing themselves; he denied himself so that the Gentiles might be grafted and join a redeemed Israel in praising God with one voice. Therefore, we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us. We see that we could never be whole without each other, even in—and because of—our differences. We disturb the powers, liberal and imperial, when people who have no business eating together share one table. Our little welcomes are deeply interpersonal and vastly public, political, and apocalyptic at the same time. Paul’s politics of hope is practiced in the near and now.
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant us to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together we may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.