Wait with HOPE
Advent 1 2014: Wait with HOPE
Isaiah gives us the voice of pain seeking understanding. Believed to have been written after the Babylonian exile of 586 BCE and before the rebuilding of the temple, their holy site is in ruins, the people are in exile, and they are distressed and cry out: where are you God?
They are waiting for God to act, in painful longing – willing to remind God of the covenant – a bond that cannot be broken. They remind God how fragile our human estate can be, how we are but dirty clay to be molded into something useful. We know as they did that our faith becomes dim in the tears of grief; we know as they did it is hard to hope in the midst of suffering and disaster; and we know as they did how hard it is to love when you feel abandoned, forsaken, and alone.
Advent is our season of waiting and hoping. It is time to prepare our hearts and spirits for God to act.
Humans seek meaning: we want to understand our place in the universe. We want to know where we come from and where we are going. We need others, a few at least, so we form families, communities, nations, federations, unions. We tell stories; some have the status of the sacred. We do rituals that enact the highpoints of life’s journey. In all these ways we mark a continuum across generations and for these reasons religions have persisted throughout human history.
In modernity marked by the Enlightenment, we called everything into question, including religion. The new paradigm was science, empirical data, proof through experimentation, demonstrated truth. Technology was a powerful lure toward the temptation to master nature. And we have continued in this path of progress creating weapons of mass destruction, over-exploiting natural resources, polluting the environment, and depending on genetic manipulation to recreate what we destroy. Market capitalism has exceeded everyone’s prediction in increasing wealth – for some – but has no inherent mechanism to distribute it equitably. These stepping stones of progress in our 21st century technology age cannot be solved by produces because the problems are moral. The human project is a moral project.
Absent religious faith and the skepticism of the Enlightenment project, moral relativism has been popular: you think x, I think y, we are both ok. Moral relativism means all values are relative, no one belief or set of values is superior to others. Relativism however as Fukuyama understood is not a weapon that can be aimed selectively at the enemies we choose. It fires indiscriminately and if all values are merely reflections of culture, then principles such as human equality, dignity, respect, have no grounding. Moreover, relativism fails to give you identity, solidarity with a group, a sense of belonging to something more than yourself. The more we feel identity with one group, the more violent we are inclined to be toward outsiders. (Francis Fukuyama, The End of History)
After the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries a doctrine of toleration emerged, that give priority to individual conscience. It allowed that people could belong to a civil and political group/nation without holding the beliefs of the majority. It was a move toward faith. Every person should live by the faith that seems true to them; not quite relativism but a strong support for plurality.
Plurality has appeal: it reflects the diversity of creation at the hand of the Creator; it commands honor of creation by respecting diversity of persons. All persons are created in the image of God and therefore human life has dignity that transcends our differences. The test of faith is: to what an extent am I able to make space for difference? Can I recognize God’s image in someone whose language, faith, ideals, are different from mine? What would the regions of the Middle East, the nations along the 10th parallel, be today if people believed we are enlarged not diminished by difference?
The idea of covenant is that it affirms the dignity of difference. The great covenantal relationships between God and humans, between two persons in marriage, between citizens and the nation-states all reflect the recognition that alone we cannot thrive, but as communities valuing collaborative action we do well. Covenants exist because we are different, bringing our individual gifts together we have much more than we possess as individuals.
Covenants are not contracts. A covenant is not limited to specific conditions or circumstances. Covenants are open-ended and long-lasting. Covenants are about the We that gives identity to the I. Covenants recognize that there are different relationships among members: that our relationship to our immediate family is not the same as to our acquaintances; that our commitment to our spouse and children is not the same as to a neighbor miles distant. We have many commitments and at times they come into conflict. It reflects a pluralism that fosters hope because it is founded in the conception that we are different and each of us has something unique to contribute to the shared project of which we are part.
Covenant faith believes that the relationship with God. It is not subject to negation. The relationship I have with God need not exclude others. The partnership extends to those who are living, those who have died, and those yet to be born. It tells us that our horizons are part of the chain of generations. And therefore we have responsibility, horizontally across space, and vertically across time.
Hope is the faith that together we can survive and make things better because the source of action lies within us. We are not unwitting products of blind causes. We are more than the sum of our genes. We are more than a random mutation in the Darwinian struggle for survival. We are more than a member of one class in clash with other classes. We are more than a complex of psychological drives and neurological circuits. Hope teaches us that we have choices.
We have power for good and evil. We have come face to face with the stranger and it makes all the difference whether we find this threatening or enlarging, an occasion for hostility or hospitality. Hope is born when we learn the dignity of difference (Jonathan Sacks: The Dignity of Difference)
Isaiah says, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait. What was it like to be Isaiah, to be in exile, to remind God not to forget the covenant, and wait in hope?
Isaiah asked that God tear the heavens apart and come down: wait, next week you will hear Mark tell us how the heavens were torn apart and the spirit descended accompanied by a voice that said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” So wait with hope.
Mark 13:5-37 is a long speech by Jesus, the longest in Mark. Jesus predicted that “not one stone will be left on another” as he left the temple – leading his disciples across the Kidron Valley to a grove of olive trees. When? they asked. His answer has been called eschatological and apocalyptic, and it is hard to know how much of it is about the Jewish War that destroyed the Temple. The story ends with a parable about the return of an absent master. The Greeks would think of Homer’s Odyssey and the Jews would hear David returning from exile and punishing or rewarding servants who were faithful or not. This bicultural parable underscores the whole speech: rather than forecast when and what the signs are to recognize to clean up the act and be ready or look ready, Jesus focuses on what to do in the meantime. Day by day, hour by hour, year by year: watch, beware, don’t be afraid, don’t worry, learn. The emphasis is to do the will of the master even when he is absent.