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1st Sunday of Advent
November 28, 2004
Romans 13: 11-14
What is most striking about the passages selected for the first Sunday of Advent is that none of them deal with the coming of Jesus. The closest, I suppose, is Matthew 24:36-44, but this is talking about the coming of the Son of Man. Whether Jesus actually predicted this event is a matter of dispute among scholars, but the text places these words on the lips of the Jesus who has already come. Unless it is understood as a promise of his own return, the connection of the passage to anticipation of Jesus is very slight. In any case it is not anticipation of the event we celebrate on Christmas.
The other New Testament passage, Romans 13:11-14, is another expression of the keen anticipation of a coming fulfillment on the part of the early Christians. Here, there is even less possibility of connecting the coming event to the coming of Jesus. Jesus had already come. In Paul’s view the faithful participated in Jesus’ faithfulness by participating in Jesus’ suffering, death, and burial. They looked forward to participating also in his resurrection and in his resurrected glory. For the present, the participation in Jesus takes the form of "putting on" the Lord Jesus Christ.
The two passages from the Christian Old Testament are both about Jerusalem. Psalm 122 calls on us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. That is surely as relevant today as it was at the time the Psalm was composed. Isaiah 2:1-5 promises that this prayer will be answered and that the days of Jerusalem’s true glory lie ahead.
Clearly those who have selected these passages for us understand Advent to be the season of anticipation, of expectancy, and hope generally. The content of this hope changes from time to time and from writer to writer. But in all the texts the hope is grounded in faith in God.
It would be easy to be cynical. The hopes for Jerusalem expressed in Isaiah and Psalms, after two and a half millennia, are yet to be fulfilled. The coming of the Son of Man has thus far failed to materialize. There has been no collective resurrection of the sort Paul anticipated.
One might wonder why, after all these disappointments, we should continue to live in anticipation and hope. Some Christians reply that it is simply a matter of time. Eventually every prophecy will be fulfilled quite literally. Some of these Christians discern in current events in Israel/Palestine the beginning of the fulfillment of many biblical prophesies. One may support this line of thought by pointing out that the passage from Matthew emphasizes that no one knows just when the prophecies are to be fulfilled. But for most of us, these moves do not work. Read in their context, these prophecies are not directed to a time thousands of years later. It is clear that the hopes and expectations of Jews and early Christians were repeatedly disappointed.
Does that mean that these passages are simply meaningless to us? For some this is so. But for most of us, they remain powerful and moving. They project diverse visions of a world quite different from the one actually experienced by the writers and equally different from ours today. These visions have inspired many. They have made it possible to find meaning in desperate situations. They have kept Christians bound to the actuality of history, rather than seeking fulfillment in a radically ahistorical way.
Furthermore, the disappointment of hopeful expectations is rarely total. Jerusalem has been rebuilt from time to time. It has had periods of greatness. People today do come from all over the world to Jerusalem, thinking of it as their sacred city. More important, perhaps, hundreds of millions of people have come to live from the sacred history of the Jews in which Jerusalem plays a central role, and although this has not brought the peace of the prophet’s vision, we still see in this history the call to such a peace.
Although there has been no dramatic coming of the Son of Man, and we still have not experienced the collective participation in Jesus’ glorification for which Paul hoped, still the Spirit that was in Jesus has moved hundreds of millions of people in ways Paul could not have imagined. The communities he founded in hope have shaped the history of the planet for good and ill. And these communities still live in hope.
What can we learn from this? We can learn that we human beings are not good at predicting the future. We can learn that the actual course of history is far more ambiguous than are the visions that lure us forward. We can learn, at least we process thinkers have learned, that even God does not control the future or know just what will happen.
But we can learn also that the hope that keeps us going is far deeper and more fundamental to our faith than any particular formulation of its contents. Hope has survived repeated disappointments in the past. It will survive many more in the future. It will do so as long as we believe in the biblical God.
To say that presupposes some things about the biblical God. It presupposes that the biblical God in concerned with history and works in history for peace and for justice. But it presupposes also that God’s working in history does not displace the working of human beings. Those who cling to the idea of divine omnipotence have some difficulty in making sense of these assumptions. Some of them incline toward belief that some day God will exercise that omnipotence to bring about an End that somehow makes sense of all the ambiguities of the past.
We process thinkers believe that this formulation of hope, like so many others, is doomed to disappointment. Process theology proposes a way of understanding God and the world that makes sense of the combination of repeatedly frustrated hopes and the continuation of hope itself. We believe that God’s hopes, also, are repeatedly frustrated. God works in hope for peace and justice, but the world turns to violence and oppression. Still God’s work is not futile. Here and here it succeeds, encouraging the hope for wider and more inclusive success. That success depends on our response to God’s invitation to share in the achievement of God’s purposes. And our hope depends on the assurance that God does not give up on us.
This deep grounding of hope is important for us as I write in the immediate aftermath of the election. Power in our country is being concentrated more and more in the hands of those who exploit the legalistic sexual moralism that is so widely mistaken for Christian teaching. They do so, often cynically, to get support for policies that transfer wealth from the poor to the rich within our nation and, even more, on a global basis. Some envision an American empire in which our culture and our political forms will be adopted everywhere, and our military power will render resistance impossible. Meanwhile they ignore the pressing threats of ecological collapse. Their success puts them in position to shape the judiciary of our land for a generation in such a way that it will serve the interests of the rich rather than justice for all or the defense of the land against human exploitation.
For some who view matters in secular, political terms, there is danger of despair. This morning’s paper reports that Democratic Party analysts judge that next time they must choose a still more conservative candidate. It is not clear that a Democratic victory this time would have redirected our nation’s policies in a very hopeful direction. The success of this party may be even less promising in the future. Yet third parties seem to be excluded from relevance. Realistic projections seem to justify despair.
But for Christians, despair is not an option. It may be difficult to discern promising scenarios with respect to the political scene in this country. But events do not follow our scenarios anyway. Perhaps the power elite will overreach to such an extent that there will be a populist revolt. God’s work breaks through in the most unexpected places.
The Bible is a truly remarkable book. The Jews interpreted their failures and defeats as expressive of God’s purposes. Perhaps we American Christians will learn to do the same.
Perhaps the isolation of the United States and its preemptive imperial policies from the rest of the international community and the centering of that community around the European Union may bring about an international order toward which the United States will not lead, whichever party is in control. Perhaps the financial bankruptcy of the United States, brought about by looting of the treasury for the sake of corporate wealth and unaffordable foreign adventures, despite the hardship it will work on all of us, may serve the purposes of God better than our continued economic dominance.
These are not pleasant thoughts, but they are consonant with many of the prophecies we find in the Bible. The biblical God is not the special God of Americans. Our pride may soon bring on a fall. Perhaps, the sooner the better. And perhaps, our present administration will speed its coming.
I do not mean these comments as predictions. I have usually been wrong when I have tried to anticipate the future. It is not easy to follow the Hebrew prophets in seeing the failures and sufferings of one’s own nation as used by God for positive purposes. I am sure God does not will these failures and sufferings, but I do believe that God finds surprising ways to use even the consequences of human sin to move toward the ends for which God works. Our hope lies in the fact that God is far wiser than are we and that God can work in situations that we judge hopeless to bring new good. Our calling is to remain faithful in hope, even if the progress of God’s purposes is costly to us individually.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D., has held many positions including Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology, Avery Professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Fullbright Professor at the University of Mainz, Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Chicago Divinity Schools. His writings include: Christ in a Pluralistic Age; God and the World; and co-author with Herman Daly of For the Common Good which was co-winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.