Sunday Dec 8th Advent 2
Like Advent itself OT prophecy often has more than one focus and fulfilment. I can remember in the early days of charismatic renewal the passage from Joel 2 about God pouring our his Spirit was much bandied around. We could explain the current wave of phenomena by looking back to the prophecy and saying ‘This is that’ which was spoken by the prophet. Yet that was exactly what the Apostles said on the Day of Pentecost to explain what was going on. Clearly Pentecost was the fulfilment of Joel 2, but it didn’t exhaust its meaning, and much later generations could claim that what they were seeing was exactly what Joel had foretold. (There’s a great PhD for someone – the history of interpretation of Joel 2:28-32.)
This passage from Isaiah also seems to have that (at least) dual focus. It begins sounding suspiciously like one of the famous ‘Servant Songs’ which appear later. It suggests that someone (or some renewed nation, or some faithful remnant …) will appear to work on God’s agenda for the world, empowered by his Spirit. But then there is a leap in the logic, and no doubt the chronology, to that time when nature itself will have been renewed, as manifested by the lack of desire to eat each other. Whilst the church has understood the first bit as having been fulfilled by Jesus (indeed passages like this must have informed Jesus’ self-understanding as he read them whilst growing up), we clearly can’t claim that as a result of the incarnation it’s safe to let your kids play in the snake pit or the lion’s cage. During Advent we telescope different results of the coming of Christ into a multi-layered celebration, just as this passage does.
But the real question is what we do about it. This passage invites our gaze to fall on the distant horizon as well as the immediate situation. It inspires us with a future vision, but it also has a moral dimension to it. If we are to be working with the coming King, to whom as in last week the nations will one day stream, then we have to be engaged in his work now, for the needy and broken and against wickedness and injustice.
There are two equal and opposite errors which beset the Christian church. One is to sit and wait (prayerfully, of course) for God to come and sort our world out for us, smash the baddies and distribute harps and clouds. The other is to believe that by our own efforts we can sort out all the problems of the world. There is much we can do, but we look for the time when God himself will appear and complete fully what we have tried partially to do. Isaiah encourages us to resist both these temptations. In the words of the Advent Sunday postcommunion:
… make us watchful and keep us faithful …
that, when he shall appear,
he may not find us sleeping in sin
but active in his service
and joyful in his praise.
I’ll be thinking further about this in my new Wednesday blog starting this week: What is church for? #whatschurchfor