Today, December 1, 2012, is the first day of Advent (the 24 day anticipation of Jesus’ coming or arrival). Advent simply means coming or arrival, and the nuance of the term coming is appropriate. Coming can refer to the historical event of Jesus’ first advent, the current remembrance of the incarnation or the future hope we have for Jesus’ second advent. Traditionally, the Advent wreath has five candles, representing Hope, Joy, Peace, Love and Christ. The first candle for this first week represents Hope. As such, Advent is marked from the outset as a season of hope, but what do we hope for?
Following the church calendar and lectionary readings, Isaiah 14 is our Old Testament text for reflection. I want to focus our attention on the first four verses
For the Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land, and sojourners will join them and will attach themselves to the house of Jacob. And the peoples will take them and bring them to their place, and the house of Israel will possess them in the Lord’s land as male and female slaves. They will take captive those who were their captors, and rule over those who oppressed them. When the Lord has given you rest from your pain and turmoil and the hard service with which you were made to serve, you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon:
If you were to ask the average evangelical, “Why do we hope during the Advent season?” I suspect most would talk about the love of God sending his Son to Earth so that he might become human and die on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. Reading the Isaiah passage at the start of Advent helps us realize that this standard account of hope is missing something. It does not fail in what it affirms, but it fails in what is forgets to affirm.
Isaiah, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is addressing the covenant people of God to whom God made very specific promises. To Abraham he promised a people, a land for those people, and for his people to become a blessing to the nations. To David he promised a kingdom and a descendant to rule on the throne forever. By the time of the prophets God’s covenant people had failed to fulfill their covenant obligations, and after abiding patiently for just over 400 years after the Davidic Covenant, God finally wiped out the nation of Judah, destroyed the city of Jerusalem, razed the temple and dethroned David’s descendant. In Lament, God’s people cried out for relief and restoration. God’s people cried out for the covenant promises to be fulfilled. They hoped, longed and dreamed of God’s deliverance from the enemy in order that they could rejoin the divine life, a life lived in the presence of God.
Isaiah proclaims God’s covenant words to the people, assuring them that he would come and cause a great reversal between Israel and Babylon. In the same dramatic fashion as the original Exodus, the people of God began to long and pray for a New Exodus, a day when God would visit them, forgive them, restore them to the fulness of the life lived in the divine presence. The birth of Jesus signaled that the New Exodus was going to take place for that generation, not unlike the birth of Moses being the start of the first Exodus.
Yes, the incarnation leads to the cross, and, yes, the cross entails, in part, the legal basis for the forgiveness of sin. But to hold this alone as the meaning of the gospel and content of hope is a reductionism, and it fails to see the grandness of God’s rescue plan for his covenant people. It fails to see the incarnation as a means of hope that in Jesus the Messiah God and man dwell together in unified peace. It fails to see the entire teaching and healing ministry of Jesus as necessary for the divine liberation of humanity. It fails to see that the glorious hope we hold is for the New Exodus brought about by one greater than Moses. 2 Peter 1:4 says, “by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature.” Life in, with, by and for the Father, Son and Spirit is our hope. The Father sent, the Son went, the Spirit brings us into communion with them.
As we journey through the 24 days of Advent, the greatness of our hope will be correlative to the greatness of our gospel.