Friday, December 23, 2016

Advent, Day 27: Better Days

Look on Zion, the city of our appointed festivals!
   Your eyes will see Jerusalem,
   a quiet habitation, an immovable tent,
whose stakes will never be pulled up,
   and none of whose ropes will be broken.
But there the Lord in majesty will be for us
   a place of broad rivers and streams,
where no galley with oars can go,
   nor stately ship can pass.
For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler,
   the Lord is our king; he will save us.

- Isaiah 33:20-22

The genius of prophetic scripture is that it points beyond itself. When the biblical prophets wrote about the restoration of Zion--that is, the city of Jerusalem--they were hearkening back to the glory days of the Kingdom of Israel, circa 1000 B.C.E., when David and Solomon ruled. When they told us that a descendant of David would sit upon the throne, they imagined the restoration of that kingly line.

Today we can understand that a literal restoration of the Davidic monarchy is not, in and of itself, likely to result in world peace. But in Isaiah's time, this was the best possible outcome the Jewish people could imagine for themselves: all the nations streaming into Jerusalem to worship the one true God who had formed a special relationship with them.

It was definitely a step beyond the old "my god can beat up your god" syndrome that ruled the Fertile Crescent in those days, because it was not intended to come at the expense of everyone else. God's covenant with Abraham was that his descendants would bless all the nations of the world--that through them would come salvation for everybody. It was a divinely inspired understanding of things to come.

But must that look like a literal earthly kingdom centered in Jerusalem, with people the world over bowing to an earthly king who speaks for the heavenly one? The Jewish leaders in Jesus' time thought so, and when he didn't fulfill their expectations of what an earthly ruler was supposed to do--that is, overthrow the Roman Empire--they colluded with the Romans to have him killed. When Messiahs don't live up to our expectations, we do tend to turn on them.

The very last book of the Bible, the Revelation to John, continues with this image of Jerusalem as the center of the world, not as an earthly city (which the Romans had since destroyed), but as a new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. The image was evolving; Christians were coming to understand that the ancient vision the prophets gave us was not going to be fulfilled in a way we might expect. Still, they were limited by the best possible vision they could understand in their context.

Since that time nearly 2000 years ago, there has been no shortage of images, in many cultures the world over, for what that perfect, happy ending might look like. The common thread has been our sad human tendency to limit that utopia to people who agree with us, or people who look like us, or people who act in ways that we find acceptable.

But it's not up to us, and it never has been. Built into these prophecies all along has been an understanding that this is God's project involving us, not our project involving God. In the same way that Jesus surprised us at every turn, we will continue to be surprised by the new thing that God is doing. "For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us."

Where is God in all these old prophecies? God is certainly not planning a step-by-step execution of events literally predicted by Isaiah or John. Don't expect a literal antichrist, or a thousand-year reign of Satan on earth, or any of the other recent explanations for ancient writings we barely comprehend. Don't expect the Prince of Peace to show up brandishing an assault rifle in order to settle old grudges. Don't expect that you will be sucked up into the clouds, and that the people you most fear and despise are going to be tortured for all eternity by an infinitely loving God. Don't confuse the metaphor with the indescribable reality.

God is not in these sad, self-serving visions. Rather, God is right here, loving us, being patient with us, longing for us and praying through us with that deepest of longings. We talk about Christ's second coming, and that's not wrong. Yet all the while Christ is right here within us, loving us back into wholeness and reconciliation with each other.

What is the best possible vision you can understand for the perfect fulfillment and restoration of what God wants for us? Imagine. Play. Let the old images feed the new ones. We all want better days, but can we allow those days to come on God's terms instead of our own? Can we allow ourselves to be surprised and delighted--even if we are simultaneously unsettled--by the perfection God has in store for us?

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