Northeastern Seminary Blog

Hope is Alive Through Christlikeness

Posted on Tue, Dec 23, 2014 @ 10:00 AM

For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given and the government shall be upon his shoulder and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

The bells are ringing; the carolEd_Jenkins_advent_reflections associated with Advent are being played on the radio, in homes, and in places of entertainment as well as in department stores. The lights and decorations are already in place. By now most have completed their traditional Christmas shopping.

Many centuries ago, before the first Advent of Christ, it seemed like there were expectations which were evident as the world then looked forward to something new, something exciting, something supernatural which would make for a better future in the world.

Today we long for a time of peace, brotherhood, and mutual respect for one another. There is the lack of respect for human life. The sanctity of life is no longer an ideal to appreciate, embrace or safeguard for some. There are those who engage in barbaric and inhumane beheadings of other human beings for all to see, with no feelings of remorse or accountability for those lives taken. There are mass executions of sometimes innocent human beings, bombings, explosions, etc., which continue to shake the very foundations, existence and future of not only those labeled as terrorists, but also those who endeavor to escape from these areas being bombarded.

The earth it seems is full of violence, not unlike the days of Noah (Genesis 6). In this country we have heard or seen in sometimes graphic videos people being killed before our very eyes. The murder of 20 innocent children and six educators in Newtown Connecticut is still fresh in our minds and is a stark reminder of the need to eradicate from the possessions of private citizens, the kinds of assault weapons used by the perpetrators of such tragedies.

Despite these travails and tribulations, there is, like the time preceding the first Advent, a certain air of expectancy: the atmosphere is pregnant with hope and heaven is about to deliver the blessing that good news is here upon us again. The sounds and feelings of joy are evident that yes, once again we are in the Advent Season and the celebration of the birth of Christ at is imminent.

May this Christmas be one of immense joy, peace, kindness, and goodwill to us all, and may the Christ of Christmas rule and reign in all our hearts. Let us demonstrate Christlikeness in all aspects of our lives and put Christ in Christmas, so fulfilling the real Reason for the Season.

God bless you during this Season. Have a happy, holy, Christ-centered Christmas, a happy Kwanzaa, and a prosperous, peaceful, progressive, and positively blessed 2015.

 

Edward L. Jenkins, Sr. (M.Div. ‘12) is pastor at Ebenezer Wesleyan Methodist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Tags: advent

An Advent Meditation

Posted on Fri, Dec 19, 2014 @ 10:00 AM

An Advent Meditation

By Thomas Worth, 2014

 An_Advent_Meditation_Thomas_Worth

Our dog can sense a visitor a long way off.

He begins to growl and mutter in low tones.

During this Advent season I wait and look and long.

Do I sense a rumble in the distance?

I suppose I growl and mutter in my own way…

 

He, for whom the poets sang,

He, to whom the psalmists prayed,

He, about whom the wise pondered,

He, for whom the Exiles longed—

Draws near with a weight of glory.

He, for whom and by whom all things were made—is coming!

 

I sense the coming of him who defies description

Whose coming is so weighty it almost makes the earth tremble.

Creation seems to utter a subliminal groan

Longing for all the prophets foretold.

 

Will heaven and earth lose its moorings and flee away when he comes?

Or will the trees of the field clap their hands?

I get a sense in Advent of an approaching Immensity,

Something so huge and hard to comprehend—

And then, we hear the soft cries of a baby in a manger…

Tags: advent

Advent Reflection: Holy Intervention

Posted on Tue, Dec 16, 2014 @ 10:00 AM

Advent_Reflection_Holy_Intervention_Northeastern_Seminary_blogThe Bible is full of powerful statements about God's intervention in our lives: God watches over us, God goes before us, and if God is for us who can be against us.

God watching over us talks about God's protection and care for his children. Just as earthly parents make sure their children are taken care of with their needs provided and out of harm’s way, God makes sure that our needs are met and our ways are safe.

God goes before us shows us the Creator guiding our steps and providing direction to our lives. We don't have to worry about having a purpose because God is our guide. We would go through difficulties and obstacles, yet we can rest assured that we would cross to the other side of the valley because the designer of the path is leading us.

God is for us talks about him being our defender, our secure place. The Powerful of Heaven stands in defense of our souls against the attacks of our enemy and we can stand assured that no weapon against us could destroy our soul because the Lord of Hosts is for us, on our side.

Nonetheless, there is one statement that I believe is even more powerful than these.

The prophet Isaiah spoke about Jesus in this way: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

Immanuel. What a beautiful name! Now God would not only be watching over us, walking in front of us, and protecting us. Now God was coming to be with us, to be our companion—leaving a place in glory to be humbled—to be able to relate to you and me in our humanity.

We would not have to be alone any more. The God of the universe would walk by our side every day. God would be right there when we are excited, sad, hurt, and even angry. God would be the shoulder to cry upon, the chest to rest upon. God would be with us in a personal way as never before.

In fact, He is with us today! He is Immanuel.

 

Joanne_Green-ColonA year ago on December 16, 2013, we bid farewell to Joanne Green-Colon, a most faithful follower of Jesus. She will always remain known as a remarkable, talented, energetic, and creative woman who touched many lives in the Rochester community and elsewhere for Jesus.

This reflection, written on November 22, 2013 is published today in honor of Joanne with the permission of her family.

Joanne Green-Colon, M.Div. ’05 was pastor of Heart & Soul Community Church, Rochester, N.Y., and taught Church History and Children’s Ministry in the Certificate in Ministry Program at Northeastern Seminary.

Tags: advent

Second Saturday of Advent: Faithful living in an age of panic

Posted on Sat, Dec 13, 2014 @ 10:30 AM

Middleton_The_Justice_of_Advent_SaturdayDeliverance and judgment intermingled continue to characterize our Isaiah text. While Jerusalem is under siege, God tells Isaiah to write on a large clay tablet, “The spoil speeds, the prey hastens” (Hebrew: maher-shalal-hash-baz) as a witness to the coming deliverance. Then, somewhat later, but before the siege is lifted, Isaiah’s wife (the prophetess) bears a child who is to be named Maher-shalal-hash-baz, the same peculiar words as on the tablet (v.3). Like Immanuel, this name is a sign of hope, clearly specifying the doom of Judah’s enemies. And as with Immanuel, a time-frame is given. Before the child says its first words (“Daddy” or “Mommy”), the wealth of Syria (Aram) and Ephraim will be carried off as spoil by the Assyrian king (v.4).

Yet Judah is spared one enemy only to be almost drowned by another. Since the people are opposed to Ahaz’s policy of submission to Assyria (characterized as the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, v.6), God is bringing the mighty flood waters of the River, symbolizing the Assyrian king (v.7). The river of Assyria will not just flood Ephraim and Syria, it will overflow into Judah and reach up to the neck (v.8). Isaiah hints that only Jerusalem, which is the Head of Judah (see7.8), will be spared a thought that leads him to challenge Jerusalem’s enemies to do their worst since it will be thwarted by the gracious presence of “God with us” (vv.9-10).

Isaiah then received a stern warning from God (perhaps in response to his outburst of confidence) not to be fooled by the false bravado of the people (v.11). Rather than being carried away by the general panic of the times, Isaiah is to be in holy awe of the Lord of hosts who is the real actor in the momentous political drama being played out here (v.13). Although this God will be a sanctuary of refuge for those who trust in his historical purposes (difficult thought they are to accept), for the majority who want to resist the Assyrian empire (as was appropriate in the past) God will become a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense (v.14).

Just try telling Jews in the eighth century B.C. (or modern Christians in the twentieth A.D.) that the good old days of glory and triumph are over and that God now wills judgment and suffering for the nation’s massive sins, a suffering which can still be minimized, but not averted, if only they follow a policy of non-resistance. Changed times require a changed discernment, and Isaiah has been trying to prepare Judah for its drastically transformed role in the world. But to no avail. Even Jerusalem will resist (v.14), God grimly predicts, and many will stumble and fall, be snared and captured (v.15).

In our own period of chaos and panic over free trade agreements, factory closings, and government budget cuts, how do we find our orientation? It is easy to be swept away—almost drowned—by the wave of fear that sustains public reaction to events beyond our control, especially when that fear fuels a holy impatience born of biblical sensitivities. Yet if Isaiah’s discernment applies at all to our turbulent, recessionary times, so does his challenge to a quiet, persevering trust in God. Such trust, explains Peter (quoting Isaiah 8.12-13), is a fundamental prerequisite for our witness to the gospel—even if it leads to our suffering (1 Pet 3.14-17). In this we will simply be following our Lord, whose Advent in likewise turbulent times was, after all the beginning of his journey to the cross.

 

Dr. J. Richard Middleton serves as professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary.

From The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

 

Tags: advent

Second Friday of Advent: Coming to terms with change

Posted on Fri, Dec 12, 2014 @ 11:20 AM

Middleton_the_Justice_of_advent_FridayThe ambiguity of Ahaz’s faith, hinted at yesterday, becomes an issue in today’s Isaiah text. When offered a sign as confirmation of God’s promise to protect Jerusalem (v.11), Ahaz refuses under the pious guise of not wanting to “test” God (v.12). This surface piety, however, disguises a deeper fear of risk, indicating that Ahaz’s pro-Assyrian policy was less a matter of trust in God than of political caution. For this timidity, Isaiah accuses Ahaz of testing or wearying God (v.13).

A sign is given to the faithless king, nevertheless. The young woman (the article is definite, indicating the queen or some Davidic princess) shall conceive and bear a son (v.14), a potential heir to the throne, to continue the royal line God promised to establish.

While the birth of an heir is already a sign of hope, the child’s name, Immanu-el (“God with us”), heightens that hope. In addition, a time-frame for fulfilment is given. Before the child is weaned from baby food and knows how to discern right from wrong, the threat to Judah will have dissipated (vv.15-16).

But just as we want to celebrate the coming of this promised heir, Isaiah’s oracle switches abruptly from assurance to threat (vv.17-25). In words that foreshadow his subsequent prophecies, Isaiah indicates that the coming of the king of Assyria signals a new epoch for Israel, the coming day of Yahweh (vv.18, 20,21,23) as significant as the division of the kingdom in the tenth century (v.17). Just as the departure of Ephraim from Judah signaled the end of the united monarchy, so the coming of the Assyrian empire signals the end of Judah’s independence and of the political aspirations of the Davidic line.

Henceforth the people of God will have to come to terms not just with reduced ambitions, but with the wholesale devastation portrayed in verses 18 to 25. What role is there for a royal house and a holy city in an epoch of foreign invasion and occupation (vv.18-19, in a time of humiliation and defeat (vv.20-25)? What indeed could God have in mind, especially since Isaiah makes it clear that this epoch of judgment is God’s own doing (v.17)? How can this same God reaffirm the promises of protection for Jerusalem and the house of David and, in the same breath, decree marginality and suffering for the people?

Perhaps we who live after the birth of Christ and celebrate his Advent can glimpse in Isaiah 7 the ultimate purpose and culmination of God’s protection of the Davidic line: the coming of a king who suffer for the sins of his people, to deliver them not just from political plots or the bondage of empires, but from the imperial captivity of sin and death. “Immanuel” is indeed an apt description of God’s incarnate presence in Jesus, who came among us to restore justice and shalom to all creation, including our social and political lives.

Yet we, too, live in the tension between the fullness revealed in Jesus and the grim realities of political fragmentation, economic recession, and mandatory “social contract” cuts. Where is God in this scene? Is it possible for us to discern the signs of the times, as Isaiah did two and a half millennia ago? Can we claim the hand of God at work in our world, both bringing judgment for our culture’s accumulated injustices and constraining us to live under the sign of the crucified Messiah? Can we avoid both triumphalism and despair and walk in bold faith instead? Or is that just too bold? Perhaps, like Ahaz, we prefer to play it safe and not test God.

 

Dr. J. Richard Middleton serves as professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary.

From The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Tags: advent

Second Thursday of Advent: Faith and politics in Advent

Posted on Thu, Dec 11, 2014 @ 05:07 PM

Middleton_The_Justice_of_Advent_ThursdayThe background to the events of Isaiah 7-12 is an important political crisis, described concisely in Isaiah 7.1 see also 2 Kings 6.5-9). While Judah had for many years pursued a policy of non-resistance as a vassal state to the encroaching Assyrian empire, many anti-Assyrian alliances sprang up throughout the region. One such was led by Rezin, king of Syria (Aram), who was joined by Pekah, newly ascended to the throne in Ephraim, the northern kingdom. Together these kings and their armies marched against Judah in 734 B.C., seeking to lay siege to Jerusalem and replace King Ahaz with a puppet who would willingly join the anti-Assyrian coalition (v.6). Ahaz was understandably shaken (v.2).

But his fear was not limited to these external threats. Judah had already suffered so much at the hands of its Assyrian overlords and previous military raids from Syria that Ahaz’s popularity (and his pro-Assyrian policy) was at an all-time low. Like the chief priests and scribes of Luke 22.2, he lived in fear of his own people. He needed no Gallup poll to know that he faced the threat of an internal coup. In this highly charged context God sends Isaiah with a message of encouragement and warning.

On the one hand, God assures Ahaz that the Syro-Ephraimite plot against Jerusalem will come to nothing (v.7), since these kings even in their “fierce anger” are only “two smouldering stumps of firebrands” (v.4) soon to be extinguished by the Lord of Hosts. Isaiah thus encourages Ahaz not to be afraid, but to remain firm in his political resolve not to join the anti-Assyrian coalition (v.4).

On the other hand God’s protection of Jerusalem is by no means unconditional. “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all,” Isaiah announces, both making a pun (which the English tries to reproduce) and alluding to God’s ancient promise (2 Sam 7.6) that David’s kingdom would stand or be made firm forever (the same verb is used). But Isaiah distinguishes this promise from cheap grace by placing significant responsibility for the political future squarely on the shoulders of Ahaz and his companions (the you in v.9 is plural). Ahaz is challenged to remain steadfast in faith if God is to protect Jerusalem and the Davidic Dynasty.

As it turns out, Ahaz’s faith was ambiguous (see 2 Kings 16.7-18 for details). Although he did resist the Syro-Ephraimite coalition, he is judged ultimately to be an evil, idolatrous ruler who did not do what was right in the eyes of Yahweh (2 Kings 16.2-4).

Though Isaiah 7 is less clear in its judgment, an important hint may be discerned in the introductory notice that the prophet inconveniently had to go to the king to deliver his message. Ahaz was at “the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s field” (v.3), a location outside the city walls (see 36.2 and 2 Kings 18.17), inspecting the water supply and fortification in anxious anticipation of the coming siege. The contrast with his son Hezekiah is clear to anyone who reads ahead in Isaiah: in response to the later, Assyrian siege of Jerusalem (701 B.C.), Hezekiah actively sought out Yahweh in the Temple to pray for help and receive God’s blessing and assurance of protection (37.1,14-35). Isaiah 7, however, does not resolve the question of Ahaz’s faith; it simply poses it. Isaiah’s message to King Ahaz thus addresses us in our contemporary crises, challenging us beyond a cheap, sentimental celebration of Advent, to a faith that indeed makes a political difference.

 

Dr. J. Richard Middleton serves as professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary.

From The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

 

Tags: advent

Second Wednesday of Advent: God's cleansing fire

Posted on Thu, Dec 11, 2014 @ 05:03 PM

Middleton_The_Justice_of_Advent_Wednesday-1Having described Judah as tinder-dry and ready to go up in flames of judgment (5.24), Isaiah recounts, in vivid first-person narrative, a vision of Yahweh dominated by the image of burning. In the year of King Uzziah’s death, a year that saw the Assyrian empire grow stronger and extend its imperial reach over the ancient Near East, the prophet glimpses another king, enthroned over the entire earth (vv.2-3), to whom even Assyria is subject. The Temple, where this vision takes place, functions as a window on God’s throne room, but itself can contain only the hem of his robe (v.1)! The immensity of scale alone is staggering. But add to that the encircling seraphim, Yahweh’s six-winged blazing heavenly attendants (saraph means “to burn”), whose praise of the Lord of Hosts rocks the Temple to its foundations and fills it with smoke (v.4), and Isaiah is reduced to holy and abject terror.

“Woe is me!” he cries, in solidarity with the people over whom he has just proclaimed a series of woes (5,8,11,18,20-22). In stark contrast to the scribes and Pharisees who self-righteously accuse the woman taken in adultery (John 8.4-5), Isaiah admits that all—prophet and people alike—are unclean in the presence of the thrice-holy king, the Lord of hosts (v.5).

Then, with tongs, since it is hotter than even they can bear, one of the seraphim takes a live coal from the brazier on the alter (v.6) and sears the prophet’s lips with forgiveness and atonement, purifying him for the arduous message he is to give (v.7). Only one who knows his own sin could bring such an impossible message with integrity. Isaiah is to blind, deafen and harden the people, to confirm them in their sin, and thus in their judgment (vv.9-10). Presumably if Isaiah had known the point of the message, he would not have been so quick to volunteer (v.8). In this willingness he is perhaps unique among the prophets, for all from Moses to Jeremiah vigorously resisted their commissioning.

Isaiah’s resistance is limited to a poignant question, an agonized prayer of lament: “How long, O Lord?” (v.11). To which God answers: until the devastation is complete (v.11). Until the land is depopulated through exile “and vast is its emptiness” (v.12). But the judgment will fall not just upon Ephraim, the northern kingdom. Even the “tenth” (Judah) that initially escapes devastation, will finally be burned (v. 13), as if a forest fire that had bypassed a small copse of standing trees quickly turns with a change of wind to devour the last remaining patch of green. Until only a stump of that magnificent forest remains and the Lord’s vineyard is reduced to rubble.

But buried deep in this thicket of radical judgment is a brief sentence of hope: “The holy seed is its stump” (v.13). These cryptic words which close the vision, and the chapter, draw on the image of burning as purification (1.25; 4.3-4; 6.6-7). They also evoke the regenerative power of felled trees, especially oaks and terebinths, which in scripture are often associated with holy places and sacred groves (Gen 12.6; 35.4; Deut 11.30; Josh 24.26; Judg 9.6,37; Hos 4.13; Ezek 6.13). But beyond these associations, the text anticipates Isaiah’s messianic image in 11.1 (also 11.10 and 4.2) of a branch or shoot sprouting from the stump of Jesse (the Davidic line). In a bleak text, dominated by judgment, which realistically faces the fact of national destruction, we find tucked away a hopeful hint of the advent of a future king, born by God’s gracious purging of the Davidic line, to bring justice, healing and holiness, finally, to the devastated land.

 

Dr. J. Richard Middleton serves as professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary.

From The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Tags: advent

Second Tuesday of Advent: God’s alien deed

Posted on Tue, Dec 09, 2014 @ 11:07 AM

Isaiah 5.18-25

Luke 21.29-38

Therefore the anger of the Lord

was kindled against his people,

and he stretched out his hand

against them and struck them.

Isaiah 5.24                                   

Middleton_The_Justice_of_Advent_Tuesday

The woes Isaiah began describing in yesterday’s reading here become broader and more sweeping, and quickly pile up in an intensifying series of abrupt accusations (vv.18,20,21,22). Alas! he cries again and again in pained acknowledgement of the people’s sins. Isaiah pictures his hearers slowed down by the heavy burden of their justice, which they drag along like a treasure they can’t part with (v.18). Yet they demand immediate action from God, goading the Lord to provide a sign and so prove himself (v.19). We, of course, don’t ask mockingly, but pray earnestly for God to act decisively in our historical situation to set things right (which usually means to set our immediate situation to rights). The irony, of course, is that this is precisely our calling, our task, to set things right (to do righteousness), if only we would cast off the ropes of injustice with which we have bound ourselves.

But we are blind to what is right, says Isaiah, confusing evil with good, darkness with light, bitter with sweet (v.20). Unaware of our blindness, we claim wisdom and shrewdness for our social ideals and policies (v.21). But our wisdom is only the expertise of self-gratification (v.22); in matters of justice we are proudly inept, and leave suffering relentlessly in our wake (v.23). What is the root of the problem? We have rejected God’s word or torah for our lives (v.24). Instead of submitting to the instruction of the just and righteous Creator, we have bound ourselves to our false ideals, believing we can determine for ourselves what is right.

Therefore, says the prophet, dry rot has set in to the land. Since the vineyard is unfruitful, its root and blossom are about to be consumed like tinder disappearing in flames (v.24a). Isaiah makes it clear that this destruction is no chance occurrence, but is due to the anger of Yahweh kindled against the people’s injustice (v.25). This is God’s ironic answer to prayer for him to act speedily and visibly, that we may know it (v.19). Instead of the expected repetition of God’s exodus deed of old, when with mighty hand and outstretched arm (Deut. 4.34; 7.19; 11.2) God opened the sea and delivered Israel to new life, this time when God stretched out his hand the earth opened, in judgment, not salvation, and the mountains quaked and the corpses piled up like refuse in the streets (v.25).

But don’t think it’s over, says Isaiah. In ominous words he will later use as a refrain (9.12,17,21 and 10.4), the prophet declares: “For all this God’s anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still” (v.25). As the first sprouting of leaves indicates that a summer of riotous growth is coming (Luke 21.29-31), so Judah’s early troubles will be followed (as Isaiah later makes clear) by the rise of the Assyrian empire, which will threaten the very existence of the nation in the years ahead.

In our own time we might ask what world-wide recession and structural unemployment bode for our economic future. Are they temporary malfunctions of the system or omens of the worse to come? Could we be entering a period of massive judgment that “will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth” (Luke 21.35)? Of course, we would prefer not to think such negative thoughts at Advent. But our text encourages us to face reality boldly, on guard and alert (21.34-36) to the crisis of our times.

 

Dr. J. Richard Middleton serves as professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary.

From The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Tags: advent

Second Monday of Advent: Discerning the times

Posted on Mon, Dec 08, 2014 @ 10:44 AM

Isaiah 5.8-17

Luke 21.20-28

 

Ah, you…who do not

regard the deeds of the Lord,

or see the work of his hands!        

Isaiah 5.11-12

Middleton_The_Justice_of_Advent_Monday

Isaiah vividly describes the “wild grapes” or spoiled fruit of Israel’s social life in a series of accusations framed as “woes” (vv.8,11-12) that continue into tomorrow’s reading (vv.18,20-22). The Hebrew hoy! can be simply an attention-getter (hey!), a pronouncement of doom (woe!) or a cry of lament (ah! or alas!), as at a funeral or other sorrowful event. In our text these are all combined.

Expressing his own cry of pained response to the violent outcry with which yesterday’s reading ended, Isaiah invites us to mourn over the plight of our land. Moreover, since yesterday’s reading ended with the audience implicated in the crime, standing guilty as charged, he invites us also to mourn over our own plight.

We are part and parcel of a culture which values land speculation and acquisition, two activities that displace the poor, until—contrary to the mandate to “fill the earth” (Gen 1.28)—we are “left to live alone in the midst of the land” (v.8). We are implicated likewise in a culture that thrives on hedonistic self-gratification, hungering for amusement and entertainment, rising early and lingering late to satisfy our cravings (vv.11-12). Just as Isaiah had to admit his complicity in his people’s guilt and uncleanness (6.5), so it is well-nigh impossible for us to live in contemporary North America and not be deeply affected by the dominant acquisitive and hedonistic pattern of life around us.

But the tragedy is compounded by the fact that our too-full lifestyle makes us blind to the crisis of the times, with little scope to discern God’s large deeds in history (v.12), especially God’s “strange” or “alien” deed of judgment, as Isaiah later expresses is (28.21).

Isaiah describes this judgment as a desolation of both houses and fields, precisely the thing the wealthy have been over-acquiring. Large, beautiful houses will stand empty (v.9) and crops will fail: vineyards will yield only a gallon of wine per acre and cereal crops will produce only one-tenth of the seed required to plan them (v.10). Contrary to popular wisdom, our headlong pursuits of economic growth is ultimately unprofitable and unfruitful. Although it may appear similar to genuine justice, it yields a wasteland, unfit for human life and well-being.

Exactly how this inhuman desolation will happen is only hinted at by Isaiah. He makes brief mention of exile (v.13) or deportation, usually the result of military invasion. By this time Israel—with perhaps Judah as well—was already being annexed by Syria (Aram) to the north. The image of Sheol, the underworld, opening its mouth and swallowing both the nobility and the multitude (vv.14-17) is likely a symbolic reference to a recent major earthquake (see 2.6-22 and 5.25b). If so, Isaiah daringly discerns in these political and natural disasters the righteous and just deed of Yahweh, by which the haughty are brought low and the Lord is exalted (vv.15-16). In much the same way Jesus describes the Roman siege of Jerusalem (Luke 21.20-24), accompanied by portents in the heavens (21.25-26), as the coming judgment of God, “in fulfilment of all that is written” (21.22).

In Isaiah the result of these disasters is that the land is depopulated and lambs and goats wander untended, grazing among the desolate ruins (v.17). But our gospel text hints of a salvation beyond judgment and encourages us to raise our heads, even in this bleak landscape, in hopeful anticipation of the Advent of the Son of Man, as we discern our redemption drawing near (21.27-28).

 

Dr. J. Richard Middleton serves as professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary.

From The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Tags: advent

Second Sunday of Advent: A harvest of disappointment

Posted on Sun, Dec 07, 2014 @ 10:39 AM

Isaiah 5.1-7

Luke 7.28-35

 

The Lord expected justice,    

but saw bloodshed;

righteousness,

but heard a cry.

Isaiah 5.7

Middleton_The_Justice_of_Advent_Sunday

Today’s Old Testament reading is a carefully crafted literary piece, at once a love-song, a lawsuit and an extended parable with a climactic punch line. Isaiah introduces the piece as a song for his dodi, a term of endearment meaning friend or beloved (v.1). Casting himself in the role of best man, he sings about his friend the bridegroom and his vineyard. In the ancient Near East vineyard, field and garden, were common metaphors for a bride (see Song of Solomon 8.12).

Drawing the audience in to interpret the well-known metaphor, Isaiah tells how his friend the husbandman prepared the soil, planted choice vines, built a watchtower and dug a wine vat, all in expectation of a rich harvest. But this faithful preparation and care was in vain. Contrary to expectations, the vineyard yielded wild or spoiled grapes, unsuited to making wine (v.2).

Isaiah subtly connects with his hearers’ patriarchal beliefs and gets their hackles up. Like the judges of the woman taken in adultery (John 7.53-8.11), they begin to arm themselves with the stones of righteousness indignation.

Then, playing masterfully on this indignation, Isaiah executes a double switch. From playing the role of best man he now becomes groom. From singing a love-song, he moves to launching a lawsuit (vv.3-6). He invites his hearers to “judge between” him and his vineyard. Casting his hearers in the role of jury, Isaiah now ups the stakes as he initiates divorce proceedings. What more could I have done? He asks in good rhetorical style. The fault lies clearly with the vineyard. Why did it not meet my legitimate expectations?

Without waiting for an answer, he announces a drastic course of action. If the vineyard, for all his effort, produces only wild grapes, then let it be reduced to a wilderness: unprotected, uncultivated, and overgrown with briers and thorns (vv.5-6). Then, in a startling climax, he declares: “I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it (v.6)!”
               

Up until this point, Isaiah’s hearers have had no problem reading the metaphor in accordance with (admittedly harsh) cultural customs. But this last pronouncement gives them pause, for who alone can command the clouds to send or withhold rain? Certainly neither bridegroom nor farmer.

 But before the shock of awareness can fully dawn upon his audience, the prophet lays his cards upon the table, revealing the true meaning of the song/lawsuit/parable. The husbandman is the Lord of Hosts and Israel is God’s (unfruitful) vineyard (v.7). With impeccable logic Isaiah’s audience has ruled the accused guilty as charged, only to find its collective finger point firmly at itself. The punch line here has the force of the prophet Nathan’s “Thou art the man!” addressed to King David after a similar parable in which Nathan has led David to implicate himself (2 Sam 12.7).

But the prophet has not simply told his listeners of Yahweh’s disappointment with them. With dramatic skill he has first raised, then thwarted, their expectations for the meaning of the parable, so that they might reproduce in themselves the shock of Yahweh’s disappointment. Yahweh had expected justice (mishpat), but saw bloodshed (mispah); had expected righteousness (tsedeqah), but heard an outcry (tse’aqah). With these two pairs of similar-sounding Hebrew words, Isaiah is not just making puns: he proclaims that although Israel’s social life might sound like it meets God’s covenantal expectations, that superficial harmony hides a basic clash of values.

In contemporary terms, we might say that God expected social justice, but found “economic growth,” a superficial look-alike which seemed initially full of promise but which has produced in our time the spoiled fruit of human pain and suffering. Our single-minded pursuit of profits and “progress” (to the exclusion of the broader virtues of stewardship and compassion) may keep fooling many because it contains a grain of truth, but it ultimately disappoints the just and righteous Creator.

But God’s expectations are neither self-serving like those of Isaiah’s audience, nor arbitrary like those of Jesus’ listeners (Luke 7.31-35). Yahweh’s disappointment and the judgment to follow are rooted in a profound desire to see humans genuinely flourish. Although the vineyard will be laid waste (such are the consequences of human injustice), the Lord of the harvest has plans for a replanting—a planting which will root us in Jesus, the true vine (John 15), for our healing and for the healing of the world. Through Advent, God’s righteous expectations shall ultimately bear fruit.

 

Dr. J. Richard Middleton serves as professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary.

From The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Tags: advent