Friday, December 5, 2008

Hope Beyond Hope

Advent 1 Year B 2008
Isaiah 64:1-9
Hope Beyond Hope
By Rich Gamble

Scholars generally believe that Isaiah can be divided into three parts. The first is thought to occur before the Exile, the second during the Exile and the third after the Exile. The Exile being that profound time in the history of the Jewish people in which the leadership of Israel is carried off by the Babylonian army back to Babylon, to be settled there as a servant class to the empire.

Before the Exile, Isaiah warns the people that they need to change. During the Exile, Isaiah provides the exiles with hope for the future. After the Exile, Isaiah speaks about the hoped for nature of the reforming community of returning exiles.

This passage is from the last stage of Isaiah. We get a sense from this poem that things are not going so well for the people who have come back from exile. Isaiah alludes to a problem with the surrounding governments. The poet calls out for God to intervene directly, to come in and scare those other nations so badly that they will no longer bother Israel.

But the poet notices that God isn’t intervening and then reflects that there is a reason, Israel are impure. God has good reason for being aloof and unhelpful. Israel has not lived according to the will of God.

The last stage of the poem goes against the preceding thought. The people of Israel are God’s people. No matter how rotten they may act, God still has a responsibility to them. They are God’s creation. They are God’s children. Even God can’t choose God’s family.

The poem then, moves from hope, to hopelessness, to deepening hope. The hope of Israel is not something that can be damaged by their own lack of faithfulness. The hope of Israel is securely held in the constancy of God. The poem then strives to nudge God to get on with the business of rescuing Israel.

This is a nice poetic movement but it doesn’t address the primary issue that causes the poet to cry out. Things are bad and God’s not intervening.

The work required rebuilding the city and temple to even a shabby semblance of its former glory was exceedingly stressful. On top of that there was the fact that though they were back in their homeland, they were still second class citizens within the Persian Empire.

You can see why they felt the way they did. They were trying as hard as they could but the results were far from their hopes. They felt overwhelmed and turned to a vision of God as superhero to come and save them.

Most folks still think of God in that way. If you think of God as the ultimate dominator, who is supposedly on your side but doesn’t intervene when you are in trouble, it is natural to blame yourself and others for the absence of such a God. It is hard to blame an omniscient, omnipotent God, so who can you blame when such a God does not deliver on a request for intervention? The line between seeing God who uses the power of domination, and seeing yourself and others as being impure seems clear.

But we have been talking about God in a different way, thinking about God using a different power, and that leads us to thinking differently about ourselves.

If God is not a potentate in the sky but the spirit of agape love flowing through the heart of humanity, then everything changes. The God of love won’t come in with the power to punish but instead will inspire with power to empathize. The fact that God has not come to beat up those who have been mean to us isn’t a comment about our unworthiness or God’s non-existence but is about the fact that this God doesn’t do the macho superhero thing.

The God of love does not call on us to look around and find out whose been impure, so that they can be the scapegoat for our suffering in a world ruled by an emperor god. The God of love is not absent or the source of punishment. The God of love is ever active in powerful ways but not in ways which often show up on the radar of those of us trained to see power as domination.

Hope is an important manifestation of the power of the God of agape love. As seen through the lens of the Domination System, hope is a manifestation of weakness. Those with domination power don’t hope, they simply take what they want. For them, hope is for the weak.

The God of agape love is most active among the weak and the vulnerable and hope among such people is a real force for change. Without hope, people don’t try to change things. They assume that the way things are is the way they will always be and that resistance is futile. People without hope follow the logic of violence and greed even when they can see all around them the damage that such forms of power cause.

But hope is a tricky thing. It has power in and of itself, but that power can be misdirected depending on the source and direction of the hope.

This is where some of Isaiah’s ideas of God miss the mark. Isaiah sees God as ultimate dominator, so his hope is that God will swoop in and smash his enemies. He has hope, and that hope will help him resist going along with the way things are, but the source and direction of that hope may not inspire him to take action. Isaiah’s action is to encourage God to swoop in.

Many folks on this planet have hope that God will eventually swoop in and smash their enemies. This hope may help them resist being co-opted by the world they perceive of as hostile but it doesn’t help them change their response. It doesn’t help them move in a hopeful direction to resolve the problem. Instead the hope of divine dominator intervention helps keep the pot of hate bubbling. Indeed this kind of hope can lead to acts of suicidal destruction and anticipation of Armageddon.

That is where the final two images of Isaiah’s poem come in: God as potter, God as parent.

A potter makes pottery. Pottery is the creation of the potter. It is rigid, inflexible, unchanging unless it is damaged.

A parent doesn’t make a person. A parent can take a role in forming a person for good or ill but the person themselves have a role. They can choose whether to be formed in the parent’s image, or not. A person is flexible and capable of change and injuries don’t necessarily make for a damaged person, sometimes injuries highlight an inner strength and beauty.

The potter has the unquestioned right to destroy her pottery.

The parent has no right to destroy her child.

God as potter, is an image of control. God as parent is an image of relationship.

Isaiah gives both images but they are radically different images of the nature of God, and hence our nature as human beings and the nature of human endeavors.

The God as parent imagery provides a particular form of hope. It is a hope that we are not alone. We may still have to deal with the bully at school ourselves but we can turn to the wisdom, and the concern of a loving parent.

When we are dealing with a problem that is beyond our ability to overcome, hope is an essential tool. But the hope that truly transforms is not the hope that a superhero God will swoop in but the hope that comes from a relationship with a God who will never abandon our side even at death. This God can inspire us to do what we thought was impossible, this God will transform us to deal with the problems rather than transform the problems.

This God doesn’t have us hope for the intervention of a militarized Jesus part 2 (the revenge of Jesus) in a post Armageddon world.
This God doesn’t have us hope for a miraculous intervention but rather to take hope from a wondrous relationship that not even death can alter.

This God comes to the meek of the world and inspires them to claim and lovingly gain their inheritance. This God is no macho super hero but the Spirit which transforms victims into their own heroes.

Advent is about Hope. Not the hope of a helpless pot to be rescued by the potter. But the hope of a child who someday hopes to be like their parent.

With this hope the world can truly transform.

And that is good news.