November 30, 2014
The material found in Isaiah 56-66 has been loosely called 'Third Isaiah,' but in reality it is a kind of grab bag of prophetic oracles, rather than a unified collection like II-Isaiah 40-55 that precedes it. It is in fact very difficult to determine just when some or even most of the poetry was written. It seems beyond doubt post-exilic, sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 597-587 B.C.E., and more likely a good bit later than that time frame, perhaps after the return of the exiles to a still smoking and blasted Jerusalem in 539 B.C.E. But who wrote it or precisely why is the stuff of more than a few doctoral dissertations and thick articles in obscure biblical journals. Perhaps it is best to say that we will never know exactly the provenance of this material, and because that is so it can serve us in a number of ways.
For this first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the joyous Christmas season, the RCL (Revised Common Lectionary) tosses up for our delectation a truly marvelous text, one that can serve nearly any time in the history of Judaism and Christianity. But especially at the time of deep anticipation and expectation of the coming of the child of Bethlehem, this text rings a loud tone in our ears, and echoes what so many of us have hoped and still hope at this time of the year.
Allow me to speak for myself. I am now sixty-eight years old (mirabile dictu!), and for fully two-thirds of those years I have been an ordained clergyperson, charged with the responsibility, in my case, either of preaching the good news of Jesus or of teaching others to preach that good news. It has been a life filled with hopes and disappointments on both accounts. I have both failed to preach consistently the joy of the gospel, and I have equally failed always to teach others to experience and express that joy. In short, I can easily identify with the author at Isaiah 64:6 who writes, 'We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.' And at 64:7: 'There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you, because you have hidden your face from us and have melted us into the hand (power) of our iniquity.'
In truth, when Advent rolls around, I tend to think more of the Christmas fun about to happen, when my children and grandchild assemble around the tree (artificial in our case—allergies, you know!) and rip open the goodies just before chowing down on the breakfast feast to be followed by the lunch/dinner of vast quantities of foods you probably should not eat but do, because, you know, it is Christmas. 'Christmas comes but once a year, but when it comes it brings good food and presents.' The Christ child gets buried in the wrapping paper and drowned in the gravy.
This, when one gives all this melancholy just a bit of thought, is not so unlike what the writer of Isaiah 64 may have been thinking when he gazed at the ruin of the temple, the wreck of the Solomonic palace, the boulder-strewn streets and alleys of a Jerusalem that hardly matched his dreams. Whoever he was, he had been told of the fabled temple, the glorious buildings, the splendid city that was the religious center of the Judean world.
Of course, all he had to compare these dreams to was the gigantic and spectacular city of Babylon, assuming he had been there for a time. The amazing Ishtar gate of blue brick and lapis lions; the huge bronze doors; the twenty-story tower, Eteminanki, 'the mountain of god,' at the top of which one found the statue of the city god of Babylon, Marduk—victor over his parents, the god and goddess of the fresh and the salt waters, and apparently, if history be trusted, the victor over YHWH, too. The city boasted some 200,000 inhabitants and prided itself as the world's greatest metropolis, far eclipsing the capital of Egypt and putting Jerusalem, even at its greatest peak of splendor, deep into its shade. When this writer saw Jerusalem late in the 6th century B.C.E., after leaving Babylon, what else could he have said but: 'If only you would tear the skies apart and come down, so that mountains would quake at your presence!' (Is. 64:1). It would be ridiculous to see the presence of the great YHWH in this pathetic village called Jerusalem with its ruined walls, razed temple, and rock-strewn streets.
Similarly, as I gaze at the piles of torn wrapping paper, the gravy-stained tablecloth, and the sated members of my family, lazily eyeing the TV's presentation of NFL football, I am tempted to shout, 'If only you would tear the skies apart and come down!' Just how can we keep alert to the coming of the child when our eyes are filled with new toasters and our ears with 'The Little Drummer Boy' in mall and office? Have I lived so long and failed to see the advent—really?
I sense that the poet of Isaiah 64 did not at all expect the skies to be torn open and for YHWH to show up in grandeur, announcing clearly and without ambiguity, that the old times are about to return when God did 'awesome deeds that we did not expect' and that 'the mountains really did quake at the presence of YHWH' (Is. 64:3). Would it not be nice to have such certainty about the coming of God and God's son, Jesus? I would take just a quivering hill or two and a richly hued cloud if that is all the proof God wishes to provide.