November 27, 2005: FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Though each of today’s sacred authors speak about a future visit from either God or the risen Jesus, their goal isn’t as much to prepare us for the future as it is to help us reflect on how we’re living the present.
Third-Isaiah refers to an event for which Jews of his day and age passionately longed: the day of Yahweh. He reinforces the belief that God will eventually come on earth not only to visit the Chosen People, but also to right the wrongs they have endured for centuries. Everyone longed for that day, expecting it to be a time of vindication against their enemies.
Yet, going back almost three centuries to the first “book prophet,” those who ministered as the people’s conscience warned that this event might not be exactly what their audiences were anticipating. “Woe to those who yearn for the day of Yahweh!” Amos proclaimed. “What will this day mean for you? Darkness and not light! As if someone should flee from a lion and be met by a bear. Or as if on entering their home they were to rest their hand against the wall, and be bit by a snake.” (Amos 5:18-19)
Third-Isaiah delivers the same message in today’s first reading. Pleading with Yahweh, he prays, “Would that you would meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! . . . We are sinful; all of us have become unclean, all our good deeds are polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, our guilt carries us away like the wind.”
Jewish prophets constantly remind their people that they, not others, should expect to be judged on the day of Yahweh. They probably will be shown to be lacking the behavior which should set God’s people apart from those others.
Five centuries after Third-Isaiah, Paul of Tarsus delivers a similar message. Though he changes the day of Yahweh into the “day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he’s critical of his Christian audience, not their pagan acquaintances. Many modern Christians never notice the criticism in today’s passage because they don’t read the rest of the letter. His original readers in Corinth winced when they heard these words. They knew the Apostle would certainly tear into them about how they were using or misusing “every gift of speech and knowledge,” and they were certain someone had snitched and informed him that they were employing their “spiritual gifts” to divide, not unite the community.
Paul wants to know why this group of Jesus followers aren’t carrying out their covenant with him. “God is faithful,” he writes, “and it was he who called you to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Writing ten years after Paul, Mark zeroes in on the same problem, making a comparison which contrasts Jesus’ Second Coming with slaves waiting for their master’s return from a trip abroad. “You do not know when the master of the house is coming,” he warns, “whether at dusk, at midnight, when the cock crows, or at early dawn. Do not let him come suddenly and catch you asleep.”
All three of our authors could end their passages with the same statement: “What I say to you, I say to all: Be on guard!”
Third-Isaiah, Paul and Mark echo a message which all God’s followers need constantly to hear. Because we’re human, we’ll always run the risk of focusing our eyes and efforts on the wrong thing. We’ll be tempted to think we’re fulfilling our faith obligations by simply going around talking and praying about a day when God will straighten out the mess everyone is experiencing.
The prophets in our faith communities are especially sent by God to remind us that, no matter what we think or dream of the future, one’s life of faith is a simple matter of noticing and overcoming the bears and snakes that pervade our present.