Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44.
The liturgical year begins with visions that place the world under God’s judgment.
(For an overview of Lectionary readings in Advent, see Special Note below.)
The Christian year begins with the imagery and symbols of Zion and its king. In Jewish tradition the covenant of Sinai dominates all later developments of tradition. In the emergence of Christian faith, the Zion tradition, with its centrality of city and king (Messiah, Christ), is finally most decisive for Christian self-definition. Thus the first word of Advent is about Zion (Isaiah) and the coming fate of the holy city (Matthew).
The first reading from the Prophets for the Christian year is one of the most dramatic components of the ancient Zion tradition.
The Zion tradition was the visionary world of the temple city of Jerusalem, a city that was already many centuries old when King David captured it and made it his capital. David turned the city into his own by proclaiming to the religious circles there that it was Yahweh, his God, who had empowered him to capture their city and rule over the surrounding nations from there. They in turn possessed language to express the vastness and the cosmic significance of the God who had made David the ruler of the nations.
The religious visions of Zion emphasized the divine quality of righteousness (zedeq, in names like Melki-zedeq, Psalm 110:4; Adoni-zedeq, Joshua 10:1; and Zadoq, the Jerusalem priest who served both David and Solomon, I Kings 1:34). Those visions carried on an ancient heritage of the pre-Israelite world and later gave it world-class expression as the little temple-city that became the famous “City of David.”
Our passage announces a “word” that Isaiah “saw,” more literally “envisioned” (ḥāzāh). It is a vision of things in “days to come” (verse 2, NRSV). The vision unfolds in stages:
First, the mountain of the house of the Lord will be elevated, will become obvious as the peak of the world mountain on which the most important holy events occur.
Secondly, when the mountain has become conspicuous, the peoples will see it and will “stream” to it, like water flowing up hill.
Thirdly, we hear why these people flow to the house of the God of Jacob. It is because “instruction” (torah) will be available in Zion. There, God will “judge between the nations, / and shall arbitrate for many peoples” (verse 4). The holy city on the hill will be the source of infallible justice (“righteousness,” zedeq).
Finally, the result of having their disputes settled by supremely wise adjudication is that people no longer need or want to fight wars. The demand for swords and spears will drop dramatically, and blacksmiths far and wide will be turning the tools of war into the tools of agrarian life. Zion, in its revelation of the last days, will be the source of peace and prosperity for the nations.
“Let us beat our swords into plowshares.” Artist: Evgeniy Viktorovich Vuchetich (1908-1974). Courtesy of VanderbiltUniversity Divinity Library, Lectionary Resources.
This vision stands at the beginning of the Christian year, as the first word of Advent. It says in a hopeful way, that the judgment of God is the way to peace.
The tone here is irenic only; it does not bring up the negative side of the judgment of God, how the persistently wicked and evil will also experience that judgment. For them, the coming judgment is NOT good news. They will not so gladly stream to hear the instruction of the Lord. But for now, they are ignored and the vision that lures and guides the peoples is one of blessing, because righteousness is finally lifted above all the low places of the earth.
In the Psalm reading the Israelite pilgrims at festival time praise and pray for the holy city, Jerusalem, place where judgment takes place.
Jerusalem here is not a vision; it is concrete reality.
Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem – built as a city that is bound firmly together (verses 2-3, NRSV).
The Jerusalem of this psalm is the temple city seeking world renown for the God who is celebrated and worshipped there. It is a city in which, first the temple was rebuilt with its own walls protecting the sanctuary proper (finished in 515 BCE), then, three generations later, walls around the entire city were completed to make it a fortified city of refuge (completed by Persian governor Nehemiah around 443). It is this beautiful and confidence-inspiring temple city that the psalm celebrates.
At the center of the psalm is a statement of the city as the place of judgment among the tribes, recalling a legendary past to intimate a similar glorious future.
There the thrones for judgment were set up,
the thrones of the house of David (verse 5).
The chosen city was the seat of the royal judge, the final appeal for justice and righteousness among the tribes.
And Jerusalem is not only a place of the temple of God and of the royal administration. It is a city where people live!
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you’ (verses 7-8).
Such a prayer is still appropriate at Advent in the year of our Lord 2016.
The visions of prophet and psalmist inspire attitudes, which should guide the expectations and conduct of the hearers.
The Epistle reading urges the hearers to adopt an attitude that will guide them through the time of judgment. “You know what time it is” – because you have already seen the vision. It is still night, still the time before the judgment of God has become conspicuous to the peoples. But it is at the end of the night, near daybreak. Therefore, time to be awake, to be acting as if the light is already present.
The apostle seems to regard the activities of the night as pretty wild and scandalous. “Let us live honorably… not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy” (verse 13, NRSV). Is he suggesting that the present believers used to live this kind of night-life? Is he saying, “Don’t revert to your old ways”? Or is he only suggesting horrible things that simple and humble people hear about and should avoid with dread?
In any case, the attitude he urges is clear. Live on the verge of dawn, so we can conform our lives with the glorious light about to break on all folks, revealing in gross shame or in humble faithfulness, how all have been living!
The Gospel reading is about waiting – not waiting simply to kill time, but waiting in a proper attitude, in very high expectation.
Jesus lifts up the story of Noah and the flood as a model. The business of the world was going on as usual. The bars and lounges were open, wedding parties and bachelor parties were going on. (Like the apostle, Jesus seems to regard the people of darkness as doing a lot of partying and carousing.) Such party-goers do not perceive the signs of the time – they do not know the secret word of God about judgment. Thus, the next thing they know there is more rain than the world can handle, and it is too late to get into that floating temple of salvation.
The emphasis of the passage is on the time that is NOT known. While the whole chapter is about the signs of the time, the bottom line is that you can’t calculate the time. You have to live as if today is the last day of your life.
An ominous note is sounded in the middle of the passage, where Jesus speaks of those who are “taken.” “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left” (verses 40-41, NRSV). Considered by itself, this sounds like the one who is taken has been judged – taken away to punishment. Being “taken” is a bad thing, and the one left behind has survived the judgment. The point is the unexpectedness, the seemingly arbitrary choice of who gets in the ark and who doesn’t. Salvation did not come to those who had left the world and gone to a distant hill. It came right in the midst of the world’s work.
However, when this passage is taken with ruthless literalness and combined with Paul’s view in I Thessalonians 4:13-18 (as latter day Bible prophecy people do), we are led to the complex theory of the “Rapture” of believers, that whisking away of people preceding the worst of the disasters of the final judgment. On this other-worldly interpretation, being “taken” is a blessed thing – even if it is still a little scary.
The last word of the passage is also about night life. Burglars work at night. If the homeowner knew the burglar’s schedule, he would obviously protect his property. In the real world, the burglar strikes when least expected. The choice for believers, therefore, is not to stay up all night watching for the burglar, but to worry less about the property and live toward the coming judgment of God.
Living for today, trusting God to manage the process of the imminent judgment – that is the attitude that Jesus’ vision promoted among his followers.
Special Note: Advent in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary
An overview of the readings for the season of Advent in this year may highlight the flow of moods and themes.
The prophetic readings are all from Isaiah: 2:1-5; 11:1-10; 35:1-10; 7:10-16. We hear the vision of the torah of God going forth from Zion to bring peace to the nations through the righteous judgment of God (2:1-4). We hear of the Spirit filling the perfect ruler (Messiah) who establishes that peace with perfect righteousness (11:1-10). We hear of the transformation of the barren world into glorious fertile earth, accompanied by the transformation of human suffering into health and happiness (35:1-10). And we hear the prophecy of a young woman bearing a child which is given an auspicious name declaring the presence of God with humankind (7:10-16).
The Psalm readings responding to the prophetic readings are: Psalm 122 (the glory of the holy city); Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 (the glory and promise of the Anointed king); Psalm 146:5-10 (praising God’s gifts of freedom from oppression and care for the unprotected); and 80:1-7, 17-19 (a prayer from Israel for deliverance by the one at God’s right hand).
The Epistle readings are mostly from Romans: Romans 13:11-14; 15:4-13; James 5:7-10; and Romans 1:1-7. The first Romans reading is about the attitude of expectation for Christian life; the second is about the Anointed (Messiah, Christ) as a blessing to both Jews and peoples of the nations; the James reading is about patience while waiting for the Lord; and the final Romans reading is the gospel of the Son of David and the resurrection.
The Gospel readings are all from Matthew. In 24:36-44 we hear of the Son of Man coming at an unexpected hour. John the Baptist announces the seriousness of the Judgment at hand (3:1-12), and hears by messengers from Jesus that the signs of the Reign of God are happening. Finally, a certain Joseph is guided through the scandal of a virgin’s delivery of a savior (1:18-25).