I preached this past Sunday (Advent 2) at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Conway. The texts were Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 16 (Song of Zechariah); Philippians 1:3-11; and Luke 3:1-6. I'd love to hear what you think of the sermon.
Some people think the world will end in less than two weeks. Were you aware? Based on a questionable assertion about the length of time covered by the Mayan “long count” calendar, various new age groups and doomsday preppers have been promoting the idea that on December 21, 2012, our time is up. Pretty stingy of the Mayans to close up shop on the world right before Christmas, I think.
But the 2012 apocalyptic hysteria in some quarters is a reminder of how we look at prophecy these days. A good century of premillennail dispensationalism has popularized the idea that ancient documents spell out in detail our exact future. Our common-sense definition of prophet is “one who sees what will happen, before it happens.” Of course, almost all such prophecies are couched in vague, oracular language, so that one can fit almost any set of facts into the couplets of Nostradamus, for example. Those kind of prophecies remain so fascinating generation after generation, interpretation after interpretation, because they give a kind of illusory shape to what otherwise seems a chaotic, random world. If someone knew ahead of time that this would happen, doesn’t that give history a direction? If I was a part of their vision, doesn’t that give my existence meaning?
Earlier this week I wrote a blog post about seeing an owl in the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve on two different occasions in the last month. A friend responded with a quotation from the philosopher G.W. Hegel: “The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.” Sounds worthy of Nostradamus, doesn’t it? But Hegel wasn’t trying to be mysterious. He’s talking about what he calls the philosophy of right, a kind of ethical-political philosophy that would enable people to understand the proper shape of state and individual relationships. The owl quotation comes at the end of a warning he gives about this philosophy -- that it’s impossible to formulate or use it until it’s almost too late. The ideal society can’t be constructed in the mind until a fully mature society already exists in reality. So by the time we know what we ought to be building, Hegel says, we’re already living in what we’ve built. “The owl of Minerva,” the symbol of wisdom, only takes wing when the chance of applying that wisdom is drawing to a close.
Turns out that’s the way prophecy works in the time of the later Hebrew writers and in the time of the New Testament writers. Prophecy of the kind we read during advent, the kind from Isaiah that the author of Luke quotes, and the kind that we read in the passage from Malachi today, isn’t an supernatural tour of future events. It’s what happens when a crisis starts to bring down the curtain on the prophet’s society, and suddenly he can see the way things ought to be, and how different that is from the way things are.
The passage Luke quotes from Isaiah is from chapter 40, the start of what scholars call Deutero-Isaiah, written about two centuries after the first 30 chapters. This part of the book is directed at the leaderless inhabitants of Judah left behind during the Babylonian exile. That’s when it suddenly becomes clear to the prophet what the ideal Jerusalem will be: delivered from foreign powers, restored to its mythic glory, a sign to the whole world that Yahweh is not just a local Palestinian divinity, but a universal one. Malachi, writing at least a century later, has his own moment of clarity. The restored temple and client government being put into place had fallen short of the ideal Deutero-Isaiah had envisioned. Malachi sees the sharp distinction between, on the one hand, the kind of temple a pure and holy God would inhabit and the kind of servants who would serve him there, and on the other hand, the kind that his society is putting into place. Like Hegel’s philosopher of the right, a prophet looks at the way things have turned out and can see, almost belatedly, the way things should be.
One of the tensions I always feel during the season of Advent is between the celebration of Christ’s coming, the culmination of history as the writers of Luke and Matthew see it, and on the other hand, the fact that we are still playing out a history that seems to have no end in sight. If it is all finished, then what are we still doing here? People who study doomsday cults talk about the psychology that takes hold the morning after the day the world was supposed to end. Surprisingly, after such events, people usually pick up and find a way to go on. They recast their focus on the end of the world into a commitment to living in the continuing world in a different way.
That’s the feeling that gripped the writers of Isaiah and Malachi. Wait, it wasn’t supposed to be like this, they say. Let me tell you what it should be. What it will be, when the Lord comes and puts things right. And even though those visions aren’t glimpses of us or of our offspring in some actual future, they are powerful, indispensable expressions of the difference between what is and what ought to be. The prophet is not resigned to current conditions. The prophet is not cynical about the prospects for change. The ideal world is so clear to the prophet precisely because the real one is so stubbornly actual that the contrast leaps out and demands to be articulated.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Here in Advent we only know about the coming dawn because the owl of Minerva flew in the gathering shades of night. Our understanding of the world to come arises from the glaring imperfections and injustices of the world we inhabit, our understanding of Christ’s rule from the failures of our governments and corporations to lead rightly. It isn’t just Christmas day that is a gift, the ideal become incarnate at last. It’s this season of darkness, too, when we can see clearly and prophetically what that ideal must be.