So far we have looked at this gospel in its Matthean context. But what about it use on the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the Liturgical Year? If last Sunday (Christ the King Sunday) represents a culmination of things – when Christ reigns above all – then what are we to make of the First Sunday in Advent? Do we go back to the beginning and again work our way through the year until Christ is again King?
Yes…in way. The beginning is not the birth of Jesus. The beginning is the advent (the coming) of Jesus as the fulfillment of the promise of God and thus the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people. This is the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Expectation and Hope. The Old Testament Lectionary reading for this first Sunday of Advent is Isaiah 2:1-5.
This is what Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come, The mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us climb the LORD’S mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Israel had a troubled history. She was a tiny nation wedged between huge and ambitious empires that were constantly vying for superiority. Israel had few times during her 700-year history in which she did not live under threat. Wars were almost constant, some were devastating. For much of her existence she lived under the sovereignty of some other nation, unable or sometimes unwilling to establish her own existence in the world as God’s people.
In the time of Isaiah of Jerusalem, Judah was a vassal state of Assyria. During Isaiah’s lifetime the Assyrians would sweep in and totally annihilate the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and threaten to do the same to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Judah had weak leaders who saw it more politically expedient to appease the Empire than to be faithful to God.
And yet there were those like Isaiah who could envision a different reality, who could hope for a time when Israel would be faithful and allow God to be God. Israel was weary of war and threat, weary of the divisions that had torn her country apart after Solomon, weary of the instability of a world in which power and the oppression that it brings were the controlling factors in the world. Some like Isaiah knew that God’s vision of the world was much different. They knew that the God they served was the same God who had heard the cries of oppressed slaves in Egypt and entered history to relieve their oppression. And they knew that because God was such a God, he would not forever tolerate oppression in the world.
And so they hoped. And they dreamed. They dreamed of a time when God would enter the world and bring an end to war and suffering, when he would establish his reign on earth and restore all creation to what he intended it to be. They dreamed of a time when the division that had torn their people apart and divided them into north and south might be healed, and they could once again be a whole people under God.
This is the context of the cautionary tale of Matthew’s gospel on this first Sunday of Advent. Those things hoped for and dreamed about are at the door – so “Wake Up!” and be prepared for the time when we will “allow God to be God.” And be prepared that God will be God – even if it is in ways we cannot imagine. A King in swaddling clothes. Who’d have thought.