Thursday, November 30, 2017

God is Coming: Are We Scared or Relieved?

Lately, I have been studying Micah. It seemed like a fitting topic for a weekly Bible study that began a few weeks ago and will take us through Advent. There are, of course, the references to Bethlehem that make it feel like a timely text, but it also speaks to the beating of swords into plowshares and of a vision of justice and righteousness that made it feel particularly appropriate for this moment in our society. I didn't know that it would help me get a different glimpse at this week's reading from Isaiah 64 and the season of Advent more generally.

As Micah opens, the prophet speaks of the Lord's coming down from heaven to "tread upon the high places of the earth." The image of the Lord's arrival and the melting mountains and splitting valleys that accompany it is familiar to Micah's audience. That's what happens when God shows up--his power is manifest in the world. But what happens next threw everyone for a loop: "All this is for the transgression of Jacob and for the sins of the house of Israel...Therefore I will make Samaria a heap in the open country, a place for planting vineyards...For her wound is incurable, and it has come to Judah; it has reached to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem."

Before this, when a prophet announced the Lord's arrival, it meant victory for God's people. After years of struggle, Yahweh would arrive and rescue his people, delivering them with his might arm. At first, when Micah announced that the Lord was near, people got their hopes up. They were already under threat from the Assyrian Empire. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had either fallen or was close to falling. Micah's words gave them hope...until the other shoe dropped. What he disclosed was that the day of the Lord's coming was to be a day of vengeance upon the people of God for their sins. The destruction ahead of them--the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians and, eventually, the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians--was what happened when God showed up in power.

Nowadays, that's the image of the Lord's coming that we hear and expect. Not necessarily Samaria or Jerusalem's destruction, but the destruction of those who have not been faithful to God. On Sunday, when Isaiah calls to the Lord and says, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence," we get nervous. The so-called prophets of our era have scared God's people into thinking that God's arrival will be terrible, but that's not what Isaiah or Jesus or Paul have in mind. Isaiah speaks of God hiding his face from God's people because of their faithlessness. His arrival represents a time of renewal. The judgment was already enacted as God's people fell victim to the nations that surround them. The predicted arrival of God is a message of hope. The warfare is over. The struggle is finished. Yahweh will tear open the sky and swoop in to deliver God's people from their trouble.

How are we hearing the Advent message of the Lord's coming? When Jesus tells his disciples to "Keep awake" because no one knows when the master is coming, he isn't trying to scare them. He's giving them hope that at any minute the Lord will show up and rescue his people--in this case Jesus' followers--from the persecutions they face. Do we hear his words as a message of hope?

The Lord is coming. That seems clear. If we are on the side of God and God's people, that comes to us as a message of hope. If we are enemies of God and have been oppressing God's people, that comes to us as a deep and terrible threat. How are we hearing it? I don't know about you, but I want to be on God's side. If Jesus' words fill me with fear, maybe, instead of participating in the kingdom that he has inaugurated, I am working against it. It's not too late to switch sides.

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