December 1, 2013
We are now at the beginning of Advent – the four weeks leading up to Christmas on the church calendar – which also marks the beginning of the church New Year. This year (Year A) is the “Year of Matthew”, featuring Gospel readings from the Book attributed to the Apostle Matthew. The Matthean Gospel has many distinctive features, one of which is its orientation toward a predominantly (at the time) Jewish audience of Jesus-believers. The Gospel of Matthew, then, is very intimately tied to the Hebrew Bible (also known as the Old Testament), which the Gospel author interprets in light of the teachings of Jesus. Consequently, if we are to interpret the Gospel of Matthew in context, we cannot ignore or downplay the Hebrew Bible. This aspect may be uncomfortable for some Christians who may be in the habit of dismissing the Hebrew Bible in light of Jesus’ “new” revelation. However, I believe the insights we gain when we incorporate the Hebrew Bible into our interpretation will be life-affirming and enlightening, as Jesus Himself was a Jew and grew out of that majestic and rich tradition.
Another aspect of the Matthean Gospel is its response to its community’s apocalyptic orientation. The community of Matthew circa the year 85 CE was (according to commentator Brian K. Blount) “still reeling from the shock of Rome’s annihilation of Jerusalem and the razing of its temple in 70 CE” (2008. The Discipleship Study Bible. NRSV. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press. pp.1699). Consequently, Matthew’s community was still grappling with the question of how God could permit the center of the Jewish life, community and faith to be brutally destroyed by pagan invaders. Blount says that one answer for Jews at the time was “the reality of the two ages. In this present age, evil triumphs. But in the final and more permanent age, God and God’s people will be vindicated. Until that time God’s people should be patient and should, in the absence now of the Temple, live by the presence and power of the Torah” (Ibid.). For many Jewish Jesus-followers, Jesus Himself was the advent of the “final and more permanent age”, and many believed that His second coming was imminent.
The Gospel reading for this week is a response to that apocalyptic orientation, and to the community’s question of when that “final and more permanent age” would come. In the 24th Chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives several prophecies or warnings about the “end times”, including the warning “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray” (Matt 24:4). Jesus admonishes His believers “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father … Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matt 24:36, 42). (Such an admonishment is still timely, given the popular obsession with the End Times and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind novel series.)
Advent is traditionally a time of waiting and expectation of the coming of the Lord. It is a time of inner house-cleaning and soul-preparation for the arrival of the Prince of Peace in our lives. In many ways, we are very much like the Jewish community of Matthew in our world-weariness of the present age and our yearning for a better one. When I asked my good friend Brother Elijah to comment on this post, he said that during Advent, what we are actually looking for is a “Second Advent” (Isaiah 11:1, 10) when “We are no longer led by Popes, priests, preachers or any other external leader and we are looking to the heart for guidance, which requires being spiritually born, so that the Spirit can teach us Scripture” (he referenced Isaiah 28:9). As the Hebrew Bible reading for this week illustrates, we wait for a time when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (Isaiah 2:4-5). As we wait for that spiritual rebirth, let us join our Jewish brothers and sisters as they celebrate Hannukah, and we light the first candle of the Advent wreath to welcome the light of the Spirit this season.