And so it happens. As we turn the page on the end of another year in the Revised Common Lectionary, we turn to Advent. Darkness coming out of light. Waiting for the Messiah. And a lot of theologically challenging Advent carols begin to enter our hearing, not to mention this year’s complicated Year A readings from Isaiah.
I grew up in a very liberal American Baptist congregation. It was one of the founding churches in the Welcoming and Affirming movement. When religious liberty was challenged by school sponsored prayer or “motivational speakers” hired by some of the more fundamentalist churches in town to come into the schools and the lure us to their after-school programs, our church stood up for all people, for all religions and for those of no religion or belief in God. I went to a liberal arts college and studied under professors for whom the conservative Christian body would warn me not to take classes with, and attended a fairly liberal, welcoming church during college.
But I was stunned as I sat in my Old Testament class, first semester of seminary, when my professor dared to talk about the Hebrew Scriptures, the passages from the Prophets, especially Isaiah, and talk about early Christians putting Jesus back on the Scriptures when they wrote the Gospels. How the early Christians went looking for Jesus in the Hebrew texts and found certain passages that they borrowed from to fashion fulfilled prophecies about the Messiah, and that the Jews had other interpretations for those passages, especially the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah, and the young woman with child in 7:14. I had always, always interpreted those scriptures to be about Jesus. I had never thought of them any other way. I felt the foundation of my faith crumble out from under me.
After coffee with my professor and chatting with other seminary friends, I began to rebuild my faith. I also began to study the scriptures in context. Funny how we chose that one verse in Isaiah 7 about the young woman conceiving and naming her child Immanuel and not the rest of that passage, where the child is to eat curds and honey—never heard of that being Jesus’ early diet, nor the rest of the references to Assyria, nor chapter eight’s references to Immanuel. In fact, it’s pretty clear that the verses used to prove Jesus as the Messiah by the Gospel writers and early Christians were plucked right out of context. But as my professor said, there are certain attributes we ascribe to Jesus that the early Christians saw in the Hebrew texts about God, or about the coming Messiah, an idea in Jewish theology that came later.
So as I plan my preaching for Advent, I have three options: one, to continue to preach Jesus as predicted by the prophets, and thus risk perpetuating an anti-Semitic stereotype that somehow the Jews just missed Jesus and we got it right, appropriating the language and ideas from another religion to fit our own; or two, to just preach the Gospels and avoid all references to the Hebrew Scriptures (a very difficult task) and avoid any reference to prediction or prophecy; or three, to tackle this head-on and read them while acknowledging how they have been used in Christian theology and history.
I’m going with three. We as Christians need to acknowledge that while we claim the Hebrew Scriptures as our own, we have taken certain Scriptures out of context, misappropriated concepts and ideas about the Messiah and Israel’s future to fit Jesus into a box that was neatly pre-determined by God. We need to look at our hymns that have taken the Scriptures out of context, sometimes even changing the Scripture to fit in rhyme and verse, and replacing “God” with “Jesus.” We need to acknowledge that this is part of our tradition and history with Advent. Not ignore it, and not go along with it, but to acknowledge, to look to other ways to see Jesus as our Messiah, and to recognize our need to rethink the Advent season and what we teach, sing, and say.
So rejoice! Advent is almost here. Darkness is coming out of light. We are waiting for Christ to enter our world in a new way and into our lives by remembering Christ’s coming before. But let us not buy into the myths of the past. Let us not continue to appropriate without acknowledging our history of anti-Semitism within the church and our ignoring of our Jewish friends’ interpretation and understanding (and historical context) of these same Scriptures.