Hope and expectation

One thing I like about attending a church that celebrates the Advent season is getting to sing Advent hymns. This morning we sang “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and my favorite, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” (We also sang “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” which doesn’t strike me as an Advent hymn at all, but I happen to enjoy singing it – as long as it is to the tune by Handel.)

Advent is all about waiting, hope, and expectation. I have heard many times, in sermons and Bible studies, that when the Bible speaks of hope it is something one is sure of, not the way we use the word in English to express a wish that we may have little confidence of having fulfilled. When I studied Spanish, I found it interesting – and somewhat confusing – that a single verb, esperar, means to wait, to hope, and to expect. How, I wondered, would you express the idea of hoping without much expectation of fulfillment? “I hope he will come, but I don’t expect he will come.” (I have read since that the meaning has to be determined from the context.)

When I was in high school, I had to get rides to the church I attended. Even after I had my driver’s license, my parents could see no reason why I should use up gasoline and pollute the air to drive to church if there were people who could pick me up on their way. I had a few different people I could ask, so if one wasn’t available another could pick me up – but even those who gave me rides fairly regularly didn’t always remember to stop for me.

I would stand at the living room window, Bible in hand, waiting for the car to pull up in front of the house. I would watch as the minutes crept by, wondering why my friends were late. Every time I heard a car, my hopes would rise, then I would see an unfamiliar car drive on past.

Eventually it would get late enough that I would have little expectation that I would get to church that evening. (Sunday mornings weren’t a problem because I worked in the church’s bus ministry and the bus might be late but never left me behind.) But I would still stand at the window for several more minutes, hoping that somehow my friends had been delayed but had not forgotten me.

For the Jews awaiting their promised Messiah, and for Christians awaiting the Second Coming of Jesus, it seems sometimes as though God had forgotten. Can one really trust those ancient prophecies, written by men of bygone ages? Even if one decides the prophecies are true, do they mean what preachers say they mean?

Besides the big difference between Jews saying the Messiah has not yet come and the Christians saying He has, among Christians there are widely diverging opinions regarding the Second Coming. If the prophecies are so unclear, how can one have firm expectations based on them? (I ask these primarily as rhetorical questions, but I admit to having real doubts sometimes.)

I started thinking this morning (while walking the dog, which gives me a good chance to think without being interrupted, other than by the dog straining to run after the occasional jogger, biker, or other dog-walker) about Simeon and Anna. Usually the story of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple is told after Christmas, since that is how it would have come chronologically. But both Simeon and Anna had been doing a great deal of waiting, long before Jesus was born, and likely even before his mother Mary was born.

What did they expect, based on the prophecies in the Scriptures that Christians today call the Old Testament? I used to think, hearing the preacher teach about how perfectly Jesus fulfilled those prophecies, that there must be a fairly clearly drawn picture of the coming Messiah in the Old Testament, and most of the Jews must have been either foolish or blinded by hatred not to recognize Jesus as the one they had been waiting for.

When I read the Old Testament, though, I came to realize how fragmentary many of the prophecies are, and how open to differing interpretations. Messiah and Christ both mean “anointed one,” but other people were anointed in Scripture, so one can’t assume that every reference to an anointed one is to the Messiah. There are Psalms where the writers seems to be talking about himself, yet today they are seen as Messianic prophecies. Some passages I would never guess as having Messianic significance without the aid of commentaries.

Whatever the Messiah himself would be like, though, the prophecies make it clear what life would be like under his rule. “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. … They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:6,9)

One reason Jews do not accept Jesus as the Messiah is that those prophecies clearly have not been fulfilled. The Jews of Jesus’s time clearly expected a King (remember how they were ready to make him king, by force if need be, in John 6?) who would defeat their enemies and restore Israel to a position of greatness. (For a description of the Messianic era from a Jewish perspective, see this page.)

So I would guess that Simeon and Anna shared that expectation. They had waited and waited, and they had grown old waiting, but they had not given up expecting the Messiah. Simeon, in particular, had been promised by the Spirit of God that he would live to see the Messiah. How long had he lived with that hope, I wonder? Was he old and infirm enough (I read that tradition says he was 113) that he welcomed not only the sight of the baby who would bring salvation to his people, but also the prospect of release from the pains and troubles of this life?

Sunday School lessons always depict Simeon and Anna in the Temple waiting when Jesus arrives with his parents. (And as lessons focus more on the two old people’s reactions to Jesus, not their personal histories, I suspect that many children come away with the impression that Simeon and Anna were married.) When I reread the story this morning, I was surprised to see that the Spirit had to tell Simeon to go to the Temple courts. I wonder what he spent his time doing until then?

I was also surprised that I couldn’t easily locate the prophecy referenced in Simeon’s prayer of praise.

For my eyes have seen your salvation, 
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 
a light for revelation to the Gentiles, 
and the glory of your people Israel.

The light for the Gentiles could be a reference to either Isaiah 42:6 (“I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles”) or Isaiah 49:6 (“I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth”). But the reference to “the glory of your people Israel” is more vague. There is Micah 4, where it says that in the last days many nations will go to the Temple in Israel, to learn God’s ways and God’s law. There is the agricultural prosperity promised in Ezekiel 34.

In any case, it’s another example of only part of the prophecy being fulfilled by Jesus’s first coming. Revelation was given to the Gentiles, as the apostles (Paul in particular, but according to tradition other apostles went to the far reaches of the then-known world) shared the Gospel of Jesus with them and welcomed them into the Church. But it’s hard to say what glory came to the people of Israel, who for two thousands years have been persecuted in most lands they have gone to (including, sadly, many who claimed the name of Christ).

The Christian explanation, of course, is that it’s a two-part prophecy with an indeterminate amount of time in between the first and second parts being fulfilled. Which is why Advent is not only (or intended to be even primarily) about preparing for the birth of Jesus. Today’s Gospel reading from the lectionary (a calendar of Scripture readings shared by many churches) was from Matthew 24, where Jesus answers his disciples’ question about the sign of his coming and of the end of the age.

So the sermon was all about being ready. Of course, since no one knows when the time will come for which we need to be ready, we have to be ready all the time, always living as God desires. I suppose it’s a good way to get ready for the Christmas season also – even if it doesn’t do much to put me in a holiday mood.

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