“Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’” (Isa 2:3). These are words in the section from Hebrew Scripture that are offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, the first day of Advent (Isa 2:1–5). How do we deal with the words of a prophet, speaking eight centuries before Jesus, when they are set for the season in which we look forward, with expectation and hope, to the coming (again) of Jesus, at Christmas?
Perhaps these words sit here, at the start of Advent, because they express a vision of the universal relevance and impact of faith in God, grown amongst the people of Israel, and brought to a fuller expression in the person of Jesus? The claim that “many peoples” will come to Jesus points to his universal impact. The notion that these “many people” will seek to learn the ways of the Lord and walk in his paths is a comforting and inspiring statement by the prophet.
This passage, too, is well-known for the prophet’s vision that divine judgement will take place “between the nations … for many peoples” (2:4a); as a result, those people “shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (2:4b). This oracle, shared with the contemporary prophet Micah (Mic 4:1–4), foresees that these nations “shall not learn war any more” (2:4c). It’s a wonderful vision—sadly, one that is still awaiting fulfilment, even 28 centuries later.
In the coming weeks, we will be hearing and considering other words from this prophet who lived eight hundred years before Jesus; words that the church has heard, and taken, and restated, and declared that they speak about Jesus—predictive prophecy, enabled by the Spirit, spoken well in advance of the time of their fulfilment. After the vision of universal peace this coming Sunday (Isa 2:1–5, Advent 1A), the following Sunday we will hear a similar oracle from Isaiah (Isa 11:1–10, Advent 2A), in which another vision of universal harmony is expressed.
The two passages sit curiously alongside the Gospel passages of the prediction of apocalyptic turmoil by Jesus (Matt 24:36–44, Advent 1A) and the fierce apocalyptic preaching of John (Matt 3:1–12, Advent 2A). Whilst the Gospel passages foresee disastrous events, the Hebrew Scripture passages look to universal peace.
The other two Sundays in Advent contain further oracles spoken eight centuries before Jesus by the prophet Isaiah. One comes from the later part of the long opening section of Isaiah (chapters 1–39), and once again offers a vision of restitution and harmony; a period of time with abundant blossoming (35:1–2), divine salvation (35:3–4), restoration of full health (35:5–6), an a highway, “the Holy Way”, where “no lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come upon it” (35:9). The whole vision is framed with joy and singing (35:2, 10; see Isa 35:1–10, Advent 3A).
This passage sits, more easily, alongside the Gospel reading for that Sunday, recounting an incident in which Jesus was asked about John the baptiser (Matt 11:2–11; Advent 3C), in which he talks about events taking place even in their midst: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (11:5).
Finally, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, the lectionary takes us to the very familiar prophetic words, “the Lord himself will give you a sign; look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isa 7:14), a part of a longer prophecy that Isaiah speaks directly to King Ahaz (Isa 7:10–16), Advent 4A).
Alongside this, of course, is the Gospel passage where this famous prophetic utterance is cited (Matt 1:18–28, Advent 4A)—albeit, in a version that clearly mistranslates the Hebrew ‘almah (young woman) as the Greek parthenos (virgin)—a rendering that has become firmly fixed into the Christian traditions about the birth of Jesus.
A brief footnote: two of these passages (Isa 7 and Isa 11) come from the famous three passages early in Isaiah that are regularly connected, in Christian tradition, with the birth of Jesus. The third passage (Isa 9) is designated by the lectionary as the first reading for “the Nativity of the Lord” on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (Isa 9:2–7). Together, the “young woman shall conceive” (Isa 7), “a child has been born for us, a son is given” (Isa 9), and “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (Isa 11) provide a natural collection of ancient words pointing to the good news of the Christmas story.
That said: we need to be very careful in how we speak about these passages. Whilst they seem, to us Christians, to fit naturally within the context of our Advent expectation about the coming of Jesus, we need to remember that we are taking passages from scriptures that are sacred to people of another faith, which existed long before the Christian faith came into being as a system of belief; indeed, long before Jesus himself was born.
We know “in our heads” that Christianity emerged from the Jewish faith—but often we act as if this newly-formed religious system now stands in the place of Judaism, as the body of belief to which the Lord God, the ancient of days, now relates and responds; and that Judaism itself is now obsolete, no longer relevant, superseded. Presenting readings from Hebrew Scripture as if they speak directly and clearly about Jesus, continues such an attitude.
Judaism is not, of course obsolete; there are still millions of people holding the beliefs of Judaism and keeping the practices of Judaism around the world—in Israel, in the United States, in Australia, and in any other countries. The Jewish faith has not ended; Christian believers have not superceded Jews as God’s chosen people. God’s covenant with Jewish people continues; as Paul declared so clearly, “God has not rejected God’s people” (Rom 11:1), “the gifts and the calling of God [to Israel] are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). “Salvation has come to the Gentiles” (Rom 11:11), but even so, “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26), for “as regards election, they are beloved” (Rom 11:28).
Indeed, there is much in common amongst these two faith. Jews and Christians each orient our belief towards the same God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, the God of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Christians believe that this God is the same as the God of Mary and Jesus, of Peter and Paul, of Priscilla and Phoebe, and the God in whom we believe. We need to give due acknowledgement of that reality in our worship and preaching.
Supersessionism is a term used to describe the way that the Church, through the centuries, has simply taken over Jewish elements (such as scripture, the covenant, the Ten Commandments, Pentecost, the Passover Seder—and these “Advent texts” from Isaiah). We have “baptised” them so that believers have the view that these are Christian elements, without any sense of their Jewish origins—and their continuing place in contemporary Jewish life.
The Assembly of the Uniting Church issued a statement in 2009 regarding our relationship with Jews and Judaism. It affirmed the integrity of Judaism as a living faith, and made a commitment to engage in constructive relationships with Jews. It encouraged members of the Uniting Church to value Judaism as a living faith, and not to engage in acts or demonstrate actions that indicate a belief that Judaism has been superceded. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/resources/learn-more/item/download/1109_09f709cccf49d83607c92e31d650d581
We should not therefore speak, sing, pray, or act in ways that are disrespectful to Jewish practice and beliefs, and in contravention of our strong commitment as a church to work constructively with our Jewish sisters and brothers. That should be an important guideline in the way we approach these “Advent texts”, even as we have our eyes firmly fixed on “the coming of Jesus”, which we celebrate at Christmas.