The Advent of Hope – A Jewish Response

Thank you, Reverend Kendrick, for inviting me to share the pulpit with you this morning and to respond to your words. It is so important for Jews and Christians to know more about how the other reads Scripture, and to learn together. I’m glad that my students heard your call to shared responsibility – that Jews and Christians, together, join hands to work for a world more reflective of Isaiah’s vision.

For us this text is forever linked to the physical, geographical, Zion – that little hill in Jerusalem on which, according to tradition, Abraham offered Isaac to God, and which later became the site of Solomon’s Temple. Yet we, like you, read it as having eternal and global import that transcends its place on a map, or a timeline. Zion is not just a place, but an ideal. Jerusalem, according to Jewish legend, is not one city, but two. There is Yerushalayim shel mata, terrestrial Jerusalem, the city of golden stone in the heart of Judea. But there is also Yerushalayim shel ma’ala, celestial Jerusalem, a city of golden light which floats in the heavens, in the world of our dreams. Our prayer is for the lifting up of earthly Jerusalem, for a city that meets its destiny by becoming all that it is meant to be. That city is indeed the one to which the nations will flow, “to learn God’s ways, to walk in God’s paths.”

When Jews read a sacred text that they have in common with Christians, they too must understand how that text functions in the liturgical and spiritual life of their neighbors. I hope my students who are present this morning will never forget that the text they’ve learned to sing as children – lo yisa goi el goi cherev, v’lo yilm’du od milchamah – “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” – that this text is the keynote to the season of Advent. Remember this: as we move toward Chanukah, the festival that has us kindling light while the days grow dark, Christians join us in waiting, in hopeful expectation, for their own expression of that universal impulse to look for a tiny, growing light in the midst of darkness.

When Jews and Christians read a sacred text which they share in common with one another, they confront a reality that at first appears troubling. It is the reality of the one text with two traditions flowing from it. This morning we are a community at prayer that is in fact two communities. How do we square that reality with a hoped-for unity? How do we love each other and respect each other without feeling the need to convert each other? For Jews, that capacity comes from the recognition that, as our tradition teaches us, “the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come.” For Lutherans, that capacity – which, admittedly lives in tension with the universalizing tendencies of your tradition – comes from texts like this one, from your own “Talking Points” pamphlets, meant as a guide to Lutheran-Jewish dialogue. There we find:

God has more than one way of being faithful to God’s promises. The promise and fulfillment pattern should not imply that Christianity and Judaism are mutually exclusive fulfillments. Rather, each faith community has experienced God’s grace and guidance in ample measure.

Promise and fulfillment is not a once and for all event, but rather a recurring pattern of God’s action. Both the life of the church and the vitality of contemporary Judaism are vivid testimonies to God’s power and constancy. In every generation, church and synagogue are mutual tokens of God’s faithfulness. Together we await the ultimate fulfillment of all God’s promises.

“Together we await the ultimate fulfillment of all God’s promises.” Those words from the ELCA web site’s section on Lutheran-Jewish relations are practically a commentary on this morning’s reading. The vision of Isaiah is a universal vision. The promise is a universal promise. And the fulfillment – the ultimate fulfillment – will be a universal fulfillment. This, we believe. And in this season of hopefulness, of eager expectation, we redouble our zeal for that vision, and our commitment to work for it, together. L’chu v’nelcha b’or adonai – Come, let us walk by the light of the Lord!

The “Talking Points” makes reference to the “vitality of contemporary Judaism.” I appreciate that sentiment very much. As a contemporary Jew, I am mindful of the tendency among some Christians to understand Judaism as having been cryogenically frozen in the year 70. Just as Christianity has a rich history of literary activity, theology, and bible commentary stretching over two millennia to the present day, so too does Judaism. Mishnah and Talmud, codes and commentaries, writing and thinking to the present day, all inform the spiritual life of the contemporary Jew. With that recognition, let me conclude with a contemporary text that sheds new light on Isaiah’s words. It is from Yehudah Amichai, who died in the year 2000 and who is widely held to have been Israel’s greatest poet. He wrote:

Don’t stop after beating the swords
into ploughshares, don’t stop! Go on beating
and make musical instruments out of them.

Whoever wants to make war again
will have to turn them into ploughshares first.

Amen.

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