REV. ROGER KARBAN
From the beginning, Christians have had to deal with the tension that arises when we compare what we expect to have in the future with what we have right now. Given human nature, it's easier for us -- as it was for our ancestors in the faith -- to zero in on the hereafter, ignoring what God is doing for and with us in the present.
We expect the future to contain everything we now long and hope for. And though we have to live faith-filled lives to achieve our dreams, we believe that, if we do our part, God will faithfully lead us into a glorious afterlife.
Of course, if we zero in on the future, we must be patient, as the author of II Peter insists (3:8-14): "In the Lord's eyes," he writes, "one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years are as a day. The Lord does not delay in keeping His promise " though some consider it `delay.' Rather, He shows you generous patience, since He wants none to perish but all to come to repentance."
In other words, the only reason we don't presently have the glory that Jesus promised long ago is because He wants as many people as possible to share in it. The longer He waits to bring it about, the more people will have an opportunity to convert and take part in it.
Yet we can't ignore the other side of the tension. Many of our Sacred Authors -- both in the Christian and in the Hebrew Scriptures -- remind us that we already have much of what we expect to receive in the future. We simply must take the time and make the effort to see what God's actually doing in our lives here and now. Those who struggle with this facet of the tension pray more for sight than for patience. This is certainly the case with Deutero-Isaiah.
Prophesying during the Babylonian Exile, the unnamed prophet (responsible for chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah) announces that his people's captivity has finally come to an end (Is 40:1-5, 9-11). Yahweh decrees that they're going home. "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem," God informs Deutero-Isaiah, "and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; indeed, she has received from the hand of the Lord double for all her sins."
Though the prophet's audience had waited 50 years to hear those words, scholars remind us that a huge percentage of exiled Israelites preferred to continue waiting instead of starting preparations for the return to Jerusalem. Not only had they gotten accustomed to their captivity, they were very comfortable in their "punisher/punished" relationship with Yahweh!
Deutero-Isaiah's proclamation demanded both a change of geography and a change of mind-set. For many, the former was difficult; the latter, revolutionary. They couldn't bear to hear the words, "Here is your God!...Like a shepherd He feeds His flock, in His arms He gathers the lambs, carrying them in His bosom, and leading the ewes with care."
If Yahweh had changed from punisher to redeemer, then their relationship with Yahweh also had to change. No wonder they wanted to maintain a future-oriented faith. A shift to the present embodied too many demands.
John the Baptizer makes parallel demands on his hearers. Active more than 500 years after Deutero-Isaiah, this wilderness prophet proclaims the "here-ness" of an event and person which every Jew was anticipating (Mk 1:1-8). John informs "all in the Judean countryside and the people of Jerusalem" that they can no longer consign salvation and the Messiah to the distant future. What they'd been expecting for centuries is now taking shape in their midst.
"One more powerful than I," John announces, "is to come after me....I have baptized you in water; He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit."
John doesn't stop there. He preaches that the appropriate behavior for those preparing "the way of the Lord" is to walk out into the Jordan River and be baptized "as they confess their sins." They must honestly attempt to turn their lives around and become the new people Yahweh expects.
It's easy to understand why John eventually was martyred. An ideal future always wins more followers than a demanding present.