Monday, September 19, 2016

Names for the Messiah (Walter Brueggemann) -- Review

NAMES FOR THE MESSIAH: An Advent Study. By Walter Brueggemann. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Ix + 86 pages.



                Advent is a season of anticipation. In our consumer-oriented culture, there’s little room for anticipation. We like instant gratification. Still, Advent is a season of anticipation, and what better way to spend it than in the company of Walter Brueggemann, the now retired professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. Brueggemann knows the Bible and he is a master at connecting it to our day. Since Advent is a brief season of the church year—just four weeks—there is need for a brief yet deep book for study, and such is the case here.  In four brief chapters, Brueggemann helps us reflect on the meaning of four titles or names given to the Messiah by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 9:6).


                In this one verse from Isaiah can be found four names that in the course of church history have been applied to Jesus:  Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This passage gets voiced in Handel's Messiah and is read at many a Christmas Eve service. It is often taken as prophetic (predictive), but as Brueggemann reminds us, this verse has an original context that needs to be understood if the titles are to be appropriately applied to Jesus.  


                The book offers up four chapters of commentary, focusing on each of the four titles/names that are found in Isaiah 9:6. As expected Brueggemann starts with the original context before carefully pivoting to how they are applied to Jesus. In the introduction, Brueggemann suggests that our use of these titles in the context of Christmas reveal two things. First, use of this verse for Jesus is a reminder that early Christians used the "Old Testament 'anticipations' of the coming Messiah" and an interpretive key. Secondly, "Jesus did not fit those 'anticipations' very well" (p. viii). In other words, it takes a "good deal of interpretive imagination" to make the connection "between the anticipation and the actual, historical reality of Jesus."

                With regard to the title "Wonderful Counselor," Brueggemann suggests that what is meant here is "wise governance." The expectation here is that God has provided a king who will "devise plans and policies for the benefit of the entire realm" (p. 3). When applied to Jesus, the question raised is the nature of his rule since he doesn't fit traditional understandings of monarchy. In the Advent context, the title invites us to consider what it means for Jesus to govern. As Brueggemann points out, use of the title not only serves recognize his role, but serves as “recruitment for action congruent with the new regime” (p. 16). 

                We move from wisdom to power in the second title. Use of the title "Mighty God" for Jesus speaks of his role as carrier of divine power. Once again, when applied to Jesus the nature of this power is significantly different, especially when contrasted with the power of Rome. Unlike Rome, the power of Jesus is exercised free of the coercive, exploitative nature of Rome’s power. His vision is a transformative one, which has been passed on to the disciples and to us. This vision that is offered is one, as Brueggemann lays out, that involves "healing forgiveness, restoration, and well-being" (p. 31). 

                Brueggemann's discussion of the third title is intriguing. He notes that Jesus is understood to be the Son and not the Father, so how does Jesus embody the title of “Everlasting Father?” Brueggemann does a nice job reminding us that God was understood in fatherly terms by authors of the Old Testament. In part this is a reflection of the patriarchal nature of that society, but the idea is that the king does "fatherly deeds." The king, and Jesus is understood to be the king in this new kingdom, is God's regent or surrogate. As such, he is entrusted with the duty of caring for the poor and the needy, and standing for justice. He is the bearer of God's vision to all generations.

                Finally, Jesus is "prince of peace." The king is responsible for the social order, including peace. That is Jesus' vocation -- bringing peace. Of course, Jesus is not a prince in the normal sense. As prince of peace, he is not one who imposes it from a position of coercive power, as is true for empires. His peace isn't the same as the pax Romana. Thus, his peace is not your normal form. It is instead a peace that is "dangerous, subversive, and a contradiction of all that is usual" (p. 66). In his estimation, Brueggemann notes that Jesus contradicts all previous expectations of a peacemaker "who will ensure our advantage in the world." Instead, "the Christ child who is born, coronated, and worshiped is innocent, but he is not innocuous" (p. 66).

                This little book could prove to be a most enlightening and invigorating Advent study. The four brief interpretive chapters are followed by a study guide of four weeks. The guide begins with a prayer, continues with questions for reflection that go back to the interpretive work done by Brueggemann, and then concludes with a closing prayer. For those persons and congregations looking for an Advent study, this merits close attention and receives my recommendation. Brueggemann has demonstrated through the years that he has a keen insight into the biblical story and how it might speak prophetically to our contemporary situation. As he demonstrates here, the church through the ages has reappropriated texts from the Old Testament that may digress from the original purpose, as is true of this passage. Using this one passage and its four titles might require some imaginative interpretation to the make the link, and Brueggemann has the skill and wisdom to help us make that turn in a way that honors the original meaning and its later application. For that we can be thankful to Westminster John Knox for having him create this resource for our spiritual benefit!

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