This is the first Sunday of Advent, a time of remembering, preparing, and anticipating the arrival. Of the little Baby Jesus? Well, eventually, sort of. The Baby Jesus has already arrived, and we will celebrate his birth. Sometimes, people can get the idea that with Christmas we are expecting Jesus to be born again. After all, in the song “O Little Town of Bethlehem” we ask for Jesus to “be born in us today.”
I watch this show online called The Grand Tour, it is a British show where three men review cars and bicker, among other things. It is hosted by the original cast from Top Gear if you are familiar with that show. A couple of years ago, they were doing their Christmas special, and they had created special Christmas decorations using lights from cars, like brake lights and turn signals, to give it a festive feeling. Then, the ringleader of their crew, Jeremy Clarkson, unveils the decoration he came up with, a giant cross made up of LED fog lights. The other two complain that not only did he blind the audience with his light display, but he used the wrong symbol. They said that it should have been a star. The cross was a huge spoiler about what’s going to happen to the Baby Jesus at Easter. Then, one of the hosts, James May, looks directly at the camera and says, “If you don’t want to know what happens to the Baby Jesus, look away now.”
No, there is no need for a spoiler alert because Jesus’ death and resurrection is what makes his birth important to us at all. It is not like we are recreating or re-living it. We are remembering it. I’ve have gotten as wrapped up in this as anyone. As we go through the season of Advent we will be remembering other things as well.
A large part of what we do when we participate in the Advent season is that we anticipate the return of Jesus to complete the work that he begun. We also remember and honor the hope with which Israel waited in faith for the Messiah, their Savior, through some of their darkest history up to this point. Today’s Scripture does both of these things. It talks about a promise for our future that was written about 700 years before Jesus was even born.
This week, as I’ve mentioned we are beginning our worship series, Let Heaven and Nature Sing, inspired by the song “Joy to the World.” In a momentous conversation between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama that resulted in the publication of the Book of Joy, one of the “pillars” of joy they identified was “perspective.” Opening ourselves to a different perspective can bring a sense of hope in the midst of despair—allowing joy to creep in no matter what. Opening to the perspectives of others can shift our fear to compassion, turning swords into plows. Salvation is near, says the scripture, when we wake up, when we prepare room in our lives for new Light, new insight, new hope to enter. Let us hear from the prophet Isaiah 2:1-5, which you will find on page 1062 of your Pew Bible.
Hear the Word of the Lord:
2:1 This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
2 In the last days [or the days to come]
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
3 Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
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.
5 Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.
This passage is not unlike what we focused on last week. It anticipates a future that we cannot bring about ourselves. It is something that can look like an impossible dream for those of us living today, during Jesus’ day, or even in Isaiah’s day. It is a very interesting passage for a number of reasons. The words are very visual. It begins be telling us what Isaiah saw, not what he heard. We have a prophecy of the God of a very small country, say compared with Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon around this time period. They were the countries that were often fighting over this little slip of land that was Israel (the Northern and Southern Kingdoms).
At that time gods were considered to be regional. Baal might be over Canaanite territory, Ashur for Assyrians, and Ra for Egyptians, for example. Yahweh was the God for Israel. That is why when the Syrian, Naaman, was healed during Elisha’s time, he wanted to bring soil from Israel back to Syria. He wanted to be able to worship Yahweh when he returned home to Assyria, so he had to bring a representation of Israel’s land with him. But, here we have a prophecy of Israel’s God, being God of the whole world. It is the God to which the nations of the world stream.
When I hear that I see a long line of people making their way to a high mountain, like Mount Hood or something … in the summer. That’s rather ironic because the mountain where the Lord’s temple was established was Mount Zion, not the highest mountain in the area. However, here it will be the most important. It will be the greatest. Why? Because that is where all the nations will go there to learn the ways of God. Not as an intellectual exercise or a sociology project, but because they want to walk in God’s ways. They want to put them into practice.
Why is this significant? Because Israel wasn’t doing it. The whole previous chapter is God rebuking Israel for rebelling against God. As God’s chosen people, they were given the law as a gift as a sign of God’s special relationship with them, but they were corrupt. They were so corrupt that God was tired of chastising them. God says to them, ”
Woe to the sinful nation,
a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers,
children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the Lord;
they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
and turned their backs on him.
They could have been the example to the nations about the goodness of God and God’s ways, but instead the nations will teach them!
Our passage says, “In the days to come … [God] will judge between the nations.” This is one of the most amazing parts of the passage. It does not mean the kind of “divine judgment” that we usually think of where God decides whether conduct is good or bad and either punishes or rewards accordingly. In the case where all of the nations of the world walk in God’s ways, they all trust God so much that God is the judge, the mediator, of disputes between people.
That is why the people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. It is not that there will no longer be any disagreements, but rather the tools of war will no longer be necessary because God will be the just judge trusted to settle all disputes.
Did you know that these words are carved in a wall across the street from the United Nations building in New York City?
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4b-c)
The words may seem laughable at the United Nations as they debate about sanctions against Iran or North Korea, a condemnation of this or that, voting whether to send “peace keeping troops” here or there. However, those words, that institution, is intended as hope. The kind of peace that Isaiah is talking about is not something that humanity can achieve on its own. However, it is an ideal. It is something that the better parts of us reach for.
We can talk about the Declaration of Independence in the same way. It contains the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words were written and agreed to by very rich men who owned slaves, owned other people, something that now we find repugnant. Yet, that doesn’t make their words any less inspiring. Now, we would want to change it to say that all people are created equal. As a country, we are closer to that ideal now than we were in 1776, but we have by no means achieved it. When we look, we can see that the arc of history may bend toward justice, but we also see that we often leap forward to fall several steps back. Yet, we have this ideal toward which we can aspire.
In the same way, this vision of Isaiah is an ideal that much more powerful in contrast to all of the harsh words from the previous chapter. Despite all of that corruption, if they also turn back to God, let God teach them his ways once again, so that they may walk in his paths, they can “walk in the light of the Lord.” They can be the examples to the nations that God had promised them they would be.
One of the problems with Israel at this time that was recounted by the prophets over and over, including Isaiah, was that they would look around at all of the cultures and religions of the nations surrounding them and start emulating them. When they were doing this, they were not learning the ways of the Lord. They did exactly what happens to all of us when we stop focusing on God, when we stop learning and studying. They drifted. They drifted away. They went back to doing what was right in their own eyes, thinking that they were doing God’s will. Either that, or taking God for granted. I will do what I want for a while. God will always take me back. God always will forgive me. Well yes, that’s true. God even says this the previous chapter. If you return, you will be made clean, but there will be consequences. It’s kind of like cleaning out a badly infected wound. It may hurt like the dickens, but it will heal, and you will live.
So, in today’s passage, Israel is encouraged to return to God and learn God’s ways. With this promise for the future, they are invited to walk in the light of this vision. This message is not only for Israel. It is for anyone who will listen. It is for anyone who will see. It is for us. We are all encouraged to continue to learn and keep reminding ourselves of God’s ways. If we don’t keep focused, people have a tendency to drift. As Stephen Covey said in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, we need to keep the main thing the main thing.
God invites us to walk in the light of this vision. What is this vision? One in which people learn the ways of God, one in which people will trust God and live in peace.
This prophecy of peace through God’s law and justice gets surprising support from Jordan B. Peterson, called by the New York Times, “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.” In his book, Twelve Rules for Life, Peterson lays out 12 deceptively simple rules that are, in his words, “an antidote to chaos.” Without rules, life descends into chaos, which, he says, is exactly why our world is such a mess.
So he proposes rules like this: “Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back,” “Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping,” “Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize The World.” These rules are not as simple as they sound and there are problems with some of Peterson’s ideas from a Christian perspective. But the idea that rules make life better fits our passage of learning God’s ways very well.
Much simpler were the rules laid out in Robert Fulghum’s classic, Everything I Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. Remember? “Don’t hit people, share your toys, put things back where you got them, play fair.” Those sound suspiciously like God’s ways. Think of how much closer we would be to peace on Earth if we could stick with those rules?
Here in Isaiah is a call to live by faith. We cannot see the peace of God ruling among the nations, or even in the church. We are tempted to complain or despair, but God calls us to live by his light, not by this present darkness. It is easy to become cynical or depressed, angry or beaten down. God calls us to faith in this soaring promise of peace and become peacemakers wherever and however we can. No, we cannot bring the peace of God, but we can demonstrate it in our own lives, as we “walk in the light of the Lord.” From a mountain top Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
As we remember the anticipation of Israel for the Messiah, their Savior, we anticipate the return of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Let us prepare room for him in our hearts, as we proclaim Joy to the World!