Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2 In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3 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.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
5O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD! (Isaiah 2:1-5, NRSV)
I will always remember exactly where I was. I was on my way home, driving west on Florin Road just before the intersection at Riverside. It was the middle of the afternoon, November 1st of this year, the day after Halloween. I reached down to turn on the radio, thinking I’d enjoy a few songs from a local station that plays music I listened to when I was growing up. When the music came on, however, I immediately looked down at the numbers thinking that one of my kids must have changed the pre-sets. Either that or I’d somehow fallen asleep for a month without realizing it and had just now woken up. For what was coming out of my radio that November 1st was no hit song from the 70’s or 80’s but a very sentimental version of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”
Even in late December I’ve never much liked that song. In early November I find it nearly intolerable. The high temperature here that day was 76 degrees which means I would have been surprised to have found a single “open fire” burning in the whole of Sacramento. And even if there had been I don’t think I know a single person who even knows how to roast chestnuts in their fireplace.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a scrooge when it comes to Christmas. I love Christmas, even some of the parts that have almost nothing to do with the true meaning of the season. I’m not even one of those guys who gets upset at the clerk at Macy’s when she wishes me “Happy Holidays”. I get it. The Christmas which much of our culture celebrates has almost nothing to do with what actually happened in Bethlehem all those years ago. Why would people who don’t know Christ celebrate Christ? They wouldn’t. And I don’t expect them to.
In the end, the fact that the radio was playing Christmas music before my kids had even finished sorting through their Halloween candy didn’t so much upset me as remind me. You see, every year at this time so many of us find ourselves caught up in this mad rush to capture, orchestrate, plan, purchase the sort of Christmas portrayed in a song like that. The images we will all share on greeting cards and advertisements this season all paint a picture of the sort of idyllic Christmas most of us have never even come close to experiencing. You know, the whole family present and enjoying each other in perfect loving harmony. Everybody absolutely and perfectly content, none of us lacking for anything. The world around us completely full of beauty – unmarred, stunning and lasting beauty. Peace on earth, all around the earth. Joy to the world, to every last person in the world. A merry Christmas to you, from kids from one to ninety-two. I don’t know about you but the reality of Christmas for me is always a bit more faded than the image on the front of our Christmas card.
We find ourselves in the midst of a great tension in this life. On one hand we have this vision of what we believe the world is supposed to be like. And on the other hand we live with the reality of what the world is actually like. Somehow we know we were meant to love, and yet there is so much hate. Somehow we know we were created for joy and peace, and yet so often we live in sorrow and fear. Somehow we know we were made to thrive in health, and yet so many people we know, some of us, suffer in sickness and pain. Somehow we know we were meant to walk closely with God, and yet so often God seems so far away. Somehow we know we were destined to live, and yet all of us eventually die.
Few people have ever understood this great tension in life as well as the prophets of the Old Testament. As you might know, prophets in those days were not fortune-tellers but spokesmen. They were spokesman for God, which was not a job to which anybody would ever aspire because prophets spoke the truth and sometimes the truth, especially when it comes straight from God, is uncomfortable to say the least. As has been said before, there is no evidence that anybody ever asked a prophet home for supper more than once.
Isaiah was this sort of prophet. In fact, legend has it that people got so fed up with Isaiah that they eventually sawed him in half. Read through Isaiah and you’ll see why. Here is a prophet who never hesitates to proclaim what is wrong with the world and to blame all that was wrong with the world on the sin of the people. In chapter 1, in the very opening verses of the prophesy, Isaiah unloads, “Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged.” A few verses later he spells out the results of human sin. Speaking to the Israelites he says, “Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land.”
Isaiah was sent to speak to God’s people at a time of exile. Because of their rebellion, God had allowed foreign nations to ravage the nation of Israel, to destroy their holy city of Jerusalem and the sacred Temple within it, and to kill or cart off its citizens to slavery. In all of this Isaiah is clear, as all of scripture is clear, that such human hardship is always either a direct or indirect result of human rebellion and sin. Our world is not as we somehow know it was meant to be and the reason for this is that we have not trusted God and insisted on doing things our own way. Life is hard but it’s not God’s fault. It’s our fault. We’re the ones to blame. Read through Isaiah and you see this stark message of divine judgment repeated over and over again. You also see why people didn’t invite him over for dinner twice.
To be fair, however, read through Isaiah and you will also find, all along the way, woven in and out of the messages of divine judgment, messages of divine hope. Sometimes in fact, the two are laid side by side. A perfect example is the text we just read from Isaiah 2. Isaiah has just spent the entire first chapter proclaiming the divinely ordained destruction of Jerusalem but then almost in the same breath in chapter 2 he shifts to a message of divine hope. “In the days to come,” he writes, “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.” These are words of hope and salvation, and they are words not just spoken to Israel but spoken as well to all the nations of the earth! In the midst of the judgment there we find hope.
This has been a hard season here at Faith. In just a few months time we have lost six of our brothers and sisters. Each of them was dear to us. Each loss left our church grieving. Along with many of you I sat at each of those memorial services. And it is during these times when this great tension in life is felt most acutely. As much as we try to tell ourselves that death is just a part of life, most of us, even as we say this, are never fully convinced. Even when somebody lives a long and full life, it never feels as if saying goodbye to that person is how life was always intended to end up.
Divine judgment is a reality we all know well. And when we forget, it only takes us one funeral to remember. Our world is under a curse. Because of sin, because humanity has walked away from God, we have walked away from life. We might taste the life God once intended for us, but it’s only that, a taste, fleeting at best. And even when none of the rest of us will admit this is true, prophets like Isaiah won’t deny it. The world is broken and we are the ones who broke it.
But that, thank God, is not all the prophets proclaim. If it were, I don’t know how any of us could ever possibly bear the loss we have experienced in life and the loss we know we will one day experience. Thankfully, in the midst of judgment there is hope. For the God who judges us for our sin is also, at the very same time, the God who saves us from our sin.
I love the image Isaiah puts before us here. There will come a day, he says, when the Lord will judge between the nations and in that day “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 any more.”
This image takes me all the way back to Genesis, all the way back to the time when God created humankind and set them into paradise as their home and then gave them a command. Specifically, God said to us that we were to enjoy the gift of this earth but that we were also to cultivate the earth, to care for it, to turn the wilderness into a garden, even a city, where God’s creation could thrive and prosper with us in the midst of it all. God gave us this command and then gave us everything we needed to carry it out. Specifically, God gave us minerals in the earth that could be turned into steel and fashioned into plowshares and pruning hooks, the sorts of tools which would enable us to cultivate the world in the ways God had commanded.
What did we do instead? Sure, we did make some plowshares and pruning hooks, but we also made some swords and some spears, and plenty of them. It only takes four chapters in Genesis, in fact, before one person takes up arms and sheds the blood of another person. The bloodshed hasn’t stopped since, right up to today. And left to our own, there is nothing that we can ever do to change this. Apart from God, human beings are always going to take the resources given to us and make swords and spears. Prophets like Isaiah are not pessimists. They are realists. They simply call it like they see it.
Thankfully, however, judgment is not all they see. For in the midst of this broken world prophets like Isaiah see a God who is not only judge but also savior, a God who is, even now, turning things upside down. Or maybe right-side up, as the case may be.
Notice in Isaiah’s prophesy that we are told that God is establishing a mountain, a place that will rise above the death and destruction of this world. And notice that Isaiah tells us that the nations of the world shall stream like a river to the summit of that mountain. Talk about upside down! Rivers don’t flow up the sides of mountains. This one does. That is the power of this hope. That is the great extent to which God is transforming things in this world. Rivers flow up the sides of mountains. Swords are transformed into plowshares. Spears become pruning hooks. War changes to peace. Judgment becomes grace. Hatred melts into love. Death rises to life. Sworn enemies are welcomed as beloved children.
In the ancient tradition of the church, Advent, this season just before Christmas, is a season of waiting. That’s actually what the word means, it’s from a Latin word that literally means “coming”. You see, Advent is not a season of celebration or feasting. Advent is a season of waiting and fasting, a season of preparation, of repentance, of confession, of humility. This is hard for us, especially in a culture that wants to get to the chestnut roasting in the beginning of November. Everybody knows that turkey and mistletoe will make the season bright. Really? Not always. Advent reminds us that we still live in the tension. Divine judgment is real. But thankfully, so is divine hope.
So in Advent we wait. We wait for the One to come who encompasses both within himself. For the promise of Christmas is, after all, the promise that One is coming, One who takes divine judgment all upon himself so that in the end divine hope can be realized for all the world. At Advent we are called to wait in anticipation for One who came one day long ago in disgrace, but who is also coming again one day soon in glory. In Advent we are reminded that we live in the tension but also reminded that we will not live in it forever.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read Isaiah 2:1-5. What first stands out to you from this passage?
Isaiah here portrays the future house/kingdom of God atop a mountain. Why do you think he chooses the image of a mountain? What does that bring to mind for you?
Verse 4 speaks of what God promises to do. What exactly does God promise here? Do you want God to do these things?
Prophets like Isaiah speak boldly about God’s judgment and God’s salvation, and speak about both of them almost in the same breath. Is God our judge and our savior at the very same time?
God is a God who transforms things. Apparently, God even transforms swords into plowshares. What are you praying for God to transform in your life or in this world this Christmas?
Does Christmas usually deliver what you hope it will deliver? What are you hoping Christmas will deliver this year?
Are you sensing that God wants you to approach the Christmas season differently this year? How so?
Verse 5 extends an invitation to “walk in the light of the Lord.” What does this mean to you? Are you now walking in the light of the Lord?