Happy New Year!
Today is the first day of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s calendar year. The lectionary gives us a great gift when it begins the year with this short passage from the book of Isaiah: Isaiah 2:1-5. Here we read the account of a vision given to Israel’s greatest prophet. Isaiah sees a mountain – “the mountain of the Lord’s house” – raised high above all other mountains. And to this place, he tells us, “all the nations” shall stream. They will say to one another, “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.”
The mountain Isaiah refers to is, of course, Mount Zion, on which stood the Temple, the dwelling place of God on earth. The revelation given to Isaiah in this vision is that this mountain – “the mountain of the Lord’s house” – will be a source of wisdom and right judgment for all people. The Law of Moses, given initially to the people of Israel, will instruct all the nations in the ways of God and teach them to walk in God’s paths. The result of this will be universal peace, the promise of peace with justice, which will allow humankind to “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks,” so that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Isaiah wants us to know that this is not just his dream for the world; this was the vision given him by God. God has revealed to him that, one day, all the nations of the world will live by the commandments of God, and that, wherever there is still conflict or strife, “(God) will judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples,” so that there may indeed be peace on the earth.
What an incredible promise! And what a powerful reminder of God’s yearning and God’s plan for all humankind, for the earth and the creatures who inhabit it. What balm in times of trouble, especially for those of us who often feel trapped in a hopelessly hostile world, and who are trying our best not to slide into cynicism and despair.
Some of us might wonder if this is Good News for us as Christians today. We might recall St Paul’s insistence that we who have been born again into Christ are freed from the Law and its obligations (Rom. 10:4, Phil. 3:9, etc.) We might wonder what our relationship to the Law of Moses to which Isaiah refers, is or should be.
Rachel Held Evans describes our ambiguity in her provocative book, Inspired: She writes, “Christians have long struggled with exactly how to interpret and receive what is commonly called ‘the Law’ of Hebrew Scripture… [we] have a rockier relationship with Old Testament law. Conservatives are quick to cite it when condemning same-sex behavior or supporting the display of the Ten Commandments on federal courthouses, while progressives (like Evans herself) tend to shrug it off as outdated and irrelevant until we need a quote about ‘welcoming the stranger’ to scribble on a protest sign.”
But for the Jews, “the Law was God’s gift, given as a sign of God’s special, covenant relationship with them… these divine instructions helped forge a unique national identity… It reminded them…that the God who parted the Red Sea and conquered Pharaoh’s armies was sticking around for the long haul. This is not a God who liberates, then leaves. Deliverance… is not a onetime deal.” And, “in a world that often celebrated violent indulgence, the Law offered a sense of stability and moral purpose.” (Inspired, pp. 51-53).
Isaiah’s vision points to the promise that God’s Law will one day bring the same sense of identity and stability and moral purpose to all the world. There will come a time when all nations and peoples will be the beneficiaries of God’s good rules that structure life so that human beings flourish. And when a sense of rights trampled and wrongs done threaten to divide nation from nation (as has happened for thousands of years), God will “judge between nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.” As a result of this divine justice, there will be real peace – (because there is no peace without justice). Nations will give up their weapons of destruction and remake them into plowshares and pruning hooks. Because God reigns, and justice has come from observing the Law’s fair rules, there will be no need to fight. No one will have to train themselves for battle; nor will they have to prepare for war. Instead, people will live together in peace all over the world. Isaiah gives us no timetable for this, and Jesus warns that the day of fulfillment is known to God alone. But the promise is true and the hope is real.
Right about now you could be saying, “Right. This is a wonderful vision and of course, we all long for this, but how could it ever happen? Peace with justice continues to elude the nations and peoples of the world; conflict and strife continue, unabated. Just look around: at China, North Korea, Russia, Iraq, Syria, the United States, Great Britain – all of us caught up in conflict and strife. How can this universal peace ever come to be?” And you will be right to raise this concern, because human beings can’t make this happen. That’s the point of the prophecy. Only God can do this!
Only when “the mountain” is raised up by God and all people stream to it, drawn by God’s love;
only when everyone learns to live by God’s truth and to heed God’s ways;
only when God helps us bring about peace with justice;
only then can there be real peace on earth….
But isn’t that the promise that the angels sang when the baby was born? (Luke 2:14)
Isn’t that what the coming of the “Prince of Peace” that we anticipate in this season of Advent, is all about? (Isa. 9:6)
Hasn’t this peace already begun with Christ breaking down the walls that separate us, so that, as St Paul says, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”? (Gal. 3:28)
Haven’t we already begun to see and touch and taste the reality of God’s promise? (John 14:27)
And isn’t that what the ‘new heaven’ and the ‘new earth,’ spoken of in the Book of Revelation, will be like when “the nations walk by the light [of the Lamb]?” (Rev. 21:24).
In the meantime, until the promise is fully realized, God calls us to be peacemakers. That’s what verse 5 of Isaiah’s prophecy is about. After announcing the coming peace, God exhorts the people to walk in the light of that vision.“O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Even in times of conflict and distress, we are called to live in the light of God’s promised peace.
Here is a call to live, not by what we can observe, but by faith. We do not yet see the peace of God reigning among the nations of the world. We do not see that peace with justice that God has promised taking root in our own country, in our communities, or even in our churches. We may be tempted to complain and despair. We may find it easy to become cynical or depressed. We may want to fight back against our ‘enemies,’ or simply give up. But God calls us to live by God’s light, and not to dwell in the present darkness. God calls us to faith in this soaring promise of peace, and asks us to become peacemakers, wherever and however we can.
Our efforts will not in themselves bring about the peace of God, but we can demonstrate our faith in God’s promise by “walking in the light of the Lord.” Jesus spoke from a mountaintop when he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” (Matt. 5:9)
We live by faith. We lean into a vision that is “not yet.” We embrace God’s truth and walk in God’s ways, believing that the day will come when Isaiah’s vision of universal peace, of the lion laying down with the lamb, will be our reality. In the meantime, we wait and watch for it, we toil and labor for it, we claim it as God’s vision for us and for all of creation, and we allow this vision to give purpose and direction to our lives.
In this hope we pray,
“Lord, make us instruments of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
“Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.