The text is Isaiah 2:1-5.
This week, we begin our journey toward Christmas. Decorations are going up at home and shopping has begun in stores. As the music of Bing Crosby invades our radio waves, nostalgia mixes with anticipation and the smell of freshly-kindled wood stoves. In church, candles are lit one by one and purple vestments are hung in honor of our coming king. We call this season “Advent”.
Beyond the commercialized holiday bliss, there is another side to this season. It is the time of year when the weather really starts to turn bitterly cold. Here in Boonville, we’ve just had our first real snowfall. The daylight hours are the shortest they will be all year and darkness seems to hover over everything. Perhaps the early Christians chose to celebrate the birth of Christ at this time of year because they needed a pick-me-up?
In a spiritual sense, I tend to think of myself as being more of an Advent person than a Christmas person. I spend most of my time in the cold and dark places of the soul, waiting for God to show up. And when God finally does arrive, it almost never happens how I expected.
I feel this way, not only during Advent, but year-round. This is why Advent (not Christmas) is my favorite time of the church year. It describes my own spiritual journey so well.
I imagine that “dark” and “cold” is how many people must have felt during the lifetime of the prophet Isaiah, in the 8th century BC. It was a time of extreme unrest and political upheaval. The great Assyrian Empire lurked on the borders of the Holy Land. Nations sought security in numbers, making alliances with each other or with the Assyrian superpower itself. At home, rulers were becoming more and more corrupt, building their kingdoms on the backs of the poor and oppressed. Rather than trusting in the mysterious and unseen God of Israel to deliver them, many people sought solace in the practices of magic and idol worship. They felt safer putting their trust in gods that could be seen and controlled through arcane rituals, even if those rituals demanded the sacrifice of their own children. These were dark and cold times indeed.
It was into this cold and dark environment that God first called Isaiah son of Amoz to speak. Isaiah had a lot of harsh things to say about the culture in which he lived. He criticized them for their hypocrisy and cynicism. They pretended to be faithful and religious Jews while taking advantage of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.
But Isaiah’s message wasn’t entirely negative: God also gave Isaiah a vision of the way his country could be. This is the passage from which we read this morning. In this passage Isaiah envisions his community of Jerusalem as an international center for education and spiritual renewal. People would go there as soldiers and leave as farmers. Death-dealing swords would be transformed into life-giving plows for the fields. From there, the whole world would learn a new way of living and relating to one another that would transform the face of creation forever.
The people had a long way to go before this vision could become a reality, but Isaiah held onto it for dear life. He believed that this dream would come true, not through human ingenuity or goodwill, but because God willed it, and nothing (not the hypocrisy and cynicism of the people, not the corruption of their leaders, not even the military might of the world’s greatest superpower) could prevent God’s dream from coming true.
Believing in God’s dream must have been a tall order in a time as cold and dark as Isaiah’s. To this day, rather than being a center for peace and education, Jerusalem remains one of the most violence-ridden cities on the planet. Almost 2,800 years later, our headlines mock Isaiah’s dream for Jerusalem as the fantasy of an idealistic fool.
Our time is no less dark and cold than Isaiah’s was. News of international conflict continues to make us nervous. People still grow cynical as they read headlines of corrupt politicians and hypocritical religious leaders. While outright idol worship is not as common as it once was, we are still tempted to put our trust in objects of our own making, such as our investment portfolios, our insurance policies, our educational system, our nuclear arsenal, our political parties, or our religious institutions. It’s comforting to trust in these things because we can see them and we think we can control them. But the cold, dark fact of history is that none of these idols can provide us with the peace and security we seek.
The challenge of Advent is for us to look past these idols, these objects of our own making. God is calling us to rise above our cynicism and hold onto hope: Hope that the cold and darkness will not have the last word in history; Hope that the way things could be is the way things will be; Hope that God’s dream will come true.
The dream did not come true in Isaiah’s lifetime, nor did it come true in the earthly lifetime of Jesus, nor will it probably come true in our lifetime, but rest assured: God’s dream will come true. There have already been signs of this happening in history: wherever enemies make peace, wherever oppressed people go free, wherever healing triumphs over sickness, there we find a partial fulfillment of God’s dream and Isaiah’s vision.
God has graciously invited us to be a part of the fulfillment of this dream. This should radically change the way we live our lives here and now. Isaiah called the people of his community to live changed lives, saying, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
God may call some of us to be prophets, shaking the very foundations of idolatry and cynicism in our society. I think of heroes like Martin Luther King, who dreamed God’s dream out loud. Others of us will be called to “brighten the corner where we are”. But let us not be deceived: our little acts of human compassion and forgiveness, no matter how small, have divine and eternal value because they are part of God’s great plan for this earth. Every “thank you”, every “I’m sorry”, and every “I love you” spoken in word or deed is a ray of light that pierces the darkness of this cynical world. Not one of these rays will ever be wasted or lost. Do you believe this?
Advent does not prepare us for a nostalgic commemoration of a one-time event in history. Advent propels us toward the revolutionary culmination of history in the fulfillment of God’s dream for this world. O people of Boonville, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!