Advent 1, Isaiah 2: 1-5, Matthew 24: 36-44
Today we begin our season of Advent, the season of waiting, longing and re-imagining the world and our lives through the lens that God will give us through the visions of prophets – Isaiah and John the Baptist, Mary as she brings to fullness the Christ child, and through the actions of the courageous and loving husband – Joseph. By the time we welcome the birth of Jesus and join our voices with the singing of the angels and feel the wonderment of the shepherds, my hope is that we will all have stronger stirrings towards hope, clearer visions of what justice looks like, and deeper motivation to take up our own part in bringing peace to the world.
We begin the journey towards the manger with Isaiah as our guide, the most influential prophet for the early centuries of Christianity, for he is also the most quoted prophet in the New Testament. He was a prophet who spoke a critical word of judgement on his own nation, Israel, but he also offered hope for salvation, hope that God did indeed have bigger dreams for them and for all nations and that the Lord would find a way to help those changes to happen. In fact, St Augustine referred to Isaiah as the first apostle of Jesus Christ because of the way he imagined the future promises of a Messiah.
The book of Isaiah spans generations of prophets who see themselves in the tradition of Isaiah. The book are divided by scholars into 3 sections – Isaiah 1-39, 40- 55, 56-66, each section reflecting the thoughts of different writers in later time periods. . Isaiah himself lived in the second half of the eight century through the beginning of the seventh century. His partner in life was a prophetess and together they had several children. He may have been a court prophet who spoke as an independent voice, criticizing as well as supporting the political and religious establishment in Jerusalem. I’m not sure if our governments today would have that kind of person inside their parties, except for the independents, but it is certainly the role that we understand our journalists to take.
The book of Isaiah does not begin with any autobiographical details about his life, for instead he launches into a critique of the world he knows and loves- Judah and Jerusalem- and offers them harsh words of judgement and disappointment from God. This is an important aspect of Advent that is almost entirely lost as the secular culture promotes the nostalgic and consumeristic aspect of the Christmas Season, launched very fittingly as Black Friday melts into Cyber Monday which will evolve into Christmas sales and invitations into spending and binges of all kinds. I was hearing yesterday about a newly created Winnipeg Beer Messiah where the singers are offered copious amounts of beer during the rehearsal and performance. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around that new innovation.
Isaiah’s tirade in chapter 1 against what his society has become is quite chillingly familiar as he names what offends God who had taught and nurtured them – there are evil deeds, violence, open wounds, empty rituals, bribery and corruption, cities lying in waste. He calls them to seek justice, help the oppressed, to plead for the widow, to care for those most vulnerable in their society.
What is it that troubles your hearts and minds as you reflect on our own world, our own cities and neighbourhoods? Each day now there are more reports from scientists about the seriousness of climate change, calling us to change our ways more drastically. The protests for change in places like Hong Kong, Chile are greeted with violence and suppression and we are challenged as Canadians to consider taking as stronger role in support. There is violence on our own streets as we know, and not just in this corner of Sandy Hill where we daily can see the effects of alcoholism and the opioid crisis, but also throughout our city. On my way to my Fitness Club on Wednesday at Meadowlands and Merivale I had to step around yellow tape as there had been a shooting at 6:30am that very morning near the front door – a targeted shooting as the phrase goes today – so I guess be thankful that you weren’t the target! More and more people are gripped with anxiety and fear as they wonder how our leaders, police, scientists and politicians will help to fix these problems so we can sit back to feel safe.
As Isaiah addresses his own people centuries ago, he also offers them another vision than what they see in their own daily lives. He preaches to them a word of hope from an oracle that seems to have been heard by others as well such as the prophet Micah who preached the same words in his book. In case it washed over you when Jackie read it earlier in the service I will read it again: Isaiah 2:1-4.
Isaiah imagines a time when the teachings of wisdom from the Lord (for him found in the Torah) will be raised up to the highest place in the consciousness of the people, not just of Israel, but in the people of all the nations. The mountain of the Lord in Zion is not meant to be understood as a literal mountain, for evidently it is really only a small hill, but it is a concept, a cosmic idea that is being put forward.
Referring to the interpretation by Howard Wallace, an Old Testament prof from Australia he describes the vision this way: “This is mythic imagery of the cosmic mountain that joined heaven to earth; the mythic description of the place where God dwells. It emphasizes the cosmic rather the literal ‘elevation’ of Zion. the theme of people ‘flowing to Zion is a reversal of the theme of the river of life which was said to flow from the divine mountain….now people flow in to learn from the divine instruction.”
The vision suggests that as all nations, all people learn from God’s wisdom, that there would be no more need for war and conflict, that people would know how to care for one another with love and respect. Isn’t that a longing that each one of us would have, from the oldest to the youngest, where there would be no more school yard bully either in the playground or at the highest level of politics. It would be such a transformed world in every nation that they could reuse their weapons of war for agriculture, nourishing the people with food and health instead or violence and harm.
This has been a powerful image that has inspired people in the peace movement for generations and was very influential to me early in my theological studies when I was a member of Project Ploughshares and attended many talks by Ursula Franklin. She was a German-Canadian metallurgist, research physicist, author, and educator who taught at the University of Toronto for more than 40 years, a Quaker that worked for nuclear disarmament, influenced feminism and hoped for an end to war.
Artists have been inspired by Isaiah’s words – I will share with you the image “Let us Beat Swords into Plowshares”, a sculpture in New York City’s United Nations north garden. The sculpture was a gift from the Soviet Union by artist Yevgeny Vuchetich in 1959. It’s a vision that has influenced so much music whether classical, folk, Broadway or rap.
I love the story about the activist Pedro Reyes in Culiacan, Mexico which is the city with the highest rate of gun death in the nation. In response, Reyes has collected 1,527 guns for the project Palas por Pistolas, melting these guns down into 1,527 shovel heads. The shovels are being used to plant 1,527trees in the city. Matter used for death has been transformed into matter promoting life.
There are powerful examples too of how people are trying to reach through the wall and barbed wire that has been erected on the American border to keep out the stranger and refugees, offering food through the cracks in the walls. Two California professors built a wall of pink seesaws this past summer between the U.S. and Mexico to show that “actions that take place on one side have a direct consequence on the other side.”
I am sure that many of you have examples of how you are trying to live out God’s vision for peace and justice that has been planted in your heart at some point in your Christian journey, perhaps influencing your decisions – the way you teach in the classroom, in your volunteer work with refugees or organizations like Ten thousand Villages, in the way you love and support your family and friends, perhaps in the choice of courses you are taking at the university, the choices you are making to minimize your carbon footprint, perhaps in the emotional work you are doing to seek healing for your past wounds, fears and anxieties so that you might become more compassionate….
Isaiah was on to something though wasn’t he when God showed him that there was another way than resorting to violence and hatred and that the ‘answer’s lies within each human heart and mind that is inspired by God’s vision of shalom, heaven on earth, what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Isaiah envisioned that there would one day be a person, or a movement that would become the Messiah, the Saviour that would save the world, bringing inspiration and the ability for everyone to know and live out God’s vision. He hoped for that Messiah, the Messiah movement and we believe that indeed it did arrive with the birth of Jesus, that he is the Christ. The vision which began with Isaiah continued as Jesus called his disciples and continued to grow after his resurrection and is still moving and growing even today so many generations later.
The vision was that all nations would one day come to believe in God’s vision of peace and justice for the world. So maybe we should be grateful that Christmas has become more secularized, celebrated by so many people that would not call themselves ‘Christians’ and just maybe the lessons found in gift giving, in celebrating community and family, in letting those familiar carols permeate our consciousness, will lead more of us to fall down on our knees, to hear again or for the first time, God’s vision and call for each of us to do our part in making peace in the world.
Advent Word – A Prayer
it is ancient
as old as the first word
for it is the first word ever
spoken by a God
who was feeling the divine voice
for the first time
its sound has taken many forms through
the ages, but it speaks
still, the single
truth it always has
some hear it beating swords into ploughshares
others hear it hammering spears into pruning hooks
and still others hear the
that shaped these others
the first word:
~ written by Roddy Hamilton, and posted on Mucky Paws