Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 1, 2019
Isaiah 2:1-5 Commentary
What a text for this first Sunday in Advent! What a text for this moment in history! This promise of universal peace arouses hope in our war torn world. Or it sounds like an impossible dream. As I write this, President Trump has just removed all US troops from northern Syria and Turkish forces have launched an all-out attack on Kurdish troops who had helped the US defeat ISIS. Russia approves, so does Iran, and many other nations hostile to the US. Within the US voices from both parties are screaming in outrage at the President’s action. Meanwhile, off in the distance, North Korea rattles its sabers and launches its spears. The words of Isaiah 2:4 are etched in stone in front of the United Nations, but those words seem pretty empty right now, and have for millennia.
This historical situation makes Isaiah 2:1-5 mandatory preaching. In a hopelessly hostile world, we need to hear again God’s promise of peace with justice. In Advent we look forward to the coming of the Prince of Peace. He has already come, of course, bringing peace to millions of people, having broken down the dividing wall of hostility that had separated Jew from Gentile (Ephesians 2). But there is still much peacemaking to do before he comes again to settle disputes with justice and mercy. In a war weary world filled with cynicism and despair, we have the opportunity this Sunday to hold up this magnificent promise of world peace.
Our text begins with the assurance that what follows is not a human pipe dream; it is a divine revelation—“what Isaiah saw,” a vision, a word from God. This is not one man’s “hope against hope” in a disintegrating world. This is the sure promise of the one true God who rules the world.
What Isaiah saw was a mountain, “the mountain of the Lord’s temple… established as chief among the mountains… raised above the hills….” This is a reference to Mount Zion on which the temple was built, and therefore the place where God dwelled in Israel’s history. That temple would soon be destroyed and Mt. Zion covered with its rubble, a pile of ruins. But God shows Isaiah that sometime in the future (“in the last days” or “in the days to come”), God will raise up that temple and the mountain on which it stands. And “all nations will stream to it.”
That prophecy has been the subject of huge dispute. Literalists take it as a prophecy that will be physically fulfilled in the last days during the millennium. Other Christians believe that this prophecy has been spiritually fulfilled by the church as it preached the gospel to all nations who streamed into the church following Christ.
Still others think this prophecy has been fulfilled by Christ himself, who claimed to be the new Temple that would be destroyed and rebuilt in three days (Matthew 26:61). Jesus was the person, not the place, in whom God dwelled in grace and truth (John 1). And not insignificantly, Matthew’s gospel shows us Jesus teaching on a mountain at the beginning of his ministry (Matthew 5) and sending his disciples into all the world to make disciples while ascending from a mountain at the end of his ministry (Matthew 28). In the middle of his ministry, he said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (John 12:32).”
However we take the “mountain” part of this prophecy, the “all nations” part is remarkable. The rest of Isaiah will be filled with pronouncements of judgment on all the nations around Israel (see Isaiah 13-23 for a list of the condemned nations). But here people from every nation invite each other to join the pilgrimage to the place where the God of Israel dwells.
They come to Zion, not to worship, but to be instructed. And not just to gain knowledge, but to actually “walk in his paths.” The law that God had given to Israel as a special blessing on his redeemed people will now “go out from Zion….” What good news! The law will go out to the world and shape the life of the nations.
Not only does that seem unlikely, it also doesn’t seem like very good news, not to many Christians who celebrate their freedom from the law. Rachel Held Evans, in her provocative book, Inspired, sums up the way many Christians view the law of God. “Christians have long struggled with exactly how to interpret and receive what is commonly referred to as ‘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 me tend to shrug it off as outdated and irrelevant until we need a quote about ‘welcoming the stranger’ to scribble on a protest sign.”
For the Jews, on the other hand, “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, too, 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)
Now says Isaiah 2, God’s law will one day bring the same sense of identity and stability and moral purpose to all the world. All will be the beneficiaries of God’s good rules that structure life so that humans flourish. And when a sense of rights trampled and wrongs done threaten to divide nation from nation (as has happened for millennia now), God will “judge between nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.”
There can be no peace without justice. Recall how WW I ended, with the victorious nations visiting heavy penalties on Germany, sanctions viewed as unjust by the defeated nation. That sense of injustice lingered and festered and became the bitter root from which Nazism sprang. It has been argued that an unjust peace led to WW II. Surely, the experience of being unfairly treated has led to many family fights, gang warfare, popular uprisings, and international bloodletting.
So, God promises that when God’s law is the law of the nations, God himself will judge the squabbles between nations and people. As a result of divine justice, there will be real peace. Nations will transform their weapons of destruction into instruments of flourishing. Because of God’s just reign and his law’s fair rules, there will be no need to fight. There won’t even be training for war– no more basic training, no more advanced SEAL training. Instead, people will live together in peace all over the world.
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? How can that ever happen? Well, humans can’t make it happen. That’s the point of the prophecy. Only God can do this. Only when “the mountain” is raised up, and all people stream to it, and everyone lives by God’s law, and God brings peace with justice, only then can there be peace on earth. That’s exactly what the angels sang when that baby was born. That’s exactly why that grown baby died on the cross, to make peace through his blood, breaking down the dividing wall of hostility. And that’s exactly what the new heavens and the new earth will be like when “the nations walk by the light [of the Lamb].” (Rev. 21:24)
In the meantime, God calls his people to be peacemakers. That’s what verse 5 of our text is about. After announcing the coming peace, God exhorts his people to walk in the light of that vision. “Come, O house of Judah, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” As you live through your war torn times, live in the light of God’s promised peace.
Here is a call to live by faith. We cannot see the peace of God ruling among the nations, or even in our 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, belligerent 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)
In Advent, we light a candle for hope and peace when we preach on this text.
This prophecy of peace through God’s law and justice gets surprising affirmation 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 text 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, clean up your own mess.” What would life be without such rules?
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