Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14
There are certain jobs where you have to visualize what you see in your mind’s eye before you see it. Architects have to be able to imagine what is possible within the realm of building restrictions. Seamstresses and tailors, visual artists, home decorators… all have to be able to see what it is they want to create before they create it. Even a friend of mine who is a dentist tells me that she has to visualize how the crown will look in real life before she can create it and fit it onto a tooth.
Prophets are the same way. In the first chapter of Isaiah, the chapter before the one we just heard, we hear about what is happening in Jerusalem. Isaiah says: Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire— and we are reminded of the war torn areas in our world today. And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard,….. like a besieged city— and we can think of images of Aleppo. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts— how many billions were given to campaigns this year? They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them. In Isaiah’s time, not so different from our own, it was the women and children who were often left behind when the economy picked up, after the wars were over.
There’s no getting around the reality of Isaiah’s day. He paints a picture that is not so different from our own world, of people fighting and vying for power; of communities at turning on one another, of the most vulnerable of people getting not only left out, but being taken advantage of and abused.
But then, in chapter 2, we begin again. You see chapter one started with, “The vision about Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw in the days of Judah’s kings…” and that makes sense because Isaiah can look out his window and see the destruction, the hurt, the people who are in pain.
But chapter 2 begins in much the same way: “This is what Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem,” only this time it is a very different image. This time Isaiah sees the Lord’s house on a mountain with people streaming towards it. Isaiah sees people returning to God, walking in peace, joining together to make a journey to God’s holy mountain. Isaiah sees God teaching the people God’s ways and the people responding and walking in God’s paths. Isaiah sees nations coming together and instead of selling weapons to one another or fighting or burning each others’ cities, Isaiah sees the nations caring for each other’s vulnerable people. The nations are beating their metal swords into farming tools. They are turning their spears into pruning hooks. They are not even learning how to make war anymore.
This is a vision that when I allow myself to imagine it, takes my breath away.
Sometimes it is our current reality that wakes us up to the work that we need to do. In Romans Paul writes to the church that we need to wake up from our sleep, that we need to get rid of our actions that lead to pain and darkness and instead put on actions that will lead to peace and light.
Our own Bishop, Bishop Ough, wrote a letter this week stating, “In order to transform the world, in faithfulness to Christ’s command, we must model respect and kindness and extinguish the fires of animosity. And thus, we call on all churches to engage in genuinely honest dialogue and respectful conversation, such that others who observe the action in our lives might declare, ‘See how they love each other!’”
Pope Francis has been warning people about the “virus of polarization” and specifically talking about how the church is not immune from this virus— how much we need to guard against turning on one another and instead to ban together.
There are people all over our world calling us out of our sleep into action. There are images of war and destruction and violence that are calling us out of our sleep into action.
But we have to know what it is we are working towards. And Isaiah gives us that. Because even when we wake up to the realities of the world as it is, if we aren’t careful, our own sense of being overwhelmed; our own complacency about thinking we can’t do anything to change it; our own busy lives that keep us distracted from using the power God has given us to make a difference in this world— all of these things will lull us back to sleep. So Isaiah gives us a snapshot of what the world is like in chapter one. But in order to keep us awake, Isaiah also gives us a picture of what is to come— “In those days…” Isaiah declares, the world will look different. The world can look different. God’s dream is for us all to be walking together in peace and love; sharing the road to God; spending our time and resources not on weapons and ways to destroy, but on farming tools, books and pencils, implements that will bring us together and will allow us to create and give back and live joyful lives of dignity with God.
Oswald Chambers once wrote, “We are in danger of forgetting that we cannot do what God can do and that God will not do what we can do.”
It is time for us to wake up in this Advent Season. It is time for us to wake up and to not live naively, but to recognize the reality of the world we live in and then to see what God can see— the dream God has for us. It is time for us to be, as Jesus encouraged us to be, innocent as doves and cunning as serpents; to live as people who dream God’s dream of peace and unity and love— not out of some naive place of believing everything’s okay, but precisely by recognizing what is not going right and knowing that God is calling us to such a time as this.
This past week I came upon the reflections of Todd Weir, a fellow colleague in ministry, who was speaking to a World War II veteran. The veteran had fought in the Pacific and admitted to Pastor Weir that it had taken years before he was able to see a person of Japanese descent and not feel anger and hostility. This was true, of course, not just of this one veteran or even of people who fought in the war, but of many people right here in the United States who saw our own government ship Americans with Japanese descent into camps until after the war. And yet if you ask anyone my age or younger what they think about Japan, people know that they are a major trading partner to the US, a tourist destination, a country where students actively participate in exchange programs at our universities and at theirs; no one can imagine going to war with them again. This outcome did not happen by accident. It was the intentional outcome of people who were shocked by the atrocities of atomic weapons and chose a different future. Today we lump all Muslims in with extremists like ISIS even though so many refugees have come to our country primarily because they were victims of terrorists, only to be called terrorists once they arrive here. It may seem impossible to us that we, as a nation, will one day not live in fear of Muslim communities, but it is not impossible. It takes intention. It takes kindness. It takes getting to know one another and building trust. It takes hearing their stories of war and upheaval and recognizing that they are our stories too. It takes practicing seeing God’s dream before us— a way where we are walking together, awake and alive and with joy.
There was a cartoon a few years ago, and I can’t even remember who drew it. But there were two frogs sitting next to each other at a bar. The first one says, “I am so angry at the way things are. I want to ask God why are people suffering from war? Why doesn’t God intervene to create peace? Why do I feel so alone in my own community?” And the second frog says, “So why don't you ask God all of those things?” To which the first frog replies, “I’m afraid God will ask me the same question in return.”
John Wesley, the founder of United Methodism, had three rules for his daily living that we call “The General Rules,” and which came directly out of the first book of Isaiah. The rules are: Do all the good you can; do no harm; and do the things that keep you in love with God.
If you don’t know where to start, start there. Come eat a meal here at the church on December 17th and get to know your neighbors. Lend your voice to singing Christmas Carols next week after church so that those who feel isolated being homebound will hear the love of God in your voice. Connect with our Social Justice team and ask Randy and I about the meeting that GRIP/ISAIAH is having on January 28th where people can gather who long to see God’s dream lived out in Minnesota. Reach out to a neighbor or friend and invite them to church during Advent, recognizing that it’s not impolite to invite them, it’s rude not to invite them to something that means so much to you! Invite someone to come catch God’s dream with you.
Clarissa Estes, a poet and author of Native American and Mexican descent, says this: “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.”
God doesn’t ask us to fix the world. God will do what we cannot do— bringing about healing and hope and joy. But God will not do what we can do. So let’s take our swords, our spears, our harsh words, our silence— and turn them into instruments of justice and peace.
Resources Cited or Resourced:
Todd Weir, bloomingcactus.org Barbara Lundblad, The Working Preacher.org out of Luther Seminary “The Prophets” Commentary by Koch