Monday, November 29, 2010

Sermon for November 28th (first Sunday in Advent): Isaiah 2:1-5

God’s Vision for the Future

In days of struggle and darkness when all hope seems to be lost, it’s often artists and musicians and poets and orators who stir people up with a vision of a better future. In the dark days of Word War Two when it seemed as if there was no end in sight, Vera Lynn sang a song that inspired people and gave them hope that better days might be coming. It went like this:

There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover

Tomorrow, just you wait and see

There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after

Tomorrow when the world is free

The shepherd will tend his sheep, the valley will bloom again

And Jimmy will go to sleep in his own little room again

Of course, when Vera Lynn sang this song there were Spitfires and Hurricanes flying over the white cliffs of Dover, Jimmy’s little room had probably been destroyed by a bomb, and the valley where the shepherd had kept his sheep might well have been fenced with barbed wire and turned into a minefield. But the song inspired people because it gave them vision, a picture of better days ahead, and in the strength of that vision they were able to press on toward this future.

This is what good leaders do – they articulate a vision that motivates people to work together to achieve something good. Isaiah of Jerusalem was such a leader; he lived in a turbulent time when the nation of Judah was beset by powerful foreign enemies and its very existence was threatened, but he gave people hope by sharing a powerful vision of a future time when all people would walk in God’s ways and live in peace together. He may not actually have written these words himself; they appear almost verbatim in the book of Micah as well, and it may be that both Isaiah and Micah were quoting from an earlier piece of writing by an unknown author. But what they had to say certainly shaped Israel’s view of God’s future; the word that Israel used for it was ‘shalom’, which means not just peace but also well-being, harmony, wholeness. While Jesus does not quote directly from this passage in Isaiah, his vision of the kingdom of God and of the call to peace was probably inspired by it.

So let’s take a look at this passage in Isaiah 2:1-5. Let’s explore what it tells us about the future of God’s world, and then let’s ask ourselves what we are called to do about it in the present, in the here-and-now.

What is the future vision God is holding out to us in this passage? Surely it’s a vision of peace and harmony between the things God has created - humans, animals, the natural creation and so on. Everything and everyone God has created will live together in love and justice. Isaiah says:

In the days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob’ (vv.2-3a).

In this vision of God’s kingdom, the nations of the world will acknowledge that God is real, and that God is the ruler of his creation. In our present reality, the mood of most nations is a sort of practical atheism, by which I mean that even if people say they believe in God, they don’t see him as actually relevant to their lives, and to the political and economic decisions they make. But this will change when the Kingdom of God comes in all its fulness. Isaiah says that people will come streaming to the Temple. The temple was the symbol of God’s presence among his people, so Isaiah is saying that in days to come, God’s presence and God’s vision for the world will be central in the life of his creation. As Christians, that’s what we all long for; that’s where we’ll find the fulfilment of our deepest longings and hopes.

Another thing this reading tells us is that in the Kingdom of God, everyone will walk in God’s ways. The Garden of Eden story in Genesis speaks of our human rebellion against our Creator. When the snake tempts Adam and Eve to take the fruit, what he tells them really boils down to the idea that they’ll be better off choosing their own way instead of listening to the voice of God. That idea runs through human history right to this present moment; we’d all much rather choose our own path than submit to God’s will. Like Frank Sinatra, we want to be able to sing about our life that “I did it my way”!

But when the Kingdom of God comes in its fulness this will change. Look at Isaiah 2:3: ‘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’. We will finally be willing to let the Lord guide us, to listen to his teachings and to walk in the paths he has chosen for the people he created.

Parents sometimes get intensely frustrated at their children; it seems as if they’re determined to repeat all the mistakes of the previous generation! They love their children so much and they want so much to spare them pain and suffering, but sometimes they just won’t listen. But have you ever considered how frustrating it must be to be God sometimes? He created us, he loves us through and through, and he knows what kind of life will make for happiness, fulfilment and peace for everyone and everything on earth. So in his love for us he sends prophets, teachers, and wise leaders to point the way for us; eventually he comes himself in the person of Jesus to show us the way and to die to make it possible for us to follow it. Yet still, all too often, we don’t listen.

Isaiah tells us that when God’s Kingdom comes in all its fullness, all people will listen to their loving Creator. As we learn in the Lord’s Prayer, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, then God’s Kingdom will come. In the Kingdom we will willingly and joyfully submit to God’s will and shape our lives by it. And one of the effects of that will be the peace we all long and pray for. Look at v.4:

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Now here’s something interesting: Isaiah doesn’t say that in God’s future kingdom there will be no disputes. Disputes aren’t the problem; it’s the way we handle them that’s the problem. We resort to violence and war because of our fear, our greed, our lust for power over others, and so on. The difference in the Kingdom of God will not be that we have no more disputes, but that we will refer our disputes to God and we will abide by his decision. As a result there will be no more need to learn the arts of war.

So this passage tells us that when God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness, everyone will acknowledge God, everyone will willingly walk in God’s ways, and the result will be peace. This is what we mean by ‘the Kingdom of God’; this is what the Reign of God is like. Jesus announced the coming of this Kingdom, and he saw his life, death and resurrection as inaugurating it. He sent his Church out into the whole world to announce it, and to call all people to give their allegiance to him as ‘Christ’, which means God’s anointed King.

The completion of this process of course is still in the future. Jesus told his disciples how it would spread at the beginning of the book of Acts:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” Acts 1:6-8).

So Jesus sends out his Church to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, to the end of time – and, as John Stott says, we have no liberty to stop until we reach both ends.

This leads us to the second question I want to ask this reading: What are we meant to be doing about this vision in the here-and-now?

In the Christian church there have been two extreme answers to this question. On the one hand there are some Christians who are optimistic about the possibilities of human transformation right now. Their idea is ‘We are God’s instruments on earth; building the Kingdom of God is up to us’. People who take this view work hard to improve society, to reform evils and bring justice and so on. At the other extreme we have people who say that human nature is not improvable. There’s no point in trying to make the world a better place; it’s going to be evil until Jesus returns. So all we can do is try to get as many people as possible to accept Christ so that there’ll be lots of us around at the Second Coming of Jesus.

Well, I think myself that the truth lies between those two extremes. I agree that the world will never become perfect until Jesus returns. Human sinfulness is such that our selfishness will inevitably spoil even our best projects to improve the world. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. And it’s especially important for Christian people to work together to model for the world what God’s Kingdom is like. We should be doing all we can to make sure the Church is a community of justice and peace, a community of forgiveness and grace, what Keith Miller calls ‘an outpost of the Kingdom of God’. And we do that by following Isaiah’s words in verse 5 of our reading: ‘O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!’

When I was on sabbatical leave in 2007 I read some of the writings of Alan Kreider, a wonderful Mennonite scholar who has made a special study of the process by which new Christians were nurtured in their faith in the early church, and I also had the chance to meet Alan and discuss this with him. I learned from him that this passage from Isaiah 2 was a key passage in the church in the first three centuries of the Christian era, before the Roman Empire took over Christianity. New converts were encouraged to memorise this passage, and meditate on it often. And this was not just because they saw it as a lovely vision of hope for the future. No, they also saw it as having a bearing on their present experience as Christians. When they read the words, ‘Out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem’ (v.3), they saw the work of the early Christian missionaries as part of the fulfilment of that prophecy: Jesus had sent them out to proclaim the gospel in Jerusalem and Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. To them this passage was not just about the future; rather, they saw the future as having already begun in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the mission of the church.

‘Walking in the light of the Lord’ means having the courage not to relegate these words to some time in the future, which means that we don’t have to do anything about them right now. No – we refuse to cop out in this way. We recognize that God is calling the Christian Church right now to be a community that lives by these values and practices. We are to be a community of people who acknowledge that God is real and who make it our number one concern to discover his will and practice it together. We are to be a community of people who turn away from fear and selfishness and greed, and live in love and simplicity and generosity instead. We are to be a community of people who not only refuse to kill each other, but also turn away from anger and resentment and malice, and strive for reconciliation with one another and with all people. We don’t wait until the future, when God makes it easy and safe for us to do this. We take the risk of doing it now.

Our old friend Lloyd Robinson, who some of us remember in this congregation, used to talk about ‘living into the Kingdom of God’. What does that mean? Well, the illustration I’ve often used comes from those ancient days when VHS was gradually taking over from Betamax. Some of you are old enough to remember those days, yes? In the early days, when videocassette recorders were first produced, the most popular format was Betamax. But then along came VHS. At first no one paid much heed to it; it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. But gradually, quietly, it became the dominant format, and eventually Betamax completely died out.

At the moment we’re living in a Betamax world – a world in which the values of evil and sin seem strong, almost impregnable. But the VHS revolution has quietly begun – in other words, as Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand’. And Jesus calls us, metaphorically speaking, to take the risk of buying our VHS machines now, while the whole world is still using Betamax! In other words, even though our world may be dominated by the values of selfishness and fear and greed and sin, to the extent that it may even be a dangerous thing for people to actually try to practice the teaching of Jesus – yet still, we, the Church of Jesus Christ, are called to take that risk. Instead of living out of the values of the old kingdom of evil, we’re to live into the values of the new kingdom of God.

And this is what the season of Advent is all about. In Advent we celebrate this hope; we look forward to the day when this vision becomes a reality and God’s kingdom comes as God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. But we don’t stop there; we make it our business to live out this hope in our lives now. The kingdom of God is at hand! And so I say to you, as Isaiah said to his people: “O followers of Jesus, come – let us walk in the light of the Lord”.

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