The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In 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; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 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. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
Walter Brueggemann has likened these words from the prophet Isaiah to the "I have a dream" speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but most days our reality is a long way from either prophet's vision of peace, justice, and healing. This year, like every year, we read this text in the threat and reality of war: conflicts and struggles flare in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Africa…in our cities and neighborhoods, as well, our homes and work-places, and our relationships with one another. We've come to understand the absence of peace in other ways, too: in the threat of terrorism that makes even "peaceful" days feel ominous and "secure" places unsafe, in the growing anger of the dispossessed that threatens to explode, in the damage to the earth that we will leave as a tragic legacy to our grandchildren, and to theirs as well. Who ever heard of a "super storm" before? And yet the Philippines and towns in Illinois lie devastated from the most recent ones. We have to wonder if nature itself is at war with us.
It isn't hard then to imagine how the people of Israel must have felt over the centuries in the face of threat, destruction, and exile by one empire after another. More than 500 years before the time of Jesus, they listened to this dream of the future, and then they looked at their once-beautiful city, Jerusalem, battered by powers that must have appeared unstoppable. Still, they held on to trust in promises more powerful than any empire and any destructive force; God's promise of a future very different from what was visible just then. The prophet's words are so graceful, so haunting, so expressive of our deepest yearnings that we even use them in our public life as a vision for all of God's children: James Limburg tells us these words are engraved on a wall near the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City, where they inspire the work of many nations, many different peoples who yearn to live together in justice and peace. Kathryn Huey
When we study the Bible, we will encounter prophets and prophecy. For many of us the only images we have of prophecy is those dire predictions of the end of the world as in the Left Behind book series. I have a family member who frequently sends me information disseminated by a current prophecy group who believes the world is beyond saving unless every single person turns to Christ—and that the world’s destruction is inevitable even so, that somehow the Bible tells us this is what God demands. I came across what I found to be a helpful explanation of biblical prophecy—the writing of Bryan Bibb, a progressive theologian. He begins with this image.
Imagine you are sailing on the Titanic, and you alone know the great ocean liner will hit an iceberg in 24 hours. What do you do? Whom do you tell? The answer depends on one important factor: can the crisis be averted? If you can somehow get the captain’s attention, the crew might be able to change course and avoid disaster. But if you know the ship will sink regardless of your best efforts, what then? In that case, the best course of action is to get as many people as possible lined up for the life rafts. There are not enough rafts to save everyone, but anyone who listens to your warning and follows your direction has a chance to survive the sinking ship. Everyone else is doomed to an icy grave.
That is a terrifying scenario, but it captures an important difference in how religious people often view the nature of the world and “end times.” A part of contemporary American Christianity is shaped by the idea that this world is like the sinking Titanic, a doomed ship following a path to inevitable destruction. God, they say, has revealed in advance when and how this destruction will take place and has given believers and only believers the information they need to secure a place among the saved. In the meantime, the important thing is to stay alert and diligent, looking for the signs that the end is near—one does not want to be left behind.
Another perspective is more optimistic about the world’s future. This Earth might be a leaky old boat, but it is under God’s merciful care and protection. At the creation of the world, God set in motion a plan to establish a community of universal justice and righteousness, known as “the kingdom of God.” With hope, believers of many faiths watch for signs that God is bringing the kingdom to fulfillment. With faith and perseverance, they strive to embody this divine vision in the world around them. The world certainly has problems, they say, but it travels under God’s providence, with the help of those whom God has called and equipped for its redemption. In other words, how we live in this world today is influenced in large measure by where we think the world is headed. Is the world doomed to destruction, and if so, how can we survive it? Can the world be saved, and if so, how can we help?
The theological term for these ideas about the future is “eschatology,” literally, “theology about what is at the end of the journey.” In the Bible, there are two kinds of eschatology that resonate with the Titanic metaphor. The rather pessimistic view is influenced by “apocalyptic theology,” the kind we find in Daniel and Revelation. Apocalyptic writings developed during a period of brutal Greek and Roman occupation of Israel (roughly 200BCE to 100CE). It reflects the early Jewish and Christian idea that this world is caught in a battle between Good and Evil and must be violently destroyed along with all the forces of evil. Those who are faithful now will be rewarded with life in the new creation to come.
One key challenge with this apocalyptic view is since it believes the world to be doomed, any effort to improve or reform the world is a waste of time, a major distraction from the need to warn people. A second challenge is that this view leads people to see war and violence as the necessary and inevitable precursor to the final End. When war breaks out in the Middle East, in particular, some interpret these tragic events to mean that it’s almost time to jump ship. There is no need to intervene with peace-making efforts, and no hope such efforts could be successful. They sometimes even greet war with anticipation, because of their interpretation of certain Biblical predictions.
A more optimistic biblical perspective on the future is called “prophetic eschatology.” This is the kind of thinking we find in the work of prophets like Isaiah. In today’s passage, the prophet says that a day is coming in which all the nations of the world will cease their fighting and come to worship God together. In this redeemed world community, God’s teaching will settle any disputes and make sure that justice and righteousness prevail. Isaiah looks past his own time of war and violence to the coming Kingdom of God, the extension of God’s rule over the whole of creation. One will know that war has truly come to an end when weapons are turned into farming tools: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks”.
Isaiah describes a peaceful and reconciled community in this world. This new kingdom includes all the nations of the earth, not just a faithful minority. And even though it may seem completely impossible, it is a realistic future that changes the lives of actual people living in natural time and space.
The question, of course: how can those who live in this broken and violent world have hope enough to believe that such a future is possible? Can the world really be saved? Isaiah tells his audience that God’s presence, God’s instruction, and God’s light will transform and guide this new community. So, even though real people are involved in living out this communal vision, the redemption is God’s doing and thus must remain the subject of faith. Paul addresses the need for hopeful living when he says that “the night is far gone, the day is near;” the light has not become fully visible yet, and so followers of Christ should “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom. 13:12). In other words, even though it is still dark, we should begin to live as if the light were already fully revealed.
Can this world be saved? The prophet encourages us to answer, “Yes.” If we “lay aside the works of darkness,” we will see that violence is a problem to be solved and not part of God’s plan to destroy the world. We will use our resources to shape a sustainable and flourishing community rather than instruments of war.
At Advent we celebrate the promise given in Jesus. This promise does not insulate us from an uncertain future, but it does promise that we will not face that future alone. Come hell or high water Jesus will be at our side, granting us courage in the face of life’s adversities and remaining with us even through death, drawing us into new life.
As the days grow shorter and the darkness grows, we light Advent candles each week to remind us we do not face the darkness alone. Indeed, the light of the world has come, shining in the darkness to illumine our lives and lead us forth not in fear but courage…and yes, even joy.
In light of this promise, let us pray: Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.