Sermon from Advent I: To Judge the Nations
To Judge the Nations
Advent I; December 1, 2019
I feel that as a society we have opposite yearnings that are in tension with each other. We yearn for complete freedom, the ability to make choices and to decide our own direction in life. And we yearn for an absolute ruler who will make everything okay. Perhaps you sense some of that tension even within yourself, as I do. In the weight-management program I’m part of, we emphasize freedom, flexibility, and choice, but I know sometimes people approach it with the attitude, “Just tell me what I am and am not allowed to eat.”
This prophecy from Isaiah has that tension within it, too. On the one hand, it shows the nations freely choosing their way; on the other hand, it shows a righteous Judge compelling them to behave. Let’s talk our way through the prophecy.
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
We Christians pay a lot of attention to the Book of Isaiah, because it has so much in it that we relate to Jesus. I’m relying on the lectionary – the cycle of readings – that churches throughout the United States use during Advent this year, and every Sunday of Advent plus on Christmas Eve the Old Testament readings are all from Isaiah. But when the Prophet had this particular vision, he wasn’t thinking of a Messiah to be born in Bethlehem some 700 years later. He was thinking about his own country in the situation of his time. If you read Isaiah’s story, you see that he was an advisor to the government of his country; he had actual political events and real public policy in mind. People who say that we shouldn’t talk about politics in church had better stay away from the Book of Isaiah.
But there is something curious about this prophecy: it is almost word-for-word in the Book of Micah too (4:1-3). Was Isaiah quoting Micah or was Micah quoting Isaiah? Did God give both of them the same vision (they were roughly contemporaries)? Or were they both quoting somebody else? At any rate, that both Isaiah and Micah have this prophecy in their books suggests that it is something we ought to pay attention to.
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.
I’ve never been to Jerusalem to see how the Temple Mount compares to the surrounding area; we were supposed to go and just before we were to leave the Second Intifada broke out and the company canceled our trip. Pictures make it appear that it stands out, but that it isn’t even the highest hill in its own area. Its elevation is about 2400 feet above sea level, so it isn’t even as high as the town where I lived in Arizona, much less the highest mountain in the world.
I don’t imagine even Isaiah was thinking literally that the Temple Mount would be elevated to higher than Everest; the image is symbolic of its importance. In the vision the mountain of the Lord’s house would become more important than any other high place in the world, so that people from everywhere would go to it. They would go to it in pilgrimage; we’ll come back to that in a minute. In our time, the mountain of the Lord’s house is important as one of the most disputed pieces of real estate in the world. It is the place in Jerusalem where Solomon built the Lord’s Temple, where Zerubbabel rebuilt it after the Exile, and where Herod the Great expanded it into a marvel to amaze everyone. It is also the place where tradition claims the Prophet Muhammed ascended into Heaven, where the Umayyad Caliphs built the Dome of the Rock more than 1300 years ago. Muslims and Jews both revere the site. The Second Intifada, which caused the cancellation of our trip to Israel and Palestine, broke out after a provocative visit there by Ariel Sharon. As the focus of international attention and conflict, Jerusalem is indeed of great importance, but not in the way the Prophet envisioned.
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.
I think that’s clear and doesn’t need much explanation from me. Isaiah and Micah both see a day when the peoples and nations freely choose to go to Jerusalem, to the mountain of the Lord’s house, in order to learn the ways of the Lord. When Isaiah was advising the King of Judah, he would consistently urge the King to stay true to the ways of the Lord and not to fall into diplomatic traps. In particular, he did not want King Ahaz to look for help from the Assyrian Empire against his local enemies. Kings and other political leaders tend to see prophets and religious advisors as impractical visionaries; those visionaries believe that if governments are true to the ways of God, they have divine justice to support their decisions.
It’s an old conflict, but one that hasn’t gone away: the ways of God versus the so-called practical politics of the nations. We struggle in our political choices between our instincts and desire for power and for vengeance, on the one hand, and the ways of God as taught us by the prophets and by Jesus on the other hand. We fail only when we assume they are the same, only when we assume that our usual way of doing business as nations is the way that God intends.
What I find appealing about the Prophet’s vision is that the peoples, the nations are streaming to Jerusalem to learn the ways of the Lord and they do so by their own choice. They have discovered that their usual ways are not serving them well and they want to learn a new way of being, a new way of diplomacy, a new form of politics. It is as though they had an “Aha!” moment and realized that their old ways no longer served. Although Albert Einstein didn’t say it, it is still true that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Nations continue to behave as we have for thousands of years and it still ends in disaster, as it always has. When the nations come to their senses, say Isaiah and Micah, they will turn to the Lord’s house for instruction.
He shall judge between the nations,
And shall arbitrate for many peoples;
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more.
And when they come to the Lord’s house, it will be not only for instruction but also for judgment. One of the reasons human society is so much more peaceful than it was thousands of years ago is that we leave judgment in the hands of the State, rather than attending to it ourselves. When one person wrongs another, either the State files charges or the victim files a lawsuit. Either way, no one’s house is burned down, as in the stories of old. In the vision, the same thing comes true between nations. When a nation has a complaint against another, rather than raising an army and invading, the nation takes the complaint to the Lord’s house, where it will be judged.
Of course, this is the vision behind the United Nations, and a sculpture at the UN Building in New York reflects this vision. Nations take their accumulated weapons and convert them into farm implements; they close their war colleges and teach literature instead. Imagine what we could do as a nation if we did not spend almost as much on military expenditures as the next eight countries combined, two-and-three-quarters as much as number two, China. We could rebuild our collapsing infrastructure, improve transportation, reduce taxes or at least make a valiant attempt at returning to the balanced budgets we had in the 1990s. In the prophet’s vision, the nations submit their disputes to the Lord, who I imagine has the power to enforce his decisions. That, of course, is the weakness of the United Nations. It can decide what is just between nations, but it cannot enforce its justice. That part of the vision remains to be realized.
O house of Jacob,
Come let us walk
in the light of the Lord!
Isaiah does not leave us to sit and yearn for the day when the nations stream to Jerusalem for instruction and for judgment, but gives the people of God something to do in the meantime: join the Resistance. Whether the nations turn to it or not, the light of the Lord is streaming on us all the time: the light of the Scriptures, the light of the prophets, the light of the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. We’ll walk in the light: when politics demands vengeance, we’ll work at forgiveness. When practicality calls for violence, we’ll strive for peace. When public sentiment calls for division and fear, we’ll practice inclusion and hospitality.
Advent presents us with a vision, a vision of what is to be, but doesn’t leave us sitting and simply yearning for that vision. It presents us with the opportunity to live that vision, of swords giving way to plowshares and tanks to tractors. O house of Jacob, come let us walk in the light of the Lord.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master