“O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Isaiah 2:5
Martin Luther called the book of Isaiah the Fifth Gospel, for in the prophet’s writings he saw both the law and the gospel, that which condemns and that which gives life, bad news and good. This Advent our first readings are all from Isaiah. Today and next week, the sermon will focus on Isaiah. On the third week of Advent, we’ll have a story sermon and on the fourth Sunday, our Children’s Christmas Pageant. Let’s begin.
The first chapter of Isaiah is like the front page of almost every newspaper, whether in print or on-line. The prophet vividly describes people who have lost their way. Nothing’s working right. The desolated country is burning with fire. And we see the fires of California burning thousands of acres and the Amazon Rainforest, the earth’s lungs, filled with smoke from over 87,000 fires.[i] Daughter Zion, the beloved city Jerusalem, resembles a tumbledown shack on a dead-end street and we recognize the besieged cities of Damascus and Aleppo in Syria and closer to home beleaguered Camden, Detroit, Flint, Gary, Trenton. Isaiah declares everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts while we see Congress selling itself to the highest bidder, with its armies of lobbyists, political action committees and wealthy donors. They do not defend the orphan. The widow’s cause does not come before them nor do the nearly 70,000 children detained in immigration custody in the past year.[ii] Children in cages. Children separated from their parents. Children lost in the system, perhaps never to be found. Isaiah proclaims that God sees it all, then and now, and has had enough.
I confess, as your preacher, I generally avoid mentioning all this. Saying to myself, life is tough enough without bringing up the headlines. Justifying it because we are a purple congregation – not the purple Phoenixville Phantoms – but because in our pews the Democratic blue and Republican red blend into purple along with the un-declares and that this ought to be a safe place away from divisive politics. But that makes me, dare I say, makes us, to use Isaiah’s language, nothing more than an oak whose leaves wither, a garden without water.
In the second chapter of Isaiah, there’s a new vision. One that’s grounded, not in Israel’s merit or repentance, but in God’s own determination.[iii] God’s judgement is followed by God’s powerful promise. It is that promise that will carry the day. Much like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s, “I have a dream” speech, Isaiah gives us a vision of the future that moves beyond threat without denying it and in doing so invites us into hope. Hope.
So, what do we see? First, the mountain of God’s house and all the nations streaming towards it. Of course, we are reminded of Mount Sinai, where God’s people were given the law, the 10 commandments, which show us the way God works and gives us, as one of our teenagers once told me, “the rules we need for life.” It is a glorious vision and Isaiah will repeat it again. Over twenty years ago, not long after the Steel City Coffee House opened on Bridge street in 1997, there was painting hanging on the wall, back by the restrooms. It was a high mountain with all kinds of people streaming up it. I took note of the artist and when I met her a few months later, I asked about her painting and if she knew of Isaiah’s visions from chapters 2 and 25. She did not. “Why did you paint that?” I inquired. She replied, “I don’t know. It was given to me. I had to paint it.” Isaiah’s vision, her vision, our vision. Can you see it? People coming from all over the world, immigrants, to this place to work, have a family, raise children, live free? Do you see the phoenix rising over and over, again? Is there still a place for all kinds of people or only for the wealthy ones?
And specifically, what’s the vision for us in this house of the God of Jacob? What’s our part in it? According to Isaiah, we are to teach God’s ways and walk in God’s paths. The communities of faith – the churches and synagogue and while we don’t yet have a mosque, I hope one day we will, these are the ones who show us the way God works. Over the years I noticed if something good and wonderful is happening in our town, there’s always a person of faith at the center of it. And yet the very busyness of our town and our lives, challenges our ability to teach God’s ways. Dare we be so bold to plan everything else around teaching God’s ways and walking in God’s paths? So that what’s at the core of we do and who we are reflects the transforming love of God. Who will you teach God’s way to? Who will you invite to walk in God’s paths?
What do we see? Isaiah’s vision is one of God judging between the nations, making things right between the peoples, in such a way that they can put down their weapons and re-purpose them. Swords turned into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. What does that look like in our time? In 2007 Mexican Creative Artist, Pedro Reyes, was invited to the city of Culiacán which had the highest rate of gun deaths in Mexico. The residents were asked to donate guns for a project called Palas por Pistolas, or Shovels for Guns. 1,517 guns were exchanged for coupons for domestic appliances and electronics. The guns were melted down into 1,527 shovel heads that were then used to plant 1,527 trees in the city.[iv] Matter used for death transformed into matter promoting life. It doesn’t get more biblical than this.[v]
This is hard to hear on the first Sunday of Advent – the Sunday of hope – but absolutely necessary. In 2018, in the United States, 3,539 children from infants to age 17 were injured or killed by gun violence.[vi] We need to name this, because as Biblical Scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it, “there is no chance for God to make things new without judgement upon the old things that make for destruction.”[vii] We need to be honest about this, honest about our failure to protect our children, our fear that cycles into more fear, more guns, and intentional or not, more violence. Honest. And then to do something so bold and so brave, it just about takes our breath away. To put down our weapons, whether they be swords or spears, knives or guns, lies or slander and walk in the light of the Lord! Amen.
[iii] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know Press, 1998, 9, 16.
[v] Casey Thornburg Sigmon, www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4315
[vii] Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know Press, 2003, 161.