I feel a little reluctant to post sermons, as I know that not all my readers share my faith in Christ. However, someone has kindly encouraged me to share more, so here’s one for Advent Sunday. I guess you don’t have to read on, but if you’d like to…
Isaiah 2.1-5 – Advent Sunday
These are dark days. There are so many causes for concern in the world, so many big problems that just seem intractable. In my own field of Christian engagement with environmental issues, the outlook seems very bleak.
Do I need to go into details? It’s really too depressing.
In these dark days we begin Advent.
In our culture, Advent is just about getting ready for Christmas, and for many it seems to be the start of Christmas. In the church, it’s traditionally been a time for entering into the darkness of a suffering world and experiencing, in the darkness, the long waiting for the light and salvation of God to come. That’s why we have readings today encouraging us to stay alert and awake – to make ourselves ready for the day of God’s coming and to live as people of light. I think the idea is to give us hope in our waiting.
Isaiah presents a vision to a people experiencing darkness, exile, the end of their nation, perhaps the end of their story. The remnant of Israel needed hope. The few that were left after years and years of invasion, siege, captivity and paying tribute to foreign empires, needed hope. They’d had years of having to defend their land and their crops against invaders. Years of sending their sons into battle armed with tools from the farm – boys carrying ploughshares and pruning hooks beaten into crude swords and spears. They’d had years of it and they needed change and they needed hope that things would change.
The world has had centuries of this – of oppression and injustice, of war and slaughter, of destruction of crops and land and livelihoods and homes – of tribe lifting up sword against tribe, of the powerful beating down the poor and taking what little they have – and we need change and in these dark days we need hope.
So here’s Isaiah’s vision – see if it makes you feel hopeful. The temple of God will be raised up and all nations will stream into it, looking to learn God’s way of living. That way will be a way of peace between all nations. There will be no more war.
Does it make you feel hopeful? To me, it seems naïve, idealistic. The evidence runs against this vision coming true. But I don’t want to let go of it, because it is a great vision – a vision worth holding on to, aspiring to, hoping for.
Whether it’s hopeful or not might depend on what you think prophecy is and does. There’s a view of prophecy that sees a passage like this as simple fore-telling. This is what the future will be like – it’s God’s plan and God will bring it about, because what God says will happen, will happen. All you have to do is wait for the prophecy to come true.
That doesn’t quite ring true for me, I’m afraid – and I’m sorry if that seems heretical. Bear with me for a minute. I can’t look at the state of the world and believe that God always gets what God wants. If God is not getting what God wants now, especially in relation to people I love & people I’m praying for, why should I think one day the world will be how God wants it, if it’s simply about God making it so. If then, why not now, for the sake of suffering people and a suffering world? If God can do it in the future, why not do it now?
So I’m more inclined towards a view of prophecy that sees people like Isaiah imagining (Holy-Spirit-inspired if you like) what God’s will might look like. By putting this vision into words, it helps bring it into being, but a response is also needed from hearers and readers. The prophecy can only come true when, in the words of this prophetic passage, people say, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Eternal” – when they make that choice to align their lives with the words of the prophecy and invite the word of God to be made flesh in their lives.
This passage talks about people saying to each other, “Come”. It uses the language of learning and walking. It involves action in response: as people submit to the judgement of God rather than their own greed and anxiety; as they beat their tools of killing and war back into tools of growing food for life; and as people learn the ways of God, rather than learning better ways of killing each other.
It’s a prophecy that calls for response and for action. And as people choose to make this vision their vision for life, the prophecy comes true.
So every act of love becomes a fulfilment of prophecy. Every act of compassion becomes a fulfilment of prophecy. Every act of thoughtful care for creation. Every act of standing up to injustice. Every act of peace-making. Every act – however small – that is aligned with the word of God, that is aligned with the compassion of God for every person and every creature in all creation – becomes a building block of the kingdom of God.
I am sure this is how Jesus lived and how he saw himself fulfilling prophecy. I don’t think Jesus was a fatalist – he was inspired by the scriptures and chose for them to be fulfilled in him. He knew he had to say ‘Yes’ to God’s will in order for it to come into being. He knew how costly that would be for him, but he chose to walk in the light of the Lord, to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and to live out the deep and powerful compassion of God for a broken creation.
But this is not simply a message of human determination and effort, which is just as well, for me at least, because I know that I fall short of these ideals over and over again. I need God. Even Jesus needed God. He lived and acted in trust and dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit – in Jesus we see the union of God and humanity in its fullest possible manifestation.
It’s in the reading, too. It’s not about God making things happen, and it’s not about people making things happen. It’s about a union of lives – of the life of God and the lives of people. It is God who teaches the way of peace, but the people have to learn it. It is God who arbitrates between people, but the people have to beat their weapons back into farm tools. It is God’s light, but the people need to walk in it.
It would be easy to despair and feel there’s nothing you can do in the face of the problems in the world, and to feel that you’ll have to wait forever for God to do anything about them. But this reading gives us hope, because it assures us that a new world is possible. It assures us that God’s will is to bring peace to the world and to bring that new world into being. It shows us that when we respond to God’s word and align our will with God’s will and welcome the light of God into our lives, we can learn to walk in God’s way and be part of the coming of this new world of peace.
Every act of love and positivity that is the result of us walking in the light of God – however small those acts may be – means that we are doing something and God is doing something, and so something can be done, and a new world breaks into the present world like a shaft of light through storm clouds. There is hope, however dark it gets.
So, for Jesus’ sake, that his words and actions might come to fulfilment in a world where all creation is made new and all creation lives together in peace – Come! Let us walk in the light of God.