A Vain Hope?

First Sunday in Advent Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 24:29-44

This year of 2019 is drawing to a close.
This is the year that China landed on the far side of the moon;
Francis became the first Pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula;
A breakthrough in stem cell treatment appeared to cure a man of HIV;
Algeria and Argentina were declared malaria-free by the World Health Organization.

It was surprisingly hard to find positive news from 2019. It seems the news cycle has been dominated by a single issue all year…

However according to the Uppasala Conflict Data Program, two million, seven hundred and thirty three thousand, two hundred and six people did not live to see 2019 because of some form of armed conflict.

two million, seven hundred and thirty three thousand, two hundred and six people, shot, caught in an explosion, a missile strike, a suicide bombing, beaten, or whose lives ended in ways too depraved to imagine.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, said the Prophet Isaiah, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

It’s such a feeble hope, isn’t it? A naive slogan you might have on a bumper sticker or as a social media bio.

We have moved far beyond swords, just as we have moved beyond plough-shares.

Yet here we Christians are, who will in a few minutes pray for the peace of the whole world, who will be sent out from this service, strengthened by our union with Christ, to go into this violent world daring to do good works.

Feeble. Weak. Futile.

Surely our neighbors will look at Christians and see only well-meant fables and platitudes. If our prayers have accomplished anything, it must only be that now we feel rather ashamed of the things we have left undone.

two million, seven hundred and thirty three thousand, two hundred and six people died in violent conflict in 2018 and we knelt and prayed.

How can this hope be something for which our hearts can yearn? Our scriptures call on us to put our hope in a world where nations will put down their weapons, trusting in the law of God and in his judgements. It has been such a long time since that first Advent of our Lord, that such a hope seems to have been in vain.

What exactly are we celebrating this Christmas, as men, women, and children the world over are having their lives taken violently every day? What did the coming of the Messiah to Bethlehem accomplish after all? What kind of Gospel are we sharing with our friends and neighbors, if the vision of the future promised long ago to the people of God has not yet come to pass?

The promise given by the Prophet Isaiah, that nation shall not lift up sword against nation, that they shall not learn war anymore, is couched in a wider context. This context helps us make sense of the world in which we now find ourselves, with all of its despair and longing and pain.

Isaiah tells us that in the latter days the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be lifted up as the highest of mountains, and all nations shall flow into it. This sounds on first hearing like something aggressive, because one tends to imagine that if one place or people are exalted and rise in strength, then this is because they have vanquished those around them and have taken their treasures for their own. The lord of the castle takes the benefits and produce of the people over whom he rules and fortifies himself, living in a luxury won by oppression. But within the imagination of this text and amongst many ancient peoples, a castle on mountain, a city on a hill, is a place of safety and refuge.

When an army would come to invade a land, the people of that land would find shelter in the city on a hill. The higher the hill, the safer the city.

Isaiah’s vision is that the place of God’s dwelling will be the safest place of all. Notice how Isaiah does not speak of the throne of David here, and so is not promising the success of the dynasty of the kings of Judah. No, Jerusalem here becomes a symbol of the place where God meets people, where worship is offered, and sacrifices made.

The multitudes from many nations are not saying “Let us go and meet the king of Judah so that he can teach us his ways”, a skim through of the books of Samuel and Kings shows us the long and foolish history of the mortal rulers of that land. Rather they say “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.”

This is a bold prophesy, not least because when Isaiah gave this oracle Judah was threatened on every side with vast empires and enemies, while they remained a small nation running to and fro between treaties with Egypt and Assyria and many others, depending for their security on treaties with larger nations. Why then would the nations turn and come into the place where they can meet God and hear his word?

For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

It will not be the splendor and strength of the people of God or those who govern them which will cause the nations to change their ways and come to listen to God. It will instead be the just and gracious word of God which will go out. Go out to bring the nations in. Go out to teach them God’s ways. God’s word shall go out and shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples. And then it shall be that they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Isaiah does not tell us that the peoples of all the nations will no longer have differences or disputes. He is not anticipating an end to disagreement or conflict, but rather he is certain that if the peoples of every tribe and nation can know God and know his ways, if they can come to trust in his judgements, then would people no longer feel the need to reach for the sword, for they had found with God perfect justice and equity.

One way we might want to interpret the meaning of such a promise today is that if all the peoples of the world can be taught to read the Bible and given access to it in a language familiar to them, then they would better know how to walk in love and not in hate. But I think Isaiah has something else in mind. In the Old Testament, when else have we heard of people coming from a far-off land to have their disputes resolved and to receive wise and truthful counsel? Solomon, the son of David, received the Queen of Sheba, who upon hearing the wisdom God had given him, then blessed God and worshipped him.

Isaiah gives us a hope not that some kind of magical spell will be cast over the waring peoples of the earth, that they will in one moment lay down their arms. Nor is it a hope that the people of God will become the strongest and most powerful of all peoples, such that no one will dare disobey them for fear of a swift recompense. That has been tried many times, most recently one might suppose in the doctrine of mutually assured destruction which kept the world from blowing itself up in the late 20th century. Holding a knife to someone’s throat will typically make them more cooperative, but this is not really peace. The kind of peace Isaiah is anticipating is the peace which comes when God’s reign is established on earth, and all the nations will come to trust in him.

Now it has been over 2000 years since the birth of Christ, the one whom is promised when Isaiah says “out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”, and still we find ourselves quick to trust in our own judgement, eager to secure our own interests. Why is this the case, if God has not kept hidden his ways from us? Why do we not now live in the harmony of God’s gentle kingdom?

If Isaiah’s vision of the coming kingdom of God is one which fills us with hope, Jesus’ words about the coming of that same kingdom might fill us with dread.

“The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”

But why would the tribes of the earth mourn? Isaiah told us that they would go joyfully to listen to the just and wise counsel of the Lord, that they would find their weapons are redundant, that they could turn themselves to the good work of cultivating this good world. But Jesus, who is the Word of God which goes out from God’s dwelling in heaven, tells us that there will instead be mourning and grief.

If you have not dipped in to the Gospel of Matthew, this is the year in our Lectionary when this Gospel will be our reading most Sundays. But it is Jesus’ own teachings which might help us understand why the coming of Jesus in great glory to bring about his will on earth would make all the peoples of every tribe and nation mourn and weep. This Jesus who comes in glory to save his people is the same who said that if anyone has anger in their heart, they have committed murder, or that if they have lust they have committed adultery. Jesus’ teachings are hard, and he asks his people to leave everything and follow him.

How hard that is to do! How much more dreadful will it be on the day of his appearing, when he summons all people to give an account of their lives!

The way of Jesus, as Isaiah promises, will bring about peace between the peoples of the earth, but many of us who have been Christians for at least a little while know how hard it is to live and love as he lives and loves.

We are faced with a certain future, a future for which we all long deep down. We are left with a call to begin following the one who bring that future about. And between these things, we discover that the reason the world continues to groan, and people continue to suffer violent deaths all over the world, is because we are not yet ready to leave behind our sin and walk in the light.

The season of Advent is a time when we are confronted with the arresting vision of God’s coming kingdom and are asked again to turn from darkness toward the light, such that we will be inheritors with him of the new heavens and new earth, where all peoples dwell in peace having no use for weapons any more.

The season of Advent also helps us understand what the purpose of the life of the Church is now, today. St Paul tells us that salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The Church is a people of patience just as much as it is a people of hope. Hope, certainly because we who belong to Jesus know he will bring about his good purposes. Patience, too, because ridding ourselves of the darkness of sin and living daily in the kind of love which seeks the flourishing of our neighbors doesn’t happen instantly for any of us.

We are an Advent people, hoping that our world will be different, but afraid that we ourselves might have to be different before it comes about.

two million, seven hundred and thirty three thousand, two hundred and six people were not with us in 2019 because of violent conflict throughout the world. Let us renew our hope today that God’s promises are true, and let us therefore be a people who are daily casting off our own darkness and walking in the light of love, in the wisdom and counsel of our Lord.

It seems like such a small thing, a feeble response, I know. But if we Christians can be a people who live in the love which does no harm to another, because we have come to trust that God is the mediator between us, then our aching and wounded world can perhaps come to share our hope, and walk with us in God’s love.

This Advent, as we share the hope of Christ’s coming kingdom, we ought not be afraid of the darkness, of the many ways in which this world is not yet redeemed, but rather step boldly into the light of love with the help of the Holy Spirit, so that those who think that the darkness is all there is, may see that they too can be a part of God’s gentle kingdom, where all of his people will live in a love which prefers ploughing and reaping, to fighting and destruction.

O house of God, let us walk in the light of the Lord, for our salvation is now nearer than when we first believed.

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