The other week, I reflected on the Gospel reading in which Jesus expounds on what seems like a foretelling of a frightening future, but is really more a description of the human condition:
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom;
there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues;
and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
In a world impacted by sin — our tendency to break faith with God, one another, and the world around us — this is not an apocalyptic vision of the future, but simply the nightly news. This is where the ways of this world — its economics and politics and inherited structures — lead us and leave us. It’s easy to lose hope in this sort of situation, where often seems like things are getting worse in the world and not better, or even at the best of times, there seem to be one-and-a-half steps back for every two steps forward.
On this first Sunday of Advent, the oracle from the prophet Isaiah offers us a startlingly different vision for what human life, both between and within nations, could look like. The word of the LORD comes to Isaiah, saying:
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 plowshares
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!
The text of Isaiah 1-12 positions itself in the second half of the eighth century BCE, during the reign of King Ahaz and what is known Syro-Ephraimite War. This was a case of international politics and intrigue at its worst. Assyria was rising as a power in the northeast and was enriching itself by creating a network of vassal states, which included the small kingdoms of Aram, Israel, and Judah. But Aram and Israel decided to break ranks and try to limit Assyrian domination before it got out of control. Judah, for its part, elected not to go along with their plan, and so in response to this, they attacked Judah, in an attempt to overthrow Ahaz and establish new leadership who would join their anti-Assyrian alliance. At the same time, the Philistines to the west and Edomites to the south took advantage of Judah’s distraction and started raiding Judahite communities. Thus squeezed on all sides, King Ahaz petitioned Assyria for military assistance. Assyria was more than happy to oblige, and the end of the war saw Aram and parts of Israel conquered and their upper classes deported, the Philistines defeated, and Judah now indebted to Assyria and completely under its sway. So, as so always happens, a squabble among small states created a situation that only served to increase the power of the powerful.
It’s likely that this oracle dates from around the middle of this crisis, when Jerusalem was under threat but nothing had been decided. The previous oracle was one of judgment and utter devastation. The final verse of what has come down to us as Isaiah 1 will give you a good sense of it: The strong shall become like tinder and their work like a spark; they and their work shall burn together, with no one to quench them.
In the midst of this time of judgment and destruction, the prophet now utters an oracle presenting a vision of a different kind of life, what the New Testament would later call ‘the Kingdom of God.’
As is only fitting considering the Judahite context of both the crisis and the prophet, the dominant symbol in the oracle is of Jerusalem and Mount Zion. This is not an oracle about the here and now, but about “In days to come” — that is, on the apocalyptic Day of the LORD. This is a way of talking about a vision of the future when God’s ways will be made known and lived out, when, as other oracles envision, Jerusalem will be a place of justice, equity, and peace for everyone, including foreigners, widows, orphans, and eunuchs. This is important to remember. Jerusalem has a central role to play, but only inasmuch as it demonstrates the faithful life of Shalom. At such time as it does this, then Zion will grow up to be the highest of all mountains. This is symbolic on both political and spiritual dimensions. Politically, the high ground is the tactically safest. So this vision imagines Jersualem as being physically safe from enemy attack. There is a biting political critique here: Jerusalem is criticized throughout the first chapters of Isaiah for its internal corruption, in which its laws serve only the interests of the rich and powerful, and its weak political internationalism, in which seeks security through appealing to stronger neighbours and taking on their ways (see 2.6 and chapter 7), instead of following the life-giving ways of God — which again, are not about ‘morality policing’ but about policies that promote justice and the well-being of everyone in the community. When Judah lives into these ways, that’s when it will be politically strong, Isaiah says.
But there is also an important spiritual message here. Throughout Ancient Near Eastern cultures and the Scriptures, mountains, or ‘high places’, were places of theophany, ‘thin places’ where one could expect to encounter God. So, for Zion to become the highest of the high places means that it is imagined as the closest place to God; we might say, this Jerusalem is as much in heaven as it is on earth. While this vision clearly traffics in nationalistic imagery, it also turns nationalism inside out and flips the script on the ways of empire and domination in the process. Whereas empire acts like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up the wealth of nations into the centre, this future Zion is more like a warm fire on a cold night. The nations come, not out of political necessity or expediency, but because they are naturally attracted to Zion, its God, and its God’s ways. In fact, Jerusalem and its kings are barely in view at all here — Jerusalem is attractive because it has ‘cracked the code’ of how to build a just society, but it’s clear this is not because its inhabitants are inherently exceptional, but rather because they are (finally) following God’s ways. And in just the same way as the Judahites are envisioned here as having learned from God, do the nations of the earth stream to Zion to learn directly from God:
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.
Not only will God teach the peoples of the world directly but he will also arbitrate their disputes. God’s peace-making efforts will be so effective that everyone will turn the implements of warfare into implements for production, turning decisively away from modes of destruction to modes of creativity, away from taking life to promoting it. This is night-and-day from the international politics of this world. This is no business-as-usual world of military alliances and imbalanced trade agreements; what the prophet envisions is a completely different way of doing life together in the world, in which all will learn from God the ways of good-faith relationships of peace.
The oracle ends by refocusing its attention on Israel and Judah: “O house of Jacob, come let us walk in the light of the LORD!” This suggests once again that this is not about “Judahite exceptionalism”; in fact, it urges them to renew their rightful place as disciples learning God’s ways — in effect to take on for themselves in the here and now the exact attitude the oracle presents for all the peoples of the world ‘in those days’.
So then, in the face of a time of national crisis and in effect civil war, this is a message of hope for Jerusalem — God is not finished with it yet — but also one of humility. As such it also offers hope for the rest of the world too — God is not finished with them either.
But what might this have to say to us today as begin this Advent season? One of the great themes of Advent is hope. As I’ve written about before, the problem with hope is that it’s only really worth anything when things look hopeless. Our world is such a discouraging place; we need hope more than ever. But today’s lesson from Isaiah reminds us that our hope is not in kings or princes or anything the politics of empire and domination suggest. Our hope is in God, and in turning to God’s ways of humility, love for neighbour, and peace.
As Christians, we believe that these ways were revealed in their fullest extent in the coming, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Jesus was himself rejected by the world. And, two thousand years later, Isaiah’s vision of the world streaming to learn God’s peacemaking ways seem as distant as ever. And yet it remains, always a beacon for the faithful, that warm fire calling us home in a cold and hostile wilderness.
Come! Let us walk in the light of the LORD.
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