1 This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
2 In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. 3 Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. 5 Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.
I am so glad that everyone survived Thanksgiving weekend. Of course there is nothing odd about taking time to remember all that you have, giving thanks to God for those gifts and then turning around the next day to trample your neighbor in line to get that new tv that just went on sale. I’m not against Black Friday, but I am against trampling people; call me a hippie.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the period of four Sundays leading up to Christmas day. Each week we will be lighting an additional Advent candle, culminating in the lighting of the white Christ candle. This growing and developing light source is consistent with our Advent theme this year as we seek to move from darkness and despair to light and wholeness. Notice the songs and notice that each week we will be given a chance to respond to the message in some way physically.
Our scripture for today opens in a very interesting way. The text above is from the NIV and it tells us that Isaiah saw this vision. It was not spoken to him and it did not just pop into his head as an idea. It was an image, a picture, a thing to behold.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves if we jump right into today’s text, as much as we might want to do so. Because this is not Isaiah’s first vision. No, chapter 1 verse 1 starts in a similar manner: “The vision of Isaiah…”
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, though I’m not sure who took the time to actually count the words. We know the power of a picture. We hang pictures in our homes because they remind us of something or someone. Perhaps you have an idyllic farm scene on display in your living room, calling you back to a slower time and place. Maybe you have a picture of your dear mother or father hanging upon your refrigerator, reminding you to eat your vegetables. Pictures are powerful and they can call us to action.
The first vision that Isaiah is given is not one of beauty, but of turmoil. If you turn on your computer, fire up your smartphone, or turn on your television sets today, you will probably see the kinds of images that Isaiah witnessed in this first vision. We are bombarded with visions of the aftermath of the typhoon in the Philippines. We are struck by pictures of abject poverty in our own neighborhoods. We see sickness for which there is no cure. Perhaps even worse, we see sickness for which there is a cure, but no means by which to acquire it.
Hearing those words is difficult enough. But seeing the images reminds us that this is not just some abstract concept that we find in the Bible. This is real.
Perhaps you have heard the phrase that someone was in “their darkest hour.” When someone refers to a time as their darkest hour, it means that they are in the worst time of their life. This was probably the case for Isaiah as he viewed his first vision and the state of things in Jerusalem and Judah. And it may be true for those in the Philippines, the homeless shelters, or the hospitals.
So what do we do? We turn off our cell phones, close our laptop computers, and unplug the televisions. And in doing so, we make the world just a little bit darker. Perhaps we do so because it is easier to be in the darkness, where we cannot see the struggles of others.
But there is good news. There is a “chapter 2” in Isaiah and chapter 2 includes a new vision. The first vision was dark and depressing. This vision is a vision of hope.
In Isaiah’s second vision we find God’s temple on a mountain. And we are told that all people, all nations will come to God’s temple. We can’t imagine how radical this would have been to an Israelite hearing about this vision. All nations? All people groups are invited to God’s temple?
Remember that the temple was off limits to the Gentiles. We find descriptions of the temple that tell us that non-Israelites were allowed in the courtyard area, but not in the temple. This vision that Isaiah is sharing here is one of great importance to me. I wasn’t born into God’s race of chosen people. I’m a Swiss/German Anabaptist, which, if we are honest, really is kind of the same thing. I joke, but in all seriousness, those few words are so important to us who are not Jewish. God’s temple in Isaiah’s vision is big enough for all people groups.
Now look at verse 3, “Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’”
Many Christians will claim that this passage is a reference to the end times. This is the way things will be when Jesus comes back and sets things right. I’m not one of those Christians. I don’t think that this is something that we are called to wait upon that will only arrive at Jesus’ second coming. I believe that this is something that has been begun in Christ’s first coming. Yahweh is no longer the privatized God of the Jews, but all are welcome to come to him. No longer is there a requirement that you must be Jewish, or must be a man to enter into the worshipping community. God is calling all people to come to him.
Verse three tells us that many people, that is many Gentiles, will come to the mountain where God’s temple is and they will expect God to teach them his ways. If we are to take this literally, it would seem to me that God’s kingdom is not fully realized here. People are still learning which suggests that they don’t fully know God’s will, God’s desire. Therefore they would have the opportunity, not being fully aware of God’s will, to sin.
I believe that what Isaiah is talking about is a messianic era that began when Jesus came and preached the kingdom of God and not the final eschaton, the second coming of Jesus.
In Luke’s Gospel we find the story of some Pharisees who approach Jesus and they try to ask him one of those “trapping” questions. They ask, “When will the kingdom of God appear.”
Jesus doesn’t tell them, “It will be a Thursday at noon” or even something cryptic like, “The sixth Pentecost after the coming of the enlightened one.” Nope, Jesus say, “The kingdom of God is among you.” Some translations even say that the kingdom of God is within you.
That second image, the image that God gave to Isaiah to replace the original vision of death and destruction isn’t some far-off reality. It is a reality that began when God came to this world in the form of a little baby born to two unmarried peasants in the first century. This reality, this vision, this image will not be fully experienced until Jesus comes back to reign forever and ever. But it has begun. The second vision has already begun to replace the first. And it is within you.
So if you want to see that image that Isaiah saw, all you need to do is to look inside yourself. It’s in there, and it is time to let it out. We began today by talking about the darkness, the images of despair and toil that surround us, which we would rather not see. We have the ability to do something about it. There is a light available to us. Verse 5 says, “Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
Verse 4 contains a very beautiful and poetic line, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
Ain’t gonna study war no more, ain’t gonna study war no more. For those of you who are Civil War historians, I don’t believe that this passage is telling you that you need to lose all interest in this altercation in order to be a part of Isaiah’s vision. But in Isaiah’s vision, there is no need to train for war. I believe that is significant.
You see, a nation does not simply train for war in times of altercation. The president doesn’t declare war at 8:00 am on a Monday, start assembling an army by noon, and then start training for war after lunch. No, even in times of peace, soldiers train. They practice their marksmanship, their tactics, and keep their bodies in peak physical condition. Nations train in times of peace because they believe that if they are not always ready to defend themselves, that others will see them as weak and be attempt to overtake them. So many nations take on the attitude that the best defense is to have a strong offense.
This vision that Isaiah has where there is this complete stoppage of training for war isn’t simply because there are no wars going on at the time. There is a complete cessation of training for war because there is no need for war. And in Isaiah’s vision, there is a symbol of not only peace, but of the end of war.
I’ve had to spend some time in my basement the last few weeks looking for things. You know, the kinds of things that one only uses once a year. The coffee percolator that will hold enough joe for the entire family on Thanksgiving, the extra table and chairs, and the electric knife all made an appearance in my kitchen this past week and then were promptly put away for another twelve months. Then I dug through the basement to find some additional items that I haven’t seen for quite a while: a Christmas tree stand, lights, and decorations. I pull them out of the corner of the basement, blow the dust off them, and make use of each item every year.
Since we only use these items on a very infrequent basis, wouldn’t it make sense to get rid of them? No, of course not. I’m going to use that electric knife again to cut next year’s turkey.
But as I was digging, I also found some things that I haven’t used in years. I found my old softball equipment: my ball, glove, and bat. I haven’t used those things since our first child was born, which is coming up on four years.
Should I get rid of my ball, glove, and bat? No, I don’t think so. Even though it has been four years since I have used them, I’m not going to get rid of them. I want to keep them because in a couple of years Paxton will probably be interested in playing “catch” with his old man. So I’ll keep them around.
But this last summer we rented a dumpster and cleared some things off our property. Old construction waste was a large part of what we were looking to get rid of. But when one has a dumpster outside their back door, they start to ask what they will never use again. And I spent a significant amount of time going through the basement, asking if I was really going to use some items, and getting rid of some things that I knew I would never need again.
The point that I am trying to make is that a good steward/frugal person doesn’t just get rid of things when they are not currently in use. You get rid of them when you know that you will never use them again. And in Isaiah’s vision the nations, the gentiles, took their swords and they beat them into plowshares. And they took their spears and forged them into pruning hooks.
These items of destruction had now been transformed into tools for creating, for growing, for developing, and for producing. You don’t do that if you think there is a chance you are going to need a sword or spear again.
About a year ago I became aware of an interesting organization known as RAWTools. RAWTools is a group of blacksmiths who fashion garden and farm tools in the style of old-time metalworkers. They have the anvils, the hammers, fire, and the crucibles.
RAWTools is probably not the cheapest source for a pitchfork or a shovel. You could likely go to a home improvement store and pick up some of these things for much cheaper. But RAWTools does their blacksmith work for shows. They have a portable forge that they take to conferences and fairs and produce their tools, banging, clanging, and beating the red-hot metal into something that can be used for the tilling of the earth and the harvest of the fruit of the vine.
The unique thing about RAWTools is that every shovel, pitchfork, and rake that they make is recycled from some other metallic item. They make these gardening tools out of AK-47s, out of assault rifles. They take tools of death and destruction, and make them into tools of life and hope.
I don’t think that Isaiah’s vision is eschatological, or of Jesus’ second coming. I believe that the kingdom of God began to be made known a couple thousand years ago in a stable in Bethlehem. We are called to live out this vision, giving light to the world around us, because the kingdom of God is among us. Indeed, it is within us.