December 2, 2007

Vision of Peace
Isaiah 2:1-5

The prophet Isaiah lived in a chaotic world. The fact that the Israelites served as God’s chosen people among the nations in no way exempted them from hardship, conflict and war. They knew far better than do most of us the sheer agony of internal disorder and the unbearable trauma brought about by approaching invaders. They learned, after all, not from newspapers, radio broadcasts, movies or video games, but from first-hand experience. Throughout history, the city of Jerusalem has been attacked more than forty times.

Truth be told, however, the hardship endured by the ancient Israelites over the centuries resulted at least in part from their own spiritual indifference and unfaithfulness. Positioned on a small piece of real estate nestled right between the two super powers of the day—Egypt and Assyria?these chosen people were called to live lives of reckless dependence upon God. Alarmingly, they opted for pagan idols, fool-hearty treaties and undependable human resources instead. Chapter 1 of Isaiah alone constitutes a lengthy indictment of Israel’s ill-advised strategies and God-forsaking ways. These people behaved more ignorantly than oxen, the prophet concluded, more wickedly than foreigners, and more self-righteously than the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. Now, in Isaiah’s day, Judah lies totally desolate and Jerusalem besieged. The poetic depictions left for us here call to mind, as grotesque as it may sound, images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki following the dropping of the atomic bombs:
Your country lies desolate,
your cities are burned with fire;
In your very presence
aliens devour your land;
it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.
There is killing in the land, looting in the streets, hunger in the schools, oppression in the courtrooms, and corruption in the capital. Could things possibly get any worse? Perhaps. But in Isaiah’s mind at least, they could—and will—get a whole lot better one day.

On August 28th, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and presented his unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech. As a crowd estimated at one million people listened intently, Dr. King used one poetic phrase after another to describe a world that was dramatically different from the violent, segregated and hate-filled world of the early 60’s here in the U.S. “I have a dream,” King shouted in one memorable line, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” And on and on he went, dismembering the present evil world and replacing it with images of a new world that he at least could see.

So it is with Isaiah here in 2:1-5. While living in a violent and unjust world, the prophet had a dream—a vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem (v. 1). With that dream in his mind and renewed hope in his heart, he undoubtedly climbed to some visible point in the desolate city and announced to a crowd of angry, hurting and sightless people—people incapable of seeing beyond the pain of the present: “I had a dream, and in that dream I saw….” And what did he see?

Isaiah saw, first of all, “the mountain of the Lord’s house established as the highest of the mountains.” Isaiah isn’t speaking here of geography or elevation, as though God will one day cause some sort of cataclysmic eruption that will push the Temple Mount in Jerusalem up several thousand feet. In truth, the Temple Mount is but a bump on the terrain, 100 feet shorter than even the Mount of Olives which sits adjacent to it. Isaiah isn’t thinking here of dirt and stones. He is talking instead of significance and influence. In many ancient religions, the gods lived on high mountains—Mt. Olympus for the Greeks and Mt. Cassius for the Phoenicians, to cite but two examples. The higher the mountain, the greater the god.

“In my dream,” Isaiah announces, “the mountain in Jerusalem reached clear up to the heavens, dwarfing in comparison the other mountains of the world.” At the sight of this mountain, all doubts concerning the identity of the one, true God vanished forever. The gods of the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians stepped aside, and one day so will the gods of our contemporary world. The mountains upon which the gods of other religions dwell will sink into nothingness, and the gods manufactured by human hands—wealth, prosperity, fame, power and position—will fare no better. The mountain of the Lord will rise higher than the mountain of Buddhism or Hinduism or Islam. The mountain of the Lord will rise higher than the mountain of Wall Street or Hollywood or MTV. In effect, the prophet Isaiah saw what the Apostle Paul himself declares in Philippians 2:9-10: one day, “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” In his dream, Isaiah saw the mountain of the Lord’s house raised above all of the others.

But Isaiah saw a great deal more than that. As he continued to watch, deeply moved himself, he noticed next how the nations of the world reacted to the elevation of Yahweh’s mountain. Remarkably, all the people of the world are drawn to the mountain of the Lord like paperclips to a magnet. In the spring of 1992, I had the opportunity to preach at a church way out in the fields of western Kenya. When I arrived, the local pastor banged a great gong, signaling to the people near and far that they should begin to make their way to the church. As I waited over the next 30-45 minutes, I saw people appearing from every vantage point, many well off in the distance—what a sight it was! People migrating to the church.

In Isaiah’s vision, the people of the world are streaming to the Lord’s mountain. People of varying colors. People speaking different languages. People with much and people with little. People who had previously worshiped other gods, all making their way to the mountain. But why? Here is the truly stunning thing. They are coming, not as imperialists to conquer the land. Not as capitalists to confiscate the oil. Not as colonialists to spread democracy. Not even as religious crusaders to rid the place of infidels. They are coming, instead, to hear the word of God. They are coming so that they might walk in his ways. They are coming because they are hungry and thirsty. Like people waiting in line for bread and sugar in any number of impoverished countries, they are coming because they now realize that life can be found in the Lord God of Israel alone.

The mountain of the Lord is raised above all other mountains, and people from around the world stream to it to learn and be changed. And what, finally, are the lasting effects? How are the world and the people who inhabit it different as a result of this trip to the mountain? Isaiah saw that in his dream as well. Two fundamental things have changed. For one, in Isaiah’s vision, God rules and reigns over the world, and his justice prevails. No need anymore for lawyers to defend accused rapists and child-abusers. No need anymore for juries to oversee murder trials. No need anymore for judges to hand down sentences to convicted thieves and conspirators. No need anymore for divorce courts to settle custody disputes. No need anymore for foreign dignitaries to hold international conferences to establish one or two-state solutions. No need anymore for the United Nations to place sanctions on renegade countries. No need anymore even for vice-principals to hand out detentions. God will once again take upon himself the roles of judge and arbitrator, and justice, to quote the prophet Amos, “will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).

So people won’t have to lock their doors anymore. They won’t have to hide their valuables or worry when their children go outside to play. They won’t have to read the fine print on a contract or internet advertisement to be sure that they are not being taken advantage of. People won’t have to live in fear of fraud, identity theft and unwanted intruders. Not in the world depicted in Isaiah’s dream. So they begin—this second remarkable change that occurs in Isaiah’s new world—they begin to gather together all of their weapons that divide, wound and kill, and they convert them one by one into tools that feed and unite. In goes a sword, out comes a hoe. In goes a B-52, out comes a tractor and combine. In this new world, nations won’t spend trillions of dollars on the military while countless people are hungry, uneducated, sick and dying. In this world, the peace of God, so much a part of his original creation, will be restored.

So why, we might ask, would the prophet share such a ridiculous dream with his people? Some of my own dreams are so bizarre that I just keep them to myself. Why disclose a vision so naïve and hopelessly impractical? Why, when there are more crimes to solve, sentences to carry out and wars to fight? Isaiah, after all, was undoubtedly an educated and highly experienced man who knew well the ins and outs of life in Jerusalem. Why? Two reasons, I think. First, to offer hope. While it is true that Isaiah knew the ins and outs of Jerusalem, it is also true that he believed with deep conviction that this world in which we live will itself be transformed one day. This world is still broken and violent—we all know that. In the 20th century, an estimated 35,654,000 people died around the world in wars. During that same period of time, another 262,000,000 people died as a result of government sponsored violence other than war. But we must think more broadly. Today, an estimated 854,000,000 people are hungry. Today, an estimated 32,000,000 Americans are affected in some way by domestic violence. Today, approximately 22% of American women have been physically assaulted by an intimate partner, and in some countries, that number goes as high as 50-70%. And today, an estimated 2,450 children are neglected or abused in one way or another every day in the United States alone. One day, Isaiah proclaims, all of this will end and the world will be utterly revitalized. “We have hope,” Isaiah declared. “I saw the new world in a vision.”

But why else would Isaiah share the vision? To offer a challenge. You can see it in the liturgical response found in v. 5: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” Clearly, the prophet links this response to the longing of the nations in v. 3. The foreign nations of the world make their way to the mountain of the Lord so that they can learn to walk in the paths of God. “If one day the nations of the world will learn to walk in God’s ways,” Isaiah seems to imply, “then don’t you think it is about time that we ourselves learn to do so?” “Will we be out done in godliness by our pagan neighbors?” he asks. Isaiah, in other words, believes that the people of God who have received such a vision from God should begin walking in the light of that vision right now. Don’t wait for some undetermined day way off in the future, he reasons. Enact the dream today, right where you are. Seek justice today. Break down barriers that divide human beings today. Beat your spears and knives into instruments of peace today. Walk in the light of the Lord. Don’t wait for God to act alone!

He already has. Some 700 years after the time of Isaiah—2,000 years before you and I ever took our first breaths—God did act alone. He did what only he could do—take on human flesh and enter the world in Jesus of Nazareth so that dreams and visions like this one from Isaiah would in fact come to pass. Jesus not only embraced Isaiah’s dream. He embodied it. He overcame evil with good. He confronted violence with love. And today, as we anticipate again the coming of Christ into the world, and as we share together at the table of the Lord, may he grant us the grace and courage to live out the dream as well.