The word Isaiah sees is even more powerful because of what comes before. Flipping open to your pew Bibles might help, because I found it really striking this week. Isaiah, first among the prophets, announces what God has shown him concerning Judah and Jerusalem – this is chapter 1, verse 1 – in the days of four kings, situating himself between 742 and 701 BCE. At the beginning of the prophet’s 40-year career, the northern kingdom, Israel, aligned with Syria, invades Judah, the southern kingdom, the prophet’s home. The people were caught between invaders to the north, and the mighty Assyrian Empire that controlled the rest of the region. Threats loomed all around, and they were afraid.1
But the prophet’s words do not bring comfort. God is angry.
“Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil…who have forsaken the Lord…”
“…I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates…I am weary of bearing them.”
“How the faithful city [Jerusalem] has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers!”
“Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.”
“I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes! I will turn my hand against you.” Christopher Seitz writes: “The opening chapter of Isaiah presents a sober picture. The country lies in ruin. There is no one to press…the wounds, bind them up, or even soften them with oil. Israel’s rulers are murderers, with no time to worry about the widow or the orphan.”2 The people wonder if they have been forsaken. Maybe you’ve been there, exhausted, at the end of your rope? Overwhelmed by all that comes with life, as a job is snatched out from under you, or you feel your marriage falling apart, or someone you love is fighting through another round of treatment. Weary. Anxious. Unclear on how it’s all going to go.
It is here, in the valley of the shadow of death, that today’s text begins. After the judgment of chapter 1, the prophet again speaks: The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. There is another word, a word beyond judgment. It is another word that Isaiah SEES. This particular Hebrew word is only used a handful of times throughout all of the prophets. It lets us know, in no uncertain terms, that a vision is coming. A vision that fills the future, a vision that belongs to God.3 In the days to come – we don’t know exactly when, but the month and the year isn’t the point – in God’s future, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of all the mountains.
The temple, there in Jerusalem, is elevated above everything–we can see it from so far away. And not only shall our eyes be drawn to it, but all people shall stream to it. One of my favorite moments around here on Sunday mornings, particularly as we get into Advent, or near Easter, is to be able to stand in the Courtyard for a few minutes before worship and see you all come in, from the Mission Center, from down the back parking lot. Someone’s leaving something in the Fellowship Hall, ushers rush out to help get someone’s walker set by the handicapped spots. Kids run from down toward the playground, we’re all streaming in here.
Many peoples 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.” Not streaming into stores like we all saw in the chaos of Black Friday shopping. Not crowding to buy tickets for a concert. Inviting friends and neighbors. Come, there’s something happening. And it’s beyond, come the music is great, come, there’s super stuff for youth, come, we are engaged in essential mission in the community. All those things are true. But come, the people say, Let us go the house of the Lord, that God might show something of God’s own self to us. With so much suffering and anger and pain, we WILL proclaim God has not forsaken us. Come.
For out of Zion, God’s own home, shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. It doesn’t just stay in church or in our hearts, God’s word is powerful and active. Isaiah tells us this word creates community, an alternative vision of God’s creation as God intended: healed, mended, reconciled, peaceful.4 The nations will come to Zion to learn God’s instruction, the holy torah, so that they might obey God’s word in their lives.5 So inspired, the people of all nations will understand we are bound together – not only in the pews, but across town, under bridges, across boundaries racial and political and economic, in neighborhoods of rubble in Aleppo, Syria, or neighborhoods cleaning up in Princeville or Lumberton. And we are all a part of the transformation, as we take weapons apart, as they don’t serve any purpose anymore, as we learn to trust not in each other, not in nations or governments, but in the God who has broken in among us, who summons us to pull out our hammers and begin beating swords into plowshares – the swords don’t magically become plowshares, we have to WORK to fashion them into their new uses – spears into pruning hooks, as instruments that destroy become a part of growing, building, harvesting.
This is the Word from the Lord that Isaiah sees, a vision that shows us a world in which:
…we aren’t so busy doing our own thing to pay attention to each other, noticing first our own families – we’re so busy we overlook them too often, but looking to our neighbors, knowing who they are, caring, supporting, looking out for each other.
…our police and other public servants will be able to do their jobs, which are dangerous enough, without threat.
…our children in Hope Valley and east Durham, or in those neighborhoods in Lumberton or Princeville or the heart of Aleppo, might be able to grow up safe and healthy, go to school and pursue their dreams.
In one sense, it’s ridiculous. Visions like the ones Isaiah sees feel a little silly, especially when they – then as now – seem to bear so little relation to the facts on the ground. It doesn’t seem like God’s vision is becoming reality in these days.
But maybe it’s this time of year. Maybe it’s the holidays, as we light candles, as we enjoy remarkable music, as we step into the story of Mary and Joseph and a journey and the promise of a baby. Maybe we’re feeling a little sappy. But maybe, too, there’s something about a vision, or even more about the God that offers that vision, that grips us, that summons us to follow. Come O Jacob, come Westminster, come dear friends. Come, as Advent begins, let us walk in the light of the Lord. Amen.
1. Christopher Seitz offers helpful history, and clarifies some key points of contention, on pages 10-15 of his Interpretation: Isaiah 1-39, (Louisville: John Knox, 1993)
2. Seitz, 37.
3. Seitz, 36-37.
4. John Buchanan, “Preaching the Advent Texts: Hope, Peace, Courage.” Advent 2010 Journal for Preachers, p 9.
5. From The Rev. Dan Lewis’ paper on this text at The Well, 2010, Davidson.