1st Sunday of Advent – Living in the Light of the Lord Together

Light of the World, William Holman Hunt, 1851-1853, Manchester Art Gallery.

Light of the World, William Holman Hunt, 1851–1853, Manchester Art Gallery.

Isaiah 2:1–5
December 1, 2019

Each Sunday this Advent, we will be reading from the Book of Isaiah. As we have seen previously, the Book of Isaiah was composed by three major authors over several centuries. “First Isaiah” is responsible for most of chapters 1–39 and lived in Judah during the eighth century BC. “Second Isaiah” wrote about the return of the Jews to Jerusalem after 540 BC and is credited with chapters 40–55. “Third Isaiah” wrote around 515 BC in Jerusalem and completed the book writing chapters 56-66. This book was not complied haphazardly: the three authors shared enough ideas and beliefs that it was reasonable that they shared a name. The readings that are chosen for Advent are profound and beautiful but in no way present a systematic review of Isaiah’s theology. The comparisons and connections however will be interesting. This week’s selection (Isaiah 2:1–5) has many parallels with next week’s (Is. 11:1–10). For ease and convenience, we will look at “why the Jews were chosen for the kingdom?” this week and examine “what will that kingdom look like?” next week.

The book of Isaiah opens with:

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth,
for the LORD speaks:
Sons have I raised and reared,
but they have disowned me!
(Is. 1:2)

The rest of Chapter 1 continues in the same vein. The Jews are called a “sinful nation” (1:4a) they are accused of “apostatizing.” (1:4b) They have become so corrupt that God does not want their sacrifices. (1:11) The LORD wants but one thing from them:

Make justice your aim: redress the wronged,
hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.
(Is. 1:17)

This demands repentance:

But if you refuse and resist,
the sword shall consume you:
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken
(Is. 1:20)

But before the people can be forgiven there must be a reckoning:

Zion shall be redeemed by judgment,
and her repentant ones by justice.

(Is. 1:27)

Punishment is inevitable but it is redemptive, it purifies. That is where we are in today’s reading. The expression “in days to come” means at the end of this age and the beginning of the next age. In this case we are told that Mt. Zion where the temple is located will have greater prestige than any other place of worship in the world. This is because the Lord has entrusted his law—the Torah–to the Jews:

Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’
For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?
Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?
(Dt. 4:6–8)

The Jews recognized that they were different and were perceived as such by other nations. They saw themselves as particularly loved by the LORD but from the very beginning they understood that they were chosen for a purpose. When the LORD called Abraham, He said:

I will bless those who bless you
and curse those who curse you.
All the communities of the earth
shall find blessing in you.”
(Ge. 12:3)

This is a key theme in Isaiah. We most famously read from second Isaiah:

It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth
(Is. 49:6)

This is not only however in Isaiah. Almost identical lines from today’s reading may be found in 1st Isaiah’s contemporary Micah. To quote just two verses:

In days to come
the mount of the LORD’S house
Shall be established higher than the mountains;
it shall rise high above the hills,
And peoples shall stream to it:
Many nations shall come, and say,
“Come, let us climb the mount of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways,
that we may walk in his paths.”
(Mic. 4:1–2)

Isaiah however is much clearer on what is drawing the people:

Come, let us climb the LORD’S mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.
(Is. 2:3)

It is not riches or esoteric knowledge but a way of life. Indeed, it is one which that will be seen not in military victory but in peace and nonviolence:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks;
One nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.
(Is. 2:4)

This vision of life which we will examine more closely next week is what will allow the Jews to fulfill their role as the chosen people. This meaning of his vision is a particular strength of Isaiah. We saw that Micah quotes Isaiah virtually exactly but notice how this section from Isaiah ends.

O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the LORD!
(Is. 2:5).

Light here does not mean teaching but his presence. When the LORD shines his face, deliverance bursts forth. As the Psalmist sings:

 Not with their own swords did they conquer the land,
nor did their own arms bring victory;
It was your right hand, your own arm,
the light of your face for you favored them.
(Ps. 44:4)

We seek to be a community in which the LORD’S face shines. Today’s reading has much to teach us. Notice that the Jews are not exhorted to go on missionary journeys nor do the scriptures give hints on “soul winning.” They are told to live in the way the Lord showed them, and people would come to them. Indeed, their way of life was so “odd” that they stuck out and people were curious. Curiosity, however, can get you in the door, but it can’t keep you in the room.

That has truly been my experience at St. Charles. As many of you know I have a non-professional but enthusiastic background in community organizing and seek one-on-one meetings with as many parishioners as possible. I especially try to see new members. I have many times heard that the website was inviting, and they tried out the parish from that. Some were attracted by our musical reputation, but they stay because of the sense of community. We proclaim our beliefs most clearly when we make others feel that they belong with us.