Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Walking in the Light

Walking in the Light
Isaiah 2:1-5[1]
Living in a place like this, it may be hard to imagine that there are places in the world where there is so much light that it’s hard to see the stars at night. In most cities, the “ambient light” drowns out the natural light coming from the stars, or any other phenomena in the sky. It’s not just things like street lights. In major cities there’s so much light pouring into the sky at night from screens and neon and headlights and other sources that even for miles around it’s impossible to see all but the closest objects in the night sky. When the Hale-Bopp comet was visible in 1997, I had to drive my boys about 50 miles from the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area so that we could get a good look at it.
I think there is a similar phenomenon in our culture today. We have so many ways to distract ourselves from the truth that resonates in the deepest parts of our existence—the truth that peace and justice and compassion are the meaning of human life and our real destiny. But, unfortunately, peace, justice, and compassion don’t always sell in our world that is so full of other “lights” that can capture our attention. In comparison with the glitter of our celebrities, the stimulation of the programs on our TV and movie screens, and the glare of our infatuation with power and violence, the light of peace, justice, and compassion gets obscured just like the stars in the sky.
In our lesson from Isaiah for today, the prophet has a different vision. It’s the vision of God’s light and God’s truth finally shining through all the glare of the lights that compete for our minds and our hearts. By the time that Isaiah carried out his ministry, the people of Judah had been through a long history of fighting enemies all around them just in order to survive as a nation. Although other prophets called for God to take vengeance on those nations, Isaiah had a different vision. Rather than a war to wipe their enemies off the face of the earth, Isaiah envisioned Jerusalem as a place that would become the center of a world dominated by peace.[2]
And as a result, the nations of the earth would be drawn to the light of God’s truth, God’s peace, and God’s justice. Isaiah’s vision of the end of history was one in which all the different people groups of the world—even those who had been enemies of Judah—would “stream” to Jerusalem as the “mountain of the Lord” (Isa. 2:2). And the reason they would come was “that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isa. 2:3). Isaiah explains that the reason for this attraction is that Jerusalem would become a distribution node for the Torah, or instruction, of the Lord.[3] It would be a place where the word of the Lord would enlighten all the nations to “walk in his ways.”
One result of this universal spread of the knowledge of God Isaiah envisioned would be peace. Part of Isaiah’s vision of the destiny of the human family is an ideal that has inspired and fired the imaginations of people of faith throughout the generations. His vision is that when God’s truth becomes the light by which we all order our lives, then “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” (Isa. 2:4).[4] It is one of the more powerful visions of the destiny of humankind, and it has inspired people throughout history to listen to the “better angels” of their hearts.
Ironically, Isaiah’s vision of this universal peace is one that includes judgment. In his vision, the peace that brings all the families of the earth together is one that results from the fact that God would “judge between the nations,” and “arbitrate for many peoples” (Isa. 2:4). Again, we might be tempted to view that judgment like some of the other prophets: as handing out punishments to the “enemies” of Judah as an act of vengeance for their evil deeds. But that’s not the kind of judgment Isaiah envisions. Rather, Isaiah envisions judgment coming at the hands of a righteous king, one who would “judge the poor fairly and defend the rights of the helpless” (Isa. 11:4, TEV). In other words, the kind of judgment Isaiah envisions is one that establishes justice for all people equally. In that day, no one will be left behind or left out. In that day no one will have to worry about whether their family is safe from oppression and injustice. As the prophet says it in a later chapter, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isa. 11:9).
We live in a world in which peace, justice, and compassion can be very fragile. It seems like it doesn’t take much to spark a riot or even start a war. Some of us may feel like justice has passed us by, whether or not that’s actually the case. What is true is that many in our world live in fear for their safety and the safety and well-being of their children. That kind of fear has the power to overshadow and obscure the light of God’s truth, even in the most faithful of believers. But it will not always be this way. Isaiah clearly articulates a different vision for the destiny of the human family: one in which peace overcomes all hatred. It is a destiny in which true justice means that the rights of all people are protected, not just the fortunate few. It is a destiny in which the compassion that is the essence of God’s truth defines all of life. Since that is the world toward which the Scriptures promise God is moving, it seems only prudent to align our lives here and now with God’s truth, and God’s peace, and God’s justice. I think that’s what the prophet had in mind when he issued the call to “walk in the light of the Lord.”

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/27/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.55-56: “Time and again the Old Testament makes it unmistakeably clear that the covenant of Yahweh with the one Israel and Israel with the one Yahweh, that all that takes place in the covenant, …, is not at all an end in itself and does not exhaust itself in this particular relationship, but has significance, relevance and true and dynamic meaning for the relationship between God and all the nations.”
[3] Cf. Fredrick C. Holmgren, “Isaiah 2:1-5, Between Text and Sermon,” Interpretation 51 (Jan 1997): 62, where he says, “The way of shalom [peace] is the path of Torah whose teaching of ‘righteousness and justice’ is the foundation of God's rule in the universe.”
[4] Cf. Christine Roy Yoder, “Hope that Walks: An Interpretation of Isaiah for Advent Preachers,” Journal for Preachers, 25 (Advent 2001): 18, where she says, “The peoples will transform (literally, crush to pieces) their weapons into agricultural tools, reversing the age-old call to arms: ‘beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say, “I am a warrior”’ (Joel3:10…). Instruments once deformed to make destructive arms will be reformed into implements for tilling and keeping the earth. At the same time, the nations will cease military training (v. 4c). The result will be an enduring, worldwide peace in which Yahweh’s protection sweeps away the memories of weaponry and strategies of war.”

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