The Candle of Hope (Isaiah 2-1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44)
Another season of Advent has begun, and so, we lit the first purple candle on our Advent Wreath today. We do it every year. And when we light this first one, we remind ourselves that this new season – this new church year – begins in and with this thing called hope. The last time I addressed you, I talked about the fact that there is no question that God is creating a new everything, but that the path to appreciating and appropriating that wonderful new everything is often an upward one, progress along which is only made, in the words of my favourite Christmas Carol, “with painful steps and slow.” We saw these twin truths by looking at a passage that is nearly at the end of the Book of Isaiah – chapter 65 out of 66 – in which God said:
For I am creating new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind…
The text goes on to speak of wholeness and health as characteristic of what God is creating every moment – whether you and I are capable of “seeing” it or not. Such thoughts are foundational to any speech about hope, for the soil that produces the flowers of hope is the barren, rocky soil of struggle and woe, oppression, terror, frustration, and displacement. Hope does not spring up where everything is already peace and light, but where there is disaster, failure, contention and sorrow. It is difficult to hope in the full biblical sense, if we are satisfied with the way things are, and if this is true our world must be deeply ready for hope.
From chapter 65, let me go backward to the other end of the symphony we call the Book of Isaiah. Chapters 1-12 are the symphony’s first movement, and 1:2-2:5 are the overture and the first statement of a theme that will recur constantly in it: that hope will spring from the womb of sorrow. And because this hope and this sorrow are not only ours, but God’s, such a birth can only be God’s doing. In our Old Testament Lesson from chapter 2, we see this God-kind of hope starting with the words, “In days to come…” which simply means at some time in the future, we don’t know when. Hope wouldn’t be hope if we did know. Beware biblical time-tablers and number-crunchers.
To appreciate this hopeful vision from chapter 2 in its depth, we need to go back to chapter 1, where on October 30th, we read a poem that belongs to this same piece, but with a much different tone than today’s Old Testament Lesson. There, God called Israel “Sodom and Gomorrah” because these two towns were the Old Testament poster children for self-destructive, counter-productive behaviour. These people were attracted to values such as a self-centred concern for power and wealth. These things lead only to death according to Isaiah, and if Israel has chosen such, Israel has chosen to be no different than Sodom and Gomorrah. Now, it is doubtful that many in Israel, especially among its leaders, would have agreed with Isaiah’s analysis. They would have thought of themselves as the insiders, God-wise. Isaiah says, “Not so, your values, your attitudes, and your actions show that you are the outsiders because greed, power, and self-centredness are far from God’s values.”
Coming back, now, to the Old Testament Lesson in chapter 2, we may be surprised to read that God’s vision for a promised future does not concern Israel, but those Israel would have considered outsiders. We read that God’s mountain (Mt. Zion in Jerusalem) will be exalted above all others. God’s city, God’s temple will be exalted more than any others, and people will see this and go there. We can read these words in more than one way. If we choose, we can read these words, as just another imperialistic claim to enforce our way of doing things and our beliefs, on those with other ways and beliefs. Our way of seeing God and doing what God wants is the only right way. Our way has been revealed by God and other ways, other faiths, other religions are not. They are false. Those we can finally convince of the truth will come to us and see it our way. This text has certainly been understood in this way, both by those inside and outside, first, the synagogue, and, then, the church. And it’s also true today that religious people far beyond both Jewish and Christian folds, can speak imperialistically of “our system being the only right one.”
But that isn’t the only way to read this text, and I hope we won’t. What this text really says witnesses against the necessity of reading the text in the way I’ve described. Verses 2-3 witness that peoples and nations choose to come to Jacob’s God to learn God’s ways and paths. Now we can also read these words as being nothing but words about forcing (although we’d prefer another word, like “convincing”) others that our doctrines are the right ones.
But the reading I want to suggest to you embraces this text in another meaning altogether. As Israel has been accused of becoming just like the other nations because of its choice of values (Sodom and Gomorrah, etc., in chapter 1), here the nations become like Israel by opting in to God’s values. This text does not say anything about anyone convincing anyone, or being converted to anybody else’s religion. In fact, the whole concept of the human practice of religion is foreign here. What the text says is that many peoples choose (get the word, they are not forced, convinced, wheedled, or cajoled) simply to listen to God’s teaching and to walk in God’s ways and paths. The figure of speech to describe what God teaches is how to walk along ways and paths, which is the common biblical metaphor for learning how to live. This is quite different from being taught what doctrines to believe as over against someone else’s doctrines about God. What this text, in its context, suggests is that Israel has become like the nations in that it has chosen to adopt their values in chapter 1, and that the nations have chosen to adopt Israel’s value here in chapter 2. What we read next in verse 4 is even more remarkable because it sets out some of the specific values that God teaches and the nations choose to learn. Listen: “God shall judge…and shall arbitrate.”
First, see that it is God who “judges” and “arbitrates.” These terms do not necessarily include the harshness we sometimes assign to the word “judgment,” but mean that God decides in a fair and equitable manner. And it is God who decides – not those who claim to speak for God. Not even us. God decides. And when God does decide, even the most warlike decide to turn weapons of mass destruction into tools for mass service and wholeness. Destructive behaviour such as war will be seen to be what it’s really always been – a pretty low class, pretty temporary, pretty unsatisfactory way of doing business.
This vision of both Israel and the other nations is the overture to the theme that hope arises from the depths of despair, division, and difficulty. In this text, the despair is that Israel becomes like the outsiders. The hope is that the outsiders become insiders because they opt in to God’s ways for living and the vision grows out of the soil of the defeat of God’s own people. The 5th verse broaches hope for sorry, sad old Israel, when it challenges and encourages it to re-think its values: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” We can choose to follow God’s values as well. O, what glorious hope!
When we move from the Old Testament to the New, we find a remarkable transition in language that takes words that, in their Old Testament context, have referred to God, to refer to Jesus. We read here, still, a promise of hope. As we sang this morning, “Immanuel shall come to you, O Israel,” to teach you to beat swords into plowshares and walk in the Lord’s light. Paul told the Christians in Rome that this promise that still sat on the horizon for them was nearer now through the resurrection of Jesus. Advent is a time for the Church to consider Jesus’ coming – the first time a long time ago (our usual major focus), and Jesus’ return to consummate history (a less common, but legitimate Advent focus). This hope is still on our horizon, but nearer now than then.
There is no question that some of the churches in which I grew up had people in them that wanted to major on “the second coming of Jesus” to the exclusion of almost everything else. I know that was also true for Maxine. Maybe you as well. When that emphasis is “over-done,” it can lead to ignoring the need of the world – if for no other reason than the more evil the world gets, the faster Jesus can come back. Christians have struggled with this problem from the earliest days as is shown in Paul’s earliest writing, 1 Thessalonians. Some folks in the Thessalonian church allowed this whole picture of Jesus coming again to dominate them, and it made them almost useless to their own generation. Paul strongly advised them not to stand around waiting for the world to end, but to get busy in their community. And I think he knew hard this was. In Romans 13, our Epistle, Paul read God’s word of hope, interpreted through Jesus Christ, and he said, “Keep the faith,” and encouraged folk to keep on keeping on. In essence, he said, “Although it’s challenging to live out God’s values in the world, remember that we’re closer to God’s coming than even when you and I began, let alone back when the Old Testament was written.” Beyond encouraging Christians with such a word, his major goal was to nurture and urge living by counter-cultural values. He spoke of living as if we were already “in the daylight” where we will be when God’s kingdom is fulfilled on earth. Don’t live as if people and God don’t see how you live. Live as if you were in God’s presence now. You are, he says.
Now, the Gospel reminds us that, though we believe that history is moving to its climax in God’s wholeness in Christ, it’s not for us – any of us – to set the timetable. These verses use lurid images popular in Jesus’ day and before of being “left behind” to emphasize that the world will simply go on its own way until it’s over, and God’s kingdom fully comes. Again, we can read this as a threat and miss the word of hope, that, one day, God will dwell with us, and the kingdom will come and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. And that it is wise to live by values that will fit us for that world right now.
The way we fulfill such a vision of God’s hope is to make sure our values and the actions that grow from them are true to God’s own program of wholeness – shalom – plowshares not swords in all we do. It is not easy and never has been easy to live in a world of swords and spears, and have as our mandate their conversion (even in our hearts) to plows and pruning hooks. It takes great courage, it takes great ingenuity, it takes great faith – and it all grows from the great hope that one day our God will reign. That is why today, we have taken the courageous step of lighting that one little candle of hope in the dark.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.