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CLAIRE: Finding true meaning in Christmas season
The Advent of hope in Isaiah
Sunday was the first of Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. We all know how to get ready for Christmas: Shop til you drop, make an appearance at every holiday party, decorate your home like in the magazines. It's go, go, go: get stressed out, exhausted, sick, and then spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s in bed trying to recover.
That’s the way popular culture would have us prepare for Christmas. Yet there’s an entirely different way to prepare, a deeply spiritual way, that is antithetical to what’s happening all around us during this season. A short poem in Isaiah 2:2-5 lays before us this road less traveled, an alternate path for preparing for Christmas.
2. In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. 3. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4.He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. 5.Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.
Written some 700 years before the first Christmas, this little poem lays out God’s wonderful vision for the future. It also serves as the overarching purpose statement for Isaiah. Just as your English teacher taught you to put your thesis in the first paragraph of your essay, here’s Isaiah’s thesis statement for everything else in his book. The first verse lays out the when and the what of Isaiah’s big vision:
In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Isa 2:2
When does Isaiah say he expects his big vision will take place? In the last days. This may sound ambiguous, but it’s not meant to be so. In the Bible, “the last days” or “the latter days” refer to a definite time, specifically the reign of King Jesus. A great many passages from the Old Testament look forward to this time. In the New Testament, reflecting on the amazing and wonderful story of Jesus, one author after another claims the last days have arrived. Peter, preaching his first sermon in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost, says that the gift of the Holy Spirit was proof that the last days had begun. Or Hebrews 1:1-2, that says: "In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe."
In short, when the Bible talks about the “last days,” it’s talking about a time period that began with the first Christmas, when King Jesus came and began his rule over all the earth. That’s what makes Isaiah 2 a Christmas poem. Of course, not everyone today recognizes Jesus as king, and so Isaiah’s big vision is not yet completely fulfilled. For now, the really good news is that the last days are here and Isaiah’s big vision has already begun.
What does Isaiah see that will take place? Quite simply, that Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, will be #1. All people on earth will agree about the one, true God.
How does Isaiah say this in 2:2? Remember this is poetry, there’s symbolism at work here, so one thing may stand for another. In this case, “the mountain of the Lord’s temple” is a way of talking about God himself. For ancient Israel, even though they understood that God is everywhere, nevertheless “the mountain of the Lord’s temple” was God’s street address, just like 1600 Pennsyvlania Ave, NW is our President’s street address. In fact, we use the same kind of symbolism all the time, whenever reporters say “The White House” did this or that. We immediately interpret actions of “The White House” as actions by or under the authority of our current president. That’s just the same thing that Isaiah is doing in 2:2. In saying “the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be chief among the mountains,” he’s saying “Our God will be number one.”
Isaiah is painting a vivid and beautiful big vision using symbolism in what he goes on to say about the mountain of the Lord. Think for a moment about the water that flows naturally from tall mountains. Mountaintop springs and melting snow caps form rivulets which merge into streams and eventually become enormous rivers flowing into the sea. In Isaiah’s big vision, the sea of people across the earth will flow just as naturally, but in reverse, streaming up to the mountain of the Lord. Trickles of people of every race and place, from every village and trailer park and housing project and neighborhood, will merge together and become one united family inside God’s big house.
Why should so many people throng to the mountain of the Lord? Isaiah spells out 3 reasons in vv 3-4: life, lordship, and love. Life is in verse three, "He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem."
Here’s the first promise of Isaiah’s big vision. God’s ways and paths are learned at God’s house. We read this passage through modern eyes, assuming the invention of the printing press. “The law going out from Zion” makes us think of a new operating manual, printed at headquarters, and sent out for us all to read and follow. That’s not at all what Isaiah has in mind. When he talks about God’s law or God’s word, he’s not envisioning an encyclopedia of esoteric religious knowledge. Rather, he’s picturing a new way of life, learned through apprenticeship under the master. That’s one major reason why people should move into God’s house. We want to learn life from him.
Apprenticeship is the best way to learn about life. You can learn more working a month for a congressman than in four years of undergraduate poly sci. You learn more spending a week in Guatemala than in a year long Spanish language course. In the same way, the Master of all creation welcomes everyone into his home as his apprentices, so that we might learn from him. Think about it. He made us. He knows how we’re wired, and he knows how we’re broken. He’s better than the world’s greatest doctor, the world’s greatest therapist, and the world’s greatest life coach all wrapped into one. He invites us in to learn a new way to live! Only a fool would pass up such an opportunity.
Lordship is in the first part of verse four: "He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples." It’s an incredible opportunity to do an apprenticeship under a great master. Yet when the apprenticeship’s over, life on your own could be difficult. Thankfully that’s not God’s way. Instead, he sweetens the deal, by offering his apprentices permanent positions. In Isaiah’s big vision, there’s no place that God will send his people that is outside of his Lordship. “He will judge between the nations,” meaning our God will be the sovereign ruler over all nations. No people or place will escape his perfect justice.
Think about it. We live in a place with arguably the best system of justice on the planet. Yet there are a great many people in our culture who routinely suffer injustice for one reason or another. Furthermore, we all from time-to-time must find ways of working around our government to get things done. But imagine what life would be like if God were our president, or other public official. Imagine how much better life would be if his Kingdom came and his will were done on earth as it is in heaven.
Unless, of course, you’re a sinner -- like me. In which case, God’s perfect justice would be terrifying and inescapable. That’s why on the first Christmas, God didn’t appoint Jesus as judge. Rather, he sent Jesus first as a Redeemer. Through his sacrificial death, and his astounding, glorious resurrection, Jesus made a way for people like you and me to be forgiven our sins and assured of God’s favor when he judges between the nations. When Isaiah’s big vision is finally realized, and God’s Lordship becomes universal, Jesus’ disciples will be covered by the blood of Christ at the passover of God’s justice. who wouldn’t want to have such an amazing gift?
Love is at the end of verse four: "They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore."
Finally, when all the world has learned life at the feet of Almighty God, and when his Lordship has been extended over all the earth, hate will utterly and completely disappear. There will no longer be any need for weapons, because the Prince of Peace will be our peace. Swords will become plowshares, spears will become pruning hooks, shields will become roasting pans, and artillery shells will become kegs. We’ll go from wartime to peacetime and enjoy an eternal feast in the presence of our great Master, Judge, Redeemer and King. Imagine the joy of a world in which all our enemies have become friends and family, and hatred is replaced by love.
Which brings us to verse five. We’ve seen Isaiah’s Big Vision and heard his rationale for it in terms of Life, Lordship, and Love. Now it’s time for buy in. As with any vision statement there must be an implementation strategy. Here is Isaiah’s strategy: "Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord."
Isaiah issues an invitation to all of God’s people to walk in the light of the Lord. What does this mean? For Isaiah and the other Old Testament prophets, everything in the “last days” was yet to come. For people today, living in light of the first Christmas, the Kingdom of Jesus has already begun. It was planted like a mustard seed, and now it’s growing up all around. We live in between the advents, when we can enjoy what God has already done through the cross of Christ, while anticipating what is yet to be when Christ returns in glory.
All the hopes for a wonderful world embedded in this season will only be fully realized in the Kingdom Come. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christians enjoy foretastes of God’s promises of Life, Lordship and Love in the present as the vanguard of Isaiah’s big vision. This is God’s early Christmas present to his people. Isaiah invites believers everywhere to unwrap and enjoy this gift, not in order to flaunt their privilege, but rather as a way of inviting others to enjoy God’s radical generosity.
So how will you prepare for Christmas? This season is calling you to join in a frenzy that will wear you out and leave you feeling empty. Don’t do it. There’s a better way. Use this time to slow down and enjoy God, through spiritual disciplines like worship, prayer and Bible reading. Give generously to those in need. If you’re not a Christian, commit your life to Jesus. If you are a Christian, renew your allegiance to him. Either way, bask in the love of God, who gave his Son for you so long ago on the first Christmas, so that you and all the world might be set free of every burden.
Dan Claire is rector of Church of the Resurrection in Washington, DC.
By Mangosuthu Buthelezi
Memories of a long brotherhood tempered in common struggle
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