Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Hopes for Peace - Lectionary Reflection on Isaiah 2 for Advent 1A


Isaiah 2:1-5 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

2 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 
  In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3     Many peoples shall come and 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.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
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.
 
5 O house of Jacob,
    come, let us walk
    in the light of the Lord!


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                We are ready to begin another liturgical cycle. For the past three years, I have written a weekly reflection on the lectionary selection from the Gospel. As we return to Year A, I have decided to write my lectionary reflections for the next three years on the first lectionary reading, normally a reading from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. I pray that you will find these reflections as beneficial as the reflections on the Gospel readings.
                During this season of Advent, the readings from the Hebrew Bible come from First Isaiah, whom we believe to be an eighth century prophet, though the book of Isaiah as a whole did not appear until after the return from exile. Assuming an eighth century origin, these oracles were pronounced while the nation of Judah still existed, though its northern neighbor had succumbed to the Assyrians. In Isaiah 2, Isaiah addresses a word from the Lord to the people of Judah and Jerusalem. That is his congregation. In the selection from Isaiah 2 we have a beautiful call to peace, with almost universalistic tendencies. If we read farther into the chapter, we will encounter a vociferous diatribe against those in the nation who have followed foreign idols. Thus, this is ultimately a call to return to the God of Jacob (Israel).  It should be noted that this oracle can be found in full in Micah 4:1-4. As to which version is the earliest, or whether both depend on an earlier oracle, cannot be determined. Suffice it to say that this vision carries some weight.

                To get a sense of the vision, we need to remember ancient Judah’s geo-political location. For centuries, it found itself at the crossroads of empires. It might not have been special in terms of resources or having a powerful military, but it stood on the pathway between Egypt and the various empires that emerged to the east in Mesopotamia and Persia. It was a land where battles were often fought and thus life could be precarious. Peace was something to hope for, even as the people lived with the possibility that the armies of competing empires could come marching through at any moment, trampling on this nation that was small and lacked military power, peace would be beneficial to the people. It also might help the nation survive intact. One way to keep the peace was to adopt the religions of its more powerful neighbors. Isaiah wants to turn the tables on this idea—reminding the people that the God of Israel was no small territorial deity, but rather the one who sits on the highest mountain, the one to whom all the nations will look for guidance.

                For the purposes of our Advent reflections, because this is the first Sunday in the season, we will have lit the candle of hope. Hope is something many of us need right now, especially after a divisive election that leaves more questions than answers about the future. Fear, rather than hope, is the dominant emotion. The week following will lift up the message of peace, but the call to be peacemakers stands at the forefront of this word as well.

                The central image in this oracle of hope is the mountain upon which the “Lord’s house” sat. That house would be the Temple, which sat atop Mount Zion, the high point in the city of Jerusalem. While Mount Zion wasn’t the highest mountain in the region and Jerusalem wasn’t the grandest city in the Near East, the prophet declares that the nations will make pilgrimage to this place. If Yahweh was to be more than a territorial deity, this place, which was symbolically the place where the people gathered to meet and worship Yahweh, would be the place where the nations, the Gentiles, might gather to seek the peace of God.  

                For the prophet, the reason one would go this place was that this is where the nations would be instructed in the Law (Torah). Reference to the Torah is important, because the image here of God is not one of monarchy, but that of teacher and judge. This might be fitting for a vision emerges out of a small nation sitting on the crossroads of empires. Egypt and Assyria have the power to impose “peace,” Judah does not. But, Judah could be the site where disputes are mediated and treaties signed. Gene Tucker helps us understand what it means here for God to be judge and arbitrator. God is the one who “settles disputes among nations, resolving their differences so that peace can be established and maintained.” Then he writes: “consequently, those who would respond to this vision of peace will seek to become peacemakers, not accusing individuals or nations but acting as mediators and arbitrators among them” [Tucker, “Isaiah,” NIB, 6:69]. This is an appropriate image for Advent because Jesus invites us to become peacemakers (Matt. 5:9).

                The vision involves turning tools of war and destruction into tools that will provide sustenance to the people. While we in the United States speak of the “Department of Defense,” the older title of the department is probably offers a truer description. It is a “Department of War.” While the military does offer important support to the defense of the people, its training and its weaponry is designed to kill. The “Defense” department budget outstrips almost everything else. We spend trillions on weaponry and sustaining our military. The question is often asked, but rarely pursued—what would happen if we re-routed much of the military budget to job creation, infrastructure, and food production? This was the question posed by a President who had once been a general. Near the end of his presidency, President Eisenhower warned against the encroachment of the “military industrial complex.” Here we have a vision of a world in which the “military industrial complex” no longer drained the national budget.

                So, what would happen if we pursued a policy of peace instead of war? What if we headed to Mount Zion and sought the LORD’s wisdom and guidance? What would be the pathway to peace? Answers might not be easily obtained, but the hope is there that peace could reign.  

                The reading for the day ends in verse 5. It offers a call to walk in the light of Yahweh. There are many calls to attend to competing altars. In our day, many of these altars are to be found in popular culture. There are visions of war, but other invitations as well. As H. Richard Niebuhr pointed out many years ago, “if the word ‘god’ means the object of human faith in life worthwhileness, it is evident that men have many gods, that our natural religion is polytheistic” [Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism, p. 119]. We may claim to be monotheistic and worship but one God, but in daily life we seem to worship many gods, each competing for our attention. As the authors of a new book, The Altars Where We Worship, point out, religion might be important to Americans, but “the religion we practice is often not the religion we confess” [Altars Where We Worship, p. 1]. We are pragmatic in religion, and we seek a serviceable and friendly God, so that “the objects of our attention have become our God, and fulfilling our desires has become our religion” [Altars, p. 2]. The question posed by Isaiah and the season of Advent, a season of reflection and preparation, concerns the state of our hearts. Is the faith we follow the same as the one we profess?

                The vision cast in the reading for Advent 1 is wondrous. It’s a vision of peace that leads to abundance. The words that follow verse 5, which calls us to walk in the light of Yahweh, may need to be visited if we are to receive the wisdom of Yahweh. We may have to put away our idols, bury them in the cave where bats and rodents reside. Then we can go to the mountain and find a pathway to peace, justice, and abundance.  

                Let us then begin the journey to the mountain of the LORD, where we can learn the wisdom of God, and then turn our tools of destruction into tools of life. For then we will no longer be learning war anymore!  

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