Okay, let’s try this again. I had a link failure last time, so here is the corrected link to my sermon for this coming Sunday, Dec 16, 2007, A Highway for the People of God, from Isaiah 35:1-10. My apologies for the goof-up, which I am sure was entirely my fault, and which I cannot figure out. Happy Advent!
Ain’t Gonna Study War No More!
Isaiah 2:1-5 NRSV
2:1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2:2 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.
2:3 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.
2:4 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.
2:5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!
A Strange Advent Sermon
This is going to be the strangest Advent sermon you have ever heard. I didn’t plan it that way, but it will be. At least I thought so as I was thinking about the passage from Isaiah that we have just read. For it is not a passage about a baby, or about a mother, or about shepherds, or about wisemen. It is about the future. Not the future like H. G. Well’s Time Machine, or Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future. It is about the future of God and God’s people. A future we anticipate today on this first Sunday of Advent, which means “coming.”
The Backstory on Isaiah
But, first we need a little background. Isaiah lived about 760-or-so years before Christ, before that story of a baby, and a mother, and shepherds, and wisemen. Isaiah became a prophet through a really amazing encounter with God and he writes about in the 6th chapter — “In the in the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted.” That was about 740 BC.
Isaiah was sent to warn the nation of Judah, the southern kingdom, that God was very unhappy with them. Israel, Judah’s kinsmen and northern neighbor, was being threatened by a growing, aggressive Assyrian military. In a bold political move, Israel’s king joined forces with the kings of Aram (now Syria) to thwart an Assyrian takeover of Israel. This new coalition asked King Ahaz of Judah to join them. Instead, Ahaz made a deal with Tiglath-Pilezer, king of Assyria. In 722-721 BC, Assyria overran the northern kingdom of Israel and disbursed the northern tribes. Judah survived, but at the price of betraying their own kinsmen.
God was not pleased with Judah. Judah was the nation in which Jerusalem was located. Jerusalem was the city in which the Temple of God, the temple Solomon built was located. Isaiah called Jerusalem and the Temple “the mountain of God.”
The problem was that the people of God, who occupied the mountain of God, were acting like they didn’t know God. They had made a deal with the devil, or the Assyrians to be specific, a deal that led to war, and the deaths of tens of thousands of the inhabitants of the northern kingdom of Israel.
Isaiah spends all of chapter 1 calling Jerusalem and Judah to listen, as he speaks the words of God saying —
“The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts
my soul hates.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even if you offer many prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood;
16 wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds
out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong,
17 learn to do right!
encourage the oppressed. [a]
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.
18 “Come now, let us reason together,”
says the LORD.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
Isaiah 1:11-18 NIV
To say that God is not pleased is an understatement. And all that stuff God said about their sacrifices, the trampling of my courts, meaningless offerings — those are all things that happened in the Temple. So, even though the Temple is in Jerusalem, God is not happy with Judah because they are not walking in God’s ways.
A New Vision of God’s Temple Mountain
So, that’s where we pick up Chapter 2. Which is a totally different scene. Here Isaiah says,
- God’s Temple mountain will be chief among the mountains,
- All the nations will stream to it;
- Many peoples (plural, meaning not just large numbers, but from all ethnic groups) will come to God’s Temple mountain;
- There God will teach them God’s ways so they can walk in God’s paths.
- All these diverse peoples will not only lay down their weapons of war, but they will actually forge implements of farming — of life and growth — from swords and spears.
- These diverse peoples will not go to war anymore, and
- They won’t learn war anymore. No more studying military strategy because they won’t need it.
Which obviously reminds us of the old spiritual which says,
Gonna lay down my sword and shield, Down by the riverside,
Down by the riverside, Down by the riverside,
Gonna lay down my sword and shield, Down by the riverside.
Ain’t gonna study war no more.
I ain’t gonna study war no more, Ain’t gonna study war no more,
Ain’t gonna study war no more, I ain’t gonna study war no more.
That’s this passage right here. And that’s where that song comes from. And, you might be thinking, “Yeah, won’t heaven be great! No more war, no more fighting, no more conflict.”
To which I would reply — “But God isn’t talking about heaven. God is talking about something altogether different from heaven. God is talking about the kingdom of God and how different it is from the kingdoms of this world.”
“But,” you might say, “in the real world, we have war. It’s just the way it is.”
To which I would reply — “But, it’s not the way it has to be.”
The Reason for War
Let’s look at war for a moment. Why do “nations rise up against nations in war?” Well, there might be a lot of answers. Politics, greed, natural resources, fear, security, hatred. But boil it all down and war is about “me preserving my way of life.”
For the Nazis of World War II, war was about ridding the world of the Jews who were the cause of all of Germany’s problems following World War I.
For the Rwandans in the 1980s, war was about the Hutus winning over the Tutsies, or vice versa depending on which tribe you were in.
For the Iraqis, war is about the Shia taking over their country from the Sunnis who had ruled it under Sadam Hussein. For us, Iraq is about preserving freedom and our way of life.
Thomas Barnett, in his insightful book, The Pentagon’s New Map, subtitled, War and Peace in the 21st Century, said that
“the antiglobalization forces — represented in their most violent form by Al Qaeda — don’t seek our historical destruction so much as a sort of permanent civilizational apartheid.”
In other words, radical jihadists like Osama Bin Laden want to preserve their way of life, which they believe our Western way of life threatens. We feel the same way, and so we are at war.
Now the issue is more complex than that, but at its core…
…war is about preserving a way of life.
Now at this point we could talk about a bunch of examples of nations that wanted to preserve a way of life that was really not good. We’ve already mentioned some — the Nazis, the Rwandan genocidists, the battle between the various factions of Islam, or any religion for that matter; the lists are endless. And, we could come away convinced that our way of life is better than all these. But that’s not the point.
It’s Not About Our Way, It’s About God’s Way
Isaiah says that all nations will come to God’s Temple mountain to learn God’s ways, not which of the nations ways is best. And, we can kind of lump our entire human race together to score ourselves on how good we’re doing in living the right way, and we don’t come out too well.
Dr. Jared Diamond, professor and archaeologist at UCLA, wrote his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, based on the idea that we as a human race, not just some of us, are doing a lousy job choosing the right way of life.
Here are 12 signs of trouble Dr. Diamond says our way of life has brought on this planet and ourselves —
- We are destroying natural habitats or converting them into human habitats at an accelerating rate.
- We are decimating the “wild food” available to the world by overfishing or misusing those resources.
- We have made extinct significant numbers of wild species — plants and animals — and we continue to do so at an alarming rate.
- Farmland soil is being carried away by wind and water at rates 10 to 40 times faster than new soil formation. Remember the Dust Bowl of the 1930s?
- The world’s major energy sources are fossil fuels.
- Most of the world’s freshwater rivers and lakes are being tapped by our insatiable need for water, and underground aquifers are being depleted at rates faster than they can be replenished.
- The energy from the sun is being diverted or wasted, and we will reach what he calls the “Photosynthetic ceiling” by the middle of this century. This will affect the ability of plants to synthesize sunlight and flourish.
- Chemicals in the environment through industrial pollution will continue to affect human populations and the environment. We banned DDT in the US for that very reason.
- The transfer of non-native plants and animals to other places will continue to be a problem. Ever seen kudzu?
- The ozone layer continues to be damaged and more greenhouse gases emitted creating a perfect combination leading to global warming.
- The world’s human population is growing. I’ve been to Shanghai, a city of 15-million people, and Mexico City, with a population of 23-million. When I was in grade school, there were slightly over 3-billion people on earth, today there 6-billion.
- This increasing population has an increasing impact on the earth. All of the people in the two-thirds world want to live like Americans. Yet, a 5% of the population of the world, we consume 40% of the world’s resources.
So, this is our way of life. Diamond, sounds an optimistic note, however. He says that we have two choices for survival as a species —
- long-term planning, and
- a willingness to reconsider our core values. Our core values of globalization, unsustainable growth, overpopulation, greed, damage to God’s creation, a growing division between the poorest and the richest — these are our values.
Brian McLaren in his book, Everything Must Change calls these values, this way of life, “the suicide machine.” Like Dr. Kervorkian, we have built the machine that means our own death as a civilization. Unless of course, we change our way of life.
And this is why people from every ethnic group — all the nations — will come to God’s Temple mountain — so they can learn God’s way and walk in God’s path. Because God’s way is a better way. Not only is God’s way a better way, it is the way God intended for us to live. Not only is God’s way a better way, and the way God intended us to live, it is the only way. And that is what we are saved to. We are saved to live God’s way, in God’s presence — God’s Temple mountain — until we go to God in death or God comes for us in glory.
Isaiah knew it, and we know it today. Because if we’re not defending our way, we don’t need war anymore. If we’re not defending our way, we don’t need swords or spears or tanks or missiles or humvees or stealth bombers. If we live life God’s way, we don’t have to fight anymore. We don’t have to learn how to fight anymore. God has defeated the last enemy. God’s way wins.
Jesus is God’s Way
And how does that happen? Eugene Peterson says of us, in his book, The Jesus Way —
“My concern is provoked by the observation that so many who understand themselves to be followers of Jesus, without hesitation, and apparently without thinking, embrace the ways and means of the culture as they go about their daily living “in Jesus name.” But the ways that dominate our culture have been developed either in ignorance or in defiance of the ways that Jesus uses to lead us as we walk the streets and alleys, hike the trails, and drive the roads in this God-created, God-saved, God-blessed, God-ruled world in which we find ourselves.
This is wrong thinking and wrong living. Jesus is an alternative to the dominant ways of this world, not a supplement to them.” The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson, pgs 1-2.
And how do we know this way of God? Through Jesus. Jesus is how God comes to us, as a baby in the nativity story, and today, in 2007 in Chatham, Virginia. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”
God’s way is found in Jesus. Not just in belief about Jesus, but in Jesus himself, then and now. And in Jesus, there is no need for war because Jesus said, “greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” And so he did. And all attempts to defend him, he abandoned. All the power at his disposal, he set aside. All the means he had to conquer the world, he laid down.
Instead, he stretched out his arms and died. So that we might live. And that is the way of God. And so Isaiah says, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
We Begin Walking in The Way of God This Advent
When I was a boy, I was a member of the Royal Ambassadors, the boys missionary group in Baptist life. We sang the Ambassador song at every meeting. Some of you may remember Mary Helen Thompson leading RAs here. Did you sing the song here at Chatham? Here’s the first verse —
I am a stranger here, within a foreign land
my home is far away upon a golden strand,
Ambassador to be, of realms beyond the sea,
I’m here on business for my king.
And so we walk in the way of God, in the light of God, this Advent season. We live as the people of God by doing the small things in our lives that show we are walking in a different way from the way of all nations —
- So, this Christmas we might spend a little less, and give a little more;
- In 2008, we might consciously try to consume less of the world’s resources, making sure there is enough for all;
- We might realize that walking in the Jesus way is very practical, good for creation, and is the invitation for others to come and join us — to come and go with us to the the mountain Temple of God so we can learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths.
These are small beginnings, as we seek to walk in the Jesus way. But in the book of Revelation, John tells us that these small beginnings have an ultimate destination. That God’s way leads from here to eternity.
John is writing of the new Jerusalem, the city as God intends for it to be, not the city as it was in Isaiah’s day or Jesus’ day or even our day. The new Jerusalem, the City of God. John says, “I do not see a temple in the city, because the Lord Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.”
That is the future of God among the people of God, and it begins here as we watch for the coming of Jesus, again.
Wednesday we put up the Chrismon tree at our church. The story is that the Chrismon Tree idea came from a church in Danville, Virginia, about 15-miles south of here. Last year we moved the tree from the fellowship hall into the sanctuary, and people liked it. Lots of folks showed up to help this year. We played a nice Christmas cd over the sound system, assembled the tree, filled it with handmade Chrismons, and had cake afterward. A nice evening spent with some wonderful friends, as we anticipated the coming of the Christ Child together.
The Voice is an excellent site with very good Advent resources, including sermons, Advent devotionals, explanation of Advent, notes on the Advent wreath, and much more. David Bratcher has pulled together some very helpful information. Whether you are observing Advent at your church for the first time or the fiftieth time, you’ll find helpful stuff at The Voice.
I’ve been MIA this week because I’m finishing a writing assignment which is due tomorrow. I’ll post my sermon tomorrow as well. Peace to you as Advent comes!