A remarkable piece of recent news caught most people a bit off guard: the tentative agreement with Iran regarding nuclear power. The word “tentative” is key here, of course, because all this agreement does is to signal that all the parties involved promise to work seriously toward a much more extensive agreement six months down the road.
I’m probably reading too much into the reaction of some folks to this surprise announcement but it almost seems like there are those disappointed that war with Iran is now a shade less likely than it was a few weeks ago. Maybe it’s due to the fact that the United States has been at war, first with Afghanistan and then Iraq, nonstop for 12 years and that, sad to say, has become normative in our lives. There are teenagers who’ve never known anything but their country at war.
Have we become so conditioned to war that it now appears to be the reasonable and expected way of life? Furthermore, can even the slightly increased possibility of peaceful resolution of hostilities between the United States and Iran (ongoing since the Iranian Revolution in the late years of the Carter Administration) be considered the irrational–dare I even say “un-American”–choice for moving into the future?
The Hebrew prophet Isaiah son of Amoz lived in a far different time and faced a radically different situation but his words echo even today. In the first chapter of the book bearing his name he spares nothing in castigating Judah (its rulers and people and institutions) for myriad sins and shortcomings. Those 31 verses are worth reviewing as background for what Isaiah has to say at the beginning of chapter 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. 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. 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. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord! –Isaiah 2:1-5 NRSV
It’s a remarkable vision, expressed with beautiful and lofty language. No doubt Isaiah was familiar with the words of the psalmist:
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together. To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord. For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good. –Psalm 122
It’s easy to miss the curious way Isaiah’s vision is expressed in the first verse of chapter 2: “The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” How do you “see” a word? And, no, Isaiah wasn’t talking about texting or tweeting! It’s a phrase that sends my mind first to the opening verses of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word….” Then to chapter 55 in the Book of Isaiah (most likely written by someone other than Isaiah son of Amoz but still directly connected to his prophetic thoughts):
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. –Isaiah 55:10-12 NRSV
A bit of caution is in order here. It would be a tragic mistake to read (see?) these beautiful passages of prophecy and sit back contentedly to wait for God to bring it all to pass while we observe it all dispassionately and without any personal involvement. Isaiah glimpsed the divine word, which looked to an ultimate future and final resolution of all the world’s problems. He could envision instruments of war being turned into instruments of practical, everyday life (swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks). Furthermore, he saw all the nations of the earth coming up to “the mountain of the Lord,” to Jerusalem, the moral and spiritual center of Judah. (Keep in mind the other tribes of Israel would have an alternate location in mind, but this is Isaiah’s vision.)
What might Isaiah’s prophetic word hold for us in the early years of the 21st century? To a world that has become so used to wars and the threat of wars and the obvious failings of humankind we might still be able to see that peace is a possibility, after all. At times it appears we’re blindly groping for a way forward and voices scream at us from all corners that such a thought is foolish and impractical and unrealistic. Yet as followers of the Prince of Peace (and this is the first Sunday of Advent, the time when we prepare for his coming) we are challenged to confront all sorts of principalities and powers in proclaiming the incredible and radical possibility of peace.
David Lose, over at Working Preacher (one of my favorite and most reliable sources in preparing my own weekly blog on the lectionary) recalls this prayer, which he says is one of his favorites:
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
- The Pregnant Anticipation of Advent (withears.wordpress.com)
- Sermon for Sunday December 1, 2013 – P.E.A.C.E. – Isaiah 2:1-5 (cedargroveumcpastor.wordpress.com)
- Notes on Isaiah 2:1=5 (stjoeofoblog.wordpress.com)
- 50. The Swirling Overflowing Flood of the Assyrian Army. (thelonghaulwithisaiah.wordpress.com)
- An Advent Project: A World without War by Christmas! (Sunday Homily) (mikerivageseul.wordpress.com)