“Watch for the Light”

A sermon on Isaiah 2:1-5 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 11/27/22, the first Sunday of Advent. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find a recording in the full service via this YouTube video.

What is God going to do about all of this?

I mean…all of it, you know?

One week ago a young person with a rifle killed five people and injured many more at Club Q in Colorado Springs. A couple days later, in Chesapeake, Virginia, a Walmart employee used a pistol to kill five coworkers, and then a teenager, and then himself. These were only two of hundreds of mass shooting events in the United States this year.

Or zoom out: A few weeks ago, there was a global summit on climate change. The United Nations secretary general gave an opening speech in which he summed up the state of our collective response to the climate crisis by saying, “We are in the fight of our lives, and we are losing.” He went on to elaborate: “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”

Or zoom in, way in: I think nearly everyone in the room could share some stuck place in their life—how they’ve been longing and praying for something that still hasn’t happened; or there’s some situation where they feel they have, once again, ruined everything; or how they’re in the fight of their life and losing.

All of this doesn’t sound anything like what Isaiah promised in the today’s passage. Isaiah offered a vision of peace, one where “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, [and] neither shall they learn war any more.” 

A lot hinges on the translation you read. Based on what we know about world history and biblical chronology, Isaiah the prophet likely delivered this message around 700 BCE. If you read the NIV or the ESV, the deadline for this promise of peace is the “last days” or the “latter days.” Those phrases help me temper my expectations for when the promise will be delivered. But if you read the NRSV or the NAB, then Isaiah promises that this will happen in “days to come,” which is vague, sure, but certainly sounds closer than the “last days.”

However you translate it, we’re living 2700 years after Isaiah promised that nations would no longer lift up swords against each other, and the promise hasn’t come true yet. This is supposed to be a message of hope, but when you hold it up next to the circumstances of our world, it has the opposite effect, reminding us just how far we are from this peaceful ideal.

What is God going to do about all this?

Today is the first day of the season of Advent. As one writer put it: “Welcome to Advent, and not a moment too soon.” Those who follow the Christian calendar closely will remind you that Advent is where the liturgical year begins, so today is actually a New Year’s Day, of sorts. Advent is a season of waiting and preparation. It’s no secret to any of us what happens on December 25, and so we spend about four weeks preparing for it, and waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

Every week of Advent we light a new candle, and the first candle this week is “Hope.” In all the darkness of our violence and despair, we gather together in worship, and we light a candle as a physical reminder of what God might be sparking in our hearts. As the church, we seek hope in the same places that saints have found it for years and years, even centuries, even 2700 years or more—we look to God’s promises over time, especially those promises in Scripture.

That includes this promise from Isaiah, one of today’s passages from the lectionary. We’re going to examine this passage closely to discover whether a word of hope is waiting for us today.

Starting in v. 1—”The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” As a prophet, Isaiah played a crucial role with the leadership of the nation of Israel, and the leadership of the nation of Israel was facing an enormous crisis. 

Hang with me here: Around the time Isaiah was prophesying, the nation of Israel had long been divided into two separate countries—the northern nation was known as Israel, and the southern nation was known as Judah, which included Jerusalem. Farther north than that was the massive Assyrian Empire, an empire that was spreading. Assyria wanted to reach as far south as Egypt, but smaller countries like Israel and Judah stood in its way. As you might know, in the year 722 or 721 BCE, the northern kingdom—Israel—fell to Assyria. 

I’m describing all of this because I want you to understand the dire circumstances in which Isaiah proclaims this promise of peace. The Assyrian threat is almost literally pressing down, threatening to crush the small kingdom of Judah. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Isaiah’s message would have been a little like someone preaching a message of peace in Kiev back in January, when Russia’s impending invasion seemed all but inevitable.

In the midst of these dire circumstances, we find “the word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.”

The word that Isaiah saw.

Don’t miss this—what we’re talking about here is something like a vision. From what we can tell, Isaiah the prophet isn’t just transcribing some poetic verses from divine inspiration.

Isaiah is seeing something beyond his present circumstances.

Isaiah sees something real and true that is out of sync with his present circumstances.

It is a seeing beyond seeing.

Isaiah begins to describe what he sees, and there are two key movements to his vision. The first is this promise that people from all over the world will “stream” to Jerusalem to receive teaching from God. Here’s vv. 2-3:

“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.”

Sometimes Christians bristle at the language of the Old Testament Law, as if it means we’re going to take on all the dietary restrictions, the cleanliness protocols, and all these other regulations that aren’t part of our faith practice. Don’t let your imagination get tangled up in that. Try thinking of the promise this way: How many of us have struggled to figure out what to do, how to do the right thing? There’s a phrase that’s become popular lately: “Do the next right thing.” Whatever dilemma you’re facing, whatever giant problem stands in your way, just do the next right thing. Don’t worry about the whole trajectory, just take the next step.

Which is lovely, except that sometimes knowing even the next right thing is too difficult. Sometimes you’re facing something so big or entrenched that you don’t know how to make any moves. The promise of Isaiah to the people here—the real thing that Isaiah sees beyond seeing—is that there will come a time when people won’t have to wonder what to do. They won’t have to agonize in ambivalence, struggling with God’s silence, wondering why God seems absent. God will be available! God will be accessible.

Can you imagine that? If you’re facing some kind of stuck point in your life, or some problem that is too big for you—try to see what Isaiah saw: A time when you could simply walk “up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob.” You could knock on the door, and the door would open, and God would “teach us [God’s] ways…that we may walk in [God’s] paths.” 

Last week Pam preached about this amazing moment in the book of Nehemiah where the Israelites have been starved to hear something from God, and Ezra reads the book of the Law to them, and it’s so satisfying to them, like water in the desert. What Isaiah promises here is even closer than that. 

Just imagine if the presence of God was that accessible. And if that feels sticky to you, or controlling, just remember that we’re not talking about a voice of punishment or criticism. We’re talking about a voice of “instruction”—the good news of a God who knows you intimately, who desires your flourishing, and who knows what you need.

Of course the promise isn’t only for a select few; Isaiah says all nations will “stream” to the mountain. This is a vision of reconciliation with God that is bigger than the small nation of Judah where Isaiah is a prophet. It’s a vision of all nations finding rest and comfort in the one who created them.

The implications of this promise become clear in v. 4, the second movement of the vision:

“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.”

It’s one of the most famous passages of Scripture, inspiring even a statue outside the United Nations, and with good reason. Once again, Isaiah invites us to see beyond our seeing—to perceive a reality in which all our disputes can be settled by a loving and selfless judge, with the result that there will be no violence. Weapons will serve no purpose; they will collect dust, and eventually we’ll melt them down. We’ll use the raw materials to build tools for farming, to feed the world.

Can you imagine it? Can you imagine what that kind of peace would feel like? Honestly I don’t think I can. Can you imagine not remembering what a gun looks like? Can you imagine listening to the news and hearing no updates about ongoing violence or the threat of global annihilation? In that kind of peacetime, the papers would have to return to once-weekly, since there would be so little to talk about.

So, what is God going to do about this? We are so far from Isaiah’s vision. 

Getting there would take something entirely unexpected. It would require the very fabric of creation to change. It would require an enormous disruption in our usual ways of doing things. In fact, in order for this reality that Isaiah sees beyond seeing to become our reality, it might require a eucatastrophe.

Have you heard that word, “eucatastrophe”? It was coined by J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings series. It’s a combination of two terms. We know that a “catastrophe” is, as the dictionary defines it, “an event causing great and often sudden damage or suffering; a disaster.” Tolkien added the Greek prefix “eu-,” which means “good” or “well.” It’s the same prefix at the root of words like “euphoria” or “eulogy.” So a “eucatastrophe” is something like a good catastrophe—a sudden, unexpected turn of events for the better.

For Tolkien, the concept of a “eucatastrophe” was central to the kind of fantastical and deeply theological stories he wrote, including The Lord of the Rings. So many of the stories we love have these moments in which all hope seems lost and then, against all odds, things change for the better. This is Luke Skywalker, firing torpedoes and destroying the Death Star. This is Harry, dashing through the streets of New York to find Sally at the New Year’s Party and declare his love to her. This is Gollum, stealing the One Ring from Frodo and falling into the fires of Mount Doom.

Tolkien said this was one of the most important functions that stories could serve for us. Here’s how he describes those moments, moments of eucatastrophe, from one of his essays: 

The joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn”…it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of… sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is [gospel], giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

For Tolkien, this kind of happy ending wasn’t merely pandering or pretending. Tolkien wrote elsewhere that we look for this “turn”—this sudden joy—because it represents something that is true or fundamental to the universe:

[A eucatastrophe] produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives…that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made.

This is what we’re waiting for—this is what we ache for when we feel so overwhelmed by all that’s gone wrong. We’re longing for things to be restored, or healed, to be put back in the way we know they ought to be. 

If you want to know what God is going to do about all this, look ahead to December 25th, to the birth of Jesus. That’s what we’re waiting for—that’s why we go through all the drama of Advent every year. We believe that in the most unexpected way possible, everything changed. As people were going about their lives, struggling to make ends meet, making the best of things—suddenly Jesus was born. Suddenly God came in the flesh. Suddenly all the goodness and creativity flowing through the universe was distilled into one person. I don’t know how all of it fit in one body! You could see him and touch him and hug him. You could pour perfume on his feet; you could plunge a ring of thorns into his skin.

And for a few years, the prophecy of Isaiah nearly came true.

People really did come from everywhere, seeking the good news and teaching that Jesus offered. They brought all their problems and talked to him face-to-face. The ministry of Jesus was met with violent resistance, sure, but not among those who walked with him. Jesus led his followers in the way of nonviolent peace.

Tolkien writes, “The Birth of Christ is the Eucatastrophe of [human] history. The Resurrection is the Eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.”

That’s what God is going to do about all this. That’s what we’re waiting for. But of course it isn’t finished yet. We’re still waiting. The work of Jesus is not complete—not yet. What are we supposed to do in the meantime?

For Isaiah, there’s a simple and direct answer. It’s an invitation. Isaiah 2, verse 5:

“O house of Jacob,
    come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD!”

Isaiah saw the word of God. Isaiah saw beyond his present circumstances and, if I can borrow Tolkien’s words, he had “a sudden glimpse of Truth.” He “[perceived] that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made.”

Isaiah invited his audience to “walk in the light of the LORD,” and I believe the same invitation is extended to us: to walk in the light of the Lord. No matter what you’re facing, no matter how hopeless the situation, no matter how grim your newsfeed is—”walk in the light of the Lord.”

Over the next few weeks we’ll continue to explore this invitation together as we “Walk in the Light.” For now I want to explore the implications only briefly.

I want us to consider that what it means to “walk in the light” is to practice the art of seeing beyond our seeing, and to live in a way that makes it possible for others to see beyond their seeing, too. I think the practice is both simple and absolutely life-changing. To walk in the light is to live as if this actually is the world that God is creating, the world that Isaiah saw.

Isaiah saw a future in which everyone recognized the face of God, and everyone knew how to live at peace with one another, and everyone knew how to live at peace with themselves. How do we live as if this is already true?

The first way is this: I think we try to live as if it is already true that all people have access to the guidance and presence of God’s Spirit through the sanctifying work of Jesus. In John chapter 14, Jesus tells his disciples, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” That word, “advocate,” can be translated many different ways—He will give you a helper, he will give you a comforter.

It’s hard to know how God is leading you. It’s hard to find your way through the darkness of painful decisions or an uncertain future. But as we enter this season of Advent, I want you to try and trust that God has not left you alone, that God has given you the friendship of an Advocate, a Helper, who wants you to find the way to life. Listen to that voice.

That’s the first. The second way is that we try to live as if it is already true that God is a righteous and fair judge, and that there is a possible outcome to the conflicts we face. There’s a lovely passage in Romans in which Paul describes how we might “be transformed by the renewing of your mind”—maybe just another way to say, “walk in the light.” In Romans 12, he advises the people: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” If that isn’t intimidating enough, he goes on to quote Proverbs, saying, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”

This is how we interrupt the cycle of violence and retribution. This is how we start to live in a world where nobody has to take up swords. This is how we ourselves are transformed from weapons of violence and cruelty into the very instruments of peace.

“As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” As we enter Advent, I want you to try and forgive the person you need to forgive, with God’s help. If there are places where you find yourself caught up in cycles of conflict and anger, I want you to ask God to help you find the courage and steadiness to break the cycle. I want you to invite the peace of Christ into your life, whatever needs to be torn up so that peace can take root.

What is God going to do about this? God has come in the flesh and lived among us to show us that “this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made.”

Sometimes the waiting pays off, here and now. Sometimes you get to experience your own little eucatastrophes. When you do, remember that they point to something true.

And sometimes you won’t—sometimes you’ll wait and pray for a much-needed, positive turn of events, and it won’t come. When it doesn’t, remember that we’re part of a long, long story that isn’t over yet.

We walk in the light, and we make it easier for ourselves and for others to see beyond our seeing.

I’ll finish with one final passage from Tolkien. Tolkien understood that glimpses of joy and truth can be hard to bear because they are, for now, only glimpses—they leave us longing for more, longing for the world to come. He knew that walking in the light was not easy or simple. And he described what I think so many of us tend to feel in this season of Advent, a complicated mixture of hope and grief and tenderness. In this passage, he’s describing the resurrection, but I think the same could be said about the birth of Jesus:

The Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest [story] – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.

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