First Sunday of Advent (Year A)

Isaiah’s vision begins with “the mountain of the Lord’s house” (2:2).

November 28, 2010

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 2:1-5

Isaiah’s vision begins with “the mountain of the Lord’s house” (2:2).

We’ve already seen this mountain: “Fair Zion,” abandoned hut, city besieged, center of a land ravaged by war (1:6-8).

After this devastation follows a new word and new days (2:2). Zion will be established, made secure, firm, and lasting. It will also be lifted above every other height, visible throughout the world.

Zion is Judah’s moral center, point of orientation, and locus of worship. It is a reminder that God has chosen this place and this people. God has promised it protection but will not hide it. Isaiah now proclaims total transparency and gift for all, with no hiding, cowering, or hoarding.

The nations will see Zion and stream like water (Hebrew naharu) toward the place of presence and worship. Water usually flows from a mountain. They will flow to it, moving toward the center.

There are two meanings of the verb naharu: “flow like a river,” and “shine in joyful radiance.” As they move toward the center, the nations will be in flux, transformed as they draw closer to God. In their transformation they will become fresh, sustained, and a source of life and growth for the earth. We also see their joy and light as they celebrate divine presence on earth and receive, reflect, and radiate the light of God.

They walk and they speak; both show their transformation. Walking is a metaphor for conduct and commitment to a moral path. In speaking to one another, they urge but do not coerce, seeking consensus across national difference.

“Let us go up,” they say to one another, “to this mountain, to the house of the God of … Jacob.”

Here our attention lands on the startlingly personal identification with Jacob, to whom God promised land, descendants, blessing, and protection, whom God promised to lead home (Genesis 28:13-15), and whose blessing for his children he declared “stronger than the blessings of the eternal mountains” (Genesis 49:26). Enemies, not children, come to the Holy Mountain and house of Jacob’s God.

Nations known for war will come now to this house and household of Jacob not to conquer or plunder, but to learn God’s ways. God’s teaching, torah, is new for them, and will soon replace the knowledge of war.

To make this possible, God will judge between the nations, deciding cases for the many and the mighty. Nations will bring to Jerusalem their desire and hunger, need and hurt, greed and grievance, and submit them to the authority of the One who is able to make peace, bridge division, and resolve conflict.

An important detail emerges here: the house of God is traditionally a place of mediation. But typically it is a place of mediation through worship, bridging the divide between people and God. In Isaiah’s vision it is still a site of mediation. But the mediator is not priest, prophet, judge, king, or worship; nor is it Israel, the chosen people. The mediator is God. The divide God bridges is between nations.

When God judges between them, they can no longer justify war. When Zion is lifted, the sword will be lifted no more (2:4). Nations will hammer their weapons into pieces.

The vision might stop there. It might stop with weapons shattered to bits, robbed of the power to destroy. But it doesn’t. The vision does not affirm destruction of any kind, nor does it reject power. It is a vision of transformed and transforming capacity. Like swords and spears, plowshares and pruning hooks are tools made with human craft from the minerals of the earth and the growth of trees. The ingenuity and skill that devised weapons of war also devised tools and technologies to cultivate rocky soil, to build terraces, and coax forth from the land the nourishment of olive, fig, grain, and grape. Isaiah sees in this same creativity the capacity to transform the machinery of warfare into a technology whose sole purpose is to sustain the life of families in God’s good land.

Now the focus shifts from nations to Jacob. “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (Isaiah 2:5; cf. Psalm 43:3, 89:15). The call to Jacob echoes the call of the nations, but it holds a new word: light.

Light is life (Job 17:1; 18:5, 18; 33:28, 30), goodness (Job 30:26), joy (Psalm 97:11), revelation and truth (Job 12:22; Psalm 43:3). It is linked with justice and righteousness (Isaiah 59:9) and the promise of salvation (Isaiah 49:6) and healing (Isaiah 58:8).

Light is also what makes it possible to follow a path. We first hear light mentioned in connection with the people Israel during their slavery in Egypt: the plague of darkness prevents the Egyptians from seeing one another and from moving. They are frozen in place by their blindness. But “the Israelites had light where they lived” (Exodus 10:23), and with that light they were able to walk from slavery to freedom.

Light holds a similar significance in Isaiah. Elsewhere in Isaiah, God promises to “lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light” (42:16). Isaiah 60 announces that Jacob’s light has dawned: it is the glory of the Lord (60:1, 19).

What a simple summons then, to walk in the Lord’s light, in divine glory, in the path of God’s instruction. But it is not easy. What trust does it demand of God’s people, to be led by teaching and walking on the path revealed by truth? What fear must they put aside to call one another to be transformed in the practices of obedience and justice? What kind of courage enables a people to summon each other toward a future when nations who once ravaged and subjugated their homeland would call each other to the same obedience and justice, even to the same land and house?

On the first Sunday of Advent, I would love to see a sermon that not only proclaims Isaiah’s summons to walk in the light but enacts it. What teaching will bridge the divisions? What words will give courage to a people afraid to trust? When you lift your voice from the pulpit, may you hammer to pieces the weapons of war, and prepare the way for the One who brings peace.