Advent Sunday, Nov 2016
Isaiah 2:v1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
Today, it is Advent Sunday – and it comes from the Latin word, ‘adventus’, which means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’. Advent Season has begun! It is the time of year, when we specifically look to the coming of Jesus – first in his incarnation to bring our salvation, and then his subsequent return to reign in glory. Christians began to celebrate this as a season in the fourth and fifth centuries. The early Celtic Christians actually celebrated for forty days – deliberately the same length as Lent – while most of Western Church settled into the season beginning the Four Sundays before Christmas. As you notice, the colours also change in church to purple, which signifies royalty – centuries ago, purple often marked the coming of a king or Caesar. As we see the purple in church, we are reminded we celebrate the coming of God’s Promised King, the Christ – what God has already done. And we wait in expectation for the full coming of God’s reign on earth and for the return of Christ – of what God will yet do.
But as Isaiah and Matthew challenge us, this is not to be a passive waiting – but an active waiting. As Tom & Maria, Paul-Folkert & Hannah, and Corina & Robert, prepare to celebrate their little ones first Christmas, they probably well remember the preparations that were needed before the births, and as Annalyne and Bram prepare, we know waiting for a child is not passive – it involves preparations, exercise, nutrition, aches, care, prayer, work… Isaiah and Matthew invite us to be pregnant with hope, we live in the expectation of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth – as we wait, we also work, we prepare, we ache, we pray…actively waiting.
The final part of my introduction! Today is also the start of the Church Year. Across the year ahead the main gospel readings will come from Matthew’s Gospel. The readings each year of the Anglican Lectionary allow us to focus on different parts of the Scriptures, as significant parts of the Bible are covered across the three year reading programme. It is important and good to preach across different parts of the Scriptures, to receive all that the Lord has for us. So, for us, in the coming year, we are going to do quite a bit of preaching on the Old Testament, (OT) – we will, of course, reflect upon the words of the gospel, but the main preaching passage will be the set Old Testament. When guests come and there is cover for me, or on the main Christian Festivals the sermons may well not focus on OT, but when I’m preaching, most of the time, we’ll be enjoying what the OT has to say, seeking to hear what the Lord has to say to us as a church and as Christians…
And so to Isaiah! Isaiah, in chapter 2, shares the vision of what he has seen. He is speaking, writing, preaching, in the 8TH BC. His words also are very similar to what the prophet Micah – a contemporary of his – will declare in Micah 4.
‘In the last days’ – it is an eschatological phrase – eschatology meaning ‘end times’. It suggests this is not in Israel’s visible future when they hear these words, but in a distant period. And what Isaiah shares is a vivid description – more like a portrait than a photograph of how it will all be.
The first strikingly repeated idea “all nations” come to Jerusalem. This is not the first time we will hear this theme in the book of Isaiah, it is a strong theme throughout the entire book linked to God’s purposes for his world. For example, in chapter 11, ‘the Root of Jessie will be a banner for the peoples, the nations will rally to him’. Chapter 42, ‘the Servant will bring justice to the nations’, Chapter 49, ‘I will make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth’. Chapter 56 ‘And the foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD and to be his servants, these will I bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.’ And Chapter 66, ‘I am about to come and gather the people of all nations and languages, and they will come and see my glory.” We see God’s heart for his world. As he told Abraham – “through your offspring, all nations on the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22) – God’s plans have always embraced the whole of his beloved world.
But why do these nations come? Do they come to bring wealth or tribute or to visit a king, as envoys later came to visit Hezekiah, do they come out of curiosity or to seek wisdom like the Queen of Sheba, do they come seeking protection or even to threaten. No. They come because of the overwhelming attraction of the presence of God in Jerusalem. They come to where he is active and present. They come because He is there – ‘He will teach’. And they come to receive instruction. “He will teach us his ways.” He – The Lord God – it is a description of a theological conference! Yet it is not just head knowledge they will receive – ‘He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ There is no spilt here between theology and everyday life – as a writer put it: “the instruction provides both program to study and path in which to walk. Theoretical knowledge and practical actions are of one piece.” (James Limburg, Lutheran Seminary, St Paul, Minnesota). This is not just an OT vision. David and I have began leading a monthly study in Zwolle on Ephesians. We alternate sessions. But Ephesians, like Romans and like Colossians are notable for how there is a great amount of theology in the first half or two-thirds of the letter. Then Paul, having stated the theology, moves into the practical applications – for him, theology and practical actions are of one piece. We learn of God’s ways, we are to walk in his paths – but we return to that later…
Where does this instruction happen? Centuries before, in the history of Israel, instruction from the Lord had gone out from Mt Sinai; in the final last days, instruction will go out from Mount Zion. At Mt Sinai the Lord spoke; from Zion what will be spoken will be “the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
And then we move into some world famous words. “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.” Do you know where these words are engraved onto a wall? Yes – on a wall opposite the United Nations HQ in New York City.
Isaiah’s vision – shows the words of Yahweh are taken back to their nations. The nations have flowed to Mount Zion, they have heard of his ways, and they return to their lands and they walk in his ways. A fruit of this walking – we see with Isaiah, a time of massive disarmament. Weapons turned into tools used for cutting away newly formed leaves and shoots from grape vines. Disarmament. But also everlasting peace – ‘nations will not take up sword’ against nation – the end of war. But also the military academies, training colleges are closed: ‘nor will they train for war any more.’ No planning for war, no need for war.
Can you feel the power of this vision? For the Jewish people, who were constantly under pressure from other nations, a promise of peace and no more war? This is a tremendous passage of hope. I imagine, a Christian in Syria reading this, after four or five years of warfare, the Lord God is moving to a peacemaking in our world – no more war. Imagine you are a Christian in Northern Iraq, who fled the violence of Isis – swords, used to maimed and decapitate, made into farming tools. Christians in Sudan and South Sudan with the fighting, ‘nation will not take up sword against nation.’ And I think back to Anglican Christians in N. Ireland who faced the threat of bombings, shootings, and on this Sunday in the lectionary, Advent Sunday, they hear these words, see God’s future, to know this is world will change, through God. Tremendous! Hope!
But imagine again – the first time Isaiah shared this, did he get a handshake, some words “marvellous vision prophet!” a hallelujah? He then says: ‘Come descendants of Jacob let us walk in the light of the Lord.’ This vision is not just one for the back pocket, to give them a warm glow on a cold night, Isaiah says to the current community of Jerusalem, this vision is for shaping life now.
In Hebrew it is emphasised: The word for walk is halak, it is used twice in one sentence. Isaiah says: ‘O House of Jacob, halak, walk, let us walk – halak – in the light of the Lord.’
He is saying – if these Gentiles, who someday are flooding to hear the teaching of the Lord and will walk in his paths, so should they. See, if we read Isaiah chapter 1 we realise that many of the Jewish nation have heard and have not walked or are no longer interested in hearing from the Lord. So what type of House of Jacob will they be – will they be like the Gentiles who hear and walk, or will they continue to think and act differently. And this is the punchline. Isaiah says – waiting for the Lord’s return is not passive waiting, but active waiting. We wait – watchful, alert, knowing that the Lord can return at any time, as the people in Noah’s day lived life up until that final day when the rains began, a sudden occurrence! We too are to be watchful and alert. But Isaiah says: not passively waiting, but active waiting, having learnt his ways, we walk in his paths. For example, let Isaiah vision fuel our prayers. This week I’ve caught headlines of the conflict in Ukraine, of Syria and in Iraq – we hear and watch these events, and rather than switch channels, inspired by Isaiah, let’s get out our bibles and kneel and say “Lord, this is your plan nations will beat their weapons and nor train, would you speed your coming, would you come Lord and bring worldwide peace.”
Isaiah’s themes of actively watching are seen in Jesus own teaching. We hear his words: ‘So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.’
But also, in his teaching, we the themes of Isaiah’s vision reflected. Instruction goes out from the Lord from a mountain – on a mountain, Jesus taught his disciples and crowds, in the Sermon on the Mount.
And in that instruction, he encouraged his disciples to recognise God’s heart for his world – you are salt of the earth, light of the world. And he told them to be hearers of the word and doers: ‘Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on a rock.’ As they have heard instruction, to now walk in its paths…
And in that sermon, Jesus reminded them of how the vision for the kingdom, includes peacemaking – ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God…’ And finally, on a mountain, final instructions from the Lord, who commands that his teachings be communicated to all nations – ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them to obey everything’. (Matthew 28).
We see these themes in Jesus teaching – and while we have the hope of what will be, and we have the command to be watching and alert, we are commanded to active waiting, having been taught of the ways of God and to walk in his paths…
Shall we pray.
Lord, we rejoice in this vision of what will be.
We long Lord for you to hasten the day of your coming a world when there will true and total peace.
Lord we know you could come anytime.
But Lord let us be actively waiting, let us be walking in your paths for all we have learned of you, let us be praying, let us be acting, let us be acting as peacemakers.
In Jesus name.