Renewing Peace in the In-Between
A sermon on Isaiah 2:1-5
(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here)
Today we begin a new church year, a new journey through the story of Jesus and his church, which shapes our worship and our faith.
But the church’s new year is not quite like the cultural New Year we will celebrate in a month. Cultural New Year’s, with its dual focus on celebration and resolutions, tends to draw a clear dividing line: last year is over; now we start fresh.
In contrast, Advent is a consciously in-between time. It reminds us that we are in a time of waiting, living in faithful expectation of promises that we cannot yet see.
We have not left the old, familiar life behind entirely, but we experience it in a new way because of the new life that we know is coming.
That’s why our congregation’s theme for this Advent season is Renewal. Renewal does not erase what has come before, it refreshes it. It recognizes the potential for growth when we bring new hope and energy to the things we already have. To the faith we already have. To the longing for God that we already have. To the life we already have. We are invited into Advent with the expectation that God is renewing our faith now, even as we wait for the final fulfillment.
Our first reading today offers us a beautiful vision of how the hope for a future, perfect renewal can also renew us in the present. In his vision, Isaiah the prophet sees the world as it will be in its ultimate renewal, when God reshapes it to reflect God’s perfect will.
In that final renewal, all people, from the great diversity of nations, will be drawn together to the Temple of God.
And rather than seeking supremacy for their own ways of thinking, they will all want to learn from God.
And there will be perfect peace, with no one trying to exert their will over others, because God will be the only judge and arbiter.
And because of that peace, weapons of war will be reformed into tools for the cultivation of food, of life.
This is the prophet’s vision of the perfect renewal for which we are waiting, and it is truly a RENEWAL. It’s not a vision of some remote heaven, where we are removed from everything that has gone before. It’s a vision of God re-making our world… even to the extent of geography! The mountain of the Lord – the mountain of Zion in Jerusalem – (which is pretty small as mountains go) will be raised up as the highest of the mountains.
And in that reshaping of the world, the enmity and competition that so controls human interactions will be reshaped too. The diversity of the peoples will still be there, but it won’t lead to fighting. All will be united in peace and in walking in the way of the Lord.
That’s Isaiah’s vision of a perfect, renewed future. But a minute ago I told you that this reading offers us a vision of how that hope for the future can renew us in the present. And we see that present renewal in verse 5, in which the prophet – after sharing his vision – says to the people “come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
The prophet begins with a description of the future unity of all humanity walking in God’s paths, and sharing in God’s peace, and the immediate follow-up is to say: “Come on, let’s get started.” We don’t have to wait for the final fulfillment to begin the process of renewal. We can walk in the light of that vision now.
Which raises two interwoven questions: Do we want this kind of renewal? And how do we do it?
I say those two questions are interwoven because the “how” of renewal requires us to confront exactly what we need to embrace in order to walk in the way of renewal. Because the way of renewal requires us to embrace the diversity of the many people who are drawn together in God’s renewal… including people who challenge us.
In reflecting on these same lectionary passages three years ago, just after the 2016 election, biblical scholar Caroline Lewis posed a question:
“Now what” she asked, “when Democrats and Republicans, Clinton supporters and Trump supporters, liberals and conservatives have to share turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing together? Have to work in side-by-side cubicles together? Have to worship together? Have to do church together? Have to run a country together? Have to hope together? Have to lead change together? Have to stand up and speak out for what is truth together?”
Three years after she posed that question about “now what”, I’m afraid the answer is “even more division.” As a society, at least, we don’t seem to want peace and unity. Wed rather just prove the other side wrong. We'd rather win.
And that poses a challenge for all of us as we seek to answer the prophet’s call to “come, let us walk in the light of the Lord”, because he is calling us to walk in a light that shines not just on us, but also on people who disagree with us.
Now, let me be clear. I am not claiming that the prophet Isaiah is promoting a shallow approximation of peace that is accomplished by everyone playing nice and not rocking the boat. Such a reading would be very inconsistent with what we know about Isaiah. Isaiah was a court prophet, a Jerusalem insider so to speak, but that does not mean that he played the political game. He was beholden only to God, and he was perfectly willing to challenge those whom he believed were misrepresenting God, including the political and religious leaders. Isaiah never compromised truth for the sake of a shallow peace.
But the point for us, as we seek to walk in the light of Renewal during a deeply divisive cultural moment, is that the peace in Isaiah’s vision came from everyone being oriented toward God – rather than toward proving themselves right. Isaiah’s call to his contemporaries - to the people still in the in-between, Advent time of waiting like we are – is a call to “come” and to “walk.”
As such, it is a clear echo of what the people from all nations – the diverse humanity streaming to Jerusalem – say in the vision: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,… that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isaiah 2:3). The people are united in their recognition that God is their teacher. They all need to learn. The renewal of the world looks like everyone wanting to learn, recognizing that they can only walk in God’s ways if they learn more than they already know.
So, what does that mean for us? How can we learn to walk in God’s paths?
There’s not one simple answer to that question, of course. The “journey of faith” is the journey of a lifetime and no one ever masters it. But there are practices that can help us on that journey – practices that can help to re-orient us toward God, as our teacher. We will be experiencing some of those practices in our Advent retreat… practices that we can use in our daily lives to turn our eyes toward God, and to experience renewal day by day. There are also practices that we do already, but that, perhaps, we don’t learn from as deeply as we could. Practices that are part of our worship but that, perhaps, have become so familiar that we can miss their lesson.
A few months ago, in adult forum, we had a conversation about the role of confession in worship that generated a general agreement that we need to talk about what confession really means as a whole congregation. So, we’ll be doing that – next week in fact! But that conversation got me thinking about the deep lessons in much of our liturgy that we can miss because we don’t really talk about them. We don’t actively focus on learning.
So, each week in Advent, we will be looking at one of our shared practices as a lesson in God’s ways… a lesson that helps us to “come, walk in the light of the Lord.”
Today’s practice, drawing from Isaiah’s vision of a renewed world of perfect peace, is our practice of “passing the peace.” This is a practice that we clearly embrace in this congregation. We move around, and we smile into each other’s faces, or share a hug. The peace is a time that the warmth and the love of this community are on display.
But this practice of sharing the peace is about more than smiles and handshakes. It’s even about more than warmth and love. It’s about sharing God’s peace… the peace that Isaiah described in his vision… the peace that renews and reshapes the whole world. When we say “peace” to each other, Isaiah invites us to mean the kind of peace that changes our minds and changes the world.
We have a beautifully diverse congregation. As one of you commented to me this week, our congregation has a “hodge podge of cultures,” and that’s a good thing. We are also diverse politically, and educationally, and economically. We are diverse in many of the ways that our larger society tells us should divide us, should make us suspicious of each other.
But our faith tells us that we are being renewed. That the dividing lines are not God’s will for our lives or our faith.
So, when we offer each other “peace” we are offering each other more than friendship, more than welcome. We are offering each other transformation. We are offering each other the peace of Christ that is renewing, and changing, and saving the world… even now, in our Advent time of waiting.
Thanks be to God.
 See https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4315