“All the Wrong People”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, November 27, 2022
Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5
Someone wise said you don’t have to be a poet to be a Christian, but it sure helps. Some of the greatest poetry we have comes from the Old Testament prophets. We’ll be hearing from them a lot here in the season of Advent. Isaiah announces the coming of Christ so beautifully, we still can’t think of Jesus without the prophet’s words: The virgin shall be with child. A little child shall lead them. The lion shall lay down with the lamb. We shall call him wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace. One scholar says that to read Israel’s prophets is to seek “undeceiving”. Unlearning the wrong story, the lie, and learning the true one.
Advent season is the best (isn’t it beautiful in here?). This four-week countdown to Christmas puts us, the church, in the position of Israel, longing for a saviour. The songs in Advent are full of yearning. They drop down into minor key, expressing hope from a place of pain. For many of us this is the year at its busiest. A final push to the business season. A rush up to exams for students and teachers. Those of us forgetful or lazy enough not to shop in advance have to fight the crowds.
I hope in this intense push of busy-ness you can also stop, pause, and feel that longing inside you. The world is not as it should be, we are not as we should be. Creation is off kilter, out of joint. God promises to come, to make it right. And soon.
The passage from Isaiah is deeply loved in the history of the church. Isaiah is a prophet in the royal court in Jerusalem, close to wealth and power. His wife is also a prophet . . . so presumably they have little prophet children. There’s lots of prophesying to do because there’s lots of unfaithfulness in Israel, in us. Their unfaithfulness resulted in the Assyrians sweeping down on the ten northern tribes of Israel in 722 BC and destroying the lot, they don’t exist anymore. What it meant in the ancient world to be conquered was that your god failed, and you ceased to exist as a distinct people. Now Assyria the wolf is looking hungrily at the two remaining tribes of Judah . . . and starting to growl. And some in Judah are refugees from that earlier violence, they remember and are terrified.
Isaiah says to these terrified people: you’d better repent. Not what I’d say to traumatized people to reassure them, but Isaiah has more courage than most of us. Stop worshiping false gods, obey and follow the Lord alone, and you will live.
I saw a movie once, can’t remember the name now, with a conversation between an atheist and a committed Christian.
The atheist said there’s very little difference between us.
The Christian said really? You don’t think that do you?
The atheist said you don’t believe in any god except one. I go all the way and don’t believe in that one either. We’re both atheists about most gods, you’re just a bad atheist in one instance.
Reminds me of a Jewish atheist group. An inquirer asked what does a Jewish atheist group believe? The answer: there’s only one God. And we don’t believe in him! Israel: believe in the Lord alone, be an atheist about all the other so-called gods, and the one true God will deliver you. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t happen. Israel remains unfaithful and is defeated by the Babylonians and carried off into exile in 586 BC. Most peoples think their god is on their side, against their enemies, as a matter of course. But Israel thinks her God is often against her when she’s unfaithful. Because the living God is no national deity and has choice in the matter and loves righteousness. That’s genius. Brilliant. Holy. It’s true too. When we’re unfaithful, well, I’ll let you finish that sentence.
But our text for today says something different again. Something so full of hope it radiates off the page and explodes into our lives.
“In the 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.” It sounds like Mount Zion will actually grow taller. It’s not even the tallest mountain of the seven in Jerusalem. Not even the second tallest. It’s a modest little hill. But one day it will tower over Mount Everest. When Jesus talks about mountains running and jumping into the sea, he’s drawing on this tradition of mountains moving (well done Mary, your child knows his bible!). Mount Zion today has only the ruin of the temple, one wall the Romans left when they destroyed it in 70 AD. On top of the temple mount are now two mosques, two of the holiest places in Islam. Mount Zion is a place of deep religious pain, a scar on the face of the earth. Isaiah promises it will be a place of human unity and peace. It’s poetry, remember? It’s supposed to be outrageous, impossible, and beautiful.
“All the nations shall stream to it.” This is what the Jews are afraid of! All those pagan nations, the Assyrians, or the Babylonians, or whoever, streaming to Zion . . . to destroy it. Coming like a vanquishing horde and consuming God’s people and leveling the temple. The prophet says you’re right, the gentiles are coming, the barbarian non-Jews are on their way, innumerable. You won’t even be able to count them.
Now, let’s pause a moment. For Israel, the world is divided up into Jews and non-Jews. Jews are God’s people, the family that comes from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When God wants to repair the world, he doesn’t send an army or a natural disaster or a miracle. God sends a family. An unlikely family too: full of impossible pregnancies and terrible rascals and intense sibling rivalry. And God says, “I’ll bless the whole world through you.” That’s the plan: to choose one people through whom to bless all the others. We, God’s people, often get this wrong. We think God’s blessings are for us. They’re not. They’re through us, for everybody else. Some ask how we’ll know we’ve done well here at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. I guess the answer has to be: Check the neighbourhood. Is it better? Look into the health of Toronto. Is it improved? The goal isn’t a bigger, better church. The goal is a redeemed world.
Now Israel as God’s chosen gets the punishment that the teacher’s pet often gets: Resentment, envy, sometimes violence. That’s the cost of being chosen. It’s still Israel’s job to bless and repair the whole world. Hearing the prophet say the hordes are coming, Israel fears she’ll be destroyed. Not so fast. Here’s what’s next.
“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’.” These barbarian hordes are coming not with weapons to kill but as pilgrims to pray. God has transfigured Israel’s enemies from destroyers into fellow worshipers joining Israel’s prayers. The very ones you’re sure are there to do you harm turn out to want to join you as sisters and brothers. Do you see what good news this is? The Hebrew verb here says the peoples shall “stream” to Zion. Like a river you can’t stop. Like the sun’s endless radiance, shining. This is the purpose of God’s election of Israel in the first place: to bless and heal the nations. To make right all that humanity has made wrong. Isaiah says that’s coming. National defeat is not the last word. Worldwide redemption is.
Our forebears in the church loved this passage. That’s us, they said. We, the church, are all the nations streaming to Zion. The church is made up of every people, race, and tribe, wearing pilgrim robes and walking up to Jerusalem to pray. Only God could have done this. Taken the violent Romans and made them praying pilgrims. The awful Assyrians and made them people of peace. The terrible Babylonians and made them agents of grace. That’s what God does. Transfigures enemies and makes them into friends.
The great Abraham Lincoln was approached by a grieving widow toward the end of the US Civil War. She was upset Lincoln planned to be merciful to the defeated south. “We must destroy our enemies!” she insisted. She’s right on human terms. Lincoln responded, “Madam, have I not destroyed my enemy, when I have made him my friend?”
This world of peace is what we long for in Advent. Not just good things for us and our family; that’s fine, we all want that. Not just a season of some beauty and good will. But the restoration of all things, when God reknits the nations into a family of mutual love and affection, praying all together in God’s temple.
I had a glimpse of this recently, I snuck away one Saturday to see a Michigan football game. A hundred and thirteen thousand people in one space, the largest stadium in the USA. I’m no Michigan fan but I have friends who are, hence, the tickets. And the walk to the game was the most fun all day. Folks, tailgating, barbecuing, wearing their gear, swapping stories is one of the only times you can talk with a total stranger, slap ‘em on the back, do the cheers together (“go blue!”). My friend turned to me at one point and said, “This is carnival.” His friend was a blubbering mess, in tears. Good cheer all around. No one’s allowed to work. Folks are drinking before noon. And the spirit is of kindness toward everyone. Now, this isn’t quite Isaiah’s vision. It’s only for those who can afford tickets or not to work or to drink before it’s appropriate. It requires an opponent who must lose, preferably in abject fashion—the stadium is a bit more Rome than Jerusalem. But it felt like it was on the way there. Just think: God promises all nations streaming not to the Big House in Ann Arbor, but to Zion, the poor first, all urging each other on, no one left behind and kindness all around. Lord, bring that day!
Then these famous, unbelievable words: “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 anymore.” The judge will be God himself. That’s why you won’t need armies. God will resolve every possible dispute. For now, we need armies. There are Vladimir Putins around. I remember when I first moved to Canada there were some Pacific war games and Canada sent its one working destroyer out there. It broke down. The Americans had to tow it back to Pearl Harbor and fix it. Humiliating. This is not proper preparation for war. The arctic is melting, Russian ships are snooping, Canada has more coastline than can be believed. Do you feel your anxiety rising yet? That’s our world. Be real about it. God is promising . . . an unreal world, a not-yet-real world. One where no one studies war: West Point, Sandhurst, RMC in Kingston, all obsolete. Where the energy for digging metal out of the ground and making it into weapons goes into digging into the ground with seeds to feed the world. Pie in the sky you say? Except it can happen. Quite literally.
One thing some Christian groups around the world have done is enact this very thing, chapter, and verse. A church/government in Birmingham, England invited gangs to sell back their weapons. It sounds like poor use of public money until you think of what gun violence costs. They collected hundreds of firearms and knives, no questions asked. Another group in Philadelphia did the same, and then invited relatives of those who’d died from gun violence to come help them forge them into garden tools. One mother took a hammer to that glowing hot gun and crushed it, “this is for my son.” She was helping plant the garden for a future harvest, her soul healed a little. One city in Mexico called Culiacan is known for its gun violence. An artist named Pedro Reyes had an idea. The city offered a buy back: guns for coupons at a big box store, no questions asked. They collected 1527 guns. Rented a steamroller and crushed them. They then sent the metal off to a foundry, which melted them down and made 1527 shovels with them. Guns into shovels. That’s a frighteningly literal reading of the Bible. It can be done. Folks are doing it right now.
Now, don’t be naïve about this. Our world is a dangerous place. No one would rather quit their jobs than police and soldiers. They’re there to protect the innocent and solve disputes. Who wouldn’t have wished for an armed guard to stop the shooter in a nightclub in Colorado Springs last week? There are times when we have to have such protection. I’m loving watching Murdoch Mysteries about a crime solving detective in late 19th century Toronto, and every time he comes across a dangerous criminal he freezes. No gun. The other guy is always armed. I keep thinking, uh, dude, just get a service revolver and you won’t have to run away so often! The UN building in New York has a great sculpture of a sword being beaten into a pruning hook. It’s done by a Soviet artist. How many wars has the UN stopped? Some. Not as many as its founders hoped, I’m sure. Here’s what Isaiah promises: peace is more basic, more natural, than violence. Violence goes away, it ends, its done. Peace reigns. It will never end. All the energy and money and activity we spend on defense preparation and dispute arbitration, all that will go into love of neighbour. And that’s not by the effort of the UN or even clever artists. It’s going to be done by God. Advent says to long for that kind of deep peace. This longing is not in vain. It’s coming.
A final note for today: “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” St. Paul sees this as a glimpse beforehand of the Christian gospel. His words:
All Israel will be saved, [did you hear that? Paul, don’t you mean some of Israel? Most of it? No, all of it. But I digress] as it is written:
“Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.”
When some Jewish people have visited this beautiful sanctuary, they’ve noticed the six-pointed star we have among our symbols. “Hey look, a star of David!” they say. Indeed. David’s our guy too. One Jewish thinker imagines the relationship between Judaism and Christianity this way. Franz Rosenzweig said Judaism is like that star of David: a molten core of holiness, a nuclear fusion reaction of God’s love. That’s Judaism, to this day. The light and the rays that issue out from that sun—the six points—that’s Christianity. Emanating out of Israel, bringing its light to the nations. Rosenzweig said it’s amazing that even though Judaism is a little, bitty religion, billions of people have heard of Abraham, David, Isaiah, because of gentile Christians like us. Rosenzweig is a controversial thinker, but I think a brilliant one. That star is advent hope. It already burns, it’s radiating out, now, unendingly, until all one day all there will be is light.
I got to know a worshiping community in Newcastle in the north of England. Newcastle is sort of the region’s Vegas: stag parties and kiss me quick entertainment. In a country of dwindling churches being sold for nightclubs and condos and climbing walls, this church was about to close too. Its boiler went out, its last few old heads were ready to sell. But the diocese gave the building to a retired lawyer. If clergy won’t do it, God will raise up someone else. And you know what he did? He reached out to prisoners. Offenders. The people other lawyers locked away for our safety. Those the rest of the world doesn’t want. And they came. Those released from our razor-wire warehouses; healed of addictions; being restored into relationships they’d broken. They seemed to me like a black church in the US: hands up, singing praise, in tears, standing on chairs. I asked how’d you make English people do this? They usually only do this when drunk at football games. He said, “Those who have been forgiven much love much.” I marveled. These folks, others look at with fear, are now robed with prayer, gleaming with radiance. He said, “Yeah, my caretaker served 17 years for murder. My worship leader 10 years for armed robbery.” And he shrugged. And I saw Isaiah’s vision of all the wrong people streaming to Zion not with violence but in gleaming peace.
That’s what we hope for, that’s everything. That’s why this church is open to all the right people, all the wrong people, all the ones who are not sure which they are. The day Isaiah imagines is coming. In some places it’s already here (like Newcastle of all places!). Advent says it’s not here yet in full. But it’s closer now than when we first believed. When we pray for peace, we’re not just wishing for a pipe dream. We’re asking God’s promised future to come sooner. We’re sick of just waiting for it. We want it now.
Oh, you thought Advent was just a countdown to Christmas, with chocolates and parties? Yeah, it’s that, and that’s good. General festivity and hilarity are reflections of God’s coming in Christ. But Advent’s not just about that. It’s about the end of violence, the full reign of peace, the world as God intends, and every injury healed. You’ll see. One day everyone will see. Amen.