Saturday, November 30, 2013

Meditation on Isaiah 2:1-5

(December 1, 2013, Advent 1, Year A of RCL)
Isaiah 2:1-5
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2 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.

3 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.

4He 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.

5 O house of Jacob,

come, let us walk

in the light of the LORD!

Verses 2-4 are virtually identical to Micah 4:1-3. Most scholars believe that Micah and Isaiah were contemporaries, although Isaiah is considered a major prophet while Micah is a minor prophet (as is also true about that other 8th century contemporary, Amos). Nonetheless, their context is very similar, with it being supposed that the author of Micah was a few years younger than that of Isaiah, and perhaps started his ministry later. It may be that this was a well-known poem quoted by both Isaiah and Micah.

The meaning of the name “Isaiah” is “Yahweh is salvation,” and indeed that is the focus of this prophetic book. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes: “In broad sweep, the story told in the book of Isaiah is the long account of Israel’s life in the midst of a demanding sequence of imperial powers…. What makes this rendering of Judah’s life distinctive is that the story is told with unfailing attentiveness to Yahweh, who is reckoned to be the primal player in the life of Judah and in the life of the world around Judah. The book of Isaiah, with wondrous artistry, manages to hold together the realities of lived public history in that ancient world and the inscrutable reality of Yahweh, who is said here to impinge incisively on that history. Thus the book of Isaiah is neither ‘history’ in the modern sense of that term nor ‘theology’ in any conventional way.” That is what prophecy is, according to Brueggemann. Within Isaiah, there is held in tension God’s judgment and God’s renewing mercy. Isaiah hopefully always holds out the “latter times” of God’s renewal and rebuilding as a different path than the “former times,” which are synonymous with God’s wrath and judgment (Isaiah, pp 1-2, 7-8). Thus, chapter 1 of Isaiah begins with the words, The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah….” and then proceeds to detail the wickedness of Judah under those kings and the fate that has befallen due to that wickedness. Embedded within this vision is a call to return to God. Our reading begins with the offer of a different life lived under faithfulness to God.

While there is now general agreement that the entire book of Isaiah that we now have is the work of at least two and probably at minimum three authors, chapters 1-12 are believed to have been written in the 8th century BCE by the prophet himself and that is where today’s reading originates. The king of Judah has abandoned trust in Yahweh, and therefore led the people to apostasy and rebellion against the true ruler—Yahweh. We know that there were dire consequences for the people of Judah, as we have discussed repeatedly, and our reading today is a call to return to trusting Yahweh alone as the source of salvation, not just for Judah, but universally-- for all peoples. In Isaiah 1: 8 and 11-14, it is pointed out that Jerusalem lies desolate and that the festivals kept as mere habit are pointless. Our selection from chapter 2 envisions when Jerusalem shall again be worthy of become the center of worship for God: through purification and turning away from evil and injustice (1:16-17).

Remember that chapter one began with Isaiah relating a vision. Notice the interesting way that our reading begins: it says that Isaiah “saw” the word concerning Judah and Jerusalem. Here is a prophetic sight related with beautiful detail. “The mountain of the Lord’s house” (v. 2) is Jerusalem. Most ancient religions placed the home of their god or gods on a high place—thus God’s home is literally exalted, and all eyes are drawn to where God is. This mountain is lifted up so high that the eyes—and as verse 3 reminds us, the feet and attention-- of all nations will be drawn to it. Jerusalem will be the center of instruction about God and from God for all. Verse 4 then makes clear that the way of God is the way that leads to peace—and in the context in which Isaiah was writing, the ability to destroy all the implements of war because they would no longer be necessary would indeed be a glimpse of paradise. Jerusalem will be the place where “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” These latter times will be a version of the Pax Romana,” that brief moment when Roman rule supposedly meant peace and security. Here is the hope that Isaiah always holds out after terrifying visions of destruction and judgment, to give the people the understanding that, while their actions have consequences, there is always the plea to allow themselves to be redeemed. And as important as asking forgiveness is, it is just as important and sometimes more difficult to accept that one IS actually forgiven.

It is the way of humans to be in contention—and even among those who profess faith in God. Look at the cultural wars going on throughout history, and certainly within our own time. Even as Christianity seems to be fading away as a cultural force, there is great disparity within the Christian community as to what God calls us to do and behave. But really, to argue about how to worship God is not the way of God—yet even Jesus had to take on the Pharisees and the Sadducees. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians, “Now we see through a mirror—dimly; but then we shall see shall see face to face.” Our reading here longs for the day when Jerusalem will be the center of worship for all the world.

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