I wonder what you are looking forward to. Christmas? A holiday? Seeing friends or family? A medical procedure that you hope will make life easier? Maybe there isn’t anything. You are finding life hard, and seeing hope or joy in the future is just beyond you. Perhaps when you look forward all you see is difficult, and that makes you anxious or afraid.
Both our readings this morning deal with the future, with looking forward to what is to come. This shouldn’t be a surprise to us, as today is the first Sunday of Advent, when we look forward not only to our celebration of Jesus’ first coming, but to his return to earth to reign forever. In previous years we’ve explored what Jesus had to say about this himself, but this morning I thought we might focus more on what Isaiah had to say about the last days.
Before we focus in on the passage that we’ve read this morning, it’s worth taking a moment to see the wider context. The first five chapters of Isaiah follow a pattern. The whole of chapter one is taken up with trouble – the consequences of the disobedience and unfaithfulness of the people of God. Then, the beginning of chapter 2 we get this ray of light and hope. The rest of chapter 2 and chapter 3 is more trouble – judgement and disgrace. Then chapter 4, quite a short chapter, is more light and hope, and then then chapter 5 is more trouble and woe.
So, we have this sequence – trouble, hope, trouble, hope, trouble. Depending on your viewpoint this might be seen in a discouraging way – that despite the hope that God offers, people always manage to end up in trouble. Or, it could be read as an encouragement – that however much trouble people get themselves into, there is always hope in the middle of it. To be honest, my basic personality would tend to see things in the first way- I can be a bit “glass half empty”, but my sense is that God’s intent is for us to read it the second way – that however dark it gets, there is always light and hope.
In the spirit of that conviction, let’s take a closer look at the hope that Isaiah offers in chapter 2.
The first thing to note is that this was a specific prophecy given to a specific people at a specific time. This was a word that was given to Isaiah concerning Judah and Jerusalem. When it was given, and heard by the people who first received it, then it almost certainly would have been understood as a prophecy of something that would happen when the people were returned from exile to the promised land. This is how that phrase “in the latter days” would have been understood. It stood for the “end of the current era, or historical period”.
Not only would the people be restored to the place God had given them, but the new settlement would be greater than the first. This is illustrated by the geographical metaphor. The hill that Jerusalem was built on isn’t really much of a hill. The surrounding hills are taller – we know that from the accounts of Jesus looking out over Jerusalem from the nearby Mount of Olives. This represents the stature of the city in the political sphere as well – overshadowed for most of its existence by the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires.
But not in the latter days, says Isaiah. In the latter days Jerusalem will be lifted up to its rightful place as the place of the court room of God. No longer would people be stripped from there to be taken to other places as a result of war, but people from other nations would flock there in order to learn peace and to receive justice.
The specific focus that we noted earlier is echoed in the final verse of the reading – O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord. This is a specific call to the people of God, the descendants of Jacob, to be faithful to God and to walk in God’s light.
Now, many of Isaiah’s prophecies were fulfilled. The people of God did return from exile in Babylon, the Temple and walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt. A Messiah did come, a suffering servant who gave his life for the world. But this one has not yet been fulfilled. Jerusalem has remained overshadowed, through its long history by other nations. Rome, Greece, the Holy Roman Empire, Arabian neighbours. It has rarely, if ever, been a place of peace and justice. It has more often been, as it is today, a place of conflict and injustice.
As the centuries have passed, and the prophecy has remained unfulfilled, it has become more understood as a prophecy not just about the latter days, but of the last days, when Jesus will return and bring in his kingdom in all its glory. This understanding is strengthened by the passages in Revelation which talk about a new Jerusalem.
In Revelation 21, we read, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband…. God’s dwelling is now among people and he will dwell with them.”
And so, we can have hope. As we look around the world, and see conflicts and wars continuing. As we read the reports of active conflicts in places like Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Congo. As we are aware of growing tensions between China and the US, India and Pakistan. As we hear of a far right government being formed in Israel, we might be tempted to despair. But these words give us hope. In the end God will bring peace with justice to creation, and nations and peoples will be reconciled to each other. This is what Jesus came to earth, lived, died and was raised to life in order to accomplish. And, as he said on the cross, “it is finished.” All that needs to be done, has been done. Now we are waiting to see the final fruit of that tree.
So, are we just to sit back into that hope and wait for Jesus to return and sort it all out? I don’t think so. When Isaiah shared this prophecy of hope, it was accompanying by a call to action. A call to action that still echoes today. “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” We are not the physical descendants of Jacob, but as Paul makes abundantly clear in many of us writings, he have been adopted into the family. We have been grafted into the olive tree. We are the house of Jacob, heirs of the covenant promise. And as such, this call is for us. Walk in the light of the Lord.
What does this mean, in this context. Well, it seems to me that we are not just to sit and wait for Jesus to return and sort everything out. He will, but we are not just to sit on our hands and do nothing in the meantime. There are enough parables that Jesus told about lazy servants not doing what they were meant to be doing while the master was away for that to be fairly clear. It’s like looking forward to Christmas, or holidays, or seeing friends or family. We can’t just wait for them to arrive – we have things to do in the meantime, to prepare for them. We are citizens and agents of the Kingdom that is here already, and is coming in all its fulness.
So, we are now to be working and praying for peace with justice. We are to be calling others to come to God and learn the way to walk in God’s paths. We are to be the people of peace who do the hard work of reconciliation. We might feel overwhelmed by the news of global events, and find it difficult to see what difference we can make, but I believe that even small acts can change things. Jesus talked about the way in which a small amount of yeast works through a large lump of dough, and a small amount of salt can flavour a whole meal. In the same way, our small choices can make a big difference to the lives of those around us, and on a global scale. The way that we choose to spend our money, invest our time, speak to and about people, they all make a difference.
So, as we look forward to Christmas, as we look forward to Jesus’ return, let’s do so actively and prayerfully, walking in the light of the Lord, and inviting others to walk with us.