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Climbing God’s Mountain

A sermon preached by Jay P. Rowland on the first Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016 at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN.

Text:       Isaiah 2:1-5


Climbing God’s Mountain

I don’t know how it can be, but here we are again. We have come full circle–back to the beginning.  Gathering to catch another glimpse of the promise, the Word made flesh that dwells among us. The enveloping darkness signals to us that He again draws near somewhere beneath the sparkling hope-filled night sky.

We are here again in this familiar Advent darkness a little less “us” than we were last year.  Just before we get here, All Saints Sunday marks our less-ness, as every year more of our beloved cross over Jordan, welcomed into the Promise. But it’s not only these losses and other personal challenges that contribute to our experience of enveloping darkness, it’s also that the world, though much the same as it’s always been, feels different these days.  I suppose we got caught predicting the future again. But, as usual, the future has stubbornly resisted predictability.  This makes me think of the meaning of God’s name—Yahweh: “I am who I am”. The future will be what it will be: whatever forces beyond our control shape it into being.

Meanwhile, through it all, you and I, we keep on doing our thing.  We keep on doing what we do—we keep coming here, we keep on keepin’ on.  As I read the scriptures for today, I was really taken with the images of ascending, going up; climbing.  If I’m being honest, that’s what this thing (faith) boils down to: a steady uphill climb. The longer I keep at this, the more it dawns on me that this doesn’t get any easier, in fact, it can become downright wearying.  Some days are better than others, of course, but the higher we climb, it seems, the more effort is required. That’s how it has to be, I guess, or else there’d be no room in churches.

So whether we “see” it or not, whether we acknowledge it or remember it or not, each day and night it’s there: that mountain of God rising above all other hills and mountains.  It’s a place very much other-worldly but also very much here, a place of God’s making and purpose:

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 nations will river toward it,

people from all over set out for it.

They’ll say, “Come,

let’s climb God’s Mountain,

go to the House of the God of Jacob.

He’ll show us the way he works

so we can live the way we’re made.”

Zion’s the source of the revelation.

God’s Message comes from Jerusalem:

He’ll settle things fairly between nations.

He’ll make things right between many peoples.

They’ll turn their swords into shovels,

their spears into garden hoes.

No more will nation fight nation;

they won’t play war anymore.

— Isaiah 2:1-5, The Message Bible

Such is the whispered promise God is shouting through the prophet Isaiah whose faceless presence disturbs our cozy hibernation plans every year at this time.  And here he is again, up ahead of us somewhere, with words to add to and chase away our weariness.  His message is NOT a prediction, Gene Tucker says, “but a statement of the certainty that history will reach … its culmination …[:] the reign of God that will [bring] utter transformation of existing conditions, from nationalism and conflict to unity and peace”

[Preaching Through the Christian Year, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Year A, p5].

This unity and peace, thus far so elusive throughout human history, is not something God will simply make happen, as if using remote control on our thoughts and actions as humans and nations.  What’s being in Isaiah’s statement is a time when-for whatever undeclared reasons-(perhaps becoming weary of violence and war) the nations shall stream toward Jerusalem “to learn the ways of God.”  The result of which shall be to let God settle all disputes, resolve ancient differences among nations and tribes and families so that the peace once established shall endure.

What’s truly amazing about this is something I’ve long overlooked until now, and that is who does the initiating, who it is that takes the action of turning war equipment into farming tools: notice it’s the people–the nations!  I guess I always just heard God doing all of that. But It’s we who do it.  What God is doing is to wait until he is in fact seen as Lord of all nations. [Kaiser, p.55]

That’s what makes this promise so thrilling and compelling, and so … disturbing: This hoped-for transformation shall come about organically, a natural human response to the REALITY of God as opposed to being something God shall “do onto” humanity!   It’s on us.  We’ve got work to do. And we have a faithful God who will see us to it and through it.  The mountain of God is an uphill climb.  It always has been.  It always will be.

I don’t know for sure if the world is in any more peril now than it’s ever been.  Some days it sure feels that way.  Regardless, all the prophets and the Psalms remind us to put our faith NOT in any mortal human being, no matter how dangerous or promising they may appear to be.  History and the Bible show us that Israel and Judah had both disastrous and phenomenally great rulers, neither of which guaranteed anything, whether good or evil, would endure.  Even the destruction of Jerusalem didn’t bring the end of God’s people or God’s presence with them.

And so this Advent, whether or not you’re convinced the world is going to hell, don’t overlook today’s vision from Isaiah; don’t turn a deaf ear to his words: the nations shall stream to the mountain of God.  That mountain has not disappeared.  It’s still there.  Sure as people and as nations we land in “hell” from time to time, and it’s awful. But it’s a bit like missing a connecting flight and being stranded in an airport.  It’s awful while it’s happening, but it’s not permanent.  Eventually we get to where we’re going.  And so, rest assured: God will not leave us there.

It’s tempting to write off Isaiah’s announcement as unrealistic.  And sure it’s unrealistic to expect peace among all nations anytime soon. So what then? Give up? Sit this one out?  It’s an option. And clearly some make that choice to sit on the sidelines, having declared disaster, to wait for the sky to fall complaining all the way until then.  To each their own.  But Isaiah presents to us an alternative, one that’s nothing short of the positive power of expectation.  God expects us to live in peace.  God has created this world for peace.  And so peace shall come one day, but not without us, not without us in the meantime doing our part to keep that expectation alive in our generation.

Otto Kaiser is a wise and thoughtful scholar of the Old Testament. In his Commentary on Isaiah he describes the situation facing our ancestors.  I’d like to share it with you.  I’ve changed some of the pronouns and other words thought to see if I can help us hear it for our own time:

We may find ourselves living in exile in Babylon or scattered in the Diaspora feeling adrift and abandoned.  Even so we can decide to take comfort in the saving presence of our God and the power of God’s promises…. [E]ven now we can walk in the light of God’s countenance, that is, of his grace, even though we may still be subject to the power of alien masters.  However, this also includes the obligation laid on us by God’s secret presence, not only to wait until the nations and therefore others harken to God, but to be obedient ourselves this very day.

[Kaiser, Otto. Isaiah 1-12, The Old Testament Library Series, Second Edition. p.56]

Eugene Peterson puts it another way:

“The impressive art of Isaiah involves taking the stuff of our ordinary and often disappointing human experience and showing us how it is the stuff that God uses to create and save and give hope. As this vast panorama opens up before us, it turns out that nothing is unusable by God. [God] uses everything and everybody as material for [God’s] work which is remaking the mess that we have made of our lives” and the world.

[Eugene Peterson from his Introduction to Isaiah, in The Message Bible]

I don’t know how it can be that another year has passed, but here we are again. We have come full circle-again-back to the beginning. Back again to the hope that shall sustain us in the darkness,

O house of Jacob,

come, let us walk

in the light of the Lord