an impossible possibility

Isaiah 2:1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.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. 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. 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 any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

My, oh, my.  How well do we know these words?  This prophecy has rung out for more than twenty-five hundred years in places Isaiah, son of Amoz never dreamed.  The vision is so compelling that two different prophets lay claim to it.  It’s repeated almost word for word in Micah.

These words call to our hearts.  They make us exhale, and say, Oh, yes.  I find myself wishing I had a sword that I could pound into a plowshare, completely forgetting that I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of what to do with a sword, much less a plowshare.  Some very deep part of us aches to be a part of this vision.

But then, I don’t know if this happens for you, but I find within maybe ten seconds of reading this passage I’m lamenting.  I take my eyes off of that high mountain and I look around.  This week I see North and South Korea on the brink of war.  I see our own country engaged in a war that has lasted longer than any war our young country has fought.  I see a national budget that reflects our commitment to our swords and spears, and I see the taxes coming out of my pay check and know that I help pay for war.  I see a civil discourse that is increasingly anything but.  I see persistent violence against women as one in every three women is the victim of sexual assault.  I see divorce and estrangement.  I see factions in any group I’m a part of, certainly our congregation’s not exempt.  I see strain in our families even as we come together for the holidays.

The cynic in me comes out, and I find myself wondering if this word from Isaiah is anything more than a pipe dream.

No less a Christian than Reinhold Niebuhr called this vision an impossible possibility.*  He looked around at the world and said it could never be.  Not in this world.  And to hope for it, to work toward it, was naive and foolish and maybe even dangerous.  If we are to do any good, he thought, we must work within the rules of our world, rules that include, that assume, war.  An impossible possibility.

And yet.  And yet, those words from Isaiah still call to us, don’t they?  Come, says Isaiah, let us walk in the light of the Lord.  And our hearts ache to find the way.

This longing is a fundamental part of what it is to be a Christian, particularly during Advent.  We, like all of creation, are groaning as if with labor pains, as we wait for redemption.  Waiting isn’t easy.  We are prone to despair, to cynicism, and to the idolatry of imagining we can figure out a better solution than the one for which we are waiting.

But Advent is the time when we rededicate ourselves to faithful waiting.  It is a time for re-orientation, for turning our faces once more toward a star hovering over a humble manger.  And asking how will we live in the light cast by that star?  This re-orientation is what Isaiah calls us to do.  We do not bring about world peace, or even just peace around the dinner table.  God brings peace.  Our task is to set our faces toward the mountain top.

This is what Niebuhr gave up when he called this vision an impossible possibility.  He gave up the hope, the obligation of orienting life around this vision.  Yes, it may be, by any reasonable calculus of our world, an impossibility.  But we worship a God who chose to put on skin and dwell among us.  We worship a God who has defeated death and with it all impossibilities.  And all our God asks of us, is that we orient our very lives around the hope we have come to know in Christ.  That we turn away from all the other claims, and say this is the one on which I will stake my life.

It’s like being out on the plains of Colorado.  No matter where you go in the eastern half of Colorado, you know which way is west because you can see the towering snow-capped peaks of the Rockies in the distance.  With them at your back, you know you are heading east.  And with them up ahead, you know you are heading west.  And as long as you know where the mountain top is, you’re never lost.

This is how we live with an impossible possibility.  We orient ourselves around the mountain of God.  The mountain becomes our point of reference for everything else.

But what does that mean?  In real life?

It means: any call to worship God, to walk in the light of the Lord, is a call away from the other things in our life that would seek to be god to us.

Look at this vision and what the people have turned away from.  Maybe we will find some clues of how we will live with this impossible possibility.

Isaiah has seen a day in which the people of the world ask God to settle their disputes.  I think this is more radical than it sounds.  That means they have given up trusting in their own power of decision and they have given up the dream of winning, and decided to hand that all over to God.  Can you imagine?  To move from me versus you, to reconciliation.  To move from I want to win, to how can we live together?  It’s pie in the sky as far as real nations are concerned, right?

Except it’s not.  At the beginning of this month Britain and France signed a historic defense agreement.  They agreed to share technology, share forces for some engagements, share nuclear research, and even share aircraft carriers.  This agreement signals a level of trust between the two countries that is unprecedented.  In our life times Britain and France have always been friends.  But we forget that until the dawn of the last century Britain and France had never fought on the same side of any war ever.  For more than a thousand years these two nations had been bitter enemies.  But now they’re not.  They have set aside that dream of winning, and decided that they will pursue other goals, together.  Isaiah’s word is not merely the stuff of starry-eyed dreamers.  Realists, looking at cold hard facts, sometimes find themselves living by the light cast by this vision.

This business of setting aside winning, it’s not just for the super powers.  How much of our lives is devoted to winning?  We run around trying to figure out how to hold more power at work, in the volunteer organizations we serve, in committees here at church.  How can I get my way?  How can I make sure we get the most funds for my group?  How can I make my pet project a reality?

And in our relationships?  How much time do we spend on this dance of power?  I won’t call her back until she calls me.  I’m not going to listen to him because he never listens to me, and if I listen to him and he doesn’t have to do anything in return, well then, he wins and I lose.  Which one of us doesn’t run our lives this way?  Which one of us is not living in service to the idea of winning?

Isaiah, though, points us to the mountain and says set that idol of winning aside, go up, and trust God to arbitrate.  This is one of the ways we can reorient our lives.  We can say let’s figure this out together.  We can say, I know it’s his turn to call, but I miss hearing his voice.  We can set aside that love of winning, and leave those decisions up to God.  That is one way to live in the light of the Lord this Advent.

There is one other way I think we are called to reorient our lives this Advent.  It’s connected to giving up the god of winning.  Because as we give up that idol, we turn to trust the Living God.  And when we trust in God, we have to turn away from fear.

As the nations stream toward the mountain, they have to set down the fears that have kept them apart.  As they seek instruction from the Lord, they turn over the fear that drives them to look for guidance elsewhere.  And as they finally give up their weapons, they let go of the fear that has made them cling so tightly.  Trust in God is the ground on which peace is built.  Let me say it again, trust in God is the ground on which peace is built.

That’s the light in which Isaiah calls us to walk.  He says let go of the fears that run your lives.  He says to our nation let go of the fears that drive you into wars, that lead you to hoard weapons and wealth, that cut you off from the rest of the children of God.  I am convinced that fear is our greatest idol today.  Fear that we won’t have enough food or land or love, fear that they will get us and so we’d better get them first, fear of shadowy dark forces that seek to do us harm.  God calls us ever away from those fears and into the light of love.  God says reorient your lives away from the fears which this world encourages and toward a deep, abiding trust in me.

Try it with me this Advent.  What fears run our lives?  The fear of not being loved that makes us drive people away who would love us, or us cling too tightly to poisonous relationships.  The fear of death that makes us worship at the altars of control or throw caution to the wind.  The fear of being forgotten that makes us puff ourselves up.  The fear of not having enough that makes us worship at the altars of consumption.  And, of course, the fear at the root of our politics, at the root of our broken economy, at the root of our wars.

But Isaiah calls us to another way.  If you look inside and find fears that seem too big to manage, take them to God in prayer.  Tell God what scares you, what keeps you up at night, what lodges in the pit of your stomach.  And see if God doesn’t begin to loosen those hard knots of fear.  Find ways to be reminded of God’s promises.  Perhaps you join us for morning worship at 7:45 each week day during Advent.  Maybe you tell a friend, or your spouse what your fear is.  Maybe each night before bed you pause to hand your fears over to God, and ask for the trust to rest through the night.

This turning, this reorienting away from fear and toward trust in God, it seems so small, so inconsequential in the scheme of things.  But trust in God is the ground on which our peace is built.  This is true for mighty nations, and it is true for you and me.  These are the ways of peace.

How will we live with this impossible possibility?  How will we persevere in the face of what, by any reasonable calculus of the world is an impossibility?  We will set our faces toward the mountain of God.  We will reorient our lives, letting Christ be the center.  We will ask for the grace to trust, in little things and big things, that our God is the God of all impossible possibilities.  We will remind each other that our God comes to us as a child, and that as unlikely as it might seem that little child is the Prince of Peace.  Our God is the God who has defeated every impossibility.  Come, my friends, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

* Reinhold Niebuhr, quoted in Donald E. Miller, “Ain’t Gonna Study War no More: Isaiah 2:1-4” Brethren Life and Thought, 2007.
Offered November 28, 2010 at First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor at the 8:30am service.
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