November 27, 2022 homily on Isaiah 2:1-5 for the First Sunday of Advent, by Pastor Galen
The Old Jalopy
The story is told of a boy whose parents had promised that they would give him a beautiful car to drive when he turned 16. From the time he was a little boy he had dreamed of this car. He even planned to park it in the family’s shed where it could stay warm and dry. But first, he thought, his dad would have to get rid of that old car under the tarp in the shed. He couldn’t wait for his dad to haul the old junker off to the dump to make way for his dream car.
But when would that day come? When would that new car arrive? And when would his dad get rid of that old junky car under the tarp? Then one evening in early summer he heard strange sounds coming from the shed. It sounded like power tools … a drill … a hammer. What was going on? Peering into the darkness, he noticed that a light was on in the shed. He walked out into the warm night air, through their little yard, and poked his head into the shed.
When he saw the tarp, rolled up and left against the door, he excitedly thought that his Dad was finally getting rid of that junky old car. But then he suddenly looked and saw one of the most incredible sports cars in automotive history. It was a Corvette, but not just any Corvette. It was the coveted, beautiful, powerful 1963 Corvette 327 V8 with a split window, aluminum knock-off wheels, painted candy apple red.
That was the car that had been underneath the tarp all those years. He stood there stunned. It was always there, just getting ready for his father’s masterful work of restoration. At that moment his father looked up, his hands deep in the engine bay, and handed his son a socket wrench. With a broad smile, he said, “Come on, son. Grab a tool and let’s get this car ready.” (Adapted from Randall Rauser, What on Earth Do We Know about Heaven? – Baker Books, 2013, pp. 157-158).
The way the son viewed the car sitting there under the tarp all those years is the way that a lot of people – and even many Christians – view the world today. To them, the world is irredeemable. Humanity is too far gone. Society will just continue to sink deeper and deeper into depravity until the day when Jesus will return and rescue his followers from this sinking ship and take us up to heaven – and then proceed to return and destroy the earth altogether.
This view has been around for a long time, but was in many ways popularized in the 1970’s by the book, The Late Great Planet Earth and the movie A Thief in the Night. It was made even more popular in the 1990’s by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and their Left Behind series of books, which sold close to 80 million copies and were made into movies and even real-time strategy video games.
God’s Restoration Project
But another, and, I would argue, even more ancient understanding of the world is that God is actively at work in the world today, working to redeem and restore the world to the way it was originally supposed to be. And, like the father in the story, God is inviting each and every one of us to participate in this long-term cosmic restoration project.
In this view, Jesus initiated the Kingdom of God through his life on this earth and through his death and resurrection – a foretaste of the resurrection that is to come. And there will come a day when Jesus will return in the flesh, and rid the world of evil and set the world to right, establishing the Kingdom of God in its fullness, and ushering in the new heaven and the new earth that we are promised throughout the Scriptures. Those who have died in Christ will be resurrected, and we will live forever with God.
What this view suggests is that even here and now, God is inviting each and every one of us to grab a tool and participate in God’s restoration project. When we submit to Christ’s rule and reign as the King of our lives, and as we participate with God in doing acts of justice and mercy and kindness and reconciliation and peace-building, we further and advance God’s rule and reign in this world. Jesus is inviting us to be a part of the restoration project.
It is this second view, I believe, that fits most clearly with the prophetic vision set forth by the prophet Isaiah here in Isaiah 2, where he envisions the days to come when the “mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; [and] all the nations shall stream to it” (Isaiah 2:2).
Isaiah is speaking figuratively here, since of course the temple mount in Jerusalem is not the highest mountain in the world. But Isaiah is saying that there will come a day when the world will see and understand the truth of God’s Word. All the peoples of earth will come to learn of God’s ways. And God will take God’s rightful place as the supreme ruler of the world – serving as judge and arbiter between the various nations, establishing a world marked by peace and justice, where war becomes obsolete.
In Isaiah’s vision, people have no more use for weaponry, and so they turn their weapons of destruction into tools of productivity. And people from every nation in the world seek to follow God’s Word and walk in God’s path.
Isaiah’s vision of peace was fulfilled in part through Jesus’s ministry here on this earth. Jesus’s followers included people who would have been otherwise enemies – Zealots and tax collectors, religious leaders and people who were considered sinners. People who had been afflicted by evil spirits. People of every class and status. But they came together to learn God’s ways and learned to put their differences aside.
Following Jesus’s death and resurrection and ascension into heaven, when the Holy Spirit fell on the 120 followers of Jesus gathered in the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost, the Church grew exponentially to include people from all over the known world at the time.
In this way, the nations did indeed stream to the mountain of the Lord, seeking God’s truth, and desiring to walk in God’s ways. In this way, people who would have previously been enemies put aside their differences and submitted to the rule and reign of Christ in their lives. In this way, they figuratively beat their swords and spears into plowshares, and stopped learning war.
And in this way, Isaiah’s prophetic vision is fulfilled anytime we as people lay aside our own selfish wants and desires, our own greed and desire for personal gain and advancement, and come together as followers of Jesus, learning his ways, and seeking to walk in his paths. In many ways, Isaiah’s prophetic vision is being fulfilled right here in our midst today, as we here in our congregation gather from many different cultures, many different theological and denominational backgrounds, different ages and races and stages of life, and yet we are coming together to worship and serve God together. May it be so even more.
Hope in God
This morning we lit the Hope candle on our Advent Wreath – a reminder to us that there is more to come, and that the restoration project is nowhere near complete. It’s a reminder that we still look forward in hopeful expectation for the future return of Christ when all will be made right.
One problem with the “Left Behind” understanding of this future hope is that there is no incentive for us to work for peace and justice here and now. In fact, I’ve heard some Christians almost gleefully point to the degradation of our society as proof that Jesus’s return is near!
On the other hand, there’s a danger if we fall into the trap of thinking of believing that the restoration of this world is up to us – that we can or should try to restore the world on our own – without God in the picture. How often have people tried to engage in their own restoration efforts, pulling the tarp off the car, exposing the evils and injustices in the world, and then proposing their own solutions, without seeking to learn or follow Jesus’s path?
Think of how many political and religious and institutional leaders have promised to create a utopian society – if people would only follow them, or pledge their time or money or resources to their cause. Think of how many people have tried to bring about “peace” through violent means – arguing that the ends justify the means, while failing to recognize the truth of Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”
And think of how many people have pledged their undying loyalty and support to causes that have offered a skewed vision of Isaiah’s prophetic vision – without first seeking to truly learn and follow God’s ways.
It’s vital for us to remember that everything we are invited to participate with God in God’s restorative work in the world. But the pressure is not on us to do it on our own. In fact, it would be impossible for us to do so. We need a Savior. We need a Healer. We need a Redeemer.
This in fact is the Good News that we proclaim at Christmas – that God has sent a Savior into this world, to show us the way to live, to restore the relationship between God and humanity, and to show us how to live as citizens of Heaven here and now, even as we await Christ’s return, and the coming of God’s Kingdom in its fullness.
And so we wait with hopeful expectation for the day when Jesus will return and complete the restoration project. But even while we await the final fulfillment, we pick up tools and join the Father in the workshed – participating in God’s restorative work of peace and shalom in our world.
Where Do We Start?
Now in many ways, it can be hard to know where to start. And the call can be different for each one of us – and that’s why we come together as a Church – a community of Christ’s followers, with our different gifts and callings and passions. No one individual can be the Church on our own. We are called to seek and serve Jesus together.
One of the things that I appreciate about being a part of a larger body of Believers – a denomination – is that the United Methodist Church as a denomination has identified various ways that we together as a part of Christ’s Body can participate together in God’s restorative work in the world.
One of the ways that our denomination has identified that we can work together is in calling for an End to Gun Violence – as laid out in our denominational Book of Resolutions, and our Social Principles. Our Book of Resolutions states that “As followers of Jesus, called to live into the reality of God’s dream of shalom as described by Micah [and Isaiah], we must address the epidemic of gun violence so ‘that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.’ Therefore, we call upon United Methodists to prayerfully address gun violence in their local context.”
The Book of Resolutions goes on to suggest 8 practical ways that congregations can live out Isaiah’s prophetic vision, including making gun violence prevention a regular part of our conversations and prayer times, assisting those affected by gun violence through prayer, pastoral care, and more, and even for individual United Methodists who own guns as hunters or collectors to safely and securely store their guns and to teach the importance of practicing gun safety. (The full list of suggestions is available online at: https://www.umc.org/en/content/book-of-resolutions-our-call-to-end-gun-violence)
And to this morning, may we pray and work for the healing of the world – an end to war and violence – and that God’s peace and justice would reign. May we ask God how we as a congregation may be called to participate in God’s restorative work in the world. And may we place our hope and our trust in God – who has already done a great work in us and is actively at work in the world – and invites us to join in.