Well, don’t those words from Isaiah (2:1-5) represent the height of arrogance? “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.”
First of all, the mountain of the Lord, or Zion, or Jerusalem, as its known – the mountain of the Lord isn’t much of a mountain. It’s more like a modest rise in elevation. But this lowly little hill is supposed to established as the highest of the mountains, raised above the hills – it’s supposed to rival Everest and K2 and perhaps even our own Mount Logan. Come on, Isaiah. Sounds a little over the top.
And not only is Zion supposed to become the highest of mountains but, here’s where the arrogance really kicks in – Isaiah says that “all the nations shall stream to it.” That’s right – one day all nations will stream to Zion.” Within the Hebrew tradition, of course, Zion represents the dwelling place of God with his people. Zion represents the dwelling of God with the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. A little arrogant, isn’t it, to think that the nations of the world are going to stream to Zion in order to worship and celebrate this particular God. A little arrogant, isn’t it, to think that the God of Zion has something that all the nations of the world might need or want?
We live in a culture where such religious claims (claims of privilege, if you will – claims of uniqueness) are dismissed as antiquated and arrogant. How could any one group claim that their centre of worship will be elevated above every other? How could any one group claim that their God is the true God? How can any one group have the arrogance to declare that all people will one day come in a steady stream to worship their God?
Things only get more complicated for the modern reader or listener as we press on looking at these words from Isaiah. In verse 5 he adds that when the peoples of the earth stream to Zion – in that day, the reality of war will come to an end. God will arbitrate between the peoples and “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.”
Well, for your modern listener, this just smacks of more arrogance. The new common sense, the latest version of common sense in western culture (admittedly, we all know how reliable the latest fads in common sense are) – in any case, the latest version of common sense says that religion is generally just a source of war and conflict. When you trace the history of human beings, so the argument goes, religion has so often been a source of evil and war. To the modern listener, steeped in this new common sense, it smacks of nothing more than arrogance to suppose that the one God of the universe is going to bring peace.
What do we do with this charge of arrogance? Some associated with Christian faith and the Christian tradition kind of wilt under the pressure of the argument. As a result, they might offer the following reply: “Well,” it might be said, “maybe this vision of Isaiah is actually a vision of tolerance in which people of every faith come and live together in peace. Maybe it’s about a time when we all recognize that we worship the same God out there, and our particular beliefs don’t really matter.” Well, it’s one proposal, and a commonsensical one as far as many in our culture are concerned. But if we’re going to go along with this proposal let’s at least not pretend it has anything to do with what Isaiah is saying. We may not like what Isaiah is saying about the particularity of Zion – we may not like what Isaiah is saying about all the nations streaming to worship the one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We may not like it, but let’s not pretend he is saying something else. Let’s not pretend he’s offering platitudes to sooth modern ears.
Well, the big question remains – can we get around the charge of arrogance? Can we say anything about this passage that might ease the minds or relieve the suspicions of many who live around us? Now, in all honesty we should probably leave open the possibility that the answer is ‘no’. We can’t control what others think or feel about our faith – nor would we want to. But many are so suspicious that it may be almost impossible to ease their minds or relieve their suspicions. There’s a chance that some will find Christian faith both arrogant and offensive until it is dumbed down to the point of being irrelevant and banal.
There’s a French word I’ve come to love over the past number of years– the word is banalisation. In English it would probably be something like ‘trivilization’ – but the English word doesn’t have quite the same flair or cleverness. Banalisation – making something common, everyday, boring – making something banal. We can do that with our Christian faith – we can render our Christian faith as inoffensive as twinkling Christmas lights or as banal as a bowl of porridge; or we can live our faith in Christ with grace, joy, and conviction.
As we dig just a bit deeper into this vision of Isaiah, we should say that there is an awful lot going on in the background and on the surface. In Isaiah we read of judgment on the northern kingdom of Israel – judgment in the form of the invading Assyrian army. Similarly, there is judgment on the southern kingdom of Judah with the Assyrian army laying waste the Judean countryside – pillaging right up to the edge of Jerusalem itself. In Isaiah’s prophecy there is also judgment on the nations of Assyria and Persia and Babylon and Egypt. We read there of God’s condemnation of injustices perpetrated on the poor and vulnerable. We read of God’s refusal of the half-hearted and meaningless religious practices of his people. There is a whole lot going on the prophecy of Isaiah. And a good deal of what Isaiah the prophet does is point at the wrong-headedness of so many lives. He points also to God’s unwillingness to countenance such wrong-headed living.
But against the backdrop of so much violence and injustice and false religion, in our passage for today Isaiah points to another world, to another possibility. As we’ve said for some it is an arrogant vision he offers – all nations streaming to Zion, to the God of Zion. Peace achieved through a shared life in the way of this God. But as we dig a little deeper, there are two things we can point out that might help mitigate the charge of arrogance. No guarantee, but a couple of things that might ease some of the pressure.
First there is this: In verse 5, the prophet declares: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” What do these words suggest? Well, these words suggest that while it may be true that the nations will ultimately be judged by God; and while it may be true that the nations will finally see the wrong-headedness of their ways; and while it may be true that the nations will finally line up to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… All of that may be true…
Nevertheless, the first preoccupation of God’s people is their own relationship with God – their first preoccupation is the state of their own house, the condition of their own hearts, the love expressed in their own actions. “O house of Jacob, come let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Isaiah seems to be saying: Never mind them. Never mind pointing out anyone else’s failures. Never mind what word of grace or judgment God might speak to those around you. “O house of Jacob, come let us walk in the light of the Lord.” We need correction. We need to be more faithful. We need to go deeper in the way torah – in the way of that life-giving, beautiful law God has given.
For us as followers of the risen Jesus there is, similarly, no room for arrogance. There is simply an invitation to try and go deeper in relation to him and his way. Isaiah put it this way: “O house of Jacob, come let us walk in the light of the Lord.” Echoing Isaiah, the first Christians would have, and did, put it this way: “O brothers and sisters, come let us walk in the light of God’s Son, Jesus.” If there is a preoccupation, it is not with what they are doing or not doing – it is not with what God might ultimately say to those who live around us. Rather, our preoccupation is expressed in the words of Isaiah: “Let us learn to embody the truth and justice and love of Christ in our actions because, you know what, we’re no better at it than anyone else.”
A second thing to notice in this passage from Isaiah that might help mitigate the charge of arrogance: We read in verse 3: “Many peoples will 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’.” What’s interesting about these words is that when the nations come to Zion, they are not compelled to do so by some external force. When they come to Zion, it is not because someone has a sword at their back. They are compelled to come, yes, but compelled only by their own desire and intention. When they come to Zion, Isaiah says, it’s because they want to.
Translate this again to the New Testament context. Remember those bizarre words of Jesus in the 14th chapter of Mark’s Gospel, where he is quoted as saying: “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.” More arrogance, no? Jesus proclaims himself the new Zion. This is exactly what got Jesus into trouble. In his lifetime, Jesus said to those who followed him – I am the fulfillment of God’s promise. In me the kingdom of God comes close. It’s not about the temple any more. It’s not about Jerusalem any more. It’s about me, and it’s about the new way that I embody day by day among God’s people – it’s about the resurrection life I bring for Israel and the world. Arrogance, indeed. But again, let’s not pretend Jesus said anything less dramatic.
But to come back to the point. What is interesting about Isaiah’s words is the fact that the nations come to Zion not on account of some external force compelling them to come – but on account of their own desire to see and know more of this God.
Now transfer this to Jesus, as would the New Testament church. Transferred into that new context, the words of Isaiah mean something like this: “In days to come, Jesus will be lifted up as the truly human one – and women and men from all nations will line up to meet him. People are going to find themselves enamoured with Jesus. They are going to say: ‘Let’s go to see this Jesus, so he can teach us what it means to be human, what it means to live in God’s kingdom. Let’s go see this Jesus and walk in his ways’.”
Well, now it sounds like a good mix between arrogance and foolishness, doesn’t it?
Let me conclude this morning by mentioning a sentiment I’ve often heard expressed in and around the church. There’s no one way that it comes to expression, but it often goes something like this: “There aren’t many people in church these days. People really should go to church.”
And whenever I hear that sentiment expressed, I confess that I think to myself, but why? Why should people come to church? Why should people go to church? Maybe it’s not the sort of question a minister is expected to be asking him or herself, but I find myself asking it.
The vision of Isaiah chapter 2, looked at through the lens of the New Testament witness about Jesus, doesn’t really offer an answer. But it does raise a question about any use of the word ‘should’. You see, it’s not that anybody should go to church. It’s not that anybody should go to Zion. It’s not that anybody should learn more about Jesus.
Rather, if people are going to find their way into Christian community,
let it be because they have heard about Jesus,
let it be because their interest in Jesus has been piqued,
let it be because they want to know more of the truly human one,
let it be because they want to find themselves in the presence of the risen one.
In the days to come, people will come from the four corners of the earth – they will line up to see this Jesus. Not because they should, but because they want to – he will have captured their hearts and imaginations. They will hear about Jesus, and the most honest, and obvious, and natural response for them will be: “Let’s go…”