"Already...but Not Yet" – 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!
Today marks the beginning of Advent – the time of expectation, anticipation, preparation and longing for Christ (both his birth and his second-coming).
The world in which we live is in a time of anticipation. It is incomplete. A world in which 1 billion people live on less than $1 a day, where religion is used to justify violence, where every day 1,500 children worldwide (the vast majority of them newborns) become infected with HIV, where soldiers return to their countries in coffins – this world is not complete.
If we believe in a God whose creation is good; a God whose goal for the world is to usher in a new kingdom of peace – A kingdom where the lion lies next to the lamb, where weapons of death are remolded into instruments which will bring forth food from the earth. Then we are right to expect something more; to wonders aloud “there has got to be more to life than this.”
Today’s scripture reading from Isaiah speaks about anticipation. Isaiah is given a prophecy concerning Jerusalem. At this time in history Jerusalem was not the formidable city on a hill with secure walls, attracting pilgrims from all over the world. Instead, Jerusalem and Mount Zion (which was a mere hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem) were physically unimpressive; the very symbol of international insignificance. Yet, God designates this insignificant place to be “established as the highest of the mountains” and to become the epicenter of God’s instruction which would bring about peace on earth.
The power of Isaiah’s prophecy is that he reveals God to be “for us.” God is on our side. God is committed to bringing peace. God is willing and able to use seemingly insignificant and unimpressive things to correct the course of the world. Nothing embodies this message more than the incarnation – God coming to earth in the form of a fully-human infant, born in a barn in an insignificant town, living a life of service to others, and ultimately giving his life on our behalf and at our hands.
It is true that this is a time of anticipation. But it is also a time or participation. We must allow our lives to be shaped by God’s teaching. What exactly does a life shaped by God’s teaching look like? Well, we just read how the apostle Paul would answer that question. He gives us a list of don’ts: don’t get drunk, don’t be sexually immoral, don’t argue, don’t be jealous, etc.
On one level Paul’s words are hard to argue with. I mean, can anyone dispute that the world would be a better place if we all stopped sinning? No. But what are we to make of the fact that we just can’t stop sinning? After all, you can tell me hundreds of times not to do something but I can’t promise you that I won’t end up doing it. What is important to understand about Paul is that he is not saying that we have to rely on ourselves to find the power and energy to faithfully live out God’s commands every minute of our lives. We can only love God when we realize that God loves us – that God loved us while we were still sinners gives us the freedom to love God through our thoughts, words and actions
Let’s look back at Isaiah 2:5:
“Come, house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the lord”
To walk in the light is not a command, it’s a promise. Throughout the Old Testament, “light” refers to God’s provision and deliverance. God promised to provide something which would allow us to live in the peace of a world ordered around God’s word. And this is what we wait for in Advent.
God’s promise of deliverance occurs in two stages. The first occurred when God became incarnate 2000 years ago in the person of Jesus. He brought the kingdom of God to earth through his teaching, miracles, reaction against earthly power structures, and his victory over death through his death and resurrection. In this sense, the kingdom is described as being an “already.” It is already here.
Jesus also spoke about coming again, to finalize the kingdom of God on earth. In this sense the kingdom is a “not yet.” We are still waiting for the day when the lion and lamb will lay together in peace, where there will be no poverty, no death, no sorrow, where the insignificant things of this world will become the very instruments of God’s peace. In Advent we remember the anticipation of Christ’s first coming, as well as his promised return. This is not a passive anticipation, but an active participation. We are actively participating in the kingdom of God which is already here but not yet complete.
Once while I worked as a hospital chaplain, I visited a patient on the intensive care unit. Her chart indicated that she was in a “persistent vegetative state.” I entered the room, walked around her bed to sit down by her side and I noticed that her eyes were following me. I introduced myself and she grunted in response. I asked her if she would like me to pray with her and again she grunted. I folded my hands, bowed my head, and prayed. I prayed that she would not be in pain. I prayed for protection, for peace as she continued on her journey toward death. I prayed even when the words left me and I had no idea what to pray for any longer.
When I said “amen” she began to move. She picked up her right arm and reached out for my hand. When our hands clasped together she spoke, “your hands are so cold!” As I was holding her hand I was amazed at the level of consciousness this woman was displaying. It was here where I realized exactly what it is like to live in an “in-between time” an “already but not yet.” She was a person who people had given up on. A person terrorized by a great injustice of life – a person who was dying, a person who by all accounts had nothing to be thankful for. She was utterly powerless and insignificant. Yet, in the midst of prayer, this woman reached out. She reached out for a hand to hold, to comfort her. Though it was a cold hand that embraced hers, I would like to think it was comforting nonetheless.
We are all trapped inside bodies which cannot fully respond to God’s grace and love – bodies which will ultimately fail us. Yet, we do have the ability to reach out to God. No matter how insignificant the world tells us we are, God has promised to take our hand and hold it. This is the same God who has promised to ultimately recreate the world into a place of peace. As we live in this “in-between time” and anticipate Christ’s birth and return, we are encouraged to use the freedom from sins which Christ has earned for us and faithfully obey God’s command by serving our neighbors and participating in the peace which has already begun on earth.