Being the Holy Decider

English: William Henry Willimon (born May 15, ...

English: William Henry Willimon (born May 15, 1946) is a bishop in the United Methodist Church in the U.S. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

William Willimon is professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke University. He is also a United Methodist bishop. Willimon is a noted preacher and gives preaching workshops. I’m telling you this because I’m going to tell you a story about Willimon telling a story about himself.

“Willimon tells the story of a funeral he attended when he was serving a small congregation in rural Georgia. One of his members’ relatives died, so Willimon and his wife attended the funeral held in an off-brand, country Baptist church. He writes: ‘I had never seen anything like it. The preacher began to preach. He shouted; he flailed his arms. “It’s too late for Joe. He’s dead. But it ain’t too late for you. People drop dead every day. Why wait? Now is the day for decision. Give your life to Jesus.”’

“Willimon goes on to suggest that this was the worst thing he had ever seen. He fumed and fussed at his wife Patsy, complaining that the preacher had done the worst thing possible for a grieving family — manipulating them with guilt and shame. Patsy agreed. But then she said: ‘Of course the worst part of it all is that what he said is true.’

“Each one of us lives in the shadow of the apocalypse — the dark reality of the end of our time and the end of the world’s time. That is the warning of Advent. But there is also good news. There is also the promise of Advent — the promise that in the darkness, in the shadows, in the unpredictable anxiety of our unfinished lives, God is present. God is in control, and God will come again.

“With each candle we light (this Advent), the shadows recede a bit, and the promise comes closer. With each candle we light, we are proclaiming that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it. The promise is that wherever there is darkness and dread in our lives, wherever there is darkness and dread in the world around us, God is present to help us endure. God is in charge, and hope is alive. And as long and as interminable as the night seems, morning will come — in God’s good time and God’s good way.”[1]

English: A scroll of the Book of Isaiah

English: A scroll of the Book of Isaiah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Isaiah implores us to walk in the light of God. During these dark days of December, each week we will light another candle in our attempt to drive the growing darkness away. This ritual of Advent candle lighting is a reminder that the light of Christ is humbly coming into the world. And this light will break into the world. Isaiah also tells us how we can be lights to the world.

The common connotation of prophecy in our country is to foretell something. This is not how the Bible understands prophecy. True, some, not all, prophets told the future. But when they did this, they did it as a warning that was compatible with the rest of their message. Typically, this was a foretelling that said you are breaking the Law of Moses and the consequence, if you do not change your ways, is God’s punishment. That punishment was usually going to be exile or annihilation.

The role of prophecy in the Bible was to reform the people. The people strayed from a life that God wanted for them. And what was particularly egregious was the people worshipped other gods. The second biggest problem the prophets encountered was the lack of concern for the poor by the rich. And quite rarely, prophets performed miracles. But this was limited to Elijah and Elisha. This is why Jesus was seen as a prophet, because of his message of reform and his performing of miracles.

While Elijah and Elisha were seen as the two great prophets of Israel, Isaiah was, perhaps, the greatest of the literary prophets, that is, a prophet who wrote down what he said. There is another thing that made Isaiah unique. Isaiah was also a priest of the temple in Jerusalem. We have no record of Isaiah leaving Jerusalem. Other prophets might wander from town to town, but Isaiah stayed in the capital city of Judah.

Isaiah lived in the 8th century BCE. He also had the good fortune to live through the reigns of several kings. Isaiah likely lived well into his 60s. King Ahaz refused an alliance with Israel and Syria and was defeated by them in war. In response, Ahaz aligned himself with Assyria (not to be confused with Syria), who conquered Israel and Syria, carrying the survivors into exile.

After Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, came to the throne, he decided to throw off Assyrian control and the paying of tribute and align himself with Egypt. This event awakened the prophet in the priest Isaiah. Isaiah told the king to trust in God alone and not in foreign alliances. The king did not listen to Isaiah and Assyria laid siege to Jerusalem. Egypt was too weak to help.

Isaiah told the king again to trust only God and God will deliver Jerusalem and defeat the Assyrians. Hezekiah dropped his alliance with Egypt, probably because it was painfully obvious that Egypt was not going to send an army. The king of Assyria’s sons held a coup back home, forcing the king to withdraw and go back home. Jerusalem was saved. I would guess that Isaiah’s rep increased substantially in Jerusalem.

In Isaiah 2:1-5, we find a vision for the future of Jerusalem. The city is very ancient. Its name originally meant the foundation of the Canaanite god Shaelm, the god of dusk. The name of the god morphed into shalom in Hebrew and salaam in Arabic, which means peace. A more literal translation of Jerusalem might be, God will see to peace. The city is sometimes referred to as the vision of peace.

It is a vision of peace that Isaiah sees. The prophet Micah has the same vision. The temple mount will rise to stupendous heights. Nations will come to the mountain. I don’t know how they will get to the top, but they will stream to it. This should alert us to prophetic hyperbole. The point is that the temple mount will rise in significance more than it will rise in height. The important point is that Jerusalem will become the center of the world. The peoples of the world will come to God.

Peoples will come to an understanding that they should make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. How would they even know about Jerusalem and the God that dwells there? Isaiah does not answer that question in his vision. But as Christians, we might recall Pentecost and the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit knows no bounds, knows no national borders. The Holy Spirit can easily plant a desire to seek God.

Part of this knowledge of God includes a desire to learn God’s ways and a desire to walk with God. When we know God’s ways and a life that God wants for us, oftentimes a desire is planted to change our lives to model what God wants for us. A desire to learn this causes the peoples to go to Jerusalem to learn what God would have them do. The Hebrew word translated as instruction in verse three is torah.

And what will God do? God will judge the nations. In ancient societies, the last court of appeal is the king. No word is more powerful than that of the king. But there are many kings. Disputes between kings were often settled through war. But if God is the final arbitrator for the nations, war will be unnecessary, because God’s word will be the final word, eliminating the need of war.

If war becomes obsolete, swords become unnecessary junk, metal best used for other purposes. It would be better that they be transformed into agricultural use. Jesus also called for swords to be beaten into plowshares. Spears can be transformed for the harvest. It is a better use of resources for planting and harvesting food than to kill one another. Isaiah 2:4 is written in large block letters at the United Nations.

Once the tools of war are rendered obsolete, there is no need to go to war. In fact after several generations of peace, people will forget about war and wouldn’t know how to do war if they did remember.

But this isn’t going to be accomplished just because God says so. It is up to the people of Jerusalem and Judah. They must walk in the light of the Lord. If they are not walking in the way of God, how are other nations going to know or want to go to Jerusalem to walk in the way of God if God’s people are ignoring God? Isaiah is encouraging them to walk in God’s ways to make this vision come true.

Of course, if they were already walking in God’s ways, then Isaiah wouldn’t need to encourage them, which means they are not with God. They are to be examples for other peoples by following God. But they are not walking in God’s ways. If we read on beyond verse five, we read Isaiah chewing out the people of Judah. They are worshipping other Gods and the rich are hording their wealth.

This vision of Isaiah is an extension of Isaiah’s message of trusting in God alone. The Assyrian army was not defeated by arms. God defeated Assyria through trust in God’s justice and mercy – trust in God’s judgment.

It is all so easy for us to believe that we have all the answers, that we are so right. For the nearly 3,000 years since Isaiah, human nature has not changed. We trust our own judgment and not God’s. We rush to judgment out of expediency, trusting our own wisdom, without taking the time to study and contemplate God’s wisdom.

Deciding whether or not to eat chocolate or strawberry ice cream does not really require a lot of time in discernment of which one God wants for us. We might ask if God really thinks that we should have any ice cream to begin with! The point is that trivial decisions do not require a lot of hand wringing and prayer. Hopefully, we engage in prayer often enough that we already have a good idea of what God wants for us.

It is the big decisions that should provoke us to ask for divine wisdom. Part of that involves keeping Isaiah’s vision before us. This vision is the same vision that Jesus has for us. Jesus called it the kingdom of God. Both Isaiah and Jesus are pointing us to a time when we live in peace and harmony. Our decisions should be in consistent with that vision.

Text: Isaiah 2:1–5

[1] Susan R. Andrews, “The Offense of Grace”, CSS Publishing Company

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