Advent is a season of expectation and hope. It is also a season of following — a time when we travel along with the holy family as they struggle with the vagaries of peasant life in first-century Palestine. The Christmas story, as we have come to know it, includes much drama and tension.
The drama of Christmas begins in anxiety. An unplanned pregnancy is followed by an imperial summons to Bethlehem. Along the way there are mysterious angelic interventions, improvised accommodations for birth and royal orders of infanticide. Yet, in the midst of such challenging conditions, newness and promise overflow. There is a father's word of prophecy, a mother's song of revolution, gift-toting wise men and praise-filled shepherds. Yes, the long hoped for Messiah will arrive — but not quite as we had expected.
During this season of surprises, each Sunday with the holy family includes some definitive color commentary: prophecy from Isaiah. On Dec. 2 — the First Sunday of Advent — the prophets' inaugural word is a proclamation perfectly apropos for the season: Peace is coming! Spoken some seven centuries before Christ, Isaiah 2:1-5 points to a promise which, for Christians, arrives in the form of a child. Jesus — God with us — will bring peace to the earth.
The first five verses of Isaiah 2 make up a well-known and deeply loved text. It is a vision that has inspired history's peacemakers for generations. Weapons will be transformed, divine arbitration shall result in peace and war will be learned no more. God will judge between the nations and all God's people will stream into the holy city. It is, indeed, a glorious vision; yet, somehow strangely absurd.
In his commentary on Isaiah, Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan points out the absurdity of Isaiah's word. It was spoken in "an age of imperial darkness, of wars and rumors of wars, of duplicity and conniving in high places." The prophet had the ear of King Ahaz and his successor, Hezekiah; but their attention was elsewhere. When war with Assyria broke out, it would prove to be only a beginning. Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom Israel, would fall in 722 BCE, followed later by a siege on Jerusalem. At the mercy of Assyrian power, God's holy city would teeter, only to be crushed a generation later by yet another imperial power, Babylon.
Isaiah's time was, indeed, a time of wars and rumors of wars. It was a time when real leaders spoke only of national defense, homeland security, and God's favoritism. It was a time when only fools spoke of peace. Isaiah was one such fool.
In some ways, not much has changed. Perhaps it's only gotten worse. For ours is a time not of war, but of multiple wars. Ours is a time not simply of rumors, but of overt threats and pre-emptive strikes. Ours is a time of shadow-dwelling insurgents and an imperial bully with global reach. Yet into this time comes a new absurdity; the absurdity of Christ.
In 2007, as we prepare for the coming of the Christ child, may we allow his peace to enter not only our hearts, but our social, economic, and political lives as well. As Isaiah made so clear, kings and generals and presidents do not make for peace. God's people, seeking instruction and revelation, come to Zion. Understanding God's will, they — not their God — destroy the weapons of war. Their acknowledgement of and trust in God's ability to settle international disputes, is the basis for disarmament and global reconciliation (2:4). These are the blessed peacemakers whom Christ calls out.
Advent is when we in the church talk most openly about peace. The peace of Christ, we are told, is the "reason for the season." This year real peace seems farther away than ever. But Isaiah's word, embodied for us in the Christ child, is a direct assault upon the temptation to despair.
This Christmas may we become the peace loving fools our God has called us to be. May we find the courage to follow the Christ child who implores us, in the prophetic spirit of Isaiah, to beat our swords in ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks.
May we, in our hearts, know the peace of the season. May we, through our lives, see to it that is implemented.
The Rev. Thomas I. Warren, pastor of Pleasant Hill (Tenn.) Community UCC, is United Church News' bible study contributor.
1. What is the relationship between Isaiah's vision, public proclamation and the role of social imagination in the life of the church?
2. In what ways does the life and ministry of Jesus reinforce the prophetic word found in Isaiah 2:1-5? What blocks us from claiming the hope-filled vision of Isaiah?
3. How can we communicate Isaiah's vision of disarmament to the "powers and principalities" that dominate our world?