In Heavenly Peace

Scripture:  Isaiah 2:1-5

In 1914 after a series of political alliance and maneuvering set off what would become the First World War, the fighting began in earnest in August of that year.  The Advancement in technology from the last round of European wars was going to change the nature of conflict, but this did not really set in until the battle of Ypres.  This sprawling, month long engagement involved nearly 10 million men.  Neither side could get an advantage as both sides made a race for the sea in an attempt to outflank the other.  After a month of fighting, there was a stalemate.   The only thing to show for all of the carnage were a series of trenches on both sides, a no man’s land in between, and more than 250,000 casualties.  A few failed attempts to go over the top and break the stalemate, led to more dead, as it became clear that the nature of warfare had changed.   By December of that year the war had entered a bit of a lull as it ground to a standstill.  On December 24th of that year in some sectors across the Western Front, German soldiers lit candles and erected Christmas trees in the trenches.  The singing of German Christmas carols broke the silence of No Man’s Land.  The English on the other side responded with their versions of the same tunes.  On Christmas morning, an informal truce had broken out up and down the front lines.  In some areas the truce was subdued, and it was a simple gentleman’s agreement to collect and bury the dead.  In other areas though the truce became a bit more, as soldiers met in the middle, exchanged Christmas gifts, and in one area most famously an impromptu soccer game broke out.  The Christmas truce stands out as a dramatic example of a “live and let live” philosophy being shared by the men in the trenches on both sides.   The Christmas truce was a symbol of shared humanity, it showed that perhaps we do have more in common than not, and that peace might still be possible.

Unfortunately it is easy to over-romanticize the Christmas truce, because it turned out to be an anomaly in an ugly conflict.  World War I pressed on for four more years.  There was a much less successful attempt at a 1915 Christmas truce.  By 1916, poisonous gas had been introduced into the war and hundreds or thousands more had died, no one was particularly interested in a truce.    When it was all said and done, about 20 million people had died in the Great War.  The world collectively said “never again”, and that promise only lasted two decades.

This morning’s scripture contains one of the most evocative and enduring images of peace found in scripture.  Humanity has longed looked for a time when the weapons of war will be laid down for good.  When the swords will be beat into plowshares and the spears into pruning hooks.  Yet our history shows that time and time again we choose violence over peace.   Even when it seems like there is a real chance for the heavenly peace we all long for, such as the Christmas Truce of 1914, it does not last for more than a fleeting moment.    This makes this morning’s scripture seem like it is somewhere between naïve and hopelessly idealistic.

This morning’s scripture is idealistic, but it is not hopeless.  Rather it is the opposite and it is full of hope.  This morning’s scripture is yet example of how God used the prophet Isaiah to give glimpses of God’s planned future.  This morning’s scripture describes how God will rule over God’s people in a forever kingdom that will be defined by peace.  The kingdom of God is not yet, but we can follow the prince of peace today.  We may not be able to accomplish world peace, but we can live into this scripture by following Jesus and being peacemakers.

This morning’s scripture touches on a theme that becomes common throughout the entire book of Isaiah.  This scripture relays a vision of God’s holy mountain as a place that is characterized by all people coming together, by justice, and by peace.  Throughout the 66 chapters of Isaiah, this image of God’s holy mountain keeps coming up.  This theme is not just present in Isaiah.  The book of Micah contains an almost identical passage with the same imagery in its fourth chapter.  Similar imagery of God’s holy mountain is also found in the prophetic books of Daniel, Jeremiah, Joel, and Zechariah.  From a perspective of antiquity envisioning the centerpiece of God’s kingdom as a holy mountain makes sense for a couple of reasons.  Elevated terrain was naturally defensible, so elevated plateaus were common places for cities.  Second, high places were commonly associated with worship.   To describe what the physical location of where God will reign forever and ever, it makes a lot of sense from an ancient perspective to describe it as a holy mountain.  This is likely why this imagery is common all over the Old Testament.  In addition to the image of the mountaintop, this morning’s scripture also gives us an idea of what God’s holy mountain is like.

In the second chapter of Isaiah we see three aspects that are described as characterizing God’s holy mountain.  First, it will be a place of remarkable diversity.  This morning’s scripture states “It will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.  Many peoples will come and say, Come let us go up to the mountain of the LORD.”  We have to remember that Isaiah was written in a time where a person’s cultural, religious, and national identity were all tied together.  It was not a melting pot like we are used to, it was a world where everyone wanted to fiercely keep and promote their identity as a people.  It was somewhat revolutionary then for Isaiah to declare the God of the Israelites was not just the deity of one people, but a God who cared for all people and would welcome all people onto the holy mountain.

Second, the holy mountain described in this morning’s scripture is going to be a place of righteous justice as this morning’s scripture states, “He [God] will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.  The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  He will judge between the nations.”  This morning’s scripture makes reference to the ancient practice where kings were also the final judges.  One of the reasons why there will be peace is because God is a good and fair judge.  Though there should be little reason for dispute since all will be living according to God’s ways and walking God’s path.  Living according to God’s ways, is what will bring about third aspect that characterizes God’s holy mountain.  The aspect that has already been mentioned, which there will be peace.  It will be complete peace where the weapons of war will be dismantled.  People will no longer feel the need to hold onto tools made to kill others for their own defense.  It will be complete peace for everyone.

Perhaps the most hopeful part of this morning’s scripture reading though is the final verse we read.  Verse five of this morning’s scripture is an invitation: “Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD.”  It is hopeful because it points to the idea that this future on God’s holy mountain is not something that we have to wait forever for, but it is a path we can make progress along.   It is hopeful, because this invite extended to us as well.   We can walk in the light of the LORD, we can walk up towards God’s Holy Mountain, and we can help make this vision of a perfect future more present in our everyday reality.  In his letter to the Romans Paul encouraged them in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”  This morning’s scripture helps point us to how we can do that.

To live at peace, we first have to establish some of the ways we get it wrong.  Often we get it wrong because we are trying to take a shortcut and do it in an easy way.  The easy way to be at peace is to keep to ourselves.  If we keep our thoughts to ourselves, stay unconnected from others, and do not worry about empathy and compassion then it can be easy to live at peace.  If we isolate ourselves from everyone else, then we might find it peaceful, but it will be lonely.  It will also not be the kind of peace talked about in the bible.  The peace described in this morning’s scripture is one that exist in community.

The second shortcut we take and get it wrong, is we try to be peacekeepers.  A peace keeper is an enforcer.  If you grew up with siblings or if you have been the parent of more than one child, then you know exactly what peace keeping looks like.  Peace keeping is ending an argument by stating, “If you do not have anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all.”   Peace keeping is bringing an end to fighting by declaring, “I don’t care who started it, I am ending it.”  Peace keeping might keep order and maintain calm, but it rarely leads to real peace.  It creates the veneer of peace.  It lifts up being nice and being polite as more important than truly being at peace with one another.

Instead of trying to artificially create peace by isolation or by enforcing it, instead we should join in the holy work of creating it.   As followers of Christ we should be a peacemaker.  This morning’s scripture tells us how to do that.  Peace exists when people follow God’s ways and walk his path.   Friends, as followers of Jesus we know what that path is, we know the way.  We know the commands Jesus lifted up for us to follow:  Love God with all of our being, love our neighbors as ourselves, and love one another.  Yes, we do not always get it right.  We still can be selfish, we still can be slow to forgive, and we can fail to love God with our whole heart.  But it needs to also be lifted up that we do not always get it wrong either.  From time to time we do get it right.  When we do, when we love selflessly the way God loves us, when we put others first the way Jesus did for us, then we are peacemakers.  When we follow the way of Jesus, then to the best of our ability, we are living at peace with others.

This morning’s scripture also points to how we can get it right a little bit more regularly.  Remember, the first aspect that characterizes God’s holy mountain is its diversity.  When we lean into the idea of more readily including others, then we are better equipped to be peace makers.  This goes against the general trend of our culture.  It feels in a lot of ways, that our culture is pushing to go back to how it was antiquity, where people exist in their own silos of only people like them, and they work hard to keep everyone else out.  This kind of thinking leads to a “if you don’t like it the way I like it then you can leave” mentality.  It makes peace impossible because it is automatically an us vs. them scenario.  This kind of us vs. them mentality where everyone digs in creates trenches with an uneasy no man’s land in between.  This is not peace.

Seeking to embrace true diversity and include all people can be messy.  It can require extra patience, more forgiveness, and a whole lot more love and care; but it is worth it because that is how we get the kind of peace that will be found on God’s Holy Mountain.  In his book, A Bigger Table, Christian author John Pavlovitz writes about this. He wrote about when there were large family gatherings, like Thanksgiving or Christmas, in order to accommodate everyone his father would grab two big leafs that were inserted into the table to make it bigger.  Pavlovitz writes, “We quite literally expanded the table so that we could fit everyone.  WE made room we didn’t have before.  This was a regular incarnation of the love of God right in the center of our home, though we never knew to name it as such.  This is the heart of the gospel:  the ever expanding hospitality of God.  Jesus, after all, was a carpenter.  Building bigger tables was right in his wheelhouse.”

This morning’s scripture tells us of a time when there will be peace, true peace, to be found on God’s Holy Mountain.  We can look forward with hopeful expectation to that day while seeking to bring that kind of heavenly peace to earth.  To find peace on earth we do not need more swords, more spears, more guns, and more walls.  We need more plowshares and we need bigger tables.  So may we seek to build bigger tables.  May we be willing to reach out and invite everyone, no matter who they are or how they are different, to be part of the family of God. May we not isolate ourselves or just settle for being peace keepers, but may we strive to be peacemakers.     May we follow the way that Jesus gave us, may we keep his commandments, and if it is possible, as far as it depends on us, may we live at peace with everyone.  If there is going to be peace on earth, then let it begin with us.  Let it begin with hope.  Let it begin by loving like Jesus.


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