Many centuries ago someone had a dream. His name was Isaiah. About 750 years later someone took that dream and used it to tell the story of his hero. The name of the story teller was Matthew, the name of his hero Jesus. The dream was a dream of peace for all the nations, of the mountain of the Lord raised above all other elevated places providing the world with a teaching that replaced the teachings of war with the teachings of true and full peace, replaced an industry and economy driven by the manufacturing of weapons and the waging of war with an industry and economy geared towards the provision of food and abundance for everyone instead. A dream that in the mind of Matthew had taken shape in the life of Jesus Christ.
The dream is a dream that still appeals, today perhaps even more than ever before, because we, more than any other generation before us can see how necessary it is for this dream to come true if the planet, if we are, to survive. And how complex the issues are. We have come to understand how devastating the effects of war are on the whole of the planet, can see how money spent on weapons for a war waged in one part of the world will determine how many children will have their basic needs for food, water and medical attention met in another part of the world. Everything is interrelated, the greed of the already rich using the resources needed for the very poor, the lack of respect for the environment in one part of the world affected the health and future of the whole planet, with the manufacturing of weapons and the waging of war related to and following on from many more aspects of life than just the presence or absence of war. War, social justice, the division of wealth, the exploitation and exhaustion of resources, the disregard for the well being of the whole planet and the distribution of the basics of life to all its people are all interconnected and all play their part in the building of peace and harmony within and between communities on a local and global scale.
I dont know to what extent Isaiah understood this. For him it was probably more a matter of experiencing for himself how the many and various wars raging around and across his country in his time affected him and his people. How their wealth and welfare depended on peace in the region and how war and plundering armies moving through their country would devastate the land and the people for many years at the time.
This is what Isaiahs times looked like: The kings of Judea were caught up in the middle of huge international conflict that moved back and forth across the small strip in the middle the Israelites happened to inhabit. With the only thing left for them to do was to survive by joining sides, trying to stay out of the thick of it, or ignoring the whole thing altogether. All depending on the king, the mood of the day or the pressure exerted by one mighty neighboring ruler or another.
It was a time where faith would have been under threat simply because in the experience of the people the God, the Lord of Israel, did not or did not seem to, have much of a say in international affairs or even in the protection of his people against the ravages of war and the intricacies of international politics. He would have been a small God, of a small country, caught up in the enormous pressures of the world powers of the day realigning themselves around them and other gods and religions holding centre stage, the Lords house in Jerusalem a hut compared to the temples of Assyria, Babylon and Egypt.
A feeling we may not be totally unfamiliar with in a time and place where that same God seems to be losing centre stage again. The Christmas frenzy alone will make us painfully aware how the voice of religion and Christianity seems to have lost relevance and influence on every level in our society. I dont know if any of you have ever ventured into Chadstone on Boxing Day but it is an experience that is almost certain to make you feel small about your Christmas morning service even if it was very well attended.
It is not the Assyrians we are facing and war is something that we, mostly, dont feel the direct and devastating effects off in the terms of personal loss or hardship. But once again, as in the time of Isaiah, our God certainly doesnt seem to figure big on the local, national or even global scene.
"In days to come the mountain of the Lords 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 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 sword against nation, neither shall they learn war no more."
A dream that was, at the time Isaiah lived, totally unimaginable. A dream still as unimaginable and unobtainable in our time as it was then. With whole nations thriving on the economic benefits of the waging of war and about half of our planet involved in some conflict or other the chances that swords will be beaten into plowshares to raise the standard of living for those living well below the poverty line is as unthinkable as it was then. Our God and our religion helping the world to make that switch after being around 2000 years laughable and highly unlikely because we are and have been part of the problem for most of that time. Forget it!
And perhaps that is exactly what we should be doing. Forget that the realization of this dream is in any way dependent on us and read the prophecy in its context letting all the appeal and power it after over 2000 years still has hit home: The days will come! And realise this is a statement of faith, not a call to action, nor a statement of fact.
750 years later someone called Matthew saw that dream take shape in the life and faith of one man: Jesus of Nazareth. And when he wrote about him that was where he started: with the dream of Isaiah, with that vision of wholeness, of peace, of all nations heading in the same direction, focussing on the one, same thing: peace, harmony, well being for every one every where. And he does so in a cheeky, ironic story that holds up the mirror for his country men and fellow believers at the time.
In his story we see the nations come to Zion, starting out way before anybody else in the story knows what is happening. With those who are the guardians and keepers of the prophecies and the ancient faith of Israel remain ignorant. Pagan soothsayers who put their trust in the movement of the stars find their way to the source of light and peace easily, where the professional clergy and faithful believers, studying scripture every waking moment of their lives are totally taken aback by their asking for directions.
The wise men from the east find in Bethlehem not, what they in all likelihood expected. The mountain of the Lord rises above all other elevated places in quite an unexpected manner. Disconcertingly plain, unsettlingly undistinguished, incredibly ordinary and common place. Nevertheless they who have come from afar offer this boy their presents, put their faith in what the stars have told them and the God that has led them here. Where with the faithful we only find anger, confusion, resentment and the murderous king Herod given full rein to his fear and tyranny of power.
When it comes to the nations finding their way to the mountain of the Lord and the teachings that will show them the way to peace, it is not the faithful, the keepers of tradition or the guardians of the sacred faith who prove to be the most helpful or the most advanced in their acceptance and recognition of Gods activity. On the contrary.
The days will come!
But not perhaps through the Church or our old and treasured ways, not perhaps through our hard work, our deep insight in scripture or our diligent practicing religion, celebrating worship, our unwavering commitment to the community, committees and fellowship of the Church, but simply because God in his love has not forgotten us and is still at work among us in places as unexpected as Bethlehem, Toorak, or Iraq.
The days will come!
But the mountain we will come to may well look completely different to what we expect. As did Jesus when he was born to the old believers of his day. And it may well be that others, whom we perceive to be much more remote from grace or salvation than ourselves, will see it first and put their faith in it in a way that is as alien to us and our traditions as the soothsaying astrology was removed from the Jewish leaders and interpreters of scripture in Jesus day.
What also struck me in both our passages was that the initiative is with God on both occasions.
The nations come to the mountain of the Lord like iron filings are attracted to a magnet. But there is no mention of the people of God playing any major role in the advertising, guiding, or actualization of the whole thing. The nations come and when they come peace ensues. Thats all.
God ordains a star which draws the wise men, representatives of the nations, to his mountain. With his people in this case more than a hindrance than a help. And the wise men worshipping something they cant understand or see yet in complete trust and faith, accepting that somehow this child will be what the world is waiting for.
Gods salvation of the world, Gods action in the world taking place independent of human involvement, commitment or faith.
We may think we are dependent on the next generation as a Church, and despair because of it. We may, as a Church, be losing heart at times, feeling after a lifetime of commitment that there should be others to take over and where they are not in evidence, find it difficult to keep our spirits up and our dedication high. We may, as a Church, be bemoaning the past and looking to the future with some trepidation; Our faith should be that whatever we feel or not feel, can or cant do, see or cant see, whatever hindrance or help we may be able to be where the coming of Gods Kingdom is concerned, that somewhere out there a star is shining, the teachings of peace and wholeness of heart attracting, the mountain of the Lord rising amidst the nations, above the other gods who fight for our attention and commitment, calling us to follow that one man who lived it out in his life and showed that even the deepest darkness, loss and despair contains seeds of new life, of new future, of new beginnings in Gods name. That God keeps working, whatever happens, keeps creating, whatever barriers we throw up, keeps dreaming, whatever we do to kill his dreams, and keeps bringing light and life and the teachings of peace to the world to be born again and again until the time where they will finally reign forever. Amen.