A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, December 18, 2011
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 4:12-16
One of the highpoints of my life and ministry occurred in May 2000 when I stood on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, the spot where the great Jewish Temple used to stand. The Temple Mount is a spot that is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Abraham is said to have been willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, there on a large rock. Jesus was most certainly there time and again. And Muhammad is believed by Muslims to have ascended to heaven from the same rock. One of the things that fascinates me about the Temple Mount is that people from all nations of the world go there, in at least partial fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s words:
“In the days to come [the prophet predicted]
the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains . . .
and all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord. . .'” (Isaiah 2:2-3).
The words of the prophet are being fulfilled, but at the same time they are not yet fulfilled. Of course, there is no Jewish Temple there now. But also, as he thought about the possibility of the peoples of the world streaming to Mt. Zion, with a passionate plea, the prophet summed up his dream: “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” But what does that mean—to walk in the light of the Lord?
For the prophet, to walk in the light is to live by the spiritual guidance that has been given us. It is to live our lives within God’s realm as envisioned by the prophets and later by Jesus. For Isaiah, walking in the light of the Lord includes a commitment to peace. This passage is nothing less than a “magnificent prophecy of peace.” It is a “longing for peace with justice among nations.”1 Isaiah envisioned a time when the nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; [and when] nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:4). Plainly put, the prophet dreamed of a time of universal disarmament and the end of warfare. Tools of destruction would be reshaped into tools for food production. Yet, we continue to live in a world affected by war. And God only knows how many nations and terrorist groups are plotting destruction. Watching the evening news sometimes causes one to believe that the whole world has gone mad. In all these thousands of years, humanity has learned very little about how to get along and the things that make for peace. Ironically, these words from Isaiah (which are also recorded in the prophet Micah) that call for peace are engraved on a sculpture at the United Nations Building. The world has not yet learned how to make for peace.
Isaiah’s vision also included a time when the best of religious teaching and religious impulses will be recognized by all the world’s peoples. He dreamed of a time when all the world’s peoples would have a hunger to learn spiritual laws that make for justice and peace. Many peoples will come and say, the prophet envisioned, let us go to the house of God “that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (2:3). “Come,” the prophet cried, “let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
Such is what we are about during the season of Advent: seeking to walk in the light of the Lord (to use Isaiah’s metaphor)—learning spiritual ways and committing ourselves to the things that make for peace. “The life of man,” someone has observed, “is a constant struggle from darkness toward light.”2
As an aside, you probably are already aware that light has been a spiritual symbol for many religions for thousands of years, especially for this time of year. Earth-centered religions have celebrated light around the time of the winter solstice. The Jews will celebrate Hanukah, their season of light, this week. It should not be surprising, then, that during the season of Advent one of our primary means of celebration is through lights. Each Sunday we light the candles of the Advent Wreath—the candles of hope, peace, love and joy. On Christmas Eve we will have a service of lessons and carols with candles in the windows. In the center of the Advent Wreath we will light the one white candle—the Christ Candle—which symbolizes that the Light of the world is born. Many of us decorate our homes with candles. We string electric lights on our Christmas trees and our front lawns. We may plan a family trip to see the Christmas lights. In all these ways and more, light becomes central in our Advent and Christmas celebrations. And at the heart of it all is the message, for Christians at least, that Light has come in the person of Jesus Christ, born in a manger of a maiden named Mary. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus is said to have proclaimed from that same Temple Mount, some 600 years after Isaiah. No doubt but what Jesus was standing in the Temple area when he spoke these words during the Festival of Booths. Great golden lamps in the Temple were lit during this festival. Perhaps Jesus pointed to one of the lamps as he proclaimed, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). As light of the world, Jesus shows us how to worship, he teaches us the way of faith, and he instructs us about how to live in peace with one another. In orhter words, he instructs us on how to walk in the light.
It is said that Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf, once attended a Quaker Meeting. Keller stood up to commend the Friends for the good relief work they had done following World War I. Then Keller told the Friends this story: Once there was a little girl who was shut up in utter darkness and unbroken silence with no real life, no world, no hope, no future. Then someone came who, with patience and tenderness, brought her into contact with the world out there beyond her, and opened in her undreamed of capacities of communication with that new world of life and thought. Even with closed eyes she learned how to look out on a world full of beauty, hope, and possibility. “So you,” Keller continued, addressing the Friends’ Meeting, “so you have had the privilege of helping men, women, and children to discover a richer life and a deeper love and sympathy than they knew before. They have found through you a world before unknown. You have shot through their darkness with an unexpected light.” That is what it is all about, isn’t it? “You have shot through their darkness with an unexpected light.” That is the way Helen Keller described the impact that Annie Sullivan, her patient and tender teacher, had had on her life. And even more vividly, that is the way Keller described the impact of the Friends in their relief of suffering following the First World War. Isn’t that what we are called to do as well? To shoot through the darkness with an unexpected light?3 To walk in the light of the Lord and share that light with others?
Sue Monk Kidd tells of when her daughter was small she got the part of the Bethlehem Star in a Christmas play. After her first rehearsal, she burst through the door with her costume, a five-pointed star lined in shiny gold tinsel designed to drape over her like a sandwich board. “What exactly will you be doing in the play?” Sue asked her daughter. “I just stand there and shine,” her daughter said. Sue observes, “I’ve never forgotten that response.” That’s a nice story. We need to shine, for sure. But as adults, we know we have to do more than just stand there.
Our challenge is to try to find active ways to make God’s light visible to a dark world. We allow God’s light to shine through us by what we say and do, by the way we live our lives and put our faith into action, and by the things we do daily to make for peace—forgiveness, understanding, empathy, patience, mediation, going that extra mile to avoid an argument or fight. One practical thing we can do is extend a hand of friendship to those of other religions—Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. Walking in the light is a daily choice we all have to make. So, as we conclude this Advent season and look toward Christmas, may we heed Isaiah’s call and renew our commitment. Let us strive to learn God’s ways. And let us commit ourselves to living in peace and love with one another and the world.
We may not be able to change what is going on in Iraq, Iran, Korea, or any other world power, but we can change our day-to-day worlds. In a world of war and madness, let us determine that we will be makers of peace. In other words, “Come, let us all walk in the light of the Lord.” Amen.
1New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, VI, p. 66.
3Adapted from James W. Crawford, Ministers Manual for 1998, pp. 75-76.