a sermon on Isaiah 2:1-5 and Romans 12:9-21
preached on October 6, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
There are two kinds of texts in the Bible that I especially love: texts that talk about the new and different thing that God is doing in the world and texts that urge us to live and walk in new and different ways in our life together. I like the first kind of text because I know that there is so much wrong with our world that is beyond our ability to fix. There are still so many places where things are just not like they should be. There is so much war and violence that distract us from living together in justice and peace. There are so many places where divine intervention seems to be the only way to extract ourselves from the mess around us. I like the second kind of texts that talk about a new and different thing that God is doing in our world because they remind me that there is hope even when things seem to be a giant mess. Even though we can’t fix it all ourselves, these texts make it clear that we have a responsibility to take action and live differently to make our broken world a better place.
Our two readings today are perfect examples of my favorite kinds of readings from the Bible, especially if we want to think more clearly and directly about God’s deep desire for peace in our world. Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah gives us a vivid vision of a new and different Jerusalem. This vision of the city shows us a place that stands as a monument of peace, justice, and integrity for all nations. It is a factory of transformation for the difficult but crucial work of turning swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. This Jerusalem is a center of instruction for following God’s ways and learning to live in peace.
Isaiah’s vision shows us the components that make this city such a place of peace, life, and health for all. First, it is centered around the gift of God’s teaching in the temple, where people can learn not just who God is but also what God is doing and how God is calling all people to be a part of the transformation of the world. It is a place where people look for new ways to explore God’s presence in the world and so walk in God’s ways each and every day. It is a place where God’s gracious judgment is lived out, not just for one nation or for a privileged few but for all people, everywhere. And most of all it is a place where war is finally set aside, where conflict is not settled by violent reaction but where peace is learned and practiced anew each and every day.
Sadly, this was only a vision. To this day, Jerusalem remains a city divided, torn apart by nearly every imaginable sort of conflict around religion, race, class, and history. It doesn’t have a good record of being a place to go to learn how to live in peace—unless the best way to learn about peace is to learn how it doesn’t happen. Yet the promise is clear: “In days to come” Jerusalem will be the city of peace, where people will stream to learn the ways of God and discover a way of life that does not learn war, and so all people are called to find this new path and walk in the light of the Lord.
This kind of challenge to “walk in the light of the Lord” is a great example of the second kind of my favorite texts from the Bible, the texts that invite us to a new and deeper faithfulness in our life and in our world. Our reading today from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome gives us deeper instructions on how to do this, and it too focuses squarely on issues of peace as it directs us into a new and different way of life. Many of these words are likely very familiar to us, as they have been adapted over the centuries into words that we use in the charge that often concludes our Sunday worship. There is still something important about hearing them in this context, for while they can seem like a long series of unrelated commands, they all point to a deeper and more genuine way of living in love and peace with all creation.
Paul begins by offering exhortations toward love, emphasizing that love should be real and mutual, that evil must be resisted, that honor belongs to all, and that serving God with all our hearts stands above everything else. He recognizes that life is not always easy, so he lifts up hope, patience, and perseverance as essential attributes of the life of faith and urges his listeners to support those who are in need and to extend hospitality to strangers. Then Paul turns more directly to describe how to live in peace with others. Repeatedly he demands that curses and vengeance toward those who have wronged us be set aside, that we take seriously the situations of our sisters and brothers and embrace both their celebration and their mourning. He demands that we recognize our limitations in all of life and living, and that we work to overcome evil, violence, and injustice not by responding with more of those things but by offering deeper and more real good in the world. This is not an old way of life but a new one, one that places the emphasis on right relationship over rules, one that sets aside old grudges for new possibilities, one that insists that peace really and truly can become real in our lives and in our world if we stop trying to defeat our enemies with the sword and instead seek to live with them in the same way we would like them to live with us. So rather than taking up the role of divine police officer, detective, judge, jury, and executioner for ourselves, Paul insists that that we leave vengeance for God and instead seek to overcome evil with good and so walk more closely in the way of peace.
These two kinds of readings that look ahead for us to give us visions of new and different things and invite us to do them ourselves are deeply challenging in our world today. When we look around this world, peace seems so distant—both in far-off lands like Syria, Israel and Palestine, North and South Korea, and all those other nations and places that we lift up in prayer each Sunday but also in places much closer to us where families are broken apart, gun violence spirals out of control, mental illness tears at the fabric of our communities, lesbian and gay youth are kicked out of their homes, and people are threatened by those they love the most. In our complex world, peace seems so impossible—so often, a compromise that seems to resolve one place of brokenness ends up driving others apart. And when we think about taking up the way of peace in our daily lives, the things we can do seem so insignificant, so tiny, so unimportant, so unable to actually make a difference amidst all the big things that pit us against one another.
Yet Isaiah and Paul insist that we must start somewhere. Following Paul’s charge to walk in a new and different way might actually help bring about the kind of transformation that God so deeply desires and Isaiah so beautifully described. Our hope of something new and different for our world can be made real even in tiny ways with simple actions of love, justice, and peace. And throughout it all, we can trust that God will work in all that we are doing to make even our seemingly insignificant actions important, transforming even the smallest actions for peace into a part of the new life for all creation, working in even our greatest brokenness to redeem the whole creation and guide us all to walk in the light of the Lord.
So as we gather at this table on this World Communion Sunday, as we remember our sisters and brothers in Christ around the globe who join us at this strange feast that looks back to Jesus’ last meal with his disciples and forward to the great feast of all creation in the years yet to come, as we make even a small offering to deepen the work of peace in our community, our denomination, and our world, may we trust that God’s vision of peace for our world is deeper and broader and wider and more possible than we could ever imagine, and may we then walk in the light of the Lord as we love one another, rejoice in hope, and live peaceably with all each and every day until all things are made new. Lord, come quickly! Amen.