- Theological Education
By Eric D. Barreto - Isaiah 2:1-5
Losing an election shouldn’t feel this dire.
Sometimes our preferred candidates win. We celebrate, but then life goes back to normal. Sometimes they lose. We protest. We demand a recount. But eventually we accept the loss. We lick our wounds and begin to think about the next election.
But this was not a normal election. None of what has been happening over the last few weeks is normal. No part of this campaign was as it should be. Not the misogyny. Not the fear of the immigrant and the refugee. Not the mocking of the disabled.
This is not to say that these things are new. They have always been with us. But we have embraced them, voted for them, voiced them in public in a way that seems irretrievable. We can’t put things back the way they were. None of this is as it should be.
Hatred is bubbling up among the cracks of division among us. Ideologies many of us had hoped were dormant in our body politic have returned with a roar. And we can’t be sure what comes next. For some of us, the fear we feel is not just uncertainty, but the realization that our bodies continue to be the object of so much vitriol and scapegoating.
More than anything, however, we have to realize that none of this is as it should be. None of this should be assumed to be typical. None of this is as it should be. We don’t have to accept the creeping and insidious forms of division that are cropping up among us. We don’t have to accept discourses that dehumanize victim and oppressor alike. We don’t have to buy the growing media narrative that we should reconcile our differences without protest and lament and resistance.
We don’t have to accept things as they are and might be. We know this in our bones. But we sometimes need a little bit of help. And here Isaiah steps in to help us voice what we sometimes have trouble describing and believing. We don’t have to accept such brokenness as inevitable. Instead, the prophets dreamed dreams, the prophets saw something beyond our everyday vision, the prophets imagined God’s reign.
In Isaiah 2:1-5, the prophet casts a vision of a world bending around the mountain of God. This mountain of God ascends over every hill, and the peoples of the world turn into streams of water flowing uphill to this highest of peaks. Many peoples will follow those streams to the mountain of God so that they can leave the mountain on a path God has set, a path of righteousness and justice, life and hope. But notice that this is not just a vision of abundant grace; there is also judgment here. Verse 4 notes that God will judge between the nations. That is, God will call injustice what it is; God will repair what we have done wrong. God will set the world right. God does not accept the world as we have inherited it and misshaped it.
And how will God do this? By taking implements of war and violence and transforming them into implements that can turn the soil, making it ready for the promise of new seed. God will take our death dealing artifacts and turn them into tools of agriculture. And the ways of war will be no more because there will be no need for violence nor even the weapons to wage it.
This vision might strike us as naive. Can we ever imagine a world without the implements of war? Can we ever imagine taking our nuclear arsenals and turning them into plowshares? Can we imagine melting the 300 million firearms in America into rakes and spades and shovels? Even the very thought of such vulnerability will send some of us rushing to build higher walls and accumulate even more armaments. Can we even imagine such a world? Can we imagine a world in which violence does not order our every step?
I can’t. Not these days. Not when so many of our neighbors have chosen this political path. Not when the cries of the most vulnerable are dismissed as overreactions. Not when political rhetoric so easily invites the spray-painting of swastikas, the distribution of pamphlets celebrating white supremacy, and so many other incidents we will never see on social media but have nonetheless shattered people and communities alike.
But the prophet still casts this vision all these years later. We will hear his words read in our churches. He will ask us to see what is beyond our seeing. The prophets don’t wish to anesthetize us, to dull our pain and concern with the siren call of a futile dream. No, the prophets wish to energize us with hope, drive us into a broken world with the admittedly fleeting image of the reign of God mirrored in our tears.
This Advent season feels so different than others in the past for many of us. Advent is a time of waiting and expectation and patience. It is a time for us to anticipate the birth of a baby who would turn the world upside down. It is a time for us to see the hopes of the world born in a vulnerable child. But that waiting feels that much more pregnant this time around, the threat over Jesus’ life that much more tangible. It seems that much more unbelievable that a mere baby could do anything to change the world as we see it.
This Advent, we wait once again. We wait to hear that story again, of a child born under the shadow of a mighty empire, of a child who would deliver us from death itself. We wait not just for Christmas morning. We wait for his birth again and again in our lives, for it is among the vulnerable and the scared and the afflicted where we will find the Christ child today.
I fear that we sometimes assume that prophets belong to a dusty past: bearded men writing obscure tales a long time ago. That gets the prophets all wrong. The prophets were people on the ground. The prophets spoke truth to the power. The prophets are not long gone for as long as God’s people have voice, we too can speak in much the same way as the prophets of old did. Their words don’t have to stay in the past. The prophet today is on the front line of a protest demanding justice. The prophet today steps between a bigot's screams and an immigrant’s victimization. The prophet refuses to acquiesce when some insist that this is all business as usual.
Perhaps the most important role of the prophet is rousing us from our stupor. When we get tired, when we are weary of resisting, when we are told over and over again that this is how things are going to be, the prophet’s call is clear. God has something better for us. Something liberating. Something just. Something transformative.
So listen to the prophets! They have shown us the path. Those who have ears to hear and eyes to see: hear and see how hatred for the stranger is already becoming normalized in our midst. Fight it with all your might. Words easily become anger. Anger easily becomes prejudice. Prejudice easily becomes exclusion. Exclusion easily becomes violence. And violence easily becomes our own undoing. Those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.
Bible Study Questions:
1. What does the prophet Isaiah’s vision help inspire you to do and to be?
2. Tell a story about a prophetic stance you or someone you knew once took.
For Further Reading:
Vann R. Newkirk II. "This is who we are now". The Atlantic.
Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).
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