Many churches feel as if they have been through war. Churches like mine were victimized by a polarized society that pulled brother against brother and left most in shock over the outcome. We feel the pain of belonging to a divided country.
As is the case in most wars, its participants often simplify the causes. One side is right because the other is wrong. One side’s cause is just while the other’s is irredeemably corrupted. And the end of the war leaves everyone feeling a bit stained and compromised by the battles fought, the friends sacrificed, and the choices made.
Here we stand after the war. How do we heal the wounds? Can divided churches find a peaceable way forward now that the fighting has subsided? Can the Kingdom of God point society toward a more harmonious way of living?
Advent comprises the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Its focus is to prepare the people of God for the coming of God. It’s not just a historical retelling of Jesus’ birth but a time of repentance and renewal in training for Jesus’ future coming as we reflect on his first incarnation.
Advent offers the possibility of helping to heal the wounds of war in our midst. How can Advent help us once again be the people of God? The vision of Isaiah the prophet points us in the right direction. Isa 2:1-5, the first text for Advent in 2016, gives us four clues.
1. Zion, Not Armageddon
The first clue is a portrayal of Zion. “In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it” (Isa 2:2). Biblical scholar Frederick Holmgren reminds us that the prophet’s vision is for the end times.  Mount Zion’s beauty draws people to it. This is not a vision of the horror of Armageddon. Zion is the most beautiful of mountains, and God sees it dominating the horizon.
This munificent view stands at odds with the picture drawn by many who see God’s coming as an apparition of horror. Some Christians envision an Armageddon-like apocalypse. They long for the day when God will cordon off and destroy evil-doers while raining down blessings on God’s favored people.
The prophet, however, does not picture destruction. Instead, we have the vision of all people streaming to Zion—ALL people, even former enemies—to the place where God’s people gather in the presence of their King. Both endings are possible in the prophet’s oracles, and this depends on the people. God’s heart is clearly revealed in Ezek 18:32: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone. Turn then and live.”
Is your picture of church a place for enemies to gather? Is your ideal believing community a place of peace that draws in people who long to heal from the scars of war? Or is the primary voice of your desired church one of condemnation for those who disagree? Do you long for the Advent vision of Zion with all people streaming to it?
2. Instruction Flows from Zion
The second clue toward healing comes from verse 3. “Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God 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” (Isa 2:3). Whereas Zion was described in verse 2 as a tourist destination, we now find the reason for its attraction. People come from all over the world to learn.
This is a depiction of future Jerusalem, not its current state. The Zion of the prophet’s day was a degenerate city filled with prostitutes and murderers (1:21). The prophet is not speaking literally but, rather, of those who sell their souls for profit (prostitutes) and who oppress the poor (murderers). Too many citizens of Jerusalem were willing to worship whatever was fashionable and lucrative while ignoring and tyrannizing destitute folks such as widows and orphans.
Something would need to change in Zion for it to become the sought-after mountain. The prophet lays out the path in 1:16-17. Nine action verbs that define the path toward becoming a glorious Zion: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” These are the things that would turn Jerusalem into the glorious mountain of God. People will come to Zion to check out a city that operates with peace and equity among its people. Advent allows us to recommit ourselves to these actions.
3. God Serves as Judge
A third clue describes God’s role. “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 up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa 2:4). In verse 3, God serves as teacher for his people, and his teaching is so effective that all the nations come forth to learn his ways.
In this fourth verse God is more than teacher. God is arbiter between people who hitherto have been enemies. God isn’t merely declaring who is right or which group gets the lion’s share. God’s decisions produce peace and harmony between all who have come to him.
God is no ordinary judge. God doesn’t just render judgments; he teaches a new way of living. The result of his righteous judging is that people take their weapons of destruction and instead fashion them into tools for producing valuable things. Under God’s adjudication, people voluntarily give up the things that destroy and divide and instead do things that make life and the world beautiful. Advent returns us to God’s righteous verdicts.
4. Change Starts with Us
The final clue is in the last verse. “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (Isa 2:5). If we have grasped the vision of the prophet and said, “Wow, what do we need to do?” then the prophet drives home his point. This beatific vision is only possible if we will first walk in the light of the Lord or in the teachings of God.
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,” writes the Psalmist. But a light is only valuable if we turn it on and use it to guide our path. “Jesus is the light of the world,” we read in John’s Gospel, yet this is only helpful if we truly follow that light, if we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.
This is the catch with enacting the prophet’s vision, with becoming the people God calls us to become, a people who revolutionize the world and enjoy the full wealth of living as productive, generous beings in God’s Kingdom. The problem is that this must start with us. We must come to the mountain of the Lord. We must cling to the teaching of God. We must allow God to be our judge, teaching us to turn our instruments of war into tools for building and growing, for glorifying God and helping one another.
This is the vision. Will we walk together in the light of the Lord? Or will we insist on walking under our own power in utter darkness? That is our challenge—to enact the vision, believing that as the mountain is built people will stream to it from east and west, north and south, and will rest in the light of our glorious King.
 “Isaiah 2:1-5,” Interpretation 51: 1997, 61-64.