Charles Qualls: Let Us Go Up to the Mountain of the Lord!

Nipper was a mongrel, born into 1884 Bristol, England. He was thought to be part Fox Terrier or part Jack Russell. His name came much as you might imagine, for he was known to occasionally "nip" the back of visitor's legs. His original owner died when he was quite young. However, the owner's siblings saw to it that they cared for and kept this dog right within the family. They became the ones who sustained his life and whom he loved. He lived a fairly normal life of eleven years.

He was put in his place of rest at Kingston upon Thames in 1895, the same year that Babe Ruth was born. Truth is, probably no one would have ever heard of Nipper. Except that his legacy was anything but normal.

You see, during his time, this little dog was the model for a painting that became well known, done by one of these siblings who cared for him. The painting was entitled "His Master's Voice." There in the picture is Nipper - a small white dog - with his mostly black ear cocked and his body leaning into the bell of an Edison cylinder phonograph. A record player. Listening to the sound that is coming out.

This painting lent itself perfectly to a growing company that wanted to tout their sound quality as " good a dog can hear his master's voice" coming from within the player. Soon, this company began to give birth to more related companies. Each time, little Nipper's image became their logo. Today, there are as many as eleven different businesses who have used this iconic dog and record player as the face of their corporations.

Our text today in Isaiah 2 opens as an expansion on a vision of judgment that chapter 1 spelled out. God has raised children and brought them up. Oxen on the farm recognize their owners. Even the donkey knows its master's crib. But, humanity does not know or understand its own God's voice in Isaiah's prophecy. Humanity has turned a deaf ear rather than an eager one.

In the opening chapter, Isaiah has laid out the complaint. However, words of hope lace this harsh and troubling judgment. As the prophets always did, Isaiah pronounces that Judah's sins are like scarlet but can be made like snow; they are red, but can be made like wool.

Now, in this second chapter as we read today, both the judgment and hope are to be expanded on. A people who had lost their ability to heed God's voice, who had rebelled to the point of cutting themselves off from Yahweh, have now heard God's voice and recognized it.

God has called them to Zion and they will gather. Just in time, they have inclined their ears and have heard their Master.

Advent is here!

We Christians tend to hear these kinds of words from Isaiah - we even read them at this time of year - and think that we recognize in them a voice - the very root bed of our hope in Jesus Christ.

There is just one problem. What does all this mean? Perhaps most compelling in Isaiah's words is the beloved run in verse 4, where we hear:

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.

Surely, that sounds like a world we would like to live in. In an era of mass shootings and the threat of war, when will the Christ child hurry up and usher in such a peaceful time?

These words were spoken a long time ago by the prophet Isaiah. Where is their fulfillment? How can we understand them in the context not only of history, but of our own day and time?

We look around us and understand that the softened, fulfilled invitation of God to fellowship in a resolved kingdom has not yet come about. We see hatred and division that concerns us. We hear harsh rhetoric that sends us away from each other, rather than uniting us for a walk up onto the hill that holds the city of God.

Violence permeates our world in such volume that we can become numb to it if we are not careful. We are far from the unified pilgrimage we hear about in these verses.

So, we hear these words and then notice that they don't match our reality, even after all these thousands of years. God speaks of a future that is apparently still being brought about. We want to hope. We want to believe.

Long after our childhoods have given way to responsibility, our notions of Advent and Christmas might be fueled by something different than nostalgia and pleasing images. There seems to be an urgency in most adults. A tug toward sources of hope that might help us to manage our own worlds. We also yearn to figure out where we fit in, not only with Yahweh God, but also with others who might be exploring this journey of faith. For this is a text of community we have heard today.

Isaiah's words make clear that God's prophecy is not just for Judah. Not just for Israel. All nations are supposed to be allowed to come and ascend this hill together. God will facilitate a chance for exactly this to happen.

Perhaps our comfort with these kinds of notions can cloud our hearing of the scripture. How radical would this have been in its context? We are used to the inclusiveness of God's invitation. Thousands of years of the Church's history, its teaching and nurture, have given us an understanding that God's promises are wide enough for all.

Not so in Isaiah's time. In Isaiah's time, the specter of neighbors who might conquest, and indeed soon would, kept an edge on things for his hearers. The enemy appeared to be camped out at their doorstep even as Isaiah was uttering these words of hope and promise.

In our lives, we might be familiar with those times that our GPS devices navigate us toward a destination. Yet, at some turn or another, what we see out our windshields does not match up with what we are being told by the device. Our vision and knowledge argue against the directions we are being given. This is the stance Israel might have taken, too, as Isaiah issued this prophecy. It certainly can be our reaction all these generations later, as we continue to wait for God's resolution.

So, what can we take away from this that becomes a genuine part of our Advent hope? Paul Duke, as he writes upon this text, notes that God's promised actions shall be to judge and to arbitrate. God will judge between the nations and arbitrate, or as Duke says, God will give a hearing to all who might have a grievance or an inquiry. In other words, God's promise here is justice. [Duke, Paul Simpson. Feasting on the Word, First Sunday of Advent, Year C (Homiletical Perspective), p.5] The actual work of peace will be ours to do alongside God.

This is the good news of our sacred season. God wishes to work in the lives of humanity, as well as in all of Creation, to make possible a new day. Yet, we will have to discover our roles in bringing about this promised reign of God. While we wait for God to do something, texts like the one we have heard today remind us that God is not the only one who needs to make a move. A small part of Advent's good news is that we now have cause to live into our own roles within God's Christmas promises.

Jim Morris was a high school baseball coach toiling away in a small Texas town. When he was far younger, he had once been drafted by the Chicago White Sox as a pitcher, but very quickly suffered a series of arm injuries and surgeries. In less than five years, his professional career was over. Morris had never progressed past the single-A minor league level.

More than a decade passed. Now, in his mid-thirties, Morris was a physical science teacher who was coaching a good high school team. As he pushed his players to make the playoffs, they pushed him to give his own playing career one more try. They had noticed that his throwing arm was far stronger than any of theirs. They made a deal - a dare really - that if they progressed to the championship game, their coach would have to attend a local tryout camp given by one of the Major League teams.

They did, so Morris did. Scouts were amazed at this player who had not pitched in eleven years, yet who threw harder than all but a few of the most elite Major Leaguers. At the age of 35, Jim Morris made his Major League debut after having long ago given up on his dream. All along, though, he had been putting in just the right work that eventually led him there.

If you aren't feeling exactly perfect in these days, you are included in this call to Zion. Even if you are tired of waiting, you are among those to whom God extends the call to get ready to ascend the mountain. The prophet includes himself, too. "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." This is a people who admit that they don't have it all down. They don't know all they need to know from God.

We don't always know how to trust what we see. Sometimes, we may look at something and still think that our eyes deceive us. Christopher Seitz in his volume on Isaiah points out that as verse 1 of our text says, the prophet "sees" these things that he speaks of. Isaiah sees this vision, including a united pilgrimage of God's children making their way up to this mountain and into the presence of the Lord. [Seitz, Christopher R. Interpretation Commentary, Vol. Isaiah 1-39, Louisville: John Knox Press, p38.]

Waiting is the discipline of the Advent season. Waiting will become a part of the Christ story as both Simeon and Anna encounter Him as an infant and declare Jesus to have been the object of their hope and their waiting. Waiting will become the watchword of Jesus Himself as he ministers while declaring to others that His time has not yet come. After He is resurrected, he directs His disciples to first wait before they move into action.

So, we hear these words and join with Isaiah as we, too, wait for the resolution that Jesus brings about. However, while we wait, there are things we should do.

In this time of Advent, ours is a hearing of these words that invite us to ascend toward God as well. The question is whether we will develop the vision that helps us to trust these promises to the point that they become sight. In the grace that comes through Jesus Christ, he has turned out to be just exactly what we needed. For he has taught us his ways and shown us how to walk in his paths.

Jesus was born and went to Zion in his days. He walked the paths that led there. He ascended that Hill, and evaluated it in all its humanity. What he found promising, he taught us to take seriously. What he found lacking, he called out in the most indicting of ways.

Even in a world where what we see doesn't match up with God's promises, perhaps we at least know a starting place. While we wait, we have sacred work to do with God. The Christ of Christmas grew up and taught us exactly what that work was. The work of unity, justice and community.

As Advent unfolds, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord! Amen.