...For from Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and set terms for many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
One nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again. - Isaiah 2:3-4
The verses from Isaiah above are the very first words of the very first reading for the very first Sunday of the "A" cycle (among A, B, and C) of the church year. This prophetic word is "instruction" for all nations. The first word that the church invites us to hear from the mouth of the Lord in the new year is a declaration of peace.
Among the nations
The Biblical stories of Israel are rife with war. Israel was a tiny, insignificant nation that was conquered over and over again by the world-dominating superpowers of the ancient world: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Rome. In the best of times, Israel was in no position to tell anyone else what to do.
The story that Israel tells about herself is that her God is the one real God. In the early part of her history, Israel understands that her God is the best God. Over time, she comes to understand that other "gods" are only idols, substitutes which the nations worship instead of worshiping God. It stands to reason that whatever Israel's God says through the prophets would apply to all the nations of the world. Even though the beginning of the book of the prophet Isaiah sees Israel again in the thrall of other nations and their so-called gods, the prophet can envision a time when every people will -- must! -- come to worship the one and only God, and hear and take heed to what God has to say.
The promise of peace
So it is that we are given to imagine this scene -- all the nations on earth streaming toward the mountain of God, the place from which he will instruct us. And his instruction is that all our war-making is at odds with God's hope for us. For the God whose Word has the power to bring creation into being, the vision of sheathed swords and closed training camps and pruning hooks where spears used to be is not just a wish. It is a promise.
All evidence to the contrary
Advent is the season of hopeful expectation. We hear the promise anew and await its fulfillment. This in spite of the dreary headlines that weigh on our weary hearts. Make no mistake: Christian hope isn't finger-crossing, rose-colored, pie-in-the-sky Pollyanna-ism. In the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, the people stream to another mountain on which the Prophet who is also the great High Priest and King gives instruction, by way of a series of blessings. These are not for the comfortable or the powerful, but rather for the poor and the mourning, the meek and the merciful. In this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus includes this solemn promise:
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.