For over twenty-five years at Northside Baptist Church in Clinton, MS, the church has designed Advent worship around a unified theme. In 2019, the theme is “Let Heaven and Nature Sing.” Each week, inspired by the lectionary scripture, a different element of heaven or nature will lead the worship: mountains, animals, wilderness, earth, and darkness. In the first week of Advent, hear the mountains sing.
Scripture: Isaiah 2:1-5
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In 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. 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. 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. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!
Today, we hear the mountains sing in this beautiful prophetic announcement of salvation in Isaiah chapter two. Despite the positivity in this scripture, these are not happy nor optimistic times. Israel, the northern kingdom, has just been destroyed in 722. And Judah is doing everything that it can to not undergo the same fate, including making shaky alliances, paying tribute, and following poor leaders. By 701 Judah holds onto only Jerusalem as Assyria had conquered all the surrounding area. During the following century, the Assyrians weaken, and the Babylonians rise. King Zedekiah rebels against the Babylonians and in 586 Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed. Plenty of goods and people are then taken to Babylon; this is the event known as the exile. This is the backdrop of the book of Isaiah, and it makes this pronouncement of peace all the more unimaginable.
In this scripture, Jerusalem (or Zion) becomes the center point for peace. Psalm 24:3 asks “who will ascend to the mountain of the Lord?” Patricia Tull writes that Isaiah 2 answers this question by saying “many people will ascend the mountain–not because they are already pure and just, but because they seek to learn God’s ways.” God’s judgment here is the farthest thing from death and destruction like in other parts of scripture. God’s judgment of the nations here fills the people with peace.
Otto Kaiser, in the Old Testament Library, compares this scene to another pivotal moment in the history of faith. He writes, “Yhwh has revealed himself [sic] before the eyes of all humankind as the true creator and Lord of the world. Consequently, they set forth spontaneously. The great pilgrimage to Zion begins. Just as Israel once traveled in the desert to the mountain of God, in order to receive the law there, the nations travel in pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the people of the twelve tribes, to the house of Jacob. For they know that this is the only place where they can find guidance for a life through which they can endure before the judgment of God.”
What does it mean for us to go to the mountain and receive instruction, then practice it? The scripture here teaches that going to the mountain is not enough; learning the instruction of God does not complete the process. God is placing on us a judgment upon those who learn the instruction that we might make our instruments of war into things that produce fruit and that beyond that we must not learn war anymore. Learning this teaching from God requires us to make a change now, and to make a change that will impact the future. God is asking each of us to come and learn from God. If we do in fact absorb the Divine’s teachings, the judgment pronounced in the 8th century is the same as the judgment God would pronounce upon us in 2019. The sentence God places upon us is to dismantle the hate that would cause anyone harm from our hearts. What would it be like to sing that song from the mountaintops?!
I don’t know how to read music. Luckily every Sunday I process and stand with our associate pastor, Rev. Susan Meadors, who can. I know when to go up, and when to go down, and if I pay attention enough, I know when to get louder and when to go softer and where to take a breath. But every once in a while, or more likely for a note in every song, I am WAY off. Really bad. It’s kind of weird that I didn’t learn how to distinguish the notes, one from another. My elementary school music teacher tried so hard, and so did our church’s children’s choir director. I guess by middle school choir I was just good at faking it and no one really knows how good or bad a twelve-year-old is. Sometimes, in church music, I feel like an outsider. Luckily, I have people here to help me, and by some stubbornness, my lack of learning has not stopped my fervor from practicing singing.
The folks who are invited up to the mountain of God in Isaiah are not insiders. They are not experts. Really, they are everyone else. All the “others” drawn to the center of God’s will, invited to the mountaintop to learn, and practice and well, to sing it out. When you sing from a mountaintop, you can’t hide it. We all have seen the pictures of the alpine horn, also known as an alphorn. You know those long tubular horns seen being blown into on mountain ridges. Did you know this instrument can reach ten kilometers? That’s six miles.
Can you imagine for a moment, that we are each on our own mountaintop? We are lined up in a range with alphorns. And we blow. The sound cascades down the valleys and reverberates off the rocks. We startle a mountain goat and awake the edelweiss to full attention. Then somewhere, six miles off…someone in their home hears a faint horn in their ear. Now, let’s take this metaphor a little further. The mountain top is our sphere of existence, and the horn is the gospel. It doesn’t seem like we can do all that much in our arm’s reach, maybe impact the people closest to us? But if we blow the alphorn of the gospel…wow! Does that good news travel far! If we really thought that it was possible, that the good news of Jesus Christ could travel that far, could you imagine what we could do? Surely, people would beat their swords into a plowshare, and their spears into pruning hooks. Surely, enemies would become friends.
The trouble for me is that I don’t think that’s possible. I don’t think that people can change all that much. I mean have you seen this world? It is pretty dismal. I think it is time to turn again to Isaiah. So, what else do we know about Isaiah? He lived in Jerusalem and was the only 8th-century prophet to do so. He had access to the royal temple and royalty. It seems he belonged to Jerusalem’s privileged class. He appears to have been married to a woman and had at least two sons, possibly a third. From 725-700 Isaiah witnesses obliteration. Almost all of Judah outside of Jerusalem had been destroyed. Also, remember that the northern kingdom is completely gone.
Commentator Patricia Tull reminds us that “such ancient traumas can easily be overlooked…” because we know the outcome. This is not to say that the other 8th century prophets did not experience trauma, but Isaiah’s proximity to this pain was remarkable. Jerusalem was not simply “Zion” or a place of worship – it was his home. Those elites that he and others prophesied against – those were his friends. And in a mere 25 years, all he knew was demolished. His whole world was turned upside down. I wonder what kind of pain Isaiah would have felt as he saw Jerusalem surrounded by the Assyrians, as King Hezekiah warded they depart if only to pay tribute. I wonder what would have happened if he heard this prophecy again at that moment? When he first wrote it, Jerusalem was still standing, but the Northern Kingdom was laid to ruin. How would the house of God be established on a mountain now? His people were destroyed, the Israelites deported – how would the people flock to this city on a hill? I imagine at that point it would be difficult for him to want the nations that captured him to learn from God. Maybe even, he too had revenge running through his veins. Maybe his traveling partners wanted to shape their pruning hooks into swords and exercise revenge on their captors. Isaiah’s reality makes this scripture seem even more impossible than perhaps we could make it be today. It was pretty dismal then, and it seems pretty dismal now. Is there a mountaintop tall enough for God’s instruction to go forth from?
Thank God that Advent that reminds me that I am wrong. In Advent, we live in the tension of knowing that people don’t change all that much, and yet…there is one coming and one who came who changes people entirely. Thank God the fate of humanity and of God’s creation is not left up to me. Thank God that God loved us enough to not stand at a distance, but to break into this world, as living, breathing, loving flesh. God risked it. Risked it for me, and you, and for all the people who we think can’t change.
In my hometown of Deland, Florida, we don’t have any mountains. It’s really, really flat. So much so that the highest point of elevation in my hometown is the city dump. Yes, the landfill is the highest point. Of course, I don’t think that the good news of Christ will reach very far when my alphorn is posted up on the city dump. Of course, I don’t think people can change when my point of reference for elevation is a landfill. You see, we are bound by the constructs of what we can make and achieve as humans. Thanks be to God, that is not Christ’s vision. Christ takes us out of our human elevation mindsets and invites us up to the mountaintop to sing out. More than that, Christ shows us that we can and that we are worthy of it. We are worthy of going up to the mountain of God and singing out. Even when we think the best we can do is a landfill, Christ says no! Come on home, the Lord’s house is established on the mountain top. Come on home, child of God, come in and learn from me. Understand my ways, and get out there and toot the horn of the good news, live it out in practice, and sing it from the mountain tops.
I believe that the gospel sung from your mountaintop could reach way farther than the six miles of an alphorn. I believe the gospel sung from your mountaintop can have a significant impact on the community that lives a mile away from your home. And I believe that the gospel sung in a five-foot radius from you could save someone’s life and that life may be your own. You, yes, you, have a powerful song to sing.
The band Hillsong United released a song a few years back entitled “So Will I.” In it, it describes the majesty and vastness of God’s creation and how if creation resounds with God’s praised then so will I, I will join in song with it. The bridge is as follows:
If the stars were made to worship so will I
If the mountains bow in reverence so will I
If the oceans roar Your greatness so will I
For if everything exists to lift You high so will I
If the wind goes where You send it so will I
If the rocks cry out in silence so will I
If the sum of all our praises still falls shy
Then we’ll sing again a hundred billion times
For heaven and nature to truly sing, for stars to worship, and mountains to bow, and oceans to roar the choir of creation needs your voice. Will you come to the mountain of the Lord and sing?
Courtney Stamey is pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi.