"Walk in the Light"
Scripture – Isaiah 2:1-5
Sermon preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson
Sunday, November 27, 2016

Assisi, Italy is one of those towns that catches you by surprise. As my family and I made our way there a couple weeks ago, we wove through uninspiring industrial parks and across fields rendered dull and dormant with the approach of winter – when this hilltop town burst on the scene, rising dramatically out of the countryside. (It took our breath away.) We had to stop the car, to take in this city on a hill.

Famous as the home of Saint Francis, Assisi is considered by some to be one of the holiest cities of the western world – a pilgrimage site that sees Christians from every land streaming into its winding, medieval streets to glimpse God in the story of this remarkable saint!

Having experienced Assisi for the first time a mere two weeks ago, I cannot read Isaiah's words without picturing this city on a hill. In days to come, the prophet proclaims, 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.

No, Isaiah is not talking about Assisi; I know very well he is talking about another mountain in another land in a time yet to be revealed ... but this city rising out of the Italian countryside helps me imagine the mountain of which Isaiah does speak – the mountain of the Lord's house. It gives me a glimpse of this holy hill, raised up for all to see.

The mountain of Isaiah's prophecy is no less than the mountain of the Lord – the very place where God is pleased to dwell. Here, in a temple perched atop the highest mountain, the Holy One lives among us, to teach us his ways and guide us in right paths. The Lord's house is the focal point of all creation – a shining beacon of justice and righteousness – and pilgrims from every land stream to the holy mountain to bask in the light of the Lord. Can you picture it? The whole word is oriented toward the one, true God, and all nations live according to the word of the Lord. Divisions cease. Peace prevails. The people beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks; weapons of war become instruments of life, so that all creation may flourish.

For Isaiah, this prophecy is more than an elusive dream or a far-away vision; it is a promise pregnant with peace and well-being, as real as that Italian town rising out of the countryside ...

Did you catch that curious, little word in the first verse of our reading – the one that seemed just a tad out of place? The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw. The word that Isaiah saw. Not that he heard, but that he beheld with his own two eyes. For Isaiah, the mountain of the Lord lay just before him, a city on a hill emerging out of the countryside, a future so near he could practically reach out and touch it.

But – for us – this promised future can seem so far off. While Isaiah saw the people of every land streaming like shining rivers to the Lord's house, we see nations – including our own – sinking into entrenched division. While he saw all creation learning God's ways, we see cultures clashing violently, each claiming God's ways are their own. While Isaiah saw armies laying down their swords, we see the disgruntled or disenfranchised flinging hateful words at those they fear and resent, or – worse – reaching for assault rifles. While Isaiah saw God dwelling on the highest mountain for all to see, we are left searching for God in the midst of brokenness ...

We search for ways to bear witness to Christ within fractured families and communities, particularly in the aftermath of this election. Some of us are weeping, some of us are rejoicing, and most of us are having trouble talking through our differences. We are a nation in desperate need of healing. How do we even begin to envision the world of which Isaiah speaks, when many of us can't imagine a path toward reconciliation within our own families, or communities, or nation?

We cling to the word Isaiah saw, and we long for the day when we will witness people beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And we fix our eyes on the horizon, searching for the mountain where God is pleased to dwell hoping to glimpse that promised future ...

But then, in a spark of clarity, we realize that our eyes might be fixed on the wrong place. You see, while we await the fulfillment of this promise, we cannot lose sight of the promise already fulfilled ... we cannot forget that God has dwelled among us – not in a temple on a far-away hill, but in our midst, in the lowliest of places: as a babe lying in a manger.

Indeed, God does not wait until people beat their swords into plowshares to draw near to us, but enters into our war-torn world to teach us the ways of justice and peace. God does not wait for all creation to stream to that holy mountain, but walks among us as the Word made flesh – the word we can see just as clearly as Isaiah saw that promised future. We need not look to the mountaintop to glimpse God with us, but to the Prince of Peace who has already come to heal our wounded hearts and our wounded world; transforming our tendencies to get caught in the despair of the moment by grounding us in the hope of God's intention for creation.

Visiting the town of Assisi two weeks ago, I was particularly intrigued by the location of the Basilica of St. Francis. This awe-inspiring church is the spiritual center of the town, where countless pilgrims stream to remember and learn from the saint who devoted his life to showing the peace and love of Christ. Yet, the basilica actually stands on the outskirts of the city, on a sloping plot of undesirable land formerly known as the "Hill of Hell." According to tradition, this was the site of public executions in Francis' day – a place where respectable citizens wouldn't deign to go.

There is something poetic about that location ... while the town is perched on a hilltop, beckoning our eyes and our hearts heaven-ward, the Basilica of St. Francis draws Christ's followers to the margins, to the places of suffering and pain. For the past eight centuries, this is where the church has dwelled – a flesh and blood witness to the one who enters into our weary world with the light no darkness can overcome.

The light of Christ shines from this city on a hill – not because Assisi can be seen from miles around, but because of the pilgrims who stream into its medieval streets, seeking to encounter God. From every nation, Christians come to this place that is still so alive with the story of a man whose life was transformed by the Gospel. They come with awe. They come with a deep reverence. They come with a new enthusiasm for the way of Christ. And in this communion of ordinary saints, the peace and love which Francis embodied becomes palpable. In a very real way, this community of pilgrims on what was once the Hill of Hell becomes the body of Christ bearing God's light to a weary world. Their witness invites transformation from despair to hope.

This, my friends, is what we are called to do. As we await the day when all creation will stream to the mountain of the Lord, we are called to carry Christ's light to illumine the places of pain and suffering and division. As we long for the day when people will lay down their swords, we are called to embody the mercy and love of the one who came as the Prince of Peace. As we await the fulfillment of the word Isaiah saw, we are called to help others see Christ in our midst.

Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.


Prayers of the People ~ Sudie Niesen Thompson

Every good and perfect gift comes from you, O God of Grace. On this Sunday after Thanksgiving, we are mindful of all the blessings in our lives, and of the many ways we experience your love in the ordinary and extraordinary moments of life. So ...

With grateful hearts, we give you thanks, O Lord.

For your world, which reflects and proclaims your glory; for the diversity of humankind and the richness of culture, for the wonders of creation and opportunities to enjoy your handiwork; for the responsibility and privilege of caring for all you have made ...

With grateful hearts, we give you thanks, O Lord.

For parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, for the gift of new life and of lives well lived; for families of birth and families of choice; for friends, for colleagues, for pets, for relationships that bring us joy; for all who love us unconditionally and who challenge us to be our best selves ...

With grateful hearts, we give you thanks, O Lord.

For communities that welcome us with open arms and open minds, that pick us up when we fall and that support us in hard times; for this family of faith, which sustains us and lifts our spirits, which helps us dare to hope and empowers us to serve you more faithfully ...

With grateful hearts, we give you thanks, O Lord.

For things that are so easily taken for granted until we realize that – for too many – they are rare gifts. For shelter and security, for food on the table and clean water to drink, for access to health care and education, for freedom from conflict and from constant worry ...

With grateful hearts, we give you thanks, O Lord.

For health in all forms – in our bodies, our minds, and our relationships; for the mending of broken bodies and the reconciling of broken communities; for freedom from illness or pain or addiction, and for all who give themselves to ministries of healing and wholeness ...

With grateful hearts, we give you thanks, O Lord.

For the ability to offer our gifts of time, talent, and treasure; for meaningful work and for opportunities to serve; for the delight we find when we solve problems, create things of beauty, or help one another; for the invitation to join you in ministry and mission ...

With grateful hearts, we give you thanks, O Lord.

For the gift of faith, which gives us courage to hope in the face of despair and brings peace in the midst of uncertainty; for the forgiveness we receive from you and one another, and for opportunities to extend grace to our neighbors; for those throughout the world who tirelessly bear witness to your love

With grateful hearts, we give you thanks, O Lord.

God with us – as we begin this season of Advent, we give thanks that you draw near to us, that you enter our weary world with a light no darkness can overcome. Though there is much that is broken, though there is much that causes pain, we ask that you help us meet each day with gratitude ... not out of optimism or naïveté, but out of deep and abiding hope in your promise that – one day – all creation will experience your wholeness.

We pray in the name of the one who comes to make all things new, and we offer the prayer he taught us: Our Father ...